Friday 30 November 2012

Muzika Balkana, the Balkan music blog to end all blogs

It's been a while since my last post and I hope to catch up on the past few months of backlogged posts. The first thing that warrants attention is a recent discovery introduced to me by my friend Connell, perhaps the largest trove of free Balkan music on the Internet. Digitized LPs from across the Balkans, Romania and Greece.

There are ethical issues at play here, as some of these albums are available commercially and some of the artists are still living. Downloading music from a living artist without paying for it is akin to stealing food from his plate, lest we forget that musicians labor for their art.

That said, here it is, the link that may change your life.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Some thoughts about music

While not directly related to the scope of this blog, I have recently begun playing with a 17 year old violinist with a great ear and burgeoning interest in Balkan and Eastern European music. In an effort to help her get some orientation, I wrote a brief brain-dump on this music as I have encountered it in the past few years. This description is by no means authoritative, and far from comprehensive. It's more a whimsical introduction to music I have grown to love. If anyone reading this has something to add or refute, the comment field is at the below. 


Dear S,

There is a lot out there on the Internet about Balkan music, but I thought I would pass on some info and thoughts that I have gathered over the past several years of learning and playing this music. I hope this at least offers an introduction into some of the similarities and differences between the variety of styles in Eastern Europe. There is a lifetime of musical exploration in this often-forgotten corner of the world, full of challenges and reward to those who jump into it.

Below are some stream-of-consciousness thoughts about different styles and musicians from the area, I hope this opens some doors for your exploration of this music.

My approach to this music, in general, is one of an outsider learning a new language. The music exists apart from my participation in it, and I think it's important to acknowledge, if not recreate, the subtleties and norms that support these traditions. I realize this is contrary to a more contemporary approach to music as 'I play what I feel like playing' but it's the adherence to tradition that makes this music so awesome. It's also much more exciting to me to funnel creativity into the constraints of a musical language than to play something free of context and meaning. That said, I'm all for violating traditions once I learn them, but I think it's super important to learn them first.

Enough of my manifesto, here is a break down of the different styles we play, and a few examples or youtube leads for each:


I first got into Balkan music, like many Americans, through Klezmer music, which is the music of Jews in Eastern Europe (which in itself is not music from the Balkans). While it’s had an increase in popularity since the 70’s especially in the US and Western Europe, Klezmer music was effectively uprooted from Eastern Europe starting in about 1920, from waves of immigration of Eastern European Jewry to Israel and the US. On top of that, what remained of the culture that supported Klezmer music it was fully wiped out in the Holocaust.

In the 70’s, a handful of Americans, mostly of Eastern European Jewish descent, started hanging out with ‘old world’ musicians in New York. The most notable of these old world musicians were Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein, two clarinetists who performed in New York and beyond from the 20s-70s. They both were performers in the Ukraine and Moldova, the area which is considered to be the heartland of Klezmer music . When they came to the states their styles quickly evolved to be more swinging, aggressive, and cosmopolitan.

The musicians who studied with them started what is generally accepted as the ‘Klezmer Revival.’ In some ways, this was not so much a revival as an invention of the term ‘Klezmer’ as a genre of music. Up until then, it was considered to be Yiddish music played by and for Jews, at life-cycle events like births, brisses, and weddings. By calling it Klezmer, it became marketed for the first time to non-Jewish audiences in the US and abroad. This was primarily a North-American movement.

Bands to check out from this era are Zev Feldman and Andy Statman, the Klezmatics, the Klezmer Conservatory Band, Brave Old World, and Kapelye. There is an album that came out in 1996 called ‘In the Fiddler’s House,’ which features Itzhak Perlmen playing with some of these groups, definitely worth checking out.

There is a newer generation of people playing Yiddish music that I find a lot more exciting than the original ‘revivalists.’ An excellent violin player named Jake Schulman-Ment, who just spent a year in Romania and Moldova on a Fulbright Fellowship, Benjy Fox-Rosen, a bass player and Yiddish singer/poet, Pete Rushevsky, a cimbalom player, and David Krakauer and Michael Winograd, clarinetists. All of these guys are based in NYC or Brooklyn. Two fiddle-led groups in Europe to check out are Di Naye Kapelye, led by Bob Cohen, and the Hungarian group Muzikas with Marta Sebastian.

