Over the last three months of Eastern European musical explorations we’ve taken every opportunity to enjoy Balkan brass, a byouant form of party music that beams with trumpets, trombones and tubas. Our go-to Balkan musicians are Serbian Romani father and son, Boban and Marko Markovic, who, after decades of traveling the world with their top-tier orchestras, are rightfully considered Balkan brass royalty .
This week in class is the last in our jubilant journey around Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Over the course of the last three months we traveled around a region so full of life, and so familiar with sorrow, that flows so freely here readily swells with both. Over the next few days we’ll have one more chance to enjoy Eastern European music, dancing and fun.
This week in class we we learned about two infamously musical peoples, the Roma and the Jews, so how can we not dance? In this video I do some informal Romani-style dancing — ’tis true, I do it terribly — and teach “the grapevine,” the most basic of basic steps one may use to dance to klezmer. Remember, our mission when we dance in class is not perfection! Technically we’re terrible; we traffic in joy.
We can surely all get along, at least if we’re making music. In this exuberant clip from “Zug des Lebens” (“Train of Life,”) Jewish and non-Jewish, presumably Roma, musicians find common ground in song. (The party really kicks in at about 1:30.) The 1998 film, a French-language collaboration between French, Belgian, Dutch, Israeli and Romanian filmmakers and musicians, tells the tale of Jewish village’s attempt to escape the Holocaust by masquerading as a Nazi transport train while really heading away from the concentration camps, toward Palestine.
Dancing in traditional Roma communities is ubiquitous, an overflowing embodiment of joy. There are organized Roma dances but the informal and improvised snapping, clapping and general glee we see in this video make us want to dance too. (A note: the term “gypsy,” long associated with the Roma and included in this video title, is pejorative and one we don’t use in class.)
The Romani are an ethnic group generally believed to have originated in northwestern India over 2300 years ago and to have migrated westward, ending up in most regions of Europe. For centuries many European Roma lived outside the mainstream, dwelling in impermanent “squatter” communities or in small, economically depressed villages — sometimes due to discrimination, other times, to maintain their own culture, by choice. Despite being held at arms’ length, Romani musicians, especially those from a sprawling “clan” of virtuosos known as “lautari,” earned some respect due to their their musical prowess.
Klezmer music is functionally the instrumental music of Eastern and Central Europe’s Ashkenazic Jews, but in essence, since the Nazis obliterated Eastern and Central Europe’s Jewish population in the Holocaust, it has become much more. Today, musicians who play klezmer are not only embracing one of the world’s most inspiring bittersweet musical styles, but with each performance they’re also rebuilding lost Jewish culture, striking a note by note blow against the Nazis who tried to wipe it from the face of the earth. Konsonans Retro is a family brass band from the Ukraine that performs klezmer music in the secular tradition of the once-thriving Odessa Jewish community.
A couple weeks ago in class we visited Romania and enjoyed our very favorite Roma band, Taraf de Haidouks — “Band of Brigands,” composed of 11 Roma musicians from the town of Clejani. Celebrating Roma music gives us another chance to marvel at our friendly brigands’ spirit as they channel centuries of Roma survival in every song. In this video, “Rustem,” these virtuosos strut their stuff.
This week in our online class we depart from our usual country-by-country routine to go off the beaten track with the Roma/Romani people and with Ashkenazic (Central and Eastern European-descended) Jews. Both groups have lived at one point or another in almost ever corner of Eastern Europe, and have been evicted from the same. Both groups have long histories full of unfathomable struggle, yet have somehow managed to survive. Both make music that bursts with joy and at the very same time can be so, so sad.
Let’s end our week of Bulgarian music by chilling in park in the capital city of Sofia with a happy local band. The guys in this video aren’t the fanciest musicians, but they sure do catch the Sofia groove. Be cheerful, my friends! Hope you had a great time this week with Bulgarian sounds.