Much has been made of the similarities between Balkan Beats and punk rock. There are, admittedly, a few parallels. Serbian kafana behavior, whereby drunken bećari (revelers on a spree) smash glasses, furniture and sometimes other people, is in some sense essentially punk in attitude. And there is a certain live-for-the-moment outlook in much Balkan Gypsy music that also parallels the live fast, die young ethos of punk. And just like there were fierce debates about who invented punk – New Yorkers or Londoners – so too debate rages to this day about who had the first Balkan scene: New York or Berlin.

Balkan Beats in Berlin actually predates the New York Balkan scene, which went by the name of “Gypsy Punk”. Already in the late nineties, Robert Soko was putting on his Gypsy-music inspired parties. But in New York, somehow, it became more of a “scene”, with colorful acts like Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello and a bar to boot – Mehanata Bar – not to mention a, sometimes cringy, Gypsy-style fashion element. However, as Matt Moran and Eva Salina make clear this hyped-up scene was not the only Balkan scene, and by no means the most interesting one for real fans of authentic Balkan music in New York.

It was against this backdrop that in 2006 Robert Soko came to the United States – L.A. and New York – to DJ his Balkan Beats parties. Up until then the Bosnian taxi driver turned superstar DJ, had made a name for himself only in Berlin. America would be his international debut, after which his career would rocket to fame. 

***

Matt Moran (Slavic Soul Party): There is a diaspora  Balkan scene in New York, but it exists very much under the radar of the public eye, in the form of Roma weddings and things of that nature in Queens, especially in the Ridgewood neighborhood, and the Bronx, where there is a big Albanian and Macedonian community. It is the sort of thing that you wouldn’t know existed if you were not friends with someone in the community.

Dren (a Kosovar Albanian filmmaker in Berlin): Speaking of Albanians and the Bronx, I worked at Albanian pizzeria in Belmont. Most of the Albanians in New York live in the Bronx, alongside the blacks. There aren’t many Albanians in the Bronx; but we form a close-knit community. 

When the Albanians first moved into the Bronx they kept getting in fights with the blacks. Two Albanians would be walking down the street and they’d get jumped by five  blacks. Then they’d go home and round up twenty other Albanians and go looking for the  five guys that had jumped them, and beat them up. Next week the same thing happened. The Albanians would get jumped. They’d go home and round up their friends and retaliate. This  kept happening tit for tat, week after week, until finally the blacks just gave up on the Albanians. Now no one messes with the Albanians in the Bronx.

Matt Moran: There is this one guy called Peter Stan, an accordion player from New York Balkan brass band, Slavic Soul Party, and a Rom, who is “from the community” –  raised in Queens, though with relatives from the Banat region of Romania, having both Romanian and Serbian roots. He would invite various non-Roma musicians up to the Bronx, like me  to weddings and parties, where I would just hang with the locals and sometimes play as well.

I  was a classically trained percussionist, who played in a band called Zlatne Uste, whose members were all Americans. In those pre-Youtube days, my first exposure to Balkan music in the nineties was a batch of recordings in the form of unmarked cassettes, which I would find out later, came from the Lake Prespa area, where Greece, Macedonia and Albania all meet. This led to further digging around and the gradual discovery of Serbian brass music and other Balkan folk music traditions. I made it over to Guča in 2003.  

The music Moran discovered for himself was interesting, insofar as it had western harmony, but at the same time Balkan melody. The rhythm was by turns driven and “ribald”, and at the same time sinuous and snaky, and Moran loved how all these elements would come together as primary colors and yet often didn’t work in terms of music theory, conveying a minor energy of a major chord, for instance, which totally flew in the face of the overly intellectual way he had been schooled to appreciate music. He moved to New York and sought out master musicians from the Balkans, determined as he was to learn it by the ear, from cassettes.

Bulgarian vocal music blew him away utterly; he found it seductively foreign to all the  techniques and forms which he had learned in school. It seemed as through they were using very limited harmonic material within a small range, and yet the music was surprisingly  captivating. “And that’s when I first started sinking into a folk tradition and learning music orally. That was how I got hooked on the music.”

Peter Stan: My first break, after playing the local Balkan stuff, was playing a klezmer gig. That was what broke me. That was with Harold Seletzky. He brought me to a whole other world. Up  until then I was stuck in my hood. Harold Seletzky is no longer around, but he was a composer of microtonal music. He had done music for commercials and he played the clarinet. Someone recommended me, and he came to my house and he asked me if I wanted to play in a place called the West End Gate at 112th street, with his band, The West End Klezmorim. That was thirty years ago. Back then – it’s  kind of funny when I think about it – but I would never take the train if I had a gig in the Bronx say. Because they never had those gig bags for accordions and I would feel weird lugging an accordion on the train to a gig. I was young, but I was so old school that way. So Harold actually hired a guy to drive me. That was every Sunday. We would do Sunday brunch. For two years he would have someone drive me out there. And from there we just started doing gigs. And I ended up playing with him twenty years.

