The Musical Soul of the Balkans

The opening track of this month’s playlist, “Hermetico,” might not sound familiar at first. Give it a minute. Literally. At the one-minute mark, a lightbulb goes off as you recognize the alto saxophone sampled by Jason Derulo for his 2013 megahit “Talk Dirty,” which has nearly a half-billion plays on YouTube. Not bad for a 2007 track by a group of Israeli musicians playing a unique blend of hip-hop and Balkan music.

The Balkans cover a wide expanse of southeastern Europe. A partial list of countries includes Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Serbia. Many people relate the region to the term “Balkanization” because of the breaking up of nations after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Yet Balkan music is a fascinating amalgam of musical styles linking Eastern and Western cultures like nothing else on the planet.

Characterized by brass instruments and complex rhythms, the music was carried north by Roman culture from India into Turkey and Greece, then up through the Balkan Mountains over the course of centuries. Military excursions are a major reason for its expansion; you’ll likely think of marching songs when hearing some of the tracks on this playlist. Some songs will also invoke first line brass music from New Orleans.

Recognizing the challenges of presenting Balkan music to the masses outside the regions that produce it, the sound has been championed by Stefan Hantel, aka Shantel, a Moldavian native who wanted to make the genre more accessible for modern dance floors. He began collaborating and remixing the biggest names in Balkan music, many of them featured here—Taraf de Haidouks, Fanfare Ciocarlia and Kocani Orkestar—and including them in his epic Bucovina Club nights in Frankfurt, Germany.

Shantel started out DJing more expectable dance music in the ’90s, but he missed the “emotional appeal” of his childhood traditions. As he told me about his journey into producing these acts in 2007, “These elements, these melodies and rhythms and character and harmony, they are something you have to create out of. It was quite hard to find good recordings of the ideas I had in those days. The problem was all these recordings sounded a bit flat. I missed the bass, and the bottom, which I found had to be upgraded. I found myself immediately in a production situation.”

Most of this playlist involves the modernization of Balkan music, including four-four rhythms that Westerners are more accustomed to. You’ll hear a couple of Shantel tracks and remixes, including the one that introduced me to his music: “Carolina,” a remix of one of the most famous Balkan bands, Taraf de Haidouks, the focus of Tony Gatlif’s 1993 exceptional documentary “Latcho Drom.” For comparison’s sake, match Shantel’s remix against the rambunctious original to understand the true nature of Balkan music.

Still, music is regional. Balkan music can be as frenetic as experimental jazz; you have to have a certain penchant for these rhythms to really groove along. Though there are a few cuts here that represent what you’ll hear in dance houses and festivals, including “Asfalt Tango” by Fanfare Ciocarlia and “Sat” by Boban Markovic, most of these tracks are Balkan-inspired and Balkan-esque.

The playlist ends with some of the most fascinating Balkan-inspired music around. London’s Bollywood Brass Band formed in 1992 to represent the link between Indian filmi music and brass traditions, performing A. R. Rahman classics, followed by Brooklyn’s Slavic Soul Party covering Duke Ellington’s “Blue Pepper.” The set ends with Roma music ensemble Parno Graszt, performing traditional Hungarian music—not quite Balkan but representative of the nomadic culture reaching Hungary.

Photo credit: Henry Be, Unsplash