Aug 2003 / communities :: email this story to a friend
X-treme Accordions Serenade St. Louis
By Dan Kaline
I started acquiring a taste for Bosnian music a couple of years ago when I stopped into a restaurant/bar called the Sarajevo, on Chippewa, just west of Hampton. It is next to Lindell Bank, and now a sports bar. A live band was playing a type of music I had never heard before. I thought, "This is interesting sounds a bit like Greek folk music, but more electronic, with a Middle Eastern twist. And more improvisational, like jazz fusion. This is good." It was fun and the atmosphere was communal, especially when about 30 people held hands and danced along the outer walls of the restaurant in a slow-moving, serpentine loop. This was not your typical live music experience in St. Louis.
I have seen this music live a few times now, (not necessarily with the circle dance), and have bought a few CDs. And just to clarify, I refer to this music as "Bosnian" because they are the most visible of the ethnic groups that play this kind of music. And theirs is the group with identifiable restaurants where this kind of music can be heard live, such as Grbic's and Bosna Gold in the Bevo Mill area. I have been told that this music is very similar to that listened to by other ethnic groups of the former Yugoslavia, including Serbs and Croats. I have CDs by both Bosnian and Serbian artists. I imagine they know the ethnic background of the artists, but I would not know unless someone pointed it out to me. Maybe Balkan music is a better label. I just love the music.
My second encounter with this genre came when I was invited to a Serbian wedding reception. That was fun, too. This was a two-day affair with about 300 people passing through over Saturday and Sunday. Wow! The band that played, it seems, goes on road trips playing for Serbian events such as these out of their base in Milwaukee. (How's that for specialization?) The bands look typical of any rock band: drums, bass, either rhythm or lead guitar, keyboard...and the accordion. But don't let the accordion fool you this was no Strassenfest oompah music. This was party music! Like any other wedding reception, there was a range of ages. But this time there were young women holding hands and doing a circle dance in the driveway not your typical sight in a South County subdivision. As the band played in the back yard, people sang and laughed. And one by one, people would take the microphone to give the song their own touch. Although I was about the only non-Serb there, I felt very welcome. That feeling and little Dixie cups of Schlevovitz (plum brandy) were all you needed to join in on the fun.
But back to the music. After hearing this music live a couple of times I went to a European market that caters to the musical and culinary tastes of this community. I went there in search of CDs, and I found them. Like the music of other industrialized countries, this music has been influenced by sounds from around the world. There are Bosnian versions of techno pop, but I did not want to hear that. I specifically asked for folk music, and I judge that that is pretty much what I got, electronic enhancements notwithstanding. But listening to this music I became very aware just how much Yugoslavia was really a crossroads of cultures: Muslim, Catholic, Greek Orthodox. I concluded that this natural backdrop of East and West makes this music a real cross-pollination of many musical influences. You can hear Latin rhythms, Gypsy music and a bass pattern that sometimes reminds me of reggae. Some tunes have a more Greek sound with mandolin. What stands out for me is the accordion and keyboard, which together can create sounds ranging from European café street music to polka to melodies of the Middle East. A coworker told me some of the songs remind him very much of what he heard in Egypt. Some have an eerie quality that reminds me of Al DiMeola, a jazz fusion guitarist from the late 1970s who used to play with Stanley Clark and Chick Corea. This music has a passionate feel. Someone I met from Croatia said that if I understood the language, I would understand how passionate it is, no matter what is being sung.
Having said all that, I have a confession to make. I am predisposed to like this music, because it is Eastern European. While I have lived in St. Louis most of my life, I have an attraction to Eastern European culture because that is where my father is from. He was born in Ukraine and raised in a Ukrainian/Russian family. Unfortunately, he made a clean break with his past and never passed on the culture in any meaningful way. I love music generally, and Eastern European music is both exotic and a cultural connection for me. However, having heard some Russian music, I personally like Bosnian music WAY better.
My experience in listening to CDs is generally better than watching live performances because the CDs tend to have more variety, although I enjoy both. Live performances have their own excitement, but you get whatever the band wants to give you. But I can recommend a couple of CDs that I enjoy, which I bought on recommendation from others. One is "Moze Li Se, Prijatelju," by Miroslav Ilic, which has a more Gypsy sound. My favorite is a CD entitled "Nista Nije Slucajno," which has a good representation of both European and Middle Eastern sounds. Finally, more Middle Eastern and electronic sounds can be heard on "Kralj I Sluga," by Saban Saulic. And the live music can be heard at Grbic's and Bosna Gold.
Dan Kaline is an avid rhythm & blues fan who lives with his wife and two kids in the Affton-Lemay area. He works as an urban planner in St. Charles.
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