The new Balkan sound departs from the clean, straight, beat-laden Balkan club tracks of yore, insofar as the new stuff is looser, fuzzier, deeper, more distorted, less distinct – subtler even, trafficking less in Balkan clichés. “Ethno psychedelia”, you could call it. 

Balkan Taksim group members Sașa-Liviu Stoianovici and Alin Zăbrăuțeanu have known each other for more than a decade, both stemming  from the Romanian underground scene, where they cut their teeth on various experimental sound projects before finally arriving two years ago at their current formation.

Zăbrăuțeanu was a sound engineer with a penchant for synthpop electronica and analog gear; Stoianovici a visual artist cum psyche-dabbling musician, whose musical journey began during one of those post-hippy “rainbow gatherings” in Romania. While other tribalists went on to embark on journeys eastward to more exotic and far-flung destinations, visa restrictions forced Stoianovici to stick closer to home. Turkey entered his ken. Hitch-hiking most of the way, he travelled along the Aegean coast, veering inland to Konya – the town of Sufi poet and whirling dervish,  Mevlana Rumi. It was there that Stoianovici picked up his first bağlama (saz) in 2001.

“I guess this was the beginning of my journey, which bore fruit later on through extensive field recordings in the Balkans,” says Stoianovici.

Later he discovered different sorts of saz, including the cobza – a Romanian saz variant – and ultimately developed a fascination for the electro saz, which he plays on Balkan Taksim’s debut album Disko Telegraf, in all its gnarly, distorted majesty.

Balkan Taksim also has a vocal component which Stoianovici brings to bear by means of his use of the Serbian idiom, in particular the southern Serbian Torlakian dialect, which he describes as a kind of “peasant old-style vernacular, which mixes Bulgarian elements with old Serbian elements.” 

A lot of what Balkan Taksim is about stems from a desire to explore Balkan and Romanian heritage and identity. Zăbrăuțeanu hails from Vrancea county in the east of the country, known for its cobza lutes, bagpipes and wooden horns, while Stoianovici has his roots in the Banat in the west, a region famous for its woodwind and saxophone players – and where Sasha has both Romanian and Serbian relations. 

Stoianovici’s mixed Serbian-Romanian ancestry, was, as  he says, the “trigger for me to start a quest concerning my heritage.”

While Stoianovici appears to be the driving force behind Balkan Taksim’s pursuit of authentic folk ingredients – however inchoate and fragmentary – Zăbrăuțeanu is responsible for putting a darkly atmospheric trip-hop informed spin on the sounds Stoianovici turns up, while adding depth and texture. Zăbrăuțeanu’s electronic sound has nothing in common with the kind of beats often accompanying Balkan brass a la Shantel et al. He supplies deep bass lines, dark grooves, while keeping the tracks danceable, though not obviously cut out for a delirious Balkan club night. Here the mood is somber and atmospheric, ruminative, even cinematic.

“Overall the idea is to sound electronic, but organic with a lot of textured beats, deconstructing the oriental beats and filling spaces with microtones and granular percussion,” says Zăbrăuțeanu.

As for the name “Taksim”, this is a Turkish word, referring to musical improvisation at the beginning of a classical song. By appropriating the word Stoiannovici says he aims to to “pay tribute to the mix between Christian and Muslim cultures of the Balkans, as they developed throughout the centuries.”

In short this is a departure from the superficial electronic beats served up by Balkan DJs a decade ago. Balkan Taksim offers up a much more mature, nuanced and sophisticated Balkan  sound than we have hitherto been accustomed to from this folk-rich corner of Europe.