I used to play a bunch of kafanas. Like old school. Most of them in the Ridgewood part of Queens, many of them without names. I was seventeen when I started playing at weddings. Singers would come from Serbia, and I would have to accompany them. We  would start at nine o’clock and we would go to three, four in the morning. We only got paid fifty dollars a night. But I was making four hundred in tips. It was usually Friday, Saturday, Sunday and I would come home with like eighteen hundred dollars. Honestly, I was making more money as a kid than I am now. The fees weren‘t that great, but the tips were crazy.

I guess the Bosnian war was when the real ethnic scene died out. I grew up in America so I couldn’t separate the Serbs from the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslims and all that. I just put everyone in the same picture. But I just knew I’d play a song for one guy before the war and if I played the same song after the war,  he was ready to fight  me.  That was the things I had to learn really fast; you have to learn to play for the different sides. 

Now it’s much less tense. At the same time there is less going on; less of the real ethnic stuff. A lot of it has changed to the pop, plus the singers from Serbia or Romania can’t get visas. Not only that – there are less weddings. I don’t even know why that is. Now there are like two or three weddings a year.  But years ago when I was doing this ethnic music, I played two or three parties a week. It was crazy. I played for Romanians, for Serbs,

Peter Stan also worked with Eva Salina, who has been playing and singing Balkan music for most of her life. Originally from Santa Cruz, California, though having no familial roots in the Balkans, some of her earliest musical memories are of playing and listening to Balkan Music. When she was 12 she started attending “Balkan Camp” in Mendocino with her family to learn about Balkan song and dance from Balkan artists.  

Eva Salina: My father’s parents wanted to encourage my Jewishness. So they would give me recordings of weird cantorial singing.  It was all these old men. Like, what’s the appeal for a little kid, a little girl like myself.  I’m not going to listen to that and say, “I want to be Moishe Oysher.” What? That’s not going to happen!” 

Then one day a friend of my dad gave me a cassette of these two ensembles in L.A., from the sixties and seventies -Aman – a big music and dance ensemble stemming from the folk dance movement, but instrumentalists  as well, who did everything from Russian to Bulgarian and Croatian; mostly Slavic and East Europeans.  That was on one side of the cassette. It was nice, but with eight people singing, I couldn’t really imagine my way into it. 

But on the other side, the same group had made a Yiddish record in the ‘70s, and there was this young woman singing very unpretentious, beautiful songs in Yiddish. And I taught myself all the songs. I had the transliterated Yiddish in the liner notes. And suddenly I was singing all these songs in Yiddish.

I was seven.  my parents were pretty blown away and wanted to find someone who could help me to explore that further.  But there wasn’t anyone in Santa Cruz. My father said in Santa Cruz you get your culture where you find it.  

But there happened to be this American woman named Ruth Hunter. She did a lot with Greek music, and she was phenomenal. She lived in Seattle  where she started a Bulgarian ensemble with gadulka,  tapan, tambura, gaida, and she played the accordion.  And it was all women.  And she was a great singer. She was one of a small handful of non-native singers of Balkan stuff that I really loved and respected. 

And so my dad approached her. Well, it’s Eastern Europe. Maybe our kid will like it. It is kind of similar. And the minute I heard it I liked it. When you are a kid you don’t have that mechanism that intercepts things intellectually and goes, That doesn’t make any sense – it’s not your culture.  You just hear it and you go, Oh, that’s the best thing ever. I want to do that.

And so she taught me I think for about a year and a half and sent my whole family, who had all gotten interested in the music and the dance at that point – sent them all up to Balkan Camp, which was these workshops that happen twice a year in the States, one in Mendocino and one in Upstate New York. 

That was in ’91, ’92, when things were falling apart in the Balkans. Of course 1989 in Bulgaria meant the end of Communism and the end of a lot of the infrastructure that supported those folk ensembles.

Before 9/11 it was easier for people to move to the States.  You had all these incredible virtuosic folk musicians, who had had really fruitful and wonderful careers in Bulgaria, who suddenly had nothing, coming to the States, working just really shitty jobs, doing whatever they could find just to get by, and then finding out that they could be teaching American enthusiasts and making decent money.  

When I was twelve I started learning more Romany stuff.  When I was thirteen Esma came with her ensemble to Mendocino Balkan camp two years in a row. Esma even tried to marry me to her accordion player. I  was thirteen, mind you. Had this happened my life would have turned out a little differently.

I moved to New York. And upon my arrival one of my very good friends, whose family hailed from Prilep, Macedonia and who were one of the first Roma families from Macedonia to settle in New York – in the Bronx – invited me to various functions – weddings and circumcisions, and things like that. Not as a spectator, not as a musician even, and not as an academic, but as a person; as a participant.

The Roma events took place mainly at banquet halls in the Bronx and in Queens. Sometimes you’d go in there and there’d three different weddings going on.  There could be a Roma wedding and a Puerto Rican wedding like happening at the same time on different floors.  And they were pretty big to-dos. 

