A Small Balkan Pop Primer For The Uninitiated

What is it with the continual association of the Balkans with brass bands, klezmer and "gypsy" breakbeats? For the past 20 years, the Balkans have been the site of an almost Caribbean-like explosion of different styles in the wake of the fall of communism, and for those of you who're not really into this stuff I thought it'd be worth it to put together a very brief primer, a few sentences per genre and one or two Youtube vids. The social context is super-interesting too but I'll leave that for another time.

Generally, all the genres of Balkan pop exist in a continuum where they're more or less synth-driven, more or less associated with the Roma or other ethnic minorities and more or less take their musical cues from what happens in Istanbul. Other influences felt across the board are Arabic and Indian music, commercial pop, European dance music, hip-hop and, to a surprising extent, reggaeton.

Here's some of the major genres developed in the past 20 years, roughly in a sweep from the south-west to the north-east:

The occasionally controversial pop music of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia used to have less Eastern influence than the rest (and still does in Slovenia to horrendous result) but now it's right there on Istanbul's heels as well, or sometimes up in space. Often, this stuff is touted as what should eventually heal the old enmities of the former Yugoslavia.

The brassiest thing you'll see on here today:

Tallava is music from Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia, to varying degrees the music of the Roma, the Albanians themselves and of the Ashkali. It values weird synth equilibrism and has this drone-like quality which lends well to being mixed with dub and psychedelic sounds. At another end it's got a whole hip-hop remix culture set up, and can be some of the more funky music of the Balkans.

Endless, rambling tracks like this one are de rigeur, don't miss the invitation to "dansu reggu" near the end:

Oh, and in case you're missing the Dembow, it's alive and kicking in Macedonia:

Greece has more continuity to its music scene than the former communist countries, and more connection to the west, so the Balkan pop scene here tends to be a tad ill-kempt (Skyládiko means "doghouse"). On the other hand it's close enough to the very commercial and very successful greek pop scene that it sometimes hard to tell the difference.

I mean, stuff like this is good but more Eurovision than dancefloor:

I posted a whole mix-tape's worth of Bulgarian music a year ago, which I could re-upload if anyone wants it. In any case, Chalga, or Popfolk, is probably the most commercially successful and well-balanced music of the lot and very much mainstream music in Bulgaria. At its best it's totally at the level of quality commercial hip-hop, and well worth listening to.

It's also unusually house-club-remix friendly:


As it's used today in Bulgaria, this is Chalga's low-production-value Turk-Bulgarian cousin. Cheezy synth and/or clarinets set to belly dance rhythms by various funnily-named Orkestars, this can be topical, silly or dancey and is certainly more fun than some of its straight-laced cousins.

I mean, look at the dude ass-dancing in this video:


Okay, this is my favourite genre in the area and it's going to be the topic of my master's thesis, so you'll hear lots more about this in the winter and spring. Nevertheless, Romania's contribution to the spectrum is the most compelling to me - it's super-diverse, it's got the most wide-reaching influence set, the most heart-felt vocals and just the right mix between rough-hewn and interesting. Some songs are achingly beautiful, some are about butts and feature a reggaeton rapper or something. How can you not love this stuff?

Here's both a dancehall toaster and diva tragedy in one package:

The only reason I'm including this is because it appears on Wikipedia's bare-bones Balkan Pop page. That and the great portmanteau name. It's Balkan in the sense that it's Turkish-influenced European music, but the origin of the genre is Germany, which I admit is a bit of a stretch. Still, it's fairly cool as a decidedly lo-fi example of how interesting diasporadic music can be.

Apparently this guy is a huge star:

Well, there you go. Diversity, depth and more involvement is just around the corner if you do some digging!


boima said...

Hey man, I wonder what impact the use of Cumbia, and Colombian Folk music (I was surprised to hear quite a bit in Mallorca this summer) in Popular Techno has on this music? Like would they hear Samim's Heater and be like, that sounds like our music, let's do something similar? And with the whole engagement of Reggaeton, I wonder how closely they're listening to the Caribbean and South America?

Also, wondering your initial reaction to this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDHwOPbPl5k

boima said...

I mean this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDHwOPbPI5k

Birdseed said...

Hahaha - So the "edit" uses small samples of Heater to create a suggestion of the Balkans? Lateral thinking FTW.

It's obviously all interconnected on some level, though I honestly haven't thought about that particular configuration of genres before. I'll keep my ears peeled. Meanwhile, from a different angle, I stumbled accross this forum posting while looking for info:


In which the poster describes a Balkan beats-infused house track as "tribal". :D