Lucid Culture


CD Review: Municipale Balcanica – Road to Damascus

The most amazing thing to come over the transom recently was this band’s new cd. We didn’t find them, they found us. Good thing. This sizzling Balkan big band is especially notable for its lushly captivating horn arrangements, no surprise since its members got their start playing in the official marching band in their native city of Puglia, Italy (therefore, Municipale Balcanica.) This cd, their second, mixes Gogol Bordello-style Balkan punk rock with straight-up Roma dances, fiery klezmer breakdowns and other dark, danceable instrumentals with influences as far afield as Greek rebetika, psychedelic rock and, as the band makes very clear, the most radical elements of traditional Italian music. It’s a wild ride, most of it at high velocity. The rock stuff typically has a rock rhythm section of electric bass and drums; the more traditional-style stuff features tuba and percussion.


The first song on the album is the klezmerish Gipsy Train, fast and bouncy with a characteristically rich horn chart. Libano, which follows, changes it up over a slow two-chord groove, sax wafting over the tuba. Then the horns come in gently and the pace picks up with a latin beat (shades of excellent New York rockers Hazmat Modine), with a long, sweet, fluttering trumpet solo. L’Orso Ballerino and Contessa could both be Gogol Bordello, electric guitar providing a ska beat, the singer rasping away like an Italian Eugene Hutz.


The slow, contemplative Kolomeyka sounds like a big crowd-pleaser as it slowly speeds up and then changes up the tempo repeatedly. L’Arie Migliore brings it down again, a slow, quiet sotto voce vocal number in 6/8 with beautifully pensive accordion. The high point of the cd  – there are many  – is Artigiana di Luma, a gorgeous Levantine dance melody over a staggered beat. The storm builds, a balmy clarinet solo followed by eerie, scraping violin, then the clarinet returns and plays off it as the violin goes completely berserk. 


Radish Lam is an ensemble showpiece for the horns, its stark intro building to a brisk dance.  Likewise, Alma Cocek accelerates to an interlude that’s practically hard bop, capped by a scary trill by the clarinet. The title track jolts the listener back into the 21st century, opening with a long, slow, weird intro, theremin against flanged guitar. Finally, the trumpet sounds a call, clarinet slowly rising to join in. And then the trumpet returns, and then it’s over, counterintuitively, without really going anywhere


Usti, Usti Baba begins as a somewhat woozy, midtempo vocal number featuring a nice, fast sax solo with the kind of restless intensity typical of Lefteris Bournias (from excellent Greek-American oud virtuoso Mavrothi  Kontanis’ band and others). When the drum solo ends and the melody returns, the trumpet goes flying over other horns and they play against each other, against the beat. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Syndrome of Babylon is a defiant, absolutely brilliant anti–Iraq war number, samples from tv news (Bush wanting to “ensure peace and justice,” etc.) layered just a little below the instruments in the mix. Its breezy melody and tricky time signature make a striking contrast with its theme, clarinet taking the lead over a gritty wash of distorted low-frequency electric guitar. The cd also includes a couple of club remixes that ironically can’t stand up to the band’s original work. Fans of groups as diverse as the aforementioned Gogol Bordello, classic Roma purists like Taraf de Haidouks and adventurous pioneers such as Metropolitan Klezmer will devour this. No US tours scheduled at this point, but that could change: watch this space for further info. The cd is available for download at the band’s site.

October 28, 2008 - Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , ,

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