Why is it that everybody is always so surprised when other cultures aside from our own evolve and change to suit the times? It’s like we want them to stay stuck in the past, playing their interesting “folk music” and dressing up in their “traditional” costumes for our entertainment. Unfortunately, that music and those costumes, if they ever really existed outside of some romantic vision offered up by people outside of the culture, have very little to do with the realities of life in the 21st century. There’s nothing wrong with honouring the traditions of the past, but any culture that can’t continue to evolve runs the risk of stagnating and losing its power to speak to its own people.
For many years the image of the Eastern European musician playing a fiddle or a balalaika and wearing colourfully embroidered clothing has lingered. Who knows where this image came from initially and whether or not it had any validity. Even if it did, to assume a people whose population is spread over thousands of square miles would play the same types of music, let alone dress the same is not just unrealistic but insulting. Cultural stereotypes are dangerous because they allow people to think of those in question as somehow less than or different from normal. It then becomes easy to discriminate against them, because they aren’t like us.
So expecting a new generation of Eastern European musicians to be content with putting on cute cultural displays after what they’ve lived through is ridiculous. I don’t know about you, but I’d expect to hear something that reflected what’s going on in their lives.
Which is exactly what you get from Moldavian-based Zdob Si Zdub’s new release, Basta Mafia, on the great German Asphalt Tango label as an import in North America yesterday, February 14, 2012. It’s a brilliant piece of work, combining biting political commentary and messages of hope for a better world, played over a wonderful melange of styles as the band employs everything from folk to punk, and almost everything in between to get their message across. Yet for all the variety, and the lack of cohesion that it might imply, each song is connected to the rest by the elements they all have in common.
It’s hard to put your finger on what those might be initially, but it gradually becomes clear that although one song contains elements of hip-hop and another grunge, they all have the same point of origin. The brass section which emphasizes the beat and the fiddle scrawling out the melody beneath the guitar on some tunes are indications of the group’s background. It’s not because they’re the only people who use those instruments but because of the way they are employed and the sounds they make.
Listening to the band, you hear elements representing the myriad of musical influences their region has experienced over the generations. There’s the fiddle music that speaks to the defiance and freedom characteristic of Romany music, traces of the Flamenco guitars of Spain, belly dance rhythms of Northern India and the brass bands of Istanbul.
Of course, no one’s going to confuse Zdob Si Zdub with the “ethnic bands” of Hollywood movies. Not with songs like the title track, “Basta Mafia,” with its lament of the freedoms promised by the fall of the Iron Curtain being hijacked by Free Market gangsters. “And the west wind feels so cold/Because they’ve put freedom on hold,” or “Many people gave their life/For the values aimed so high/But some still love guns, it’s easier to win/It’s easier to move in the gangster’s skin” aren’t exactly the kind of lyrics one expects to hear sung from the steps of your typical peasant’s cottage.
It’s important to remember the members of Zdob Si Zdub probably grew up not only with the turmoil of the end of communism, but being from Moldavia, once a province in the Soviet Union, in some sort of civil unrest, if not civil war in the period directly after the collapse of governments throughout Eastern Europe.
So their lyrics are tinged by the violence they’ve seen and contain some of the bitterness you’d expect from seeing dreams of freedom soured. However, the real surprise is to find they haven’t given up hope and still sing about what could be possible. It’s really kind of humbling to hear people who have been through what they have singing lyrics like, “And I’ll say it again and again/It’s more than a dream/We are free/You can never put it away”.
As you might have gathered, a good many of the songs on this disc’s lyrics are in English. In an attempt to make this disc more accessible to Western audiences, they have worked with an English language composer, Andy Schuman, to make sure their lyrics were translated properly. There are still a couple of songs in Russian, but with the majority in English, Western audiences will have no problem enjoying and appreciating this amazing band. Musically, they’re as exciting and as intense as any band you’ll hear in the so-called alternative scene in North America. Lyrically, they are far more insightful and intelligent than any of the so-called “politically active” bands you’ll hear anywhere.
If you’ve missed real alternate music or are just looking for something different from what you hear all the time on the radio and other sources of music, Zdob Si Zdub will be a pleasant surprise and a welcome relief. A great band for their times and great music for all time, they have a truly unique sound and a perspective on the world that’s a lesson for all of us.