BALKAN MUSIC music has never sounded so good. Wellington act Niko Ne Zna are among the mainstays of this emerging scene DownUnder (albeit it’s not a new one but it’s profile is higher than ever) and I’m delighted they’ve gotten round to recording and releasing an album, following the fantastic self-titled EP released in 2010.
They’re now an eight (or nine)-piece that uses trumpets, accordion, bass and tenor trombones and a sousaphone (a form of tuba that fits around the body) and make an almighty Gypsy/ Balkan cocktail that sounds neither contrived nor from a Serbian village, but certainly closer to the latter. They are a curious live experience: the first time I saw them was when I walked into my favourite record store in Wellington (sadly gone) and they were heading my way while playing, before they performed to shocked motorists and passersby outside the store. Earlier this month at the Big Day Dowse festival Niko Ne Zna were among the crowd, encouraging people to dance with them in a circle.
Their unusual style (to Western ears and eyes anyway) transfers easily to Renegade Brass Bandits (Monkey records), 10 tracks of high energy Balkan buzz such as the energetic, frenzied Smoked Paprika but there are also more reflective numbers, such as Ederlezi. Smoked Paprika is one of two songs written by Frankie Curac, the Croatian-Kiwi multi-talented instrumentalist, with Hamish Jellyman and Simon Grove also contributing to the writing process. Traditional tracks like Kustino and Gankino mingle with the self-penned material.
The other Curac track, Fez, appears on Monkey’s compilation of a number of Eastern European-flavoured acts from both sides of the Tasman on an album imaginatively entitled Gypsy Fever. DJ Balkanetic has compiled these 12 tracks and has done a dandy job of unifying often diverse acts such as The Klezmer Rebs, the Balkan-rockabilly Aussies The Barons of Tang, the Benka Boradovksy Bordello Band and Black Spider Stomp. Needless to say the Kiwi acts are the most entertaining.
Staying with the Mediterranean, but with a rather different feel, is an album by Moussu T e lei Jovents. They are, you will have guessed, from France, but it is more helpful to pinpoint the precise area – the Occitan region in the south-east, which has its own identity and aspirations. For their fifth album, Artemis (Manivette records), they again pillage the sound of Marseilles from the 1930s, with a hint of light opera too. You could call it Mediterranean blues. They sometimes sing in French and sometimes in Occitan, a Romance language spoken in a stretch of land from Catalonia to the far north-west tip of Italy.
They use a clever mix of light-heartedness and nostalgia, rebellion and powerful hints of poetry. Mistaal is a glorious blend of rock and a unique form of blues that reminds me everso of Les Negrettes Vertes the fabulous Parisian act of the late 80s/ early 90s, though I expect to be chided for such a comparison by someone with more of an ear for French/ Occitan music. This is a surprisingly sprightly and entertaining album.