April-9th-2006, 09:23 AM
skirting the issue
Brass Band Music As Global Language
April 9, 2006
They're With the Band, Speaking That Global Language: Brass
By JOSH KUN
LAST December, the veteran Mexican-American rock band Los Lobos dusted off its 1992 album "Kiko" and performed it live, start to finish, at the House of Blues in West Hollywood. For most of the night it was a standard rock setup, but when it came time for the album closer, a woozy Mexican folk swoon called "Rio de Tenampa," Los Lobos brought out Los Cenzontles, a Northern California banda troupe. While Mexican bandas (brass bands) can have as many as 20 members, Los Cenzontles didn't need much more than a tuba, a trumpet, a thudding bass drum and a pair of clarinets to turn the club into a raucous cantina.
Brass band music can have this effect. The stammering pepper-spray of horns, the crisp snaps of snare rolls: it's precise and excessive at once, a joyous emotional tornado awash in spit, sweat and celebration. No wonder it's one of the world's most-spoken musical languages — from Serbian villages to Manhattan's bustling "gypsy punk scene" to this year's Grammy Awards, where Kanye West reinvented "Gold Digger" by having a marching band play, running through the aisles. Awareness of international brass styles has blossomed in recent years in the United States, thanks in large part to an increase in domestic album distribution deals and more frequent international concert tours.
"You would think that a brass band, which has no strings at all, would be limited in its sound," said Tamir Muskat, the Israeli-born co-founder of Balkan Beat Box, a new-school crew in New York known for wild live shows that mix Balkan horn blasts with electronic beats. "But it's unbelievable what people manage to do with it. There is a whole world of brass out there."
Listen to enough brass band music — whether a slice of Mexican banda or the Romanian group Fanfare Ciocarlia pulling the trigger on a dizzying blast of high-velocity trumpets — and you start to hear the history of the world handed back to you in a horn section. Suddenly, Serbia and Romania could be the alternative birthplace of Brazilian frevo; brass flurries from Gypsy bands in Macedonia and Bulgaria could be lost cousins of the Jaipur Kawa Brass Band from India, the Gangbe Brass Band from Benin or any New Orleans jazz troupe.
The connections are more than theoretical. In the 1860's, thousands of former Gypsy slaves fled Romania for the American South, landing in mostly black neighborhoods. The brass music they brought with them, like that of all Balkan countries, can be traced to the Turks, the original band geeks. Last year's "Blowers From the Balkans" compilation (Topic), which unearthed a trove of early 20th-century Balkan brass recordings, spelled it out loud and clear: it was the Ottoman Empire's janissary bands that turned brass into the lingua franca of Serbia, Macedonia, Romania and Bulgaria.
"The Ottoman empire used brass bands to impress the enemy, walking and playing in front of the first line of soldiers," explained Oprica Ivancea, the lead clarinetist for Fanfare Ciocarlia, a 12-piece band of Romany Gypsies who work out of the remote mountain town of Zece Prajini (population 400) in eastern Romania. "But in the early 19th century, brass got popular in Germany and Austria and because Romanians always want to be like the Germans we began to adapt to their sound as well."
Long before Kelly Clarkson and Jay-Z (and for that matter, long before rock 'n' roll), European military and church bands were the world's top global musical exports. Locals throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas were trained in the ways of the marching band as part of colonialism. As empires dissolved, official bands soon became voluntary village bands, and by the turn of the 20th century most of the world shared an ingrained knowledge of all things brass.
"All brass bands have a link somewhere," Mr. Muskat said. "Ninety percent of all brass bands are based on the same elements. It's all rhythm and horns."
Mr. Muskat's Balkan Beat Box partner Ori Kaplan grew up in Jaffa, Israel, where he watched Egyptian orchestras on television and learned to play Eastern European klezmer clarinet from a Bulgarian trained by Gypsy brass musicians. When Mr. Kaplan moved to New York 15 years ago, though, he wanted nothing of his klezmer past, choosing instead to play in industrial punk bands. That all changed when he heard a CD from Macedonia's top brass band, Kocani Orkestar, and learned about the Gypsy-Turkish fusions of the Bulgarian horn stalwart Yuri Yunakov, another New York City transplant). "I started to listen to Balkan music constantly," Mr. Kaplan said, "I became a brass band freak."
Of brass band enthusiasts in the United States, however, few can top the trumpeter Frank London, whose Klezmer Brass All-Stars have just released their third raucous manifesto of brass globalization, "Carnival Conspiracy." While firmly grounded in both Balkan and klezmer traditions (Mr. London's main gig is with the tradition-bending Klezmatics), "Carnival" makes cross-cultural brass connection its guiding impulse, riffing on the beer hall oompah of Mexican banda and the funk marches of Brazilian frevo and batucada. If the batucada seems like a stretch, it shouldn't: the first Jews in North America were Eastern European immigrants from Recife, Brazil — the capital of Brazilian big band.