Another very interesting group is the ‘Other Europeans,’ led by Alan Bern, who was my accordion teacher for 2 years in Germany. They are reconstructing and evolving Yiddish and Romani music that coexisted in Moldova in the early 20th century. Sounds academic and crusty but it’s amazing music.


I love Romanian music. In my opinion it is the strangest and most beautiful of all Eastern European music forms, and anything that can be said in music can be said in the format of the small Lautar (Romanian Gypsy) ensemble, which consists of cimbalom (hammered chromatic dulcimer), accordion, violin, double bass, and voice.
    Many people think that Romania is not part of the Balkans, even though it’s music is often clumped in the overarching genre of ‘Balkan.’ There is a lot that sets it apart from the countries that surround it. First, the language is a Romance language, not a Slavic one. There are a lot of linguistic similarities to French and Italian, and the music, in general, is more melodic than the music of its neighboring countries. There is one dance form, the Geampara, that is in 7/8, but other than that rhythms stick to 3/4 and 4/4, unlike neighboring Bulgaria and Serbia where rhythms can be in 5,9,10,11,15,25 etc.

Romanian ornaments art typically understated, legato, and deceivingly complex. There are a lot of great videos on youtube of Lautari musicians, here are a few names to check out:

Marin Bunea
Taraf De Haiduks (very famous and awesome band from Clejani, Southern Romania)
Ion Dragoi
Ion Petre Stoican
Florea Cioaca
Nicu Bela

Faramita Lambru
Marcel Budala
Ionica Minune
Vasile Pandelescu

Toni Iordache
Iani Ciuciu

Gabi Lunca
Romica Puceanu
Dona dumitru siminica


Bulgaria doesn’t have the same down-tempo, heart-wrenching vocal tradition of other countries in the Balkans, but it makes up for it in it’s insane polyrhythmic dance-your-face off music. Bulgarian music combines the microtonal and compound rhythmic elements of neighboring Turkish music and sets it to the fast tempos and harmonic structures of Serbian and Macedonian musics. The result can be disorienting and may at first seem unlistenable, but as soon as you find the downbeat and can figure out the meter, it’s incredible.
    A typical Bulgarian ensemble consists of a gajda (bagpipe), tambura (like a small guitar/mandolin), kaval (open bore flute), tapan (drum), and accordion. Roma bands in Bulgaria may also include saxophone, clarinet, keyboards, violin, darabuka or dumbek.
A good place to start with Bulgarian music is with Boris Karlov, an accordionist from the 30’s-50’s who in many ways defined modern Bulgarian music. We play a number of his tunes, including Sedi Donka and Gankino Horo. I’ll send you some other tracks to check out of his.

Ibro Lolov and Petar Ralchev are also great. There is also a cool video of Petar Ralchev explaining the difference between Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian ornaments here:

If you want to hear some modern Bulgarian Roma wedding music, which is way beyond our means at this point, check out Ivo Paposov and Yuri Yunakov.

Serbia/Bosnia/Croatia - Former Yugoslavia

These countries basically all speak the same language, but have a huge variety of musical styles. Music from Croatia and Northern Serbia (Vojvodina) consists mostly of Tamburica (plucked guitar) and violin bands:

Southern Serbia is home to Brass bands:

Western Serbia focuses on violin and accordion. Most of the Serbian music we play comes from western Serbia, where I was this summer. This is a video of my teacher Ljuba and his brother, Misha:

Here is a short video I took of another violinist teacher a kolo to a violinist from Long Island:

another video of him and the grandmother who made me coffee every day:

Romani Music

Roma, aka Gypsies are the most prolific, accomplished, and creative group of musicians in Eastern Europe, but there is no singular ‘Gypsy’ music that captures the diversity of musics that Roma play. There are, however, common characteristics in Romani musics across Europe that you can see in Flamenco, Manouche (Django-style jazz), Lautari, and the Serbian Roma clips above. ‘Gypsy music’ is a problematic term on a lot of levels, and we should talk about it more if you’re interested.

ok, I think that’s my brain dump for this Tuesday morning. Let me know what strikes you on your Youtube trawling, I’ll put together a fuller repertoire list with mp3s to send to you soon.