It’s been a while now since being invited to the first Roma event. And in the time being I have been trying to figure out my place within these various Balkan Roma  traditions and how I could contribute in my small way. In the beginning when I would go to the parties I made it a point to dress appropriately. There would be the various dances, all of which I had studied and which I would take part in.  And I knew enough language-wise of Macedonian or Turkish to make sure I wasn’t making any terrible gaffe.  And it wasn’t until I had been going events for three years that my friend wanted to organize an international Roma day celebration for her community, because she felt that many people were woefully uneducated about the origins of the language and the history. So she put on an event and asked me if I would teach some songs to young girls in the community. And that was a very meaningful moment for me. That was, a.) how I introduced myself to the community as a musician. But it was also a really tangible  opportunity to share and participate and do something meaningful for that community. There was no other person to teach that kind of music.

Gypsy Punk

When the Balkan wave first started swelling in New York City around 2004 it was labeled perhaps a little disingenuously  “Gypsy Punk”, though few were really Gypsies and few were punks in the proper sense. It was maybe the last global music “scene” worthy of the name before Corona put a damper on things. In 2007 Spin Magazine deemed the Gypsy Punk scene the “scene of the year”. At the center of it all were acts like Eugene Hütz and Gogol and Bordello and Balkan Beat Box with their emblematical mix of klezmer, Balkan and Middle Eastern sounds. Not many  people know that Balkan Beat Box took their name from Bosnian Balkan Beats DJ, Robert Soko, coiner of the term Balkan Beats, which he would actually go on to trademark.

Eugene Hütz, so the story went, fled the Ukraine following the Chernobyl disaster and ended up in Vermont with his family. Before Gogol Bordello came to fruition, Hütz had a band called The Fags. Then he had a side-band with two Russian guys called Flying Fuck.

Gogol Bordello, so the myth goes, was originally formed at a Russian wedding in Vermont, conveniently enough. Three of the original members were invited to play in the same Russian wedding – and like at every Russian wedding  “some fuckin’ Gypsy shit” was, in Hütz’s words, in demand.  

The band moved to New York, where ever more musicians expressed their enthusiasm for  Eugene Hütz and co.’s brand of folk-punk. Hütz would go round the Russian stores in search of musicians and dancers.

Hütz had a passion for real hard-core roots music from Eastern Europe, thinking it was just as wild as rock and roll, if not more so.  And he always loved Bela Bartok, the Hungarian composer who took East European folk music and made something very avant-garde sounding symphonic music that was “rooted essentially in all that eastern European madness.”

And gradually a band took shape, “snowballing into what is known now as an orchestra of fuckin’ immigrants who are jamming in A minor. Gogol Bordello.”

The band had a hilarious cabaret element to it. This coupled with a kind of raunchy energy. It was total performance and music, which was all combined in a zone where extreme vulgarity met high art. At a typical Gogol Bordello show Eugene would be down in his underwear in the first fifteen seconds of being on stage.

For a lot of people what Eugene Hütz and Gogol Bordello represented had the energy of punk. It blended the energy of Gypsy music, the fresh blood of newly arrived immigrants with the in your face narcissism of punk – a new hybrid. And it was something that could have only taken place in New York.

Eugene Hütz: Frankly, New York gave me everything. I will always love New York. I mean that was the town where I was first understood as an artist and that’s the town that gave me a career and that’s the town that gave me this band. This is where we all met. We met on the premise of all of us immigrants who came to New York to pursue music. And all of us were obsessed with Gypsy music one way or another, either by heritage, either by acquired taste. But it was our meeting point. And it’s a history we cherish and respect. So in my dream plan I’m building my triangle of Ukraine, New York, Rio. Those are all places where I have really strong connection and lots of friends and where I have a lot of cultural interests to explore. And that triangle allows me to kind of follow the sun all year round.

Soko: Pa, he was a wild one. I had Eugene DJ at one of my Mudd Club parties in 2005His flow was a mess. And exactly this was his hallmark, I would say.  He would cut a song in the middle and play something else. A typical Slavic, rascal, bar-style – and, you know, it worked! Balkan’s not like techno, where you have to keep it all smooth.

As a musician, though, to be honest, “Gypsy Punk” and what Eugene Hütz was doing was not really Balkan music. You couldn’t really call it Balkan. It was really punk with some elements of Slavic music. Okay, they made use of it. It’s a question of taste, I guess. I loved the first album, “Gypsy Punk”. And since then I never paid them much heed. I don’t play Gogol Bordello at my parties.  I know Eugene personally. But his “art” never touched me, to be honest. The same thing for Balkan Beat Box more or less.

Peter Stan: I have to tell you one thing, in that movie with Madonna Eugene’s pronunciation was good, actually. But, you know, I can tell when there is a Roma. Even if you have some distant roots, I can tell. And he might have some roots. Sometimes I have people coming up to me and saying, “Oh, yeah, I have some roots from the Gypsies.” They might have, but I can tell when it’s a Roma person.  

Ismail Lumanovski (New York Gypsy Allstars): If we have to consider anyone as Roma, then it has to be me.  But I think the name of our band derives from the fact that in New York everyone feels like a Gypsy. Because everyone is going from place to place, no one owns anything, we are playing music, having fun, living for the moment. 

