Balkan Beats and Gypsy Mania

Lift up your hands! Lift up your legs! And don’t forget to raise your glasses! How the Roma sound has hit Germany – it’s only seconds before the turntables and the dance floors rock. 

Balkan Brass Battle – Fanfare Ciocarlia versus The Markovic Orkestar Balkan Brass Battle – Fanfare Ciocarlia versus The Markovic Orkestar | Foto: © Asphalt Tango Trumpets, trombones and beats in rapid heartthrob, sweaty, loud and full of verve – “absolutely no one remains seated”, says Ute Kirchmann, contact for the Berlin music label Asphalt Tango Records, “it makes people’s legs itch to dance; it’s music that comes from the heart”. The concert agency Asphalt Tango Records has been creating a sensation for years as perhaps the most important address for gypsy and Balkan music, which has already launched numerous Roma talents on the market.

It all began before the Berlin Wall came down with a key event: over twenty years ago the label founders, Helmut Neumann and Henry Ernst, both from Leipzig, visited Romania off the bat and ended up stranded in a small village in the boonies that wasn’t on any map. In a radio interview, Ernst recalled that “Everyone had a musical instrument in tow: completely battered, green with mold, rotting instruments. Small children, toothless old men – there were up to 20 or 30 people”. They couldn’t read a note and played by feeling – but their caperings went down very well with the audience. We are talking about the now internationally famous Fanfare Ciocarlia brass band, which Asphalt Tango Records brought to the world stage. Had they not been discovered, the Roma band would still be playing at local weddings from noon to four AM, as is usual in the villages.

Asphalt Tango Records now organizes concert tours, CDs and record releases for many Roma artists. For example, there is the original group Kal from Belgrade, which found their gypsy rockabilly style using surf guitars. An event such as the Balkan Brass Battle, at which The Gypsy Queens and Kings competed against Boban Markovic, who together with his son Marko leads the Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar, also belongs to Asphalt Tango Records repertoire. Goran Bregovic’s film music made Emir Kustorica’s films, such as Time of the Gypsies (1988), popular in the West, though it was the French director Tony Gatlif’s Latscho Dorm (1993) which was the more serious work about the Roma and in which Dorado Schmitt and his cousin Tchavolo Schmitt riffed several gypsy jazz pieces.

More, faster, gypsy groove!

For about ten years now there has been a real “gypsy mania” not only on German dance floors – the music sounds folksy, but at the same time wild, authentic and unpredictable: no kitschy folklore, no cozy swaying, but rather music that makes you lift your legs and, above all, raise your glasses. This means particularly hybrid new mixtures consisting of fantastic crossover operations: Balkan grooves, Bulgarian female vocals, orient beats, electronic and even gypsy punk as represented by Gogol Bordello from Manhattan. The Bordello’s performances are skillfully provocative, mixing Roma influences based on accordion and violin sounds with punk and dub.

All over Europe Roma from Serbia, Macedonia, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic, with all their subtly different musical traditions, are wreaking their incongruities. In Germany the Bucovina Club parties with DJ Shantel, alias Stefan Hantel, are notorious. Shantel, who has a background as a techno and house music DJ, ecstatically mixes gypsy swing, polka beats, klezmer sounds and belly dance grooves – and that at high speed. Also responsible for Balkan beats on the dance floor are DJ Zigan Aldi, of Turkish origin, and the Bosnian Robert Soko, who went from Zenica to Berlin to try his luck at the turntables. His sound, which he shaped with Croats, Muslims and Serbs under the influence of Roma music, became a symbol in the mid-1990s for resistance against ethnic hatred and nationalistic war-mongering.

In addition to Asphalt Tango Records, the Belgian label Crammed Disk is a hot tip for musical treats such as the multi-generational Ensemble Taraf de Heidouks. The violin and accordion virtuosos often still use traditional instruments such as the dulcimer and enjoy a fan base extending to Yehudi Menuhin. Quite another path is being taken by young rappers – for instance, Sinto Sin2 in Mannheim and in Prague, the latter of which became the pioneer of Romano hip hop with their combination of sprechgesang and gypsy violin. The Berlin scandal rapper Sido, on the other hand, has instructed his record company not to mention his Roma background.

The phenomenon of Gypsy Swing?

Sintezza Dotschy Reinhardt welcomes the tremendous musical variety and refuses to define herself according to any single direction. The singer, who lives in Berlin, is often compared to the bossa nova star Astrud Gilberto, and Dotschy loves Brazilian jazz; but she sees nothing contradictory in also being open to Indian instrumentation on her CD release Pani Sindhu, on which she traces the origins of her people. The Sinti, says Dotschy, who have lived in Germany for 600 years, have a strong Western orientation, to jazz from the United States and France. She herself comes from the widely ramified extended family of the jazz genius Django Reinhardt and underlines that there is really no such thing as gypsy swing: “It’s more a way of playing jazz. The string instruments, the percussion – maybe that’s gypsy. Django played the Musette – he was also a Bach fan – and brought this all together”. Elements of New Orleans jazz can also be found in Django Reinhardt, she says.

Django developed this peculiar style, with its rapid upward runs and abrupt tempo and key changes, because with the left hand he could play with only two fingers as the result of a burn injury. He has had numerous imitators – Häns’ che Weiss and Schnuckenack Reinhardt in the 1980s, today the Rosenberg Trio from Belgium and the young guitar virtuoso Diknu Schneeberger, born in 1980. Dotschy herself learned to play the guitar from her uncles, cousins and musicians such as Bobby Falter and Kitty Winter, who were in and out of her parents’ house. Whatever clichés may impute, she never felt suppressed as a woman. The thirty-seven year old Dotschy believes the traditional role models have been called into question: “Young Sinti have the feeling that they can achieve something themselves, like everyone else. They can market themselves and put videos on YouTube or the Internet. Since at the moment everyone is interested in gypsy, they no longer necessarily need the traditional context. They have a new naturalness – without denying their identity”.