Back in brass — and loving it

by Kevin Rea

In the ’60s and ’70s, when rock was king, for any North American teen who dreamed of musical fame, learning to play the electric guitar with suitably straddle-legged machismo was the only route to nirvana. Taking up other unfashionable instruments like the trumpet, saxophone, tuba, clarinet, squeeze box, etc. was nothing short of social suicide.

Decades later, scarred for life and near-deaf from heavy-metal overdoses, I’m still in musical therapy. Recently, this has involved liberal injections of vein-tingling world music. One recent such therapy session involved a trip to Aoyama’s Club Cay. On the card Tuesday night was a two-band event guaranteed by the doctor to be guitar-free. Every man jack of Macedonia’s Kocani Orkestar and Tokyo’s Black Bottom Brass Band would be playing one of the above-mentioned “unfashionable” instruments — tubas, clarinets, squeeze boxes, et al.

First up was Black Bottom Brass Band and they arrived — not by way of the stage, but weaving their way in procession through the crowd of cheering punters.

Such an entrance is de rigueur for any self-respecting New Orleans-style brass band, and Black Bottom perfected their chops in the Big Easy itself. They play nothing but jazz-infused Louisiana rhythm spiced with the soul of Kansai, where the six members grew up. Trumpet, tuba, saxophone, bass drum, snare and (God forbid) a lead trombone all made their appearance. Two lengthy crowd-pleasers and they were off, honking and swaying their way back through the happy throng. Obviously, no one in the band ever had any teen traumas over trumpets.

Having been surprised once, I was ready when Kocani Orkestar tried the same rear-entry technique. But this time, there were 10 of them, armed with the usual brass behemoths as well as clarinet, accordion, trumpet and drum. But the music was from another dimension entirely.

Kocani Orkestar are a Romany band from the Balkans, the area where the dividing line between Asia and Europe followed the high-tide mark of various invasions throughout the centuries. The Romany people are thought to have originated somewhere on the Indian subcontinent and moved through the Near East, the Balkans, the rest of Europe and eventually as far as Britain. Throughout these peregrinations, the Rom purloined what they liked best of their host countries’ cultures — hence the richness of their music. Thankfully, the Gibson Flying V was centuries away.

Kocani Orkestar hails from the Macedonian town of the same name, east of the capital Skopje. The group is known in Macedonia as a duvacki orkestar, a brass band that plays at ritual and celebratory events like births, circumcisions, weddings and — similar to New Orleans — funeral processions. The music itself has as many layers as there are centuries of Rom history. The base for a duvacki band’s style (there are other bands that feature stringed instruments) is martial music that was copied from the Ottoman Empire occupiers of the 19th century — stirring drums accompanied by skirling oboes or clarinets.

Kocani Orkestar has liberally augmented this traditional style with more modern dance music from Greece, North Africa, Europe and India’s Bollywood film industry. To the uninitiated, some of the complex rhythms might as well have come from Mars. Others, like the rumba, are more familiar. Sometimes haunting, more often raucous, there is a song for every occasion.

Since there weren’t any circumcision cases to celebrate in the audience that I could see, the Orkestar was obviously just there to party. The band, ranging in age from 20-odd to fiftysomething, kept up a pace that would have put AC/DC to shame. Rollicking folk dances and romantic ballads sung by a golden-throated younger member of the band kept the audience entranced.

Toward the end, Black Bottom came back and jammed with the Macedonians for a rabble-rousing set, which shows how accessible such music can be, even to cultures set so far apart.

In all, it made for a fascinating ethnomusicology field trip, not to mention a rocking good show. Just what the doctor ordered.