The now-familiar bus ride to Leith Theatre always promises something unexpected, and this is no exception. Infamous for its riotous gypsy brass bashes at Edinburgh’s Summerhall, Balkanarama’s debut unplugged session snugly nestles in the Pianodome, an amphitheatre constructed entirely of pianos.
Acapella and acoustics transport the audience across the Balkans, ‘the crossroads of civilisation’ and thus stomping ground of many musical traditions. This is the soundtrack of my childhood; the wailing accordions and angry trumpets that kept me up past bedtime, as my dad refused to turn down the volume of his tinny computer speakers.
Mother of Balkanarama, Saska Saskahar, is musical compere, making occasional vocal cameos and recommendations. We share a love for Esma Redzepova, the proclaimed Queen of the Gypsies, to whom she commands the audience toast their drinks in respect. Weaving between friends and familiar faces, Saskahar’s never without a devilish grin or warming spirit in hand (an essential – the Theatre has only cooled since last month’s Moon Party). She’s an icon of Balkanarama as the black cat stamp with which you’re branded on entry; a musical community concerted by their Balkan connections, or vice versa.
Kuchke and UnuČad are polyphonic female voice choirs, recounting intoxicating tales of life, death, and lust, in the mountainous Balkans. Evocative lyrics are translated for the non-speakers – one woman warns ‘don’t step on my vineyards, don’t step on my grapes, don’t cheat me with your eyes’. A drum and voice Greek duo continued storytelling; the latter, with her flowing sleeves, curled locks, and wide eyes, bears a striking resemblance to a Balkan-sort-of-Kate-Bush. The women of these stories are ferocious, mischievous, and stand in solidarity, mirrored by the artists’ own loud and haunting harmonies. Consider this my plea to participate.
Established favourites Black Cat (joined by Leith Theatre favourite Lizabett Russo) and new five-piece Scotcha Republik offered the instrumental reply. Despite their recent formation, Scotcha are individual masters of brass, strings, keys, and percussion. Perfecting a mix of traditional pieces and new compositions – one such inspired by being chased for not stamping your Berlin metro ticket – I can’t tear my eyes away for one moment. The brazen trumpeter and saxophonist slide between the Pianodrome’s seats, disappearing and reappearing with an explosive riff. As fluid were the collective’s slips between demanding tempos and different songs. Then, the accordionist signals a deathly throat slice, and the band halts – only to fire up again. The musicians dwarfed their instruments, making them seem nothing more than toys. With pure childish delight, we needed no invitation to dance alongside them in the round.
For fans of Summerhall’s Kalasnjikov instrumental orgies, Balkanarama Sessions may seem a rather more muted affair. Maybe it’s my own nostalgia for late nights and vruća rakija, but this intimate setting only amplifies these musicians’ irresistible abilities, and the sense of community that Balkanarama commands.
Balkanarama Sessions performed at Leith Theatre on 5 December 2019.
For more information on upcoming events, visit facebook.com/balkanarama1/.