From the avant-garde folk/jazz of Poland’s Chłopcy Kontra Basia to Serbia’s ‘King of Apocalyptical Cabaret’ Boris Kovač, the music of Eastern Europe is as diverse as the geography it represents. This Rough Guide showcases today’s artists who preserve valuable traditions whilst enabling the music to evolve in new and unexpected ways.
This handpicked selection of Eastern European music highlights the richness and diversity of both the traditional and contemporary scenes, with innovating artists who continue to keep their respective traditions thriving.
The album kicks off in fast and furious fashion with the opener ‘Jozo’ by Hungarian band Söndörgő, who are famed for the use of their signature instrument the tambura, a mandolin-like instrument, probably of Turkish origin, used by the South Slav (Serbian and Croatian) communities in Hungary. Headed up by the brothers Eredics, Söndörgő brilliantly combine their respect for traditions with a desire to innovate and a fizzing virtuosity. Likewise, Chłopcy Kontra Basia embrace the aesthetic of Polish folk music, but this time with a jazz tone. ‘Oj Tak!’ is about a young woman who is stood up by a mystical god who had promised to meet her at a river bank. Vocalist Basia Derlak’s silken voice weaves its course above deep double bass and hushed shuffling drums, as the trio create their own rich imagery of this invented, quirky, fairy tale.
Kries means bonfire in an old Croatian dialect; an apt name for a band who burn barriers, mixing modern and traditional Balkan instruments to give new life and meaning to age-old songs. Coming from different areas in the Balkans including Croatia, Hungary, Bosnia and Slovenia, their hard-hitting track ‘Selo Na Okuke’ packs an emotional punch that transcends borders of time and place. Also rooted in the musical traditions of the Balkans, the double act Faith i Branko is made up of English circus performer and accordionist Faith and Serbian gypsy violin maestro Branko whose formidable composition ‘Bumbar’ canters from contemporary to classical violin vernacular with dazzling display. Further instrumental brilliance abounds on Romano Drom’s frenetic ‘Gipsy Fantasy’ as the band go through the gears into musical overdrive. Although now living in London, Eugenia Georgieva grew up in Bulgaria’s second city Plovdiv, and as a child fell in love with the authentic diaphonic singing of the old Shoppe women. ‘Deno, Sreburno Vreteno/Dena, You Silver Spindle’ is taken from her acclaimed album Po Drum Mome / A Girl on the Road where she explores the joys and sorrows of Bulgarian folk song. Eugenia also features as part of the a cappella vocal group Perunika Trio whose traditional song ‘Strati Na Angelaki Dumashe’ is a lament for Angelaki, the chief of the Hayduks (fighters against the Ottoman rule).
The Shukar Collective was born in Romania from the meeting of new generation electronic musicians with the gypsy traditions of Shukar founders Napoleon, Tamango and Clasic. Shukar play ursari music (ursar means ‘bear tamer’ or ‘bear handler’) using spoons, wooden barrels or darabouka. The song ‘Bar Boot’ combines Shukar’s original ursari music with the new technology of the collective, resulting in a distinctive hybrid.
Don Kipper blend the fiery virtuosity of Eastern Europe with a cosmopolitan energy on the rip-roaring ‘Cassenbaumer Sher’ as they draw on Jewish musical tradition and take it into totally new urban waters. Following hot on its heels is another Jewish influenced track by three leading members of the European Klezmer scene who go under the name of Sukke. ‘In Frankraykh’ tells of the glories of Paris, and that you should get on the train to France and say ‘Kaddish for Poland’.
Born in Nov Sad, the second largest city in Serbia, composer Boris Kovač cuts an elusive figure on stage, as creeping crawling melodies emanate from the bell of his saxophone. The beautiful arpeggiated arrangement of ‘Pearl’ brings to mind a baroque influence, which is also distinctly heard in the closing bars via a witty aping of Pachelbel’s famous ‘Canon and Gigue in D Major’.
Classical music and regional folk styles have long been closely associated in Hungarian music through the composers Bartók and Liszt who were captivated by its beauty and realised its cultural significance. Today’s revivalists Bela Lakatos & The Gypsy Youth Project continue to be guardians of the traditional rural Gypsy folk songs of Hungary, with their ‘O Bijav’ being a classic rendition of a Roma wedding song. Similarly, fellow song collectors She’Koyokh have spent over a decade absorbing the rich folk music of Jewish Eastern Europe and complete this whistle-stop tour of Eastern Europe with an upbeat Albanian folk song, complete with the most mesmerizing of violin solos.