At the end of WW 2 the leader of the Communist resistance and the partisans in the Balkans, Marshall Tito, unified the various ethnic and nationalistic groups in the region to form the first ever pan-Balkan country – Yugoslavia. Fiercely independent – he told Stalin to screw off and opened relations with the West in the early fifties – he was also a charismatic and iron fisted ruler. Under Tito Yugoslavia was a relatively affluent country which kept the majority of people happy, and any dissent was squashed with the iron fist under the velvet glove.
What few people outside of the country, or maybe even inside the country, realized was that the iron fist also reined in the nationalistic feelings and ethnic hatreds that were rampant among the people of the region. Then again, who could predict that people would have held on to resentments dating back to the days when the Ottoman Empire controlled the region and still be nursing hatred against families who had converted to Islam generations ago. Yet, when Tito died the whole region burst into flames. His dream of a pan-Balkan nation free of the ethnic divisions that had hurt them so badly in the past died with him.
Fleeing the violence, many people settled as refugees in neighboring countries like Austria where they waited out the wars that devastated the region. Some returned to the newly minted states that had taken shape along ethnic and nationalistic lines in the hopes of picking up the pieces of their former lives. However there were those who had no wish to live divided up by ethnicity and nationality and remained in exile, holding true, in whatever way they can, to the idea of pan-Balkan unity.
Irina Karamarkovic from Kosovo, Nevenko Bucan from Croatia, Kiril Kuzmanov and Trajce Velkov from Macedonia, and Muamer Gazibegovic and Nino Skiljic from Bosnia came together as La Cherga, (named for a rag rug, symbolic of their different cultural backgrounds coming together to form a new whole) as a means of expressing their pan-Balkan consciousness. Musically that means each of them brings an element of their own background with them and weaves it into place with the others to form a new musical identity. Not only do they draw upon their own musical traditions, they have freely borrowed ideas from the West including dub techniques from Jamaica, and funky horns from the streets of America.
The results of this strange, but wondrous, fusion can be heard on the band's most recent release, Fake No More, on the Asphalt Tango label. Putting all social/political considerations aside the music is a delightfully bizarre mixture that takes a bit of getting used to. However, once you've acclimatized yourself to the new environment they've created you can't help but enjoy yourself. Right from the first song there's no holding back, as they don't even allow you to dip your toes before soaking you from head to foot in their sound.
"Cooking Dub" opens with an electronic beat that is quickly joined by your standard funk bass line. That's all very well and good, but when the accordion joins in to serve as a counterpoint to the initial beat it comes as a bit of shock. When finally the drums join in with the familiar reggae stutter step sound, you begin to feel the effects of culture shock. With the second song, "Fake No More" it really becomes a matter of sink or swim, as the song gets the full dub treatment complete with multiple reverberations on the vocals and deep bass echoes. When the trumpets and saxophone kick in with the syncopated horn sounds last heard on UB40 releases in the eighties I gave up trying to anticipate what was coming next and just sat back to enjoy the ride as much as I could.
Once I allowed that to happen it became a lot of fun. However once you start listening to the lyrics some of the fun dissipates as you realize that they are almost looking inwards and commenting on the song itself, "Be aware of what we play here/all these chords you've heard before/this groove always makes you stupid/let your hips just move so freely". What's that all about? They set up this really groovy dance rhythm only to tell you not to get too wrapped up in it because it will make you stupid? You could say that they are trying to make sure you listen to the lyrics on the rest of the disc, but I also think they are warning you about how so much of what is familiar out there is also what is used to distract you from what's important.
Just look at the second verse of the song, "All these women shaking titties/all these men just wanting quickies/ all these morons making money/shitting on stage, tryin' to be funny", and you realize they mean more then just the song in question. Remember these people have escaped from countries where business as usual in the past has meant "ethnic cleansing" and other delightful euphemisms. They're going to be all too familiar with the ways that governments and other organizations have of diverting attention away from reality.
Musically the members of the band prove themselves equally adept at handling the music of Jamaica and other points West as they are the music they grew up playing. So in spite of how odd it might sound to hear an accordion being used to play a reggae tune or here it counting out a funk beat, it works. Somehow or other the same applies for when dubbing techniques are used with the music of the region. Although it might not sound like it should work, and you've probably never heard anything quite like dub gypsy brass band music before, for some reason it works out great.
La Cherga's new CD Fake No More is, by its very existence, a statement of hope for a region that has been plagued with ethnic and nationalistic violence for generations. Yet, they are aware enough to reflect the reality of the area's situation politically and socially in the lyrical content of their music. While at first you might be put off by their sound, stick with it and not only will it grow on you, but it will make you feel just a little better about the world. If people who grew up surrounded by what they did can still have hope – maybe there really is some.