Peter Stan: He’s saying a  Gypsy is like someone coming from every where, right? Well, kind of. But, I mean, that Gypsies have no roots – it sounds like some of the  bad things they say about the Roma. I feel it is stereotyping a little but. It doesn’t really connect with me. 

***

I interviewed Balkan Beat Box in 2008. A couple weeks before Balkan Beat Box was scheduled to play in Kreuzberg, I had a little tousle in a bar on Oranienstrasse called Luzia.

Mostly I steer clear of such places – Luzia being a vaguely touristy joint, popular with the international hipster set –  but for whatever reason I chose the bar to while away a couple hours working on a screenplay based on a Serbian small-time gangster friend, or shall we say loose acquaintance, named Sasha. 

If everything Sasha said was correct then he had been a paramilitary soldier in Bosnia, had owned casinos in Belgrade, had been a pimp, a jewelry thief in Vienna and a jailbird in Berlin. I figured about half of what Sasha said added up. What I knew was true about Sasha was that he made his living here in Berlin by scamming gullible Germans out of their money. However, Sasha also claimed to be a devout Orthodox Christian, and as if to prove this to everyone he wore more crucifixes on his body than an Orthodox pope.

I had one, two, three, four double vodkas and suddenly I was Sasha.

“Give me another vodka,” I slurred at the bartender, a Brit, a new arrival, fresh off the boat, as it were, who didn’t speak a word of German. That was reason enough to despise him.

The bartender slid me my drink.

“Put it on my tab,” I said.

“No. You’ll pay now,” barked the bartender.

Why the hostility? I still don’t know how it happened. But there was an exchange of words. I may have called him an “English scumbag”. He called me an asshole, and – it was no doubt the spirit of Sasha that had entered me –  I vaulted over the bar and proceeded to slug the Brit.

Almost as soon as I committed the act, I regretted it. I wanted to pick up my screenplay and leave. But no; they were keeping that till the cops came round.

Around ten minutes later the cops arrived and asked the Brit if he wanted to press charges. He said he did, indeed.

As a parting shot the one cop said, “And a word to the wise: stay off the white stuff.”

Later I met Sasha and explained to him what had transpired. His response was predictable.

“Bravo, my  American friend. You have held yourself like a man. When I first met you, you were a poodle. Now you are a pit-bull. Would I be wrong in saying that it is the influence of Sasha that has filled you with a new spirit? Just tell me where this pussy Englishman works and I will rough him up for you till he agrees to drop the charges.”

I told Sasha that wouldn’t be necessary. Instead, I wrote the bartender a  letter of apology. His name was Carl.

“Dear Carl,” I wrote, “I just wanted to apologize sincerely for my behavior the other night in Luzia. I was completely out of line, and the only thing I can say was that I was not in my right frame of mind. I was under a lot of stress as well as under the influence of various substances. I hope you will accept my apologies. I have nothing personally against you. I was only acting like a complete idiot and I regret what I did to you terribly. I know it’s difficult for you to accept my apologies. I am hoping by putting this in writing I can persuade you to drop charges.

Hoping for your understanding.

With best regards,

Robert Rigney

The day after I handed Carl the letter, Balkan Beat Box came to town, and a managed to set up an interview with the band in Kreuzberg. They were scheduled  to play in Festsaal Kreuzberg, the old Festsaal, on Skalitzerstrasse next door to the Mevlana mosque, the one that burnt down.

I met the band outside of the Festsaal before the show, and took them down Oranienstrasse. I had  forgotten about my little incident in Luzia,  and decided Balkan Beat Box would get a kick out of the joint. Only the  manager recognized me instantly and showed me the door.

“Out!” he said, “And don’t you show your face here again.”

“What is the deal?” said Ori Kaplan, saxophonist of Balkan Beat Box

“Oh,” I said. ”A spot of bother. Not a big deal”

Ori looked at me askance as we walked up Oranienstrasse. I must have cut a slightly dubious figure in his eyes. Added to that I had a knocked out tooth and scar on my temple from a bike accident coming home late from one of Nicolai Marakov’s famous cockroach races.

We took a table at a café up the street and began our interview. It’s been fourteen years now since we spoke. For some reason I never ended up using the interview. At the time I was writing for fRoots, a world music rag out of London. I believe the editor didn’t think that highly of Balkan Beat Box, and so I kept the interview on ice. 

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the interview was conducted in 2008, and reading it today it seems interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, despite the very name of the band, Balkan Beat Box were already starting to distance themselves from the label of “Balkan”, which they felt was too constraining and denoted a scene they had already moved beyond, a scene in which German journalists, like myself, were only too ready to pigeonhole them. “Balkans”  was a “B word” they pronounced only hesitantly. Still, I did manage to get them talking about their heady, formative years in New York.

