Bloc Party: Balkan brass band Slavic Soul Party! drops vowels and raises roofs.
Kick In The Balkans
Slavic Soul Party!, fronted by local chanteuse Eva Primack, brings big brass to Kuumbwa.
By Curtis Cartier
IF THE NAME of the band didn't clue you in from the start, by about 30 seconds into the new album Taketron by Slavic Soul Party! you'll know just what kind of affair you've stumbled onto. Feverish horns, booming bass drums and manic accordion bellows all wage relentless assault against gluteal lethargy as this 10-member band sticks a Balkan flag in a mountain of Brooklyn jazz. Much more "Slavic" than "Soul," SSP! is a consortium of Empire State jazz musicians with Yankee names like John Carlson and Roland Barber. But the Balkan music scene in New York City is rich and wide-ranging. And the group, which also includes Santa Cruz-born singer Eva Primack, has been absorbing the city's Bulgarian beats for years and is set to paint Kuumbwa on Sept. 24 with one of the loudest and most honest portraits of that region's sounds that you'll find in the cluttered genre of Gypsy fusion.
"It's big brass!" bubanj drummer and bandleader Matt Moran tells Santa Cruz Weekly. "Balkan music has this irrepressible life energy to it that's only recently being discovered. When you come to our shows, you see all these people up there just using lip and lung to move you and shake you. We don't need your frickin' PA."
Indeed they don't, as the crew has played everywhere from Roman bathhouses to Carnegie Hall. Moran confirms, then shrugs off, claims that the group plays more than 100 shows a year, saying simply that "brass bands are made to play shows." He talks about Balkan brass acts like Orkestar Zirkonium and musicians like Goran Bregovic in the same breath as funk groups like the Meters.
"Hybridity," he says, is the main theme of Taketron, which officially hit shelves Sept. 22. Not in the way that Gypsy punk bands like Gogol Bordello are a hybrid between Balkan music and ninjas armed with underwear slingshots, but the way that Balkan music and band geeks from New York are a hybrid between traditional influences and the mad streets of the Big Apple. "It's a very natural thing," he says. "It's never forced or fake."
Moran pieced Slavic Soul Party! together back in 2000. Long before that, in Mendocino, he met Primack, the daughter of local architect Mark Primack and his wife, Janet, and niece of Cabrillo Music Festival director Ellen Primack. The singer was a scant 14 years old at the time, but she'd spent the better part of her childhood learning the ins and outs of Balkan music from a teacher in Santa Cruz. Moran and Primack became fast friends, and soon the singer was taking trips to Brooklyn for Romany music festivals and making cameos onstage with SSP! and others. Primack recalls the day Moran called her and invited her to tour with the group.
"It was great," says Primack on the phone from Brooklyn. "I got to ride around with nine guys and be the girl. The cool thing about Slavic Soul Party! is you have a group of musicians that, besides [accordionist] Peter [Stan], aren't trained in Balkan music, so they all bring their own individual voices to the traditional music."
Both Primack and Moran salute the recent surge in Eastern European-influenced music making its way to the mainstream, thanks to groups like Gogol Bordello and DeVotchKa. Both also distance themselves from those groups, claiming to reflect Romany culture with more sincerity, even if they lack the actual heritage. Regardless of their claims, and of Primack's disdain for the word "fusion," SSP! is indeed a fusion act. And that's a good thing. From the paradelike booty shaker "Baltika" to the loud lament "Real Simple" to the Motown-melded funk number "Get It How You Live," Taketron, like all the SSP! discs, is its own beast entirely. It reminds a listener of how instantly satisfying and all-consuming the sound of a horn can be. These are big and bold party jams, powerful enough to penetrate the thickest Iron Curtain and certainly enough to move a couple hundred jazz fans from their seats to the dance floor.
"When people come to our shows we grab them by the lapels and we hit them over the head hard with funky, heartfelt, crazy, virtuosic music," promises Moran, who also made sure to request that all the chairs be cleared off the dance floor. "If people can feel anything from the neck down, they'll come and enjoy this. If not, they can still come and just dance."
SLAVIC SOUL PARTY! blows horns on Thursday, Sept. 24, at 7pm at Kuumbwa, 320 Cedar St. #2, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20 in advance and $23 at the door, available at http://kuumbwajazz.inticketing.com/events or by calling 831.427.2227.
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