When worlds collide: Slavic Soul Party!

Boston Globe, March 30, 2007

NEW YORK—They have played – with equal relish and abandon, and no compromise on style – before audiences including the following: the Turkish political and business elite gathered in a Bosporus palace; blue-collar workers in Rust Belt dive bars; skate-punk kids waiting in line for the Warped summer arena tour; the Brooklyn arty intelligentsia, on a shared bill with the Kronos Quartet.

And that’s just a sampler of the venues where the New York-based nonet Slavic Soul Party! (complete with exclamation mark) has distilled its bottom-heavy whirls of brass band music from the rural Balkans. They draw on their serious study of traditions that, in the US music market at least, can only be described as obscure, and adapt them with equal measures of strategy and whimsy.

Not bad for a crew of merry pranksters who are ethnically about as Slavic as the Brazilian Girls are Brazilian, which is to say they ain’t. The band’s one Balkan member is Gypsy, and the founder, Matt Moran, is a converted jazz vibraphonist from the wilds of northeast Connecticut who in his neo-Bulgarian avatar officiates from behind a large multipurpose drum called, depending on where in the Balkans you are, the tapan, davul, or bubanj. Sometimes they have a female guest vocalist.

The ensemble hits Johnny D’s tonight, and the mood promises to be extra festive. Their third album, “Teknocheck Collision,” is out next week. The album title comes from a semi-mythical auto repair shop in Queens (long story). The music is informed by the band’s ever-growing scholarship in matters Balkan, including a trip last summer to play legendary brass band festivals in rural Serbia and apprentice under local masters. But it also reflects the swirl of other influences that come from background – drummer Take Toriyama was a rock star in Japan; saxophonist Oscar Noriega grew up playing Mexican banda in Tucson – and membership in the New York jazz-and-beyond working musicians scene.

“There’s all these collisions in the band; I love the idea of collisions in terms of sound,” Moran says over lunch in a Bulgarian restaurant in Queens. A salad of cucumber and tomatoes drenched with feta gives the encounter cultural grounding, assisted by thimbles of plum brandy. The conversation drifts periodically to analyze the Bulgarian hip-hop and club music videos that are running on a large pull-down screen. The wiry, enthusiastic Moran is in his element, or perhaps one of his elements.

“We’re synthesizing this distinctly urban brass band culture,” he says, “predominantly Balkan in its instrumentation but which brings in American brass band influences; not just New Orleans but the United House of Prayer trombone choirs, R&B horn arrangements, hip-hop rhythms, Gypsy accordion, Mexican banda, all this stuff.”

Moran came across Balkan music first of all the members except for accordionist Pere Stam (described on the band’s website as “Romanian Serbian Gypsy Australian”). He says it happened in the early 1990s, while he was living in Boston studying for his undergraduate degree from Berklee and master’s from the New England Conservatory. He was intrigued by the ethereal Bulgarian choral music that was a mini-trend in world music circles at the time – Trio Bulgarka, and Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares.

“At that point I was studying music and dealing with all these advanced harmonic techniques and blah blah blah,” Moran says. “And one of the things that struck me about this music was that it was intensely powerful. It was emotional, direct music, and I couldn’t quite understand what made it what it was.”

He was drawn to investigate and gradually found himself pulled into the many musical traditions of the region: “I heard some Turkish music, and made a Greek friend who hipped me to Macedonian music, and so it just kept rolling.”

Soon after moving to New York in 1995 he took the plunge and attended a weeklong workshop, held in Maryland, on Balkan folk music and dance. “There were 300 people hanging out, with teachers from the Balkans or American experts. One thing that blew my mind in that first immersion was discovering that Balkan music is as varied as saying `US music.’ Almost every village, certainly every region of every country has its own style. There’s an incredible variety of music.”

The variety stems partly from the region’s history, torn for centuries between Ottoman, Austrian, and Russian empires, followed by world wars, communism, and ethnic conflict. For all the violence, that history scattered musical instruments – especially the brass instruments of military bands – into remote villages and encouraged musical exchange, for instance in the multiethnic Janissary bands of the Ottoman Empire.

Moran began traveling to the region in 1999, and his interest redoubled. On his second trip, he took Slavic Soul Party!’s first alignment, a quintet, to Macedonia; flush with excitement and learning, they recorded an album there in the space of two days. But that group dissolved, and Moran assembled entirely new personnel for the nonet.

He also found a stabilizing factor for the new group in the form of a Brooklyn restaurant called Barbes, whose back-room performance space has a tiny capacity but an outsize reputation for fun and adventurous sounds. Slavic Soul Party! plays there every Tuesday, which has provided a live rehearsal environment and helped nurture a fan base.

On a recent Tuesday Moran bantered with the audience in the relaxed, red-lit room. Visitors and regulars mingled; a jar was passed around for donations. Then the group went to work, the tuba thumping happily beneath the mix of horns, musicians popping up for solos in a gesture to the jazz tradition that they all simultaneously inhabit. Heads in the room began to nod in time. Two pretty dark-haired women launched into a sinewy dance likely more hipster than Slavic in origin.

Moran cautions that Slavic Soul Party!’s full-blown stage performance is something a lot bigger and more ambitious. For one thing, when space permits, the band will wander the room and, Moran says, “get in people’s faces.” But even the farthest-traveling ship requires a home port, and for SSP! this weeknight hangout is clearly it.

Barbes co-owner Olivier Conan sums up the band’s appeal. “They take over all your senses without you understanding why,” he says. “It’s a mix of the familiar and the exotic at the same time, and the balance between the two that really gets people going.”