Boris Kovac & La Campanella
World After History
Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars
Carnival Conspiracy: In the Marketplace All Is Subterfuge
There was a time not that long ago when what is now sometimes referred to as "New Europe" meant babushkas and balalaikas, boiled meats and graying vegetables, the punch lines of the Pollock and the Yugo. The very thought of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the gypsy trail, being "cool" was smirk-worthy at best.
But in the decade and a half since the fall of the Curtain and the rise of the Russian billionaire and Balkan diaspora, New Europe and, perhaps more importantly, its traditional outcasts -- Jews and gypsies -- have become the once unthinkable. From Everything Is Illuminated to Heeb magazine, Gogol Bordello's Ukrainian gypsy-punk to Matisyahu's Hasidic reggae and the Bucharest bump of Bucovina Club and Balkan Beat Box, the cultural influx of the New Europe dichotomy is everywhere around America's more old-world-minded fertile grounds -- particularly New York City. With that influx has come a mountain of new and re-releases of music ranging from ancient history to bizarro-world fusions, each grounded in its own sense of the old and looking toward its own sense of the new.
The creation of the late Ion Petre Stoican's 1970s recordings, presented here as Sounds from a Bygone Age, Vol. 1 by the German gypsy-music label Asphalt Tango, followed a strange story. In '60s Romania, spurred by the walls-have-ears paranoia of the Ceaucescu regime, Stoican noticed a neighbor behaving oddly and began keeping a close eye on the man, eventually grabbing him and hauling him to a police station. It turned out he was right: The man was a foreign spy, and in something of a communist fairy tale, the grateful secret police offered Stoican whatever luxury he wanted. More than anything, he wanted to make a record.
Thus Stoican began a 20-year recording process significant not because he was Bucharest's greatest violinist or most famous musician but because, with his official blessing, he was able to assemble many of the era's finest Lautari (gypsy-influenced traditional music) musicians who were largely unable to record freely -- or at all -- due to financial and political constraints. So here we find Stoican joined by a 14-man orchestra including cymbalom virtuoso Toni Iordache (responsible for the jazz-like freedom of so much of Sounds) and trumpeter Costel Vasilescu, who still plays wedding music today. Throughout its Roma melancholy, Sounds is a bright and lively set, belying the vise grip of totalitarianism that made its creation both so difficult and, in the end, possible.
Boris Kovac comes from a country, Pannonia, whose very reference points -- from the Roman province which bore its name to the geographic description (Northern Yugoslavia) which defines his homeland -- are anachronistic at best, ancient history at worst. Thus, perhaps, Kovac is able to make music so boldly timeless and geographically undefinable -- a sort of downtown New York sound created in the basement of a Mediterranean house by gypsies and Balkans, Argentine accordionists and American apocalyptic circus barkers.
Kovac isn't messing around when he calls the new album by his band La Campanella World After History: It's where he lives, and where he hopes one day to invite his neighbors. Pieces such as "To Entertain You" and "Dukeland in Your Heart" could be dark moments from Lounge Lizards albums; "Limping Waltz" or "Dur AA" the more subtle moments of a gypsy wedding; "Argentina" the Fellini film Astor Piazzolla never scored. World After History is quiet where other modernists might be convulsive, studied where reckless abandon might seem the only option. But what it never is, is obvious, crutched or dull.
Maybe that quietude and shade-tree thoughtfulness balances out Piranha's simultaneous release of Klezmatics and Hasidic New Wave trumpeter Frank London's new project, Carnival Conspiracy, by Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars. In London's raucous gypsy-Jewish-Brazilian-Yankee hodge-podge, there is little space between a Mardi Gras parade and a Purim swill; Klezmer's clarinet-heavy anarchy meets the drunken-commie revelry of a gypsy brass band and marches down the streets of Rio catching beads and making the occasional Bush or Giuliani joke. Conspiracy's song titles -- "In the Marketplace All Is Subterfuge," "Pantagruel, Shiker Hindert Prozent" -- allude to London's cultural-studies point: that the power of carnival and the communion of cultural trade through partying is universal and, in its own way, undefeatable.