Ori Kaplan (saxophone player of Balkan Beat Box): We were living in New York. Tamir Muskat and I were kind of on the road with Firewater, actually. We started talking about all kinds of ideas. There were a few collaborations, pre-Balkan Beat Box. Tamir produced my album for the Knitting Factory, which was more acoustic jazz, but also I guess, kind of Eastern European songs. And then we had another band with Tamir and Tomer. But the really significant thing was the collaboration with Gogol Bordello, who I was touring with for three years, with an album called J.U.F(Jewish Ukrainian Friendship). And I think Tamir was digging into the electronics and doing something interesting in the album. And later on Tamir and I wanted to continue, collaborating with different artists who we really loved. I think the first track we did – it was more of a project – was with the Bulgarian singers from New York. “Bulgarian Chicks” it was called. So that started the whole thing. We had so much fun. But the first live show was in Tel Aviv. And then the live shows really kicked in. And we discovered how to translate these studio ideas to a live setting. 

The New York scene was really strong. It was before the Europeans. I think actually they were inspired by us a little bit. For sure, crazy parties. Gogol Bordello parties. The Mehanata scene. We were both DJing in New York. The music we made was this kind of soundtrack for immigrants in New York, who were coming together in places like Mehanata, and who all the while didn’t have any suitable music, no club music. These were club kids who wanted to identify with their heritage and celebrate what was so special about it. So at the time any DJ would have like, five albums only to play. And ours was basically one of them. We created the band because we wanted to party and DJ and play this sound and express it.  So, a very virgin-like scene. 

Tamir Muskat: Balkan Beat Box wasn’t that conscious.  We had been swimming with these mashup ideas for a while. We did a few albums, using those ingredients. So it wasn’t a kind of plan of what to do. There were ideas in our heads and they had to come out.  We had our own studio in New  York and stuff. So as a natural thing we just met and recorded music. I think it kind of formulated itself with time. And it still does. It’s a never ending process really. Using those ingredients with all of us you will find everything was there always, but the combination of the people involved and the specific tone maybe that this band has was created with time by experimenting.

Ori Kaplan: Balkan Beat Box was really about finding the middle ground between the mechanical and the soul, between electronic and hard-core authentic folk music. It’s about opposites that produce the daring.

People were tired of corporate-friendly rock & roll and the cold nihilism of the electronic music scene. They were hungry for really sweaty, personal, alcohol-driven, familiar, ceremony-like music. There was something very healthy about all this interest in brass music. People just wanted to get back in touch with their feelings.

In New York, Tamir and I felt like we were a part of a movement that was very spirited and had a lot of energy. It was an immigrant underground music and party scene where people were sick and tired of this American corporate global music that was being pumped wherever you go. People were looking for something creative and authentic in its own way – something that was not touched by the corporate must-sell approach.

Like most of the protagonists of Balkan Beats, I am  an immigrant. I grew up in Jaffa Israel, where I watched Egyptian orchestras on television and learned to play Eastern European klezmer clarinet from a Bulgarian trained by Gypsy musicians. I moved to New York fifteen years ago and started playing in industrial punk bands. That all changed when I heard a CD from Macedonia’s top brass band, Kočani Orkestar, and learned about the Gypsy-Turkish fusions of the Bulgarian trumpet player Yuri Yunakov. I started to listen to Balkan music constantly. I became a Balkan brass freak.

What did Balkan music mean to me? Balkan music meant joy and madness. This was a kind of music that couldn’t have been achieved in the West. It was a music that was created with bare hands. Such raw emotion was not possible in the West, this complete abundance.

Peter Stan: I think what Balkan Beat Box was doing was cool, honestly. It’s different, you know. I’m open to it. Like, why not? I don’t know their music all that well. I’ve heard some stuff, but I think it’s good.  Our saxophone player in Slavic Soul Party used to play with them. Peter Hess. I think people from the  Balkans are cool with it. Because to them it’s new, so they say, “Why not?” Sometimes I hear Americans from the opposite side, saying, “Oh, they shouldn’t be doing that. It’s not the real ethnic stuff. But why not? And it’s a new generation. You can’t play the old ethnic songs for a new generation. 

Robert Soko:I loved Balkan Beat Box’s first album. It was amazing. I still love it.  And, unfortunately, this is where it stays. All the other productions I can’t cope with. “Hermetico” is a great song, and the very first album with these Bulgarian voices, it just blew me away. The very first time I met Ori Kaplan was in New York. At that time they were still not big. That was 2005. They were J.U.F. with Eugene Hütz. And then they split. Gogol Bordello slowly started to take off, and so did Balkan Beat Box. I would like to say that Balkan Beat Box took their name from my Balkan Beats parties.

Tamir Muskat: Why Balkan Beat Box? The first track was about voices with a beat box. It’s just a simple juxtaposition of Balkans being an ancient folk, and beatbox being a modern processor. The German press is really hung up on this Balkan Beats thing. You can hear everywhere DJs who take these melodies and mix it with electronic beats under it.  What it amounts to is a kind of cliché. Actually, we  never subscribed to that cliché. Not in a single track. But we tend to get pigeonholed in Germany in this regard all the time. What you hear when we play is actually a band with a band sound, outside specific clichés of a scene.  But I think we were there from the beginning in this scene. And a lot of people heard our music and got inspired to do other things. I think we all try to listen to and be aware of what’s going on and do something different and push the envelope a  little bit.

