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Roma in Europe

East Meets West as Balkan Music Rocks Europe

The success of Balkan music in getting German and European clubbers onto the dance floor is proof that culture doesn't have to spread from west to east. DJs are giving a new sound to the eclectic music with old roots.

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DJ Shantel (left) performs around the world with the Bukovina Club Orkestar

People enjoy Balkan music because they can dance to it, said DJ Robert Soko, who emigrated to Germany from what was then Yugoslavia before the Balkan Wars in the mid-1990s.

"People had sort of hit a dead-end as far as new music went," said Soko, whose show is called Balkan Beats. "Suddenly a new sound came along that was danceable. When you mix it well with modern sounds you get a result that works great in clubs.

"It has ethnic or traditional elements that are fused with more modern beats," Soko said, adding that the traditional components can include brass instruments, Oriental sounding semi-tones or Slavic-language texts.

DJ Robert Soko

DJ Robert Soko said people like the music because they can dance to it

Soko's colleague DJ Shantel, aka Stephan Hantel, has been a key figure in the popularization of Balkan music in Europe over the past few years. He mixes Balkan disco beats with hints of Roma, klezmer and gypsy sounds also around the globe in what he calls an emotional combination of high culture, pop, street music and underground.

Unlike Soko, DJ Shantel, who contributed to the soundtrack of Sacha Baron Cohen's recent film "Borat," isn't from a Balkan country himself, but grew up in Germany. Though the diverse sounds of south-eastern Europe are catching on with more and more non-Balkan musicians, its popularity in Western Europe is rooted in migration.

Changing musical identity

"During the 1990s many people came from Yugoslavia to Germany, many with a musical background, and they laid the foundation for its reception here," said Balkan expert and journalist Rüdiger Rossig.

Emil Kusturica's popular film "Underground" (1995), a historical epic set in Belgrade during World War II, and Goran Bregovic's accompanying soundtrack focused attention on Balkan music in the late 1990s.

Goran Bregovic

Goran Bregovic leaped into the spotlight with Emil Kusturica's film "Underground"

While Bregovic's music, which still enjoys a following in Western Europe and beyond, is characterized by the more traditional sound of the Balkan brass orchestra, recent groups like Shantel have stirred other elements into the musical batter.

Both Soko and Rossig agreed that the political expansion of Europe has made Europeans more open to new sounds, especially from Eastern Europe, and that Balkan music is evolving as it is welcomed in the West.

"This happens with any kind of popular music," said Stephan Mass, owner of the Mudd Club in Berlin, a hot spot of Balkan music. "Once it becomes common currency everyone finds a way to adapt it. [The music] shouldn't be treated as an ethnic curiosity."

The peasant and the partier

Mass estimated that some 40 percent of the guests at his club's Balkan shows have Yugoslav roots, 40 percent are German and tourists who stumble upon the scene make up the rest of the audience.

"Western Europeans tend to project many things they like -- like wildness, getting drunk and crazy parties -- on southern and south-eastern Europeans," said Rossig. "Personally, I see at Balkan parties that typical western European office workers suddenly behave like they think south-eastern European truck drivers would behave."

Gogol Bordello

Gogol Bordello recently performed with Madonna

The "authentic peasant" element of Balkan music appeals to Germans, said Mass, who is American.

Some of today's Balkan groups play on and exaggerate south-eastern European stereotypes like the "authentic peasant" of Balkan music Mass said appeals to Germans.

Miss Platnum, a Romanian-born Berlin resident, ironically performs "Give me the food" and "Come marry me" while dressed in an apron. She sings in English with an intentionally heavy Slavic accent and a healthy dose of soul.

The lead singer of Gogol Bordello, a New York-based Ukrainian band that appeared with Madonna in front of 70,000 people at the Live Earth concert in London's Wembley Stadium in July, sports a Borat-style moustache and tight striped pants.

Good news from the Balkans -- finally

The overdone stereotypes don't disturb DJ Soko, however, who said they were just a way to get attention and entertain. For the emigre, the popularity in Balkan music is a positive shift away from the negative press his home region had gotten throughout the 1990s.

"The Balkans had a bad image in the news for so long -- war, conflict, stress," he said. "Then a kind of music comes along that sounds nice."

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