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Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.
Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.
Being back in Berlin has inspired me to listen again to some music I might not have discovered elsewhere. But first, an album I've picked up in Berlin simply because Berlin actually still has some record shops.
THE PRODIGY: The Day Is My Enemy
I loved The Prodigy back in the 90s, when (like the Stones in the 60s and the Sex Pistols in the late 70s) they rode into town looking more like a gang than a band.Even more so, really, since in this case most of them contributed little if anything to the actual music, which pretty much begins and ends with the twisted genius of Liam Howlett.
The Prodigy seem to have died more than once, only to arise, when I least expect it, as undead creatures who want to eat my brain. At any rate, they're good at projecting an air of menace, and they don't really fit in the electronic music world they're generally classified with. If you were to make two lists of musical subgenres and put, in Column A, Techno, Drum'n'Bass, and Big Beat; and in Column B, Hard Rock, Punk, and Metal – then pick any one from each column, and mash them together – you'd end up with The Prodigy. That's their special niche, though if anything I think they've moved closer to the punk/metal end of the spectrum.
This album's title track is built on, of all things, the first two lines of Cole Porter's All Through The Night ('The day is my enemy / The night my friend'). From then on, Mr. Porter rolls in his grave as tracks like Nasty, Destroy, Get Your Fight On, and Wall Of Death torture your speakers, or ear-buds. It's all a bit exhausting, to be honest, and not as good as their masterpiece The Fat Of The Land. Still, anything by The Prodigy is a welcome breath of foul air. They certainly haven't mellowed; if anything, they might be on the verge of trying a bit too hard to prove they're still hard. On the other hand, what do you expect? Cole Porter ballads?
VARIOUS ARTISTS (COMPILED BY DJ ŠOKO): BalkanBeats Vol. 1 & 2
The Balkan music phenomenon has never caught on in the US or UK like it has in Germany, and especially Berlin. This could be because Berlin's DNA is partly Slavic. It's always had Russians and Poles, but since the Yugoslav wars of the 90s it also has a lot more Serbs, Bosnians and Croats, whose presence in any numbers in a bar or club has led to some wild parties as well as some wild fights.
Robert Šoko came to Berlin from Bosnia in the early 90s and as far as I know, originated the term 'Balkan Beats' for a mixture of folkloric South-Eastern European and Gypsy music with bigger, more modern beats. His first two compilations are probably the most essential of the genre (along with the two Bucovina Club albums by Shantel, who is a German with Romanian roots).
Another reason why Balkan music may have struck a chord in Berlin is that it's more or less the opposite of a much more dominant genre, Techno. I have no problem with Techno, but you can get too much of a good thing, especially when it's not always good, and shows no sign of ever going away. And whereas Techno sometimes seems to have been created by robots, this Balkan stuff definitely sounds human. Human with hairy armpits. What does Techno smell like? Nothing at all, probably – but Balkan Beats smells like onions, gasoline, grilled meat, sweat, smoke and cheap booze.
DJ Šoko's later compilations, like other later manifestations of the Balkan phenomenon, seem to me to lean too heavily on a kind of oompah-Ska beat which fits the music well enough but gets a bit boring. Volumes 1 and 2, though, are still fresh, unpredictable, and full of ingenious and infectious grooves. Among the many high points are the Hungarian vocals of Mitsoura – one of the strangest sounds ever to come out of a human throat – and Zumba, by someone called Legen, from Croatia. Over a tremendous thumping beat, what sounds like not just one but three people are wailing on some kind of primitive bagpipes, all completely out of tune with each other. The effect is like experiencing waves of toothache, while being simultaneously kicked up the arse. But in a good way.
BALKAN BEAT BOX: Nu-Med and Blue-Eyed Black Boy
Not to be confused with the above, these guys are New York-based Israelis. Their name is just a bit misleading, but I admit that Balkan, Mediterranean, Gypsy, Jewish, Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern Beat Box is not quite as snappy. I discovered them not in Berlin but in Belgium, where a few years ago we were playing in the same festival. They put on a hell of a show. Ori Kaplan played some mesmerizing Klezmer-ish saxophone and drummer Tamir Muskat (who in the studio is something like BBB's Liam Howlett) impressed me by playing whole songs while smoking a cigarette. I've tried to do this while playing the piano, but I could never get the hang of it.
BBB's music is not a million miles away from Berlin-Balkan, though its influences are even wider and there is more hip-hop in the mix. Nu-Med is probably their best album, but its follow-up Blue-Eyed Black Boy has really grown on me, and is arguably their most truly Balkan, since it was recorded partly in Serbia, with local musicians. Also, on the track My Baby, they do something very, authentically, Balkan, but which no one in the Šoko/Shantel universe has yet managed – namely, rocking out in 7/8 time.
Since then BBB have released Give, an interesting but to my ears a harder, angrier and less appealing album, recorded in Tel Aviv. What does this mean? Am I missing the point? I've no idea. Pass the Slivovitz. Prost, Mazel Tov, and Zivio Ziveli.