12 August 2016


My American friend and frequent correspondent Phil is very keen on a band called The California Feetwarmers.
He has kept me informed about their Summer 2016 tour in the U.K., Germany and Switzerland. You can hear this band of very proficient musicians by clicking here, where they play slick arrangements of Aunt Hagar's Blues, San and Bill Bailey.

Phil tells me some of the players previously played as a 'Balkan brass band' and there is still a great influence of the disciplines of Balkan brass band music in their playing.

This set me thinking, because Balkan Brass Band Music is something about which I knew virtually nothing. So I spent a couple of hours reading about it. I discovered it seems to have arisen from the folk music mainly of Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria. Much of the music supports vigorous dancing. It has repetitive insistent melodies and very strong rhythms.

Picture a village square. We see a group of colourfully-dressed dancers in a circle, hands linked, dancing in a manner that involves fast-paced complicated foot movements while the upper bodies remain statuesque. They are accompanied by a sousaphone heavily stamping the first and third beats of the bars, an accordion playing rapid sequences of notes, a violin, trumpets and other horns, as well as sundry busy percussion instruments. The band plays with technical precision. The harmonies sound simple – largely involving the three main chords (but perhaps this is deceptive, since it seems likely also that they using some uncommon scales); and the melodies, mostly rapid, contain some acrobatic twists and turns. In some tunes, there are compound time signatures, notably 9/8 and 7/8.
A 'Balkan Brass Band' in New Orleans!
I learned that there are various song forms of which the two commonest are the Kolo and the Čoček. The Kolo is often a group dance as described above and sometimes in 9/8 rhythmic form. The Čoček may also be in 9/8 time.

To get an immediate feel for what Balkan brass band music at its brassiest sounds like, click here.

The Balkan influence has spread among some of the very best traditional jazz musicians of today. Think of Jenavieve Cooke. In her years of nomadic living, she picked up Balkan music at its source. In April 2016 she told me 'I'm a traditional Balkan music and dance freak!'

Years before she formed the famous Royal Street Winding Boys, Jenavieve founded in New Orleans a Balkan brass band called Backyard Belladonna.

And there's Ben Schenk (mainly playing clarinet), now in his 50s, who spent years evolving the kind of band that seemed just right for him. He ended up with The Panorama Jazz Band, which is quite capable of playing traditional jazz in familiar style, but also has in its programmes doses of influence from Balkan brass band music and Klezmer music, not to mention a considerable Caribbean element! Panorama has been a truly great band since Aurora Nealand (who, by the way, has toured in the Balkans) joined it. She - one of the world's greatest reed players - has a heart full of the joys of music of all cultures. She perfectly complements Ben's work. There are plenty of videos of the band on YouTube but I will mention this one, where you catch them in Big Band Mardi Gras format: CLICK HERE.

And think of Matt Schreiber. This fine accordion player and Balkan music specialist not only plays with Ben in the Panorama Jazz Band but also works in the specialist Mahala Trio (Balkan music in New Orleans). Try watching a video of him and his two colleagues by clicking here. It's not a brass band but it certainly gives novices such as myself a good insight into the nature of Balkan music.

And now we have The Wit's End Brass Band. They have produced a remarkable CD that you can find on Bandcamp.
The Wit's End Brass Band 2016.
It includes some familiar faces!

I discovered there are very many 'Balkan Bands' all over the world, even in such unlikely places as England, Australia and the Netherlands. In the USA there are dozens of them, and Balkan Band Summer Camps are held on both the East and West Coasts. For a terrific Balkan SuperBand playing in our beloved Royal Street, New Orleans: CLICK HERE.
Balkan Brass Bands:
Above and Below
In spirit, instrumentation and rhythmic excitement, it seems to me this Balkan music has a lot in common with Klezmer music, which has also had a permeating influence on New Orleans jazz in the 21st Century. Add to these influences that of Caribbean calypso music – much associated in recent years with The Panorama Jazz Band and with Madeleine Reidy and later with The Rhythm Wizards in New Orleans and Wow! We observe some very interesting developments in the music we love.