Madcap Serbian musical duo Shazalakazoo have packed their USB clarinet and electric violin to journey to South Africa for the latest of the Balkanology parties – this one to be held in the ZipZap Circus Dome.
This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 11 – 12 June 2011.
Shazalakazoo’s co-founder, Milan Djuric, answers the ‘phone at his home studio in Belgrade where he is racing to complete a series of remixes before boarding a plane to South Africa. “It’s this Berlin label that does some kind of weird house music and they want me to spice it up a bit,” he says, snatching a moment between his duties as remixer, record producer, Balkan music collector, “world music” enthusiast, live performer, musical side-project juggler – and master of the USB clarinet.
“We come from an electronic music background but then, when we started playing live, we first had a real band,” says Djuric. “After a while, we switched back to electronic music but it just looks stupid to have two guys on stage with laptops. It looks like they’re standing there, checking emails. We thought, ‘Let’s do something that will move the people as well.’ It is so boring to watch a DJ, so we added our instruments – we’ve got the electric violin and I play my USB clarinet, plugged in to the MIDI controller. The audience loves it, especially when we play our solos.”
When Shazalakazoo released their self-funded debut, “Speaking Balkanian”, in 2009 it was hailed as a victory for an emerging genre dubbed as “folkstep”, drawing in equal measure on electronic dance beats and rhythms, and on folk samples from Slavic, Gypsy, Vlach, Greek, Romanian and Albanian roots, or from other influences in the Balkan region, like Persia, Arabia and Turkey, as well as Western European influences. “The intention of the Folkstep is simple,” Shazalakazoo announced at the time. “It is not meant to be art; it is simple entertainment like the music of its countless predecessors – an important pastime, faithfully accompanying the inhabitants of the Balkan peninsula throughout its turbulent history, in good or bad times alike. This music kept changing… Its essence, however, remained the same: less talking, more dancing, and tomorrow is a new day. Some other influence, some other form to embrace. So let’s dance!”
That was then – now Shazalakazoo have released a new album, “Karton City Boom”, which draws on their Balkan roots, but charts a further course through the sounds of emerging global dance music, and rising genres like moombahton and the modern Balkan electronica tavalla. “For ‘Speaking Balkanian’, the focus was on Balkan music, really doing a kind of electronic homage to our own legacy. But, eventually, we decided to move on. Okay, the Balkan influence is really good, but we wanted to explore some other parts of the planet,” Djuric explains. “We still keep some Balkan spices, but everything can be put together and can work very well. Look at Brazilian balafon music – you have roots influences, but done by people with synthesisers and an MC.”
“A poor man’s house is made of carton – or cardboard, as you call it in English,” he continues. “Karton City is similar to ghettoes anywhere, like the favelas in Brazil or, maybe, the townships in South Africa. ‘Karton City Boom’ is inspired by the favelas worldwide, and the music that comes from them. I listen to Afro-Colombian stuff, to Angolan kuduro and even to kwaito from South Africa – which I sometimes find really interesting. Shazalakazoo is electronic club music with spices from all over the world, with our primary focus on the Balkans, which is our region – simply because we know it the best.”
The duo’s upbeat blend has seen them perform across Europe – from Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia to Germany, the Netherlands and France, from Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina to Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden, amongst others – but Djuric confesses that he feels their pending visit to Africa will be the most exotic so far. They have done remixes for a host of electronic labels and outfits, including previous Balkanology headliners Balkan Beat Box – producing a track that was used to punt the recently formed National Geographic record label.
The interest in Balkan-influenced electronic dance music is a global phenomenon, with Balkanology-style parties in countries as diverse as Israel, the UK and the USA and, of course, across Eastern Europe. What’s Djuric’s take on the widespread joy and abandon these parties seem to create, no matter where they are held?
“It’s a difficult question,” he says, “But those parts of Balkan music that are being exploited for these party purposes are very easygoing and really catchy. It’s merry kind of stuff and there is something in the way it is ecstatic – maybe it’s the trumpets? – that has some kind of weird influence on foreign people. I see it all over Europe and it’s really amazing – the music transforms these cold-blooded northern and western European people into some kind of gypsies for the night!”
Perhaps even more interesting, though, is Djuric’s observation on some listeners who, perhaps, take their fandom too far. “To dress up and play the part of the gypsy and dance all through the night is just part of the party, and this is great,” he says. “But I have met some people who identify so much with the stereotype of the gypsy that you hear them telling a Balkan story like a parrot, in different countries. But what is weird is this – they are pretending to be the gypsies of years ago, older than in the ’60s. Nowadays, gypsies in the Balkans use synthesisers and samplers and play a new version of tavalla – none of it gets released, but you can find it on YouTube and the internet. It’s really good, and we use it a lot in our music. It’s not sounding like trumpets and all that old stuff, but it’s got more Arabic and Indian influences. They’ll put the rhythm machine on a beat like that, and then have these wild keyboard solos that go on for maybe ten minutes. It’s really trancy and really slow – very deep music. Gypsies today play the trumpets and all that for the white people, but what they’re really listening to is a new Balkan fashion.”
Shazalakazoo play a single Cape Town date on Wednesday 15 June at the next instalment of the Balkanology parties, dubbed “Greek Mythology“, and also featuring Kolo Novo Movie Band, Nomadic Orkestar, Mr Cat & The Jackal doing a “Balkanized” set and DJ Toby2Shoes (ZipZap Circus Done, Foreshore, 9pm, R170 WebTickets.co.za or outlets (SKa, Truth and Gypsy), or R200 door; details 072-2115563 or 079-8916083; Balkanology.co.za). Get more on Shazalakazoo.com and Soundcloud.com/Shazalakazoo.
This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 11 – 12 June 2011. Find out more on Tonight.co.za