Albuquerque, New Mexico, would seem to be an unlikely place to begin an appreciation of traditional Balkan music. Yet two acts from the town, globetrotters both, have taken unheralded music from a continent away and, with English lyrics, have created a fusion of culture and emotion. These acts are Beirut and A Hawk And A Hacksaw.
Accordionist Jeremy Barnes of A Hawk And A Hacksaw and Zach Condon of Beirut appear to share traits of taste and travel to the extent that coincidence would be the second likeliest explanation. Each appears on the other’s records and both left New Mexico for eastern Europe as mere striplings – Barnes at 18.
For Barnes, albums recorded as A Hawk And A Hacksaw in France and the Czech Republic were released before his return to his home town 10 years later, where he found violinist Heather Trost playing transplanted traditional Jewish music with the Nahalot Shalom Community Orchestra. A partnership was born.
But wanderlust is a difficult urge to suppress. Barnes next headed out to Romania to record part of third album The Way The Wind Blows in a tiny Moldovan village bereft of plumbing, pavements or cars with gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia. Seven of the record’s 11 tracks were written by Barnes, with a further two by Trost and two more billed as joint efforts, but all have an air of devotion to Balkan music and culture.
In the main instrumental, and ranging from epic to intimate, these pieces range from full gypsy band workouts to accordion and violin duets, waltzes and, with Oporto, what sounds like a mournful funeral piece. Condon turns up to parp his trumpet over Fernando’s Giampari and opener In The River.
Amongst the highlights is God Bless The Ottoman Empire, a culture clash between Arabic influences, typified by the use of oud, and a melding of alto sax and vocal chorus. Lyrics about being together in violence and warfare might be grounded in events from the Sultans’ time, but present a glimpse of a world view in Barnes’ writing too.
Anyone reared on white-boys-with-guitars music will need to extricate themselves from 1979 in order to appreciate what Barnes, Trost and