Saturday, November 6, 2010

Iron Curtain Raisers: Popular Music from Eastern Europe

Good rockin' from groovy Zagreb!

If you’re like me, the countries that made up Eastern Europe, were  a bit of a mystery until the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.  In 1989, I was living in Pakistan and for some reason two German backpackers were my houseguests. The Velvet Revolution was in full force but my Teutonic friends insisted, “The Wall will not come down in our lifetime.”  About three months later they were proven wrong. The Wall not only came down, it was followed in pretty quick order by the utter collapse of the modern world’s alternative political and social model.

In later years I had occasion to work in the Balkans (Bosnia, Albania and Croatia) and the FSU (Former Soviet Union, if you must know). In Former Yugoslavia I was taken with the landscape’s beauty and the heretofore unimagined (by me) ethnic complexity of the area. The wars that raged in those regions during the early 90s had not attracted my attention; I was working in Africa and Asia.  Europe was not just in another part of the world. It was a different world altogether.

As is always the case, it is only when you travel through a land that you begin to appreciate it. And the more frequently I visited Bosnia, Republika Srpska, Croatia and Albania the deeper that brooding Slavic air got into my blood. What amazed me was how quickly a country (Yugoslavia) can come to an end after decades of physical, psychological, political and emotional effort to put it together. And how far back the enmities that drove the wars of the 90s reached.  “When we tell our children our history we speak as if 600 years ago was last week,” one of my colleagues told me.

Over the years I’ve read a lot of books on that part of the world, fascinated I suppose that for my entire youth, half the world was a complete blank spot.  Recently I finished an imminently readable and deeply insightful book,   Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment.  The author, Stephen Kotkin, examines in detail case studies from Poland, Romania, East Germany and Hungary and argues persuasively that each of these societies, despite displaying  a façade of power and total control, was in fact a structural house of cards unable to respond to change of any kind.  Hence the immediate and complete collapse when the time came. 

During my travels and times in the former Communist world, my only encounter with music was the abundant access to pirated CDs. From every trip I would return with a dozen or so of the latest releases all purchased for less than what a single CD would cost me in Britain.  It has been only in the past few years that my musical explorations have turned up some amazing Eastern European music.  Behind the Iron Curtain, a whole universe of music was going on from traditional/gypsy folk to some of the most amazing rock ‘n roll and accomplished jazz.

This is a part of the musical world that is still relatively unknown to me but in this collection, Iron Curtain Raisers, I’ve collected a few of my favorite tracks from that part of the world.

Track Listing:

1.    1.  Vi Bist Du Geveyzn Far Prohibish'n? by 3Mustaphas3. The Mustaphas were a tongue in cheek ‘Balkans’ band from the UK which performed a giddily eclectic but largely East European-inspired style of music.

2.     2Gili ( Béga Sitya ). From the soundtrack of the film Latcho Drom, a documentary on the gypsies. Performed by the Hungarian gypsy outfit, L'ensemble Kek Lang.

3.     3. Szolj Ram Ha Hangosan Enekelek. Good old guitar driven rock n roll from 1970s Hungary.

4.     4. Balkan Reggae. A contemporary Romanian gypsy band from their bombastic album Ghetto Blasters.

5.     5. Poszlabym za toba. Heavy electric blues-based rock from Poland, anyone?

6.    6.  ivot moj. A nice ballad from Croatia’s Josipa Lisac.

7.     7. Sve sam poku˚ala da te zavolim (with Alenka Pintariè). Breezy flower power pop from 1960s Yugoslavia/Croatia. Performed by Zlatni Akordi.

8.     8. Przeminelo z wiatrem tyle dni. Polish pop from 1970, performed by Grupa ABC Andrzeja Nebeskiego.

9.     9. Skull And Crossbones. Vladimir Vissotski was a hugely influential Russian/Soviet artist who not only sang but was a poet and actor as well. This is from the album Le Monument.

.     10. Got No Money. Performed by Dusko Gojkovic, a Serbian jazz trumpeter who played extensively in the United States with some of the major jazz stars of the 1960s and 70s.

11  11. Magdalena. A passionate pre-Leonard Cohen hallelujah hymn from Czechoslovakia’s Marta Kubisova, an artist frequently (and for long periods) out of favor with the authorities.

12  12. Skad my sie znamy.  More sparkling pop music from Communist Poland.

      13. Ja i ti (We Are Brotherhood Of Man). Performed by Nada Knezevic one of Serbia’s most popular jazz and pop singers.

14  14. Wodo zimna wodo. Halina Frackowiak started out as a backup singer but then had a successful career in as a lead singer in Poland.

15  15. Kalimankou Denkou. The Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Choir attained considerable visibility in the West in the late 80s for their mysterious, eerie and celestial a capella sounds.

      16. Ar Vera Un Eschimos.  It is hard to imagine Nicolae Ceausescu grooving to rock n roll but Phoenix was a popular Romanian band in the 60s and 70s.

      17. My Strange Uncles From Abroad. Gogol Bordello is in part a contemporary New York answer to 3Mustaphas3 and as such a fitting bookend to this collection.

  To get Iron Curtain Raisers  click here.

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