Matt Moran: I consider Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello to be more pop and rock than Balkan music.  I always thought that Gogol Bordello’s connection to Roma music seemed pretty tenuous. No. Really tenuous.  I wasn’t gettin’ it, to be honest.  You know, I think they are a wonderful band.  But it didn’t seem like Roma music, or Gypsy music to me.  And, like I said – great band. I loved seeing em’. And Balkan Beat Box borrowed some flavors and some sax sounds.  But, so in part I didn’t really feel that they were related to what I was doing that much. And in part, I felt that their popularity was  a little but exaggerated by the press.  Really? Was it so popular? Were you hearing it coming out of cars? No.  Could they bring a few thousand people to a club? Yeah. I don’t think you were going to see any of their tunes in the charts of those years.  What does it mean popular? It was a new sound and it was really exciting – But was the Balkan Beat Box sound really taking over the clubs? Was it there on the radio? No.  It was a blip.  You still had pop, R & B and hip-hop everywhere. Trust me.  Yeah, there was the Mehanata where DJs would spin  records in New York. And there was maybe Amnesia in San Francisco. And once in a while a party would pop up somewhere else. I don’t think it permeated the cultural consciousness that it did in the European dance scene. 

Billy Gould (bassist of Faith No More): America is such a huge country, and I think to make movements like that happen, you have to have a lot of money behind it. That’s my take. I think that if there were a couple million dollars sunk into this movement it would have worked. I think there was a time when the mentality was open to it. But you need a lot of marketing to reinforce that new idea, and make it digestible to people, and make it familiar. Faith No More, I mean, we had a lot of people who were on our side. We had Guns and Roses saying that we were their favorite band. Metallica opened our shows, but we weren’t selling records. And no one cared about us until MTV played our video. That’s just a fact. Nirvana was on a major label when they broke. There’s a reason that was the case. I mean, there are independent bands that have broken through, so, fair enough. But, generally speaking, this is a very big country, and to connect on that level you need muscle. 

Robert Soko: It is an interesting aspect. I think there is something else to it, to all these cultural differences. I don’t know how to explain it. But in Europe we – and when I say “we”, I mean all of us who are somehow dealing with East European music – managed to establish it, and it is still, to the present day, whereas in America it has completely disappeared. 

Billy Gould: It comes and goes in waves over the years. But there was a time when it was a good subculture. Gogol Bordello was playing big shows. And the had this Gypsy Punk thing, which was bringing all sorts of people to the shows. I saw them at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. That’s about 3,500 people. That’s what Faith No More would do. So, I would say that it did work. But when you look at the size of the population of the United States, you can’t say it was mainstream. But it did respectively well. 

Ismail Lumanovski: There was a great motion at some point, when I look back on it now. We were not aware of it  while we were doing it. But I think in general, our music is not as commercially  Balkan as Goran Bregović, Balkan Beat Box’s or Shantel’s music.  Our music was a little bit more artistic. Artistic meaning with more virtuosity, like showing off the instruments instead of  the concept of the music.  So, I think in that sense we were a little different.  I think the way we mixed Balkan music with other genres, with what we had been influenced throughout our lives, made it different than typical Balkan music. Let’s say.

Matt Moran: A lot of the scene centered around Mehanata Bar

Tamir Muskat“Get fucked get a bottle of vodka”. That was the sign at the bar.

Robert Soko: I don’t know if it was a sign or it was a rule.  It could be it was at the bar, I think. Yeah.  And allegedly people did it. I didn’t see it.  This first Mehanata Bar on Canal corner Broadway, that was the legendary place. I played there twice and once at the new one. But I didn’t like it at all. 

Eva Salina: Mehanata has a long history.  When it first opened, it was trying to be  serious Bulgarian restaurant.  I played their opening day, their opening brunch with this Bulgarian family, the Kolavi.  And eventually, one of the owners got out – and Sasha is the owner now – it became more prominent, and eventually it became the nightclub that it is now, a drinkin’ place, and the food sort of dropped by the wayside.  So it’s had three incarnations. One was  this mehanata; a true Bulgrian mehanata.  And then it became in that same location, like a wild, awesome club. And then it moved locations and became a somewhat less wild, less awesome club, to, in my humble opinion – what it is now.  It became less of a locals hanging out and more people coming in for some exoticized experience thing.  But in the first two phases of its existence, I was very much involved, played there a lot and hung out there a lot, and helped them put out compilations, and totally up on it. 

And maybe Mehanata was a kind of refuge for these people who were escaping this nationalism.

Yeah. First of all, it was Bulgarian, which was a little safer. They weren’t at war with anyone recently. And they weren’t really trying to be traditional.  It was like New York. They were all reinventing themselves.  It was cool and wonderful.  But you weren’t getting the forty-year old immigrant community off work for a drink and talking to the people. That wasn’t what the Mehanata was doing.  That the kafanas were doing. 