"The idea of brass repertoires crossing genres and being assimilated into different traditions has been going on in all of these brass band musics forever," said Mr. London, who in the 1980's also fronted Les Misérables Brass Band, playing music from Pakistan, Serbia and South America (as well as the occasional Jimi Hendrix cover). "For many years, the most popular song for Indian brass bands was 'Tequila.' When you play an Italian feast, you don't just do Italian parade music. At the end you sit down and play opera overtures, then you can do covers of popular music, dance music, jazz music. Most brass bands just have this breadth of repertoire and styles at their fingertips."
Fanfare Ciocarlia have made a career out of this kind of stylistic juggling. They play everything from Russian-influenced Romanian doinas (slow improvised melodies) to Gypsy maneas (melancholy love songs) born in India, and on their latest CD, "Gili Garabdi," tackle an Afro-Cuban rumba alongside versions of the James Bond theme and Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol's "Caravan."
"We play music and dances we learned from our fathers," said Mr. Ivancea, who considers Gili Garabdi a tribute to the shared heritage of Gypsy brass and African-American jazz. "But we also play any tune requested during a wedding or baptism. We provide a service — we have to play what people want to hear."
In 2003, Mr. London decided to test these theories of a single brass family tree on an actual collaboration. So on the Klezmer Brass All-Stars' sophomore outing, "Brotherhood of Brass," he sought out the Hasaballa Brass Band from Cairo and Boban Markovic, a Serbian trumpet king, for a series of reeling geography mashups that imagined Eastern European shtetls and Egyptian markets sprouting up in Serbian villages.
"Over the last few years, I've noticed that my music has become part of a larger global conversation," said Mr. Markovic, who has been known to start his live sets with a version of the theme from "Titanic." "Knowing someone's music is so much easier these days. But I am still mostly trying to communicate with local people, especially communities in the south of Serbia and in the Balkans."
In that spirit, Mr. Markovic's newest album, "The Promise," features his typically kaleidoscopic takes on standard coceks (stomping Gypsy dance tunes), but also dips into the Latin American brass band tradition with "Latino" and "Voz," songs that wouldn't sound out of place on the set list of a Mexican banda. Which makes perfect sense considering that the Mexican brass style — one of the most commercially dominant genres in that country's music industry — was initially inspired by the Franco-Austrian military bands that reached Mexico through the coastal hub of Mazatlán in the 1800's.
"Our brass music is very similar to German music," said Poncho Lizárraga of Banda el Recodo, Mexico's longest-running brass ensemble, founded by Mr. Lizárraga's father, Don Cruz, in 1938. "We just interpreted it differently, turned the polkas into our own rancheras. My father wanted something different from all that music coming from Europe. It was music just for our town, and in the beginning, mostly for people who liked to spend too much time in the cantinas."
More than six decades and 180 albums later (their latest, "Hay Amor," has just been released), Recodo's 17 members are international banda ambassadors who wear matching jewel-studded suits made of black velvet, and their music has become a favorite sample source for hip-hop and electronic acts like Akwid from Los Angeles, Wakal from Mexico City and Nortec Collective from Tijuana. Similarly, the growing popularity of Balkan brass with sample-hunting D.J.'s in the United States and Europe — led by Shantel of Germany, whose "Bucovina Club" nights in Frankfurt ignited an electro-Balkan avalanche — which has been a key factor in introducing the centuries-old music to first-time listeners.
On Shantel's new "Bucovina Club Vol. 2" mix CD, Balkan Beat Box makes an appearance, and he throws a few house beats under cuts from Fanfare Ciocarlia and Mahala Rai Banda, another Romanian band, but mostly he lets the old-school originals speak for themselves: the traditional as the new cutting-edge.
"People are tired of corporate-friendly rock 'n' roll and the cold nihilism of the electronic music scene," said Mr. Kaplan of Balkan Beat Box. "They're hungry for this really sweaty, personal, alcohol-driven, familiar, ceremony-like music. There's something very healthy about all of this interest in brass music. People just want to get back in touch with their feelings."
April-10th-2006, 07:42 AM
The great, late lamented Japanese label, King World Music Library, had at least a couple of discs devoted to world brass. I have one (might be the first # in the catalog) from Turkey and I think there's another from Peru.
April-11th-2006, 10:25 AM
"People are tired of corporate-friendly rock 'n' roll and the cold nihilism of the electronic music scene," said Mr. Kaplan of Balkan Beat Box. QUOTE]
Maybe they should check out some jazz!