The Balkanistas is an exuberant group of 20+ Wellington musicians putting their own spin on Eastern European Balkan music. But there’s much more to The Balkanistas than their flamboyant Romani-Gypsy style costumes and music. The orchestra itself is made up of people from across the globe including; Russia, Serbia, Japan, Germany and more. Behind every instrument is a colourful character with a story to tell.
Lynda Chanwai-Earle attends their festive rehearsals and meets the co-founders of this culturally diverse New Zealand band to learn more.
He died for love! Doesn't matter! Let's sing about it! That's what we can give, that passion to try something that is completely emotional, forget about scores and charts - Dejan Jeremic, Co-founder, The Balkanistas
The rehearsal room at the Park Road studio in Mirimar, Wellington is packed with musicians and its not even the full orchestra. Squeezing myself between the zany array of instruments, I dodge wildly swinging elbows of violinist Ana Christie, two accordionists and the enormous Suza-phone (a bass -brass Tuba instrument) wrapped around Gerard Crewdson's full body.
The Balkanistas are in full swing. They're practicing Misirlou, and although the origin of the word literally means "Egyptian", the visceral meaning for the Greeks is "misery.".
Vocalist Briar Prastiti is Greek- Cypriot, she tells me that Misirlou is a quintessential, traditional Greek rebetiko folk song, written by Greeks exiled from Turkey, destined to live life as gypsies. Their songs are passionate laments about imprisonment, prostitution, hashish and heartbreak.
Even though Misirlou embodies the misery of life in exile (the earliest recording known dates back to 1919) ironically, coming from The Balkanistas this song sounds anything but miserable; it's so dynamic I'm suppressing the urge to dance wildly.
I was totally hooked, it used to be Latin but now it's Balkan, and I can't leave it - I'm so in love! - Andreas Lepper, Co-Founder, The Balkanistas
"Two years ago in March, 2013, that's when the band was born." German born Andreas Lepper tells me. Andreas Lepper and Serbian Dejan Jeremic talk to me after rehearsals. We're surrounded by the tools of the trade, their studio brims over with instruments from around the globe. There are more maracas than decorations on a Christmas tree.
"We met each other and it was an instant love affair!" Andreas tells me, he's referring to meeting Dejan and falling in love - as a fellow musician of course.
I ask about the origin of the band's name - it must refer to the "balkanization" of Europe?
"No, it wasn't intentional," Andreas tells me, in fact Sharon Greally (piano accordian) came up with the band's name, after all the Eastern European and Balkan music that they were playing.
"We want to incorporate other musics from here too - Pasifika rhythms, we are looking at the overall picture of countries finding their cultural identity by the amalgamation of different styles." Both Andreas and Dejan have traveled widely for their musical education. In the future he and Dejan are very interested in incorporating ancient and traditional Cuban, Latin American and Asian instruments and themes.
"With two violins you can get lovely harmonies" Violinist Ana Christie tells me. "Being Balkan, I imagine there's a lot of violin?" Ana agrees, "There's a lot of strings but The Balkanistas is an amalgamation between gypsy strings and Balkan brass."
What about the sheer volume of instruments? "We try and share it around," Ana says, "Every instrument and every vocalist has a chance to have a moment solo." It helps that they contrast songs too, so that the audience go from slow and melancholic to wildly exuberant and sometimes all in the same piece.
The music's about real life issues, love, loss, all those human emotions! - Sharon Greally (Piano accordion)
Sharon Greally (piano accordion) is part Greek and has been playing the accordion (professionally) since she was 8 years of age. Sharon tells me she's been playing with The Balkanistas since the beginning. The band's name was her baby. Sharon loves being in The Balkanistas because it's like being in a big family.
The big family feeling is echoed by vocalist Irina Mosina, she's from southern Russia and has been a member with the band from 2013. Fighting a cold, she's talking to me about the integrity of their music, the authenticity of the language and it's origins. For the small community of Russians in Wellington (about 20 families), the fact that there's a band/orchestra recreating their ethnic and cultural music is vital and welcomed.
Many of the classic Russian, Serbian and Greek folk songs are at least 200 years old. To cover all these languages The Balkanistas have an unsung heroine working behind the scenes. Mima Nikolic is Serbian herself, with great attention to detail she takes the vocalists carefully through each song in a small rehearsal room in the Moera Community Centre, Lower Hutt.
At this smaller rehearsal just for the vocalists, Irina is accompanied by Ana on violin, Dejan on percussion and German born Daniela Mogin (Vox and accordion). Irina tells me that The Balkanistas embrace three female vocalists and one male, Serbian Sveta Andic. Sveta also plays the acoustic guitar and is the "real gypsy deal."
As Dejan thrums a beat on anything percussive at hand to accompany Irina and the others, the passionate Serbian and Greek-Gypsy songs lift from the page and I'm transported to another time and place, a place full of the soulful sounds of the Balkans.
And if you want to hear Sveta and his heartbreaking Serbian-Gypsy sound in action, three tracks have been included at the end of this podcast by The Balkanistas from their album Party-Zani;
1. Geljan Dade – composed by Seban Bajromovic (traditional Serbian-Gypsy folk song, performed by male vocalist and guitarist Sveta Andic).
2. Ajde Jano – traditional Serbian folk song (around 200 years old, performed by Irina Mosina, Emma Davey and Anne Haase).
3. Kustino Oro – traditional Romanian folk song with full brass orchestra, composed by Goran Bregovic.