I’m trying to think. Like in 1998 or 1999, that was when Mehanata – Mehanata was kind of like the hub for that. They had an old location, which was down in China Town.  And that was before Gogol Bordello had gotten all blown up.  Because if anyone invented the term “Gypsy Punk” – not that I love the term – man, that would be Eugene Hütz. There were days when Mehanata was really, really a scene.  I think now when you go there it’s more DJ heavy.  And there’ll be weird bachelorette parties. Like, how did you end up here? Why are you in a Bulgarian bar?

I was pretty young. I remember going to the old Mehanata once.  And, you know, I’ve been there a couple of times, when Yuri Yunakov was playing.  Yuri wanted me to do that gig for a while on Fridays and Saturdays. When I first moved to New York, he said, It will be really good for your career. And I said, No it won’t.  Like, I don’t want to be in Mehanata Friday and Saturday nights, like screaming with tons of echo.  Don’t get me wrong, I like to be in front of a big band on a big stage.  I’m a happy girl in that situation.  

But I feel that there is so much that got shoved to the side in the Balkan Beats movement in terms of the subtlety. And I think there has been a hyper correction that Hüsnü and Ismail have done, where it gets really smooth.  Like, really smooth and a little self-conscious for me.  I miss when it used to be just three people, an accordion and a clarinet just sitting around a table. And that can be funky as hell. But if you either have the 2/4 like the um-ch-um-ch-um-ch kind of movement, or you have listening music where you have to sit there like it’s classical concert. And I’m used to – because I used to play for Balkan audiences starting when I was young – I’m used to me singing and then all of a sudden people starting to talk.

I think a lot of people know Mehanata.  A lot of people know Gogol Bordello.  A lot of people know Balkan Beat Box (facial expressions can’t be recorded). I used to say I wanted to come to New York to be the antithesis to Gogol Bordello.  To be just really about the music and not necessarily spectacle or exploiting stereotypes. You know, do I have respect for Hütz as a performer? Certainly. But do I think that he has a lot of integrity as a person? Doubtful.  And I know, because I’ve had the relationship with the people directly from the communities, from the cultures – that is really important.  I’m not crossing those lines. I know who I answer to, and I am going to be the last person who is going to say, Oh yeah, I’m just going to make this into whatever I want. It’s just a playground.  It’s not  a playground.  As my friend says, “It’s not a playground; it’s the Balkans”. 

So in New York, there is the interesting thing – you have the jazzers, who are like, Oh, let’s play 7/8, we’ll play it like, taka-taka-taka-taka-taka-taka like every subdivision, like a map, like let’s make map rock  out of Balkan music. Or let’s make contemporary music out of Balkan music. I think oftentimes when people try to make jazz it’s just a big mistake.  I think. Personally.  There are very few jazz interpretations of Balkan music that I love. 

However, if you check out the new Slavic Soul Party record which is their arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite, I think that’s phenomenal because it truly plays on the strengths of those musicians, most of whom have a background in jazz.  They are infusing it with a bit of the Balkan stuff.  But it’s not imitative.  I would check that out. I think it’s actually really beautiful, especially because that suite came out of Duke Ellington’s travels to the East, and his being  influenced and inspired.

Like I said – I’m not interested in the um-ch-um-ch-um-ch – the beats. I’m interested in bringing this music into different contexts that it hasn’t been in before. I don’t want to be singing Mesećina  and Chaj Shukarija, although if I am at a party of Balkan people and somebody puts a fifty dollar bill on my head, yes, I’m going to sing it for you.  I’m just more particular about the context in which I work these days. And I just feel that there is a way to elevate rather than play to the lowest common denominator. And that’s what I don’t see happening that much.

So I love working with Peter Stan, who is Rom, born in Australia, raised in Queens, family from Banat, grew up  speaking Romanian and Romanes, and then married a Serbian Romani woman, so he speaks Serbian, too.  And he’s so immersed, he’s so infused, so steeped in that tradition, yet he has been in New York for most of his life. And so he is also influenced by the city.  So he’s not old school, he’s not new school.  Rather, he’s very much himself within the tradition.  So I have the feeling when I am playing with him I’m not just playing Balkan music. What kind of music am I playing? It’s good to be able to be in a chamber music series.  The context in which the music should be heard should be blown open.  There’s no reason that these songs shouldn’t be at home in a small listening room. 

***

Robert Soko: It sounds crazy, but I actually started my international DJ career in America, in Hollywood of all places. That’s how it was. There was a guy from Los Angeles going to my parties at the Mudd Club, whose girlfriend was in the movie business. John, was the guy’s name. He invited me.  Back then I had never played abroad. The furthest from Berlin I got  was  Cottbus. Then I had some gigs in New York thanks to Gino from Kultur Shock and Billy Gould.

Gino and his crew in the States had set the scene etc. And even Chris Novoselic from Nirvana, he gave Gino a guitar. It’s like the Balkan secret history of rock and roll. Joan Baez was involved in some musical in Sarajevo, where Gino was singing. And this is the main link how he came over to Seattle, meeting then somehow the scene. 

Billy Gould had this label Kool Arrow. And he released their first album. Or even the second.  He has become their label. But Billy Gould loved to hang out with the band and be a rock & roll guy. Not being this, “I am a rich asshole” shit. He traveled with the band, and they stayed at my place in Berlin. Faith No More had been big in the nineties, but they were then already declining. We are talking here about the end of the nineties, when he came into the picture with Kultur Shock etc. 

Gino from Kultur Shock was sort of a rock star in Yugoslavia.  He had a hit. One, if not more. “Maco Moje”. Rather a pop star, than a rock star. Gino Banana was his artist’s name.  He grew up in Sarajevo and went to America and completely changed his musical attire, and has become what he is, an ethno- punk-rock-you-name-it musician.  Quite an interesting character. He is an opera singer, actually.  You dig deeper and you discover all these interesting little details. 

And so I flew from Paris to LA.  Arriving in LA was like arriving on another planet. It was January, I had just come from snow-bound Berlin and suddenly it was 25 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. And then, bang, in Hollywood in a rock club on Santa Monica Boulevard.

The venue was full. I was flabbergasted. It was like, a shock: Look at me, I’m playing in Los Angeles the same Balkan shit I am playing in Berlin, and the people were going crazy. For me that was like, wow. Three, four hundred people showed up. For me that was the very first exposure to the American crowd. And I was shocked, utterly and positively shocked.

I think  L.A. is a similar to London. The crowd at night when they go out, they all dress up. They have this alter-ego culture like the Brits have it. They change into different people on the weekend. They put makeup on; they look differently from normal life. People in Germany, on the other hand, don’t really give a shit; they are not out to impress anyone. That was my impression about people in L.A. Otherwise, if you ask me about Americans, I mean there is also a lot of hypocrisy. Oh, this word “awesome” was already hurting my ears. There everything was “awesome”. 

Americans are super sweet often, super sugar-coating everything. It was shocking for me, coming from Bosnia and then Berlin – Berlin is also not the most friendly place in the world. And then L.A. – how awesome. Still, about Americans, what can we say? They were nice people. Most of the Americans I met were nice, I couldn’t say they were arrogant assholes, no that would be a lie.

I was in L.A. for a week. And then we rented a car, me and my friend Mario, a Bosnian Croat like me, who just tagged along. We rented a car and went all the way up the coast to San Francisco. We stayed at Billy Gould’s apartment. And then we flew back to New York, where I would discover this real America. New York was real American to me. 

At least that was my understanding. Because New York was where all the movies are made. They often deal with New York. Scorsese and all that. So this is where I felt, this is my America. 

New York was amazing. Like many Yugos I was fascinated to come to these big cities which I never saw before. It’s so different from what we have in Berlin, Paris or London.  Not having these skyscrapers and this way of life, the size, the understanding of the world.

I  met  Eugene Hütz and we DJed together at the Knitting Factory, sharing the billing with Kultur Shock. And it was also like a crazy night. And I remember being late, and somehow making it at the very last moment, and I felt like a superstar. For the first time in my life someone was waiting for me. That was amazing. It was not an especially good and lovely event.  Kultur Shock playing. Not so many people coming. But I had the opportunity to share the DJ booth with Eugene Hütz. To talk to him a bit. I found him quite arrogant at that point. 

And then I was invited by Joro Boro – a Bulgarian DJ who still lives in New York, to come over to Mehanata, to play with him. Mehanata was smaller than Mudd Club, that is for sure. Somehow you could host two or three hundred people. Four hundred people, max. Well, the party  was a blast. Mehanata at the time was quite an in-place. The whole Balkan shit was hot. 

From what I understood, the Balkan story in the US was not as important as it was in Europe. For them it was a slight wave, while it was a tsunami for us. Over there it was an interesting little wave, you could surf on it a little bit. 

And somehow, a strange thing started to happen. Suddenly you found yourself in the company of some big names who I had always heard about growing up, but never dreamed of one day actually meeting. I came home from the United States, thinking, “Wow! Did this really happen to me?” I had gone to the US and played in Los Angeles and in New York and had a great experience. This is were my dick grew twenty centimeters.

Balkans in Berlin was not quite the same thing as Balkans in New York. Over there they put it all in the same pot, Balkans, Gypsies, East Europe post-communist bullshit. This is where we differ. For Americans there is this whole cliché: eastern…Borat…mustaches…This is how Americans see  Eastern European. It’s enough. We don’t even want to know more. Fucking stupid, a little bit goofy. OK, funny sometimes, but, you know. Whereas here in Europe, we pretty well distinguish that this has nothing to do with the Balkans, man. It has to be said, this is another world.  With all due respect, I love this album, Gypsy Punk. This was great, but there was nothing Balkanic about it. And Gypsy – Gypsy is not necessarily Balkans, as I say over and over again. Gypsies are also in Eastern Europe. Balkan is very peculiar turf. But for the Americans of course, they would call it “Gypsy punk”. Because of Eugene Hütz, and he made it somehow known to some extent in the United States. But they didn’t really make it big to be honest. And what happened? Nothing. 2005, 6,7 and then psssh. It was never as big here. That’s why I say here it was a tsunami. There it was half a meter wave. To surf a little bit, and then you swim and then that’s it.