The other night I watched the DVD of the movie Moulin Rouge! for the first time in about a decade. While I enjoyed the movie as much as I did the first time I watched it, one scene in particular stood out, a tango performed to the old Police tune “Roxanne”. In particular I was fascinated by the actor singing, a man named Jacek Koman. Upon further investigation, I discovered he was an expatriate Pole living in Australia working as an actor. Even more interesting was the discovery that he’s the lead singer of the band called VulgarGrad. After being blown away by a couple of videos of the band performing on YouTube, I wanted to hear more.
While they don’t have a physical CD available in North America, you can download it through iTunes or order a hard copy of King Of Crooks through Indie-CDs (there’s no direct link to the album, so you have to use the site’s search engine to find the listing). They also have a seven inch single, in yellow vinyl called Limonchiki which can be ordered from the German label Off Label Records or downloaded through Bandcamp. This might seem like a lot of trouble to go to in order to get a recording by some obscure band from Australia. However, once you hear them, I’m sure you’ll agree they’re worth the effort.
VulgarGrad play adaptations of music that spring from the Russian criminal culture, specifically the thieves. They are songs (blatnye pesni) performed by, for, and about criminals in the prisons, gulags, and seedy bars of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Drawing upon the work of performers dating back to the 1920s, including one of Stalin’s favourite singers, and contemporary Russian groups who incorporate the blatnyak style and content into their music, VulgarGrad create songs firmly rooted in tradition but which are updated for audiences who don’t speak Russian. While still sung in the original language, musically the songs have an appeal that makes their lyrics’ vocabulary irrelevant. It is not only almost impossible to prevent yourself from dancing to their music, there is something about Koman’s delivery of the lyrics and the band’s playing that makes them irresistible.
Koman has one of those voices which definitely sounds lived in. It scrapes over his vocal chords like a rasp, but instead of sounding harsh and abusive to the ear, it catches our attention and holds us riveted. Not only does his voice have character, he also has masterful control over inflection. It’s amazing what he is able to suggest by the slightest change in intonation or emphasis. Drawing upon his training as an actor, he creates characters appropriate for the songs. Thieves come in all shapes and sizes and Koman doesn’t just sing about one, he sings for many of them. Watch him in the video below as he struts across the stage like a bantam rooster, and know the pride and cockiness of a thief who has just scored. Yet on other songs he is equally convincing when dealing with other, less boastful, subjects.
Of course there is something about the music that lends itself to sounding boastful. Maybe it’s the heavy syncopation of the beat or the way the melody swirls, but listening to it you can easily visualize two thieves trying to top each other with their outrageous stories. Anybody who has heard what most of us would refer to as Cossack music, the stuff which inspires dancers to perform incredibly high kicks from squatting positions, will know something of what I’m trying to describe. Imagine a mix of Jewish klezmar, Romany violin, and Dixieland jazz performed to what sounds like a cross between a tango and a slow polka beat and you’ll have a good idea of what they sound like.
While that may sound incredibly complicated, in the hands of the musicians in VulgarGrad it sounds like second nature. Aside from Koman on vocals, the band consists of Andrew Tanner (contrabass balalika), Renato VaCirca (drums), Ros Jones (trombone), Adam Pierzchalski (trumpet), Nara Demasson (guitar) and Phil McLeod (piano and accordion). According to their web site, they’ve been together since late 2004 and are a sort of on-again, off-again arrangement, depending on member’s availability and schedules. With Koman working in both Poland and Australia the band’s rehearsal and performance schedule is obviously limited. However, listening to their most recent effort, the single “Limonchiki,” this doesn’t seem to have affected their quality. They still play with a type of reckless abandonment which can only be successfully carried off by the tightest of bands.
Of course, one can hear traditional Eastern European style folk music fairly easily these days. From Ukrainian folk dance troupes to any number of excellent Romany or klezmar bands, there are plenty of examples of this type of music being performed by groups based in North America. So why should you make the effort to check out some obscure band from Australia? One good reason is they’re not slaves to tradition. Sure their music is steeped in the spirit of the thieves’ songs and the folk traditions they sprung from, but at the same time they add elements of jazz and pop music which give the songs an extra punch.
In most of these types of bands the horn section is primarily concerned with emphasizing the rhythm. Very rarely are you going to hear a trumpet or trombone solo in a traditional folk band. That’s not the case here as both Jones and Pierzchalski take their turns playing leads. What’s really impressive is how nothing they, or any member of the band for that matter, do sounds out of place. What could descend into a chaotic mashup in the hands of less proficient musicians achieves the perfect balance of sounding like anarchy, while actually being tightly arranged. They not only play the music of society’s outsiders, but they manage to imbibe it with outsider spirit by adding their own elements to a traditional sound.
VulgarGrad are not your typical folk group playing “ethnic” music. Their sources of inspiration aren’t quaint costumes and homespun melodies. It’s the sound of an empty shot glass of vodka being slammed on a table, whispered deals in a back room, prison doors locking, and the raucous laughter of all night bars. Their music comes from a world of sly winks, knives in the back, and whorehouse bands. It’s down and dirty and some of the best fun you’ll have listening to music. Just don’t turn your back on it.