Circus Punk with Clarinetsby Kallak Jonesic / 05.02.2011
My name is Jonesic – Kallak Jonesic. No, it doesn’t end in an ‘its’ – it ends in an ‘itch’. I itch. As an authentic scrounger and an obstreperously squalid Bulgarian I thought I’d make the best reviewer for Balkan Beat Box’s gig in Johannesburg this past weekend; if you’re wondering about the name I’m using, I have to admit that it is very much a pen name, a nom de plume, forged to counter any ethnic ostracism directed at me whenever I introduce myself in public; and especially when I visit one of those get-togethers where other members from my gene pool participate in Kiuchek. But don’t fret – this review is very much a positive one… Well, at least the bulk of it.
This Bulgarian’s first Africanized Balkan-style band experience begins on a Thursday, two days before the band plays its show in Jo’burg. I was driving back from one of the most abhorrently looking neighborhoods in Johannesburg known as Woodmead where I work as a whore for the online casino industry. I write their copy – their words – and if you think that palming off alcohol and cigarettes to skateboarder kids is amoral, you should think again. In the car I happened to catch Fresh’s show on 5 and the Ultimix @ 6. The mixtape playing was one composed by DJ Maoriginal from Cape Town’s Balkanology syndicate. When the set was over someone called in to say: “Hey Fresh! That was the worst house mix I’ve ever heard, my man.” And this is where I started thinking about the 5 year rule that rings so true to this country. The 5 year rule states that anything worthwhile that takes the world by storm will only be experienced in South Africa 5 years later.
One thing that saved me from prematurely second-guessing the event as a failure was the concurrent thought that most yuppies would never make it as far as Newtown – any place lying in a 15 kilometer radius of Hillbrow is generally considered a no-go-zone by these people. And I say thank god for that – sometimes the horror of urban decay is exactly what makes for an urbane gathering.
And that, in essence, is exactly what happened. Around 2000 patriots of world music – flooded the gates of The Mill on Saturday evening – smiling and ready to participate in whatever was to be flung their way; all of us collectively perceived this belated by 5 years event as an important first. Like lemmings we bounced off the bars and most cared not about the DJs – we wanted the ensemble on stage as quickly as possible.
The stage was constructed in The Mills’ parking lot and faced towards the double-decker highway that didders a hundredfold less than that of any previous Balkanology gathering in this city. The set up was orthogonal and protracted and felt like an old, rusty WW2 ship: the tin roof, the piping on the sides and running adjacent to the walls, the ventilation systems and the many railings. And when former Gogol Bordello member Ori Kaplan, together with bellwether drummer Tamir Muskat, and Israeli ex-comic Tomer Yosef, playing the part of MC, took the stage, the crowd began careening left and right and plugged any possible escape from the parking lot. If you needed the toilet you were now extremely fucked. And then it starts…
“Rat-tata rat-tata rat-tata” – gypsy beats that make you hope the nearest female, no matter what shape or size, rubs your crotch as you dance in her mug – this is Kiuchek now, baby! Kiuchek is also when you shoulders start trembling backwards and forwards, and you begin resembling a puffed-up pigeon in heat; and your hands go up like you own the motherfucker. Gold rings and bracelets are very useful in such instances. Then comes the clarinet solo and a little later it is joined by the sax: “Meowwwww!”
The rhythm stops brutally for the writhing effect to take precedence, and when it returns everyone is up and jumping again, like wild stallions being wrangled and broken. The clarinetist is the front man, he is the life of this gig, like fire – no doubt about that. But does Tel Aviv approve of that? The guitarist dances to demonstrate how it’s done. He’s dark and charismatic. Then you say: “Okay, I should also assist since I’m a representative of this old, silly culture,” and you start dancing like a clown and you hope that they watch you and get some of it. Meanwhile, you think to yourself: “Wow, these South Africans know nothing of how to dance this shit.” But then you think: “I’m also technically South African – I’ve been here long enough, haven’t I? Then, “fuck, what am I? Forget it, you’re too pissed, just enjoy it, and stop being such a goddamn bitch, you lurching purist!”
There is a woman headbanging next to me and as time progresses it gets more and more uncomfortable – the place is awfully full now and you begin to think that the organizers got too greedy, again. Half an hour in and just getting to the bar means that someone is going to piss blood in the morning. You wait for another two or three songs and you realize that the band gave it all away in the first 5 minutes; and even if this were to happen 5 years earlier it would still have taken 5 minutes to decipher them completely. There is just something that doesn’t work right. I’m willing to bet it’s the vocalist, Yosef. But that’s what you’ll get from me, an instrumental music lover. If someone’s gonna sing, they better sound inebriated like my granddad.
Another bit that got to me was the many baffled musical styles the band employs: reggae, dancehall, klezmer, gypsy, Serbian brass, rock, dub, electronica, hip-hop, somewhat psychedelic but not, folk, Mediterranean, and so on. Even though the band professes the importance of a borderless and universal culture, both musically and politically, on a visceral level, I plainly call it “Confused and Noisy” or “CAN” – it’s canned because it sounds like it’s about to explode and sooner or later the shrapnel gets you right up your ass. This borderless thing is something I read in an interview with the band before I decided to do the review. Music talks to me entirely and absolutely; and that’s where musicians’ opinions cease to exist. Perhaps this is why I don’t like messages in the music and why I hate U2 or punk bands who sing politics. I for one do not need to be reminded of every passionate musical nuance the world had ever created in order to know where we stand as humans in 2011. Melting Pot idealism such as that of Balkan Beat Box is the one thing that gets my blood pressure boiling.
Around the time of the above thought, while I was waiting for the precious beer, with much disco-foam accumulating around my mouth, I got angry as I usually get at mass gatherings such as this, but this time I decided to give it another go and got down to the groove of the undoubtedly talented musicianship. No matter what snobbish criticism I might have towards this band there is no question about their musical chops. Now with a beer in hand I realized that I had missed much of the show; the dreaded bar had delayed me and I knew that I would never get a chance to foray through the throng and get back to my favourite head-banger girl. I stood at the back and gazed at the crowd and watched the rubbish collect on the floor, and when I spotted my Serbian photographer in the crowd, I recognized again the irony of these two Eastern Europeans in Johannesburg watching an Israeli band perform a new world-pop style of our very own music. What a beginning, I thought.
*Images courtesy Balkanology.