Thursday 21 July 2011


Landed! After one very bumpy flight I'm finally in Serbia. Hard to believe, and it's great to be here. So many impressions from the past few days, so here are a few images to say their thousands of words.

The view from my window at Hostel Captain. Nice place, but damn this city is hottttt.

My first meal on Skadarska Street, Sopska Salad and the legendary Cevapcici, which are basically skinless sausages topped with chopped onion. I was a bit underwhelmed by the Cevapcici but I'm sure I'll have more chances to compare.

One of the things I was wondering about before I got here was how accesible the music I was looking for was going to be. In Belgrade, I had to walk about 300 feet from my hostel to find a street packed with restaurants, with a band in each restaurant. The music ranged from "Somewhere over the Rainbow" to waltzes to some Saban Bajramovic hits. This is a shot of a band that was rocking the hardest. They were playing for a private party, hence the "I'm not invited" angle of the photo.

I'm impressed by how virtually everyone in the restuarant I went to was singing along with the band. Not just mouthing the words, but belting it out with the singer. Also notable are the total lack of song endings, at least with the band I heard. They were very accomplished musicians but each of the songs dribbled out with a few extra thumps or plucks. Not the classic Serbian V/I end I have come to expect. Much more to see and hear, but I'm happy to discover that finding music will be about as difficult as finding a restaurant.

Central square, Belgrade.

Confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers

I like how this is more a description than advice. Not sure if it comes off the same way in Serbian.

Signs of earlier times in Belgrade.

The Belgrade zoo is a very bizarre place. Not so free on the range but the animals seem content.

I am impressed how small and specific stores can be here. This one sells heels for women's shoes, which, I see, are in extremely high demand. I have seen similar sized stores selling crackers and sewing machines.

View from the Students square.


Wednesday 20 July 2011

Berlin, city of nights

I'm not sure who is reading this blog, so be advised, this is one of those entries that is devoid of musical content or insights (except for the killer accordion performance at the end). 

On the way to Belgrade a had a short layover in Berlin, where I lived from 2007 to 2009. The city has changed a lot, especially the neighborhood where I lived, Neukoelln. Signs of gentrification abound, more French and English on the streets, young people with PeeWee Herman glasses, and a shortage of affordable housing.

It's hard to see why young people would stay away from Berlin, the leisure capital of Europe. But as is the case with a depletion of any resource, the bum rush destroys precisely what it seeks to gain. For the time being, however, Berlin remains a fascinating, affordable city that bears an irristable invitation to sit in a park and drink beer.

A few pics from my short days in Berlin:

My friend Rafael playing with the group Schmaltz at the Chamissoplatz market. I still don't get why they need to invent an artificial country and culture (they dub Malwonia) to play their own arrangements of East European music, but they are fun and accomplished musicians.

My friend Julian on his first day selling French sausages at the market in Kreuzberg. He took in over 1000 euros in sausage sales on Saturday. Pretty amazing for Berlin standards. The best of the wurst.

These are pics of what I think is the most amazing change that has happened in Berlin since I left, the closing of Tempelhof airport, and the opening of the Tempelhof park. This great transformation happened by taking down a fence. All the runways, signs, and fixtures remain, only now they are enshrouded in BBQ smoke and circumnavigated by rollerbladers. The airport, built by the Nazis, was the largest in Europe and lies nearly at the geographical center of Berlin. In classic Berlin form, yesterday's flexing of political muscle is today's place to get drunk and look cool.

The mosque in Tempelhof. The East is getting closer.

Sunset and petanque beside the Landwerkskanal with dear friends. Doesn't get much better than this, I also got to hone my French shit>talking.

I like this tower of buttons. Sehr Deutsch.

Pre>graffittied bus seats. Smart. By the way I can't find the dash on on this keyboard, so ">" will have to do. 

Rabea showing me all the flowers in Momma Patrycja's garden in Boernicke. She knew all the names of the plants, and also what they are good for. Suesses kind.

Jamming with Rabea on accordion. She is asking me if she should play high or low, already knowing the answer.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Iceland maiden

Double thumbs up for Iceland express' friendliness to musical instruments. After letting my overweight over-sized accordion on with a wink, they offered to strap him into his own seat.

Plus, I'm pretty sure no other airline has a former member of iron maiden flying an old tour plane as part of their fleet.

After a dose of dried fish and steam bath with my bro I'm off to a good start.

Monday 11 July 2011

Blast off

As someone interested in learning about and performing music from a part of the world (Eastern Europe) that I do not live in (northeastern USA), I face a constant challenge of explaining what and why I am playing. Despite the fact that much of the music I play comes from specific times and places, there is a tendency among venues and press outlets to simplify a vast tapestry of historical and cultural traditions under a single phrase, be it 'Balkan skronk' or the full geographic and musical violation we recently recieved - 'Baltic Jazz' (can you think of a more ignorable genre)?

Most of the simplification comes from not knowing much about Eastern Europe, and by default, it's music. So, in an effort to provide some context to my blog posts in the coming weeks, I am sharing here a few of my favorite youtube hits that demonstrate the styles of music I will be exploring in Serbia.

Both of these videos were filmed at the Amala School, so I will likely be spending more time with these guys.


Ljiljana Petrovic (Buttler) and Ljubisa Pavkovic are two of the most well-know Serbian Rom musicians that were successful performing traditional music. Both flourished (relatively speaking) in the Former Yugoslavia with state-sponsored support for folk music. Ljubisa Pavkovic is playing a kolo here, a very popular Serbian dance form. Much of the juice of thos music lies in the ornaments, which are often as fast as they are complex. What sounds like a single gesture, when slowed down, turns out to be a tightly packed cluster of nested flourishes. Ornaments, more than any other aspect of this music, are what make it so distinct (and difficult).

I leave for Iceland in two hours. The gears are turning.

Saturday 9 July 2011

48 hours to blast-off


If you are reading this, you are likely a friend or acquaintance who knows something about my upcoming trip to Serbia and Romania. In case you are here by some other turn of events, I'll fill you in on a bit of background about what this blog is meant to address, and not address.

In two short days, I will be leaving my home in Maine to embark on a six week trip studying Romani language and music in Serbia and Romania. I've been playing Romani and Balkan music on the accordion for the past few years, most recently with Cinder Conk, but I have yet to travel to the wellspring of this music in the Balkans.

This spring I launched a kickstarter campaign to help send me to the Amala School in Valjevo, Serbia. The goal of the Amala School is to break down the mythology of the 'gypsy' and replace it with real knowledge of the Romani culture, music, and language. I've had the good fortune to study with some great Serbian Rom accordion players over the past few years, Dejan Jovanovic from the Berlin-based group Romenca, and Peter Stan of NYC's Slavic Soul Party. Both of them emphasized the importance of going to the Balkans to get a real understanding of the context in which this music breathes. As Peter Stan told me, the best way to learn this music is to 'hang.'

In addition to the 70 or so people who helped kick me to Serbia this summer, I am also deeply grateful to the Maine Holocaust and Human Rights Center and the Maine Arts Commission for awarding me some funding to cover tuition costs at the Amala School which will also allow me to continue my musical exploration into Romania. I've been dreaming of this trip for several years now and I'm honored to have received the support that has come my way so far.

Before this blog gets rolling along, I want to lay out a few parameters for this project that will hopefully let readers know where I'm coming from and my intentions behind this trip (as well as my interest in Balkan and Romani music in general). First, I am not Romani, nor do I pretend to be (it's surprising to have to say that but it's even more surprising how many American musicians falsely identify themselves as 'Gypsy.' I have no Balkan heritage, and did not grow up surrounded by this music.

As an accordionist who has sought out interesting repertoire and contexts for the instrument I play, I can think of no other part of the world that draws from such a deeply expressive, complex, and beautiful musical wellspring than the music of the Balkans. For the past five years or so I have been nurturing my fascination with East European and Balkan music in whatever ways I can. The journey has been surprisingly challenging. There is plenty of amazing music out there, but access is tricky. Balkan and Romany music is rarely distributed on commercial labels, and there are virtually no online English-language resources outlining taxonomies of musicians and genres. To make things more complex, bands like Gogol Bordello and others waving the "Gypsy Punk" flag give a totally inaccurate impression to audiences and musicians who then think they know what 'Gypsy music' sounds like.

So, dear readers, I hope that this blog provides a service that I have found lacking in my own exploration of Balkan and Romani music - a straightforward, English-language resource that tries to stay clear of indulgences both academic and romantic. And be warned, you will also probably find a healthy dose of non-musical musings and observations from my travels over the next six weeks.

Ach mishto! (Romani for be well, stay cool).