Kal: Kal, Boban Markovic Orkestar: The Promise

Asphalt Tango

Boban Markovic Orkestar
The Promise

When the Romanian rustics in Taraf de Haidouks hit WOMAD in '91, gypsy bands were a relative novelty on the world music circuit. Fifteen years later, discs of almost uniformly high quality glut a growing but not insatiable niche market for Balkan artists, as innovators like the fonky Haidouk-lings in Mahala Rai Banda and the electronically modulated ululators of the Shukar Collective stretch their elastic heritage. Bolstered by Western interest (and cash), these upstarts play largely for outsiders, but with a palpable hope that their neighbors, maybe even the youngest and most Europop-besotted among them, will overhear.

Kal ("black" in Romani) is one such pop move, the brainchild of a suburban Belgrade Serb who claims to hate synths yet love Manu Chao. And the mild contradictions of Dragan Ristic's taste in modernity do occasionally hobble his band. His vocals overgloop the emotive syrup, and at moderate speeds, producer Mike Nielsen's found or fabricated beats seem intended to nod the heads of Western world-folk fans rather than loosen the hips of Balkan ravers. But "Dvojka" shifts adeptly between a drum 'n' bass-style breakbeat and a more standard gypsy upbeat, and the up-tempo stuff here generally achieves that same successfully unfussy fusion—throughout the Romani skank "Papuska" and the frisky two-step "Mozzarella," and in the all-too-rare instances when Miroljub Ivanovic's tuba handles bass duties.

There's no horn shortage on The Promise. Had Dixieland not needed Louis Armstrong's injection of arty individualism to evolve, it might have sounded something like the Boban Markovic Orkestar's slightly more trammeled, yet still vigorous, follow-up to 2004's Boban I Marko. Horns wend along distinct but complementary paths to intricately interlock, or they blast parallel but not quite identical courses, their sour harmonies alternately wobbly and crisp.

Respected Serbian bandleader Markovic's brass combo is markedly more traditional than Kal—whatever "traditional" means in a nomadic musical culture that has perpetually incorporated outside sources. And yet, Kal lacks as forward-thinking a musician as Boban's son Marko, the undisputed star here—whatever "star" means in a communal musical culture that considers a virtuoso simply the brashest voice in a brisk conversation. Whether tripping lightly along the flugelhorn like his dad, or pitching in on trumpet and kaval (an end-blown flute), the younger Markovic synthesizes past and present so effortlessly, his contemporaries might even hear how modern he sounds.