Balkan music inspires big brass sound

Victoria band Bučan Bučan brought its big brass gypsy sound to the Royal B.C. Museum on Halloween night. This year, they marched a coffin (complete with ladies in mourning) into the mezzanine in the Museum’s Old Town and accompanied it at the end of the night with a Dixieland/Romani processional march. The band also appeared at Open Space’s Day of the Dead Fiesta on November 1 in collaboration with Puente Theatre. Folk-dancer Terry Jones spoke to Bučan Bučan’s co-founder and frontman Chris Logan about why he is drawn to Balkan music and what revelers can expect from Bučan Bučan’s shows.

Chris, you’re an accomplished musician who seems to be able to play almost any instrument put in front of you. You currently concentrate on playing accordion, oud, bouzouki (a Greek instrument) and violin, among other instruments. You’ve fronted Bučan Bučan since its inception in 2009. How did the idea for a Balkan brass marching band come about?

I always wanted to start a gypsy band, and I was originally planning on getting something together more string-based like Taraf de Haïdouks. But there aren’t a lot of string players in Victoria that play this kind of stuff. However there are tons of brass players and woodwinds that are sort of trapped in the jazz or back-up genre. We put an ad out on Used Victoria, Craigslist and Facebook looking for members and we got a bunch of trumpet players, sax players, percussionists and a lot of trombone players. My good friend, Jonty Parker-Jervis, a violin player, joined the band so we had a little string department. And we had a clarinet player at the time and all the brass. So somehow it just happened. We took it to the other gypsy genre of Kočani, or the Macedonian and Serbian gypsy styles, rather than Romanian. It worked out really well and everybody accepted the music and enjoyed playing it. My partner, Natasha Enquist, was very media-savvy—really into social media and promotion and fashion. The look of the band was her thing and I dealt with the music.

You trace your roots to Yorkshire, Poland and the Ukraine, and many of Bučan Bučan’s members do not have a direct cultural connection to the Balkans. What are your views around authenticity? I’m curious about how you negotiate this ethical concern (if indeed it is one).

It’s not a concern. Sure, when I’m singing I make sure I learn the lyrics properly. I learned to read Greek so I could pronounce everything correctly out of respect for the song, but that’s just me. We don’t pretend to be anything that we’re not. As far as the authenticity of the music goes, we generally don’t play many “straight” folk songs; we always add our own feel to it. There’s no crime in putting a hip-hop beat to a cocek [Balkan dance]; it’s still danceable, right? I bet if we went to some small village in Macedonia, and played a cocek (or cacak) with a “non-authentic” beat, people would still dance.

When we started out, I had planned to have a proper “folk” band, but quickly realized that with the musical talent and diversity of our members, it wasn’t going to happen – nor should it! For us to play simple “folk” tunes would be a disservice to the music. Sure, we pay homage to the roots of the music, but for the music to evolve and carry forward, it needs to be made personal. If people want to hear the classic version of a folk song, that’s great. They can put on an old recording, but we’re not here to re-hash the classics, we want to make them our own! Listen to someone like Boban Markovic, he plays some authentic Serbian folk tunes, but with a very modern flare. It’s the same with dancing: a rachenitsa danced in the village is quite simple compared to the same dance performed by one of the “professional” dance troupes. Does that make it less “authentic?” Maybe, but who cares? We’re not ethnomusicologists. We’re musicians.

Your audience really enjoys the fact that you combine the wildness of a cabaret act with your Balkan musicianship. Does this come easily to band members and is it hard to maintain a balance between the party aspect and dedication to the music?

They kind of go hand in hand. That party aspect translates into the music very well and vice versa. If you go to events like Buca in Serbia—the big, massive worldwide brass fest—there are brass bands playing in a sea of people and everybody’s into it. They’re doing phenomenal stuff but it’s more about the energy of the band translating to the audience.

So, although most of the musicians in the band are classically trained or doing jazz and they have really good chops, they don’t play this kind of music very much. But the energy from the music helps them along. The techniques of classical and jazz musicians are different from gypsy players. But once you’re playing in the audience and the energy starts humming, you kind of take it on. The timbre and the trills and the articulation come with the energy. With this music, you can be overly technical. For example, it’s like when you hear an opera singer doing pop tunes. It’s one of the most painful things you could ever listen to. They have beautiful voices but they don’t work in certain genres. We had trumpet players who played with the embouchure of a classical or jazz musician—very pure, very clean, very beautiful. But this music is not at all like that. It’s very rustic. It’s a lot like Mariachi where all the trumpets are always over-blowing. The tonality is a lot different. If you listen to some of the down-to-earth bands from Macedonia, they sound sort of terrible—but it’s really good. They aren’t classically-trained. They’ve just been playing since they were out of the womb. And they can play for hours and hours on end.

You know that as a long-time folkdancer, I am totally in love with this kind of music, and have travelled to Macedonia and Bulgaria to attend dance and music seminars. My grandfather was Romani. But for someone who’s not familiar with this music and who’s never attended one of your performances, what can they expect?

Expect the unexpected! Be prepared to be surprised. It varies. It depends on the venue and it depends what kind of crowd it is. It can get a little crazy sometimes. Family shows are generally pretty tame, whereas, if we’re playing in a bar with a bunch of drunk people, it can get a little wild. We’ll be up on the tables… Our stage show is pretty mild. We do have a few members of the band that like to jump out into the audience and run around and play. In every show, we try to get into the crowd a little bit.

The phenomenon of Balkan brass bands is spreading throughout the world, with huge festivals from Trieste to New York. Why do you think this music is catching on and do you think it will become more mainstream?

I hate to say it, but the original Borat movie totally did it. He had Esma Redzepova and Boban Marković and all these players on the soundtrack. Apparently he didn’t pay them any royalties although he used one of Esma’s songs as the movie theme. In fact, Esma is in litigation with the producer. That movie was distributed worldwide and introduced a lot of people to this type of music. As well, Taraf played as the band of gypsies in Johnny Depp’s The Man Who Cried. Depp was enthralled by the band and invited them out to dinner parties… Certain events serve as lightning rods for this type of music. In the club scene in Europe there are a lot of “Balkanesque” type clubs. And it seems that high school marching bands are making a big comeback. People like to hear something a little different.