various artists,
Blowers from the Balkans
(Topic, 2005)

This compilation of various historical recordings of musical ensembles from the Balkans encompasses recordings from 1906 through the mid-1940s and represents a broad range of artists, from the larger band work to the much leaner three-song set of peasant music, which showcases single or doubled vocals, Balkan bagpipes and the nai, or panpipes.

As is usual in these compilations, the quality of sound varies substantially, as the source discs suffer from original technical inadequacies or from subsequent damage down through the years. The good folks at Topic Records have done a splendid job with the insert, giving not only details about the original recordings, but also grouping the program into four broadly defined sets: 1) an opening set of Romanian style music; 2) a short set of peasant music; 3) an eight-song set of Greek clarinet tunes; and 4) a closing five-song set of Greek-Ottoman cafe music, of the sort that gave rise to Rembetika.

Also discussed at some length in the insert is the instrumentation of the region, from the aforementioned nai and bagpipes to the laoto (a long-necked lute), snatouri or tambal (a trapezoidal zither), the Balkan clarinet developed by Iwan Muller (more easily coaxed into the slides characterized by this music and kelzmer), the kaval (an end-blown flute), the defi or daire (a native drum) and the Stroh violin, also known as the viore cu goama, or violin with horn, for the resonator incorporated to give the instrument a bigger "voice" for early recording technologies. As virtually all of this music embodies the dance, rhythms are also discussed, including the haspikos (butcher's dance); the Romanian whirling dance known as the Invertita (in 10/8 time); the Greek Kangeli and Syrtos; the Sarba of Serbian Romania; the Bandits' Dance, or Tsamikos; and the dance of the Zeybek Turks of Anatolia, the Zebkiko.

Though there are 25 songs on the disc, a handful are worthy of special mention. The oldest of the tunes, the robust "Dura, Dura" from the Romanian set, dates from 1906. It features a spirited vocal, and a large instrumental accompaniment. Though all three of the songs in the peasant set are splendid, the set piece is a 7/8 dance showcasing the bagpipe, recorded in Sofia in 1927, and carrying the impressive title, "Last Night the Infidel Turks Passed Through the Village." The following Greek clarinet set offers the Kangeli dance tune "Mint & Basil," whose spirited rendition rises above a substantial loss of high-end audio signal. The highlight of the disc, "Old Klephts," is framed by sonorous and swirling percussion, and progresses through time signatures from 6/4 to 4/4; it is also lengthy for it era, clocking in at nearly four minutes long.

The final set closes strongly, with the "Zebekiko Aptaliko" from 1920 featuring a driving dromos/cimbalom (hammered dulcimer on steroids) duel; this is followed by "The Water is Tsirgiotic," an emigree tune from the 1920s which atypically showcases the female vocal stylings of Kyria Koula. The final selection, "Uncle Yiannis," is another high point, a rapid Zebekiko tune featuring an instrumental trade-off between accordion and clarinet, punctuated by a rather martial drum holding the rhythm in check.

This, then, is an excellent introduction to the Balkan music of the first third of the 20th century, a period in which the oral traditions that had delivered these tunes to an increasingly modern world were still strong, and the cultures they served still vital. As such, these are musical windows into the lives of people who are now largely relegated to the past, though their vibrant music lives on, to be cherished and enjoyed for generations to come.

by Gilbert Head
24 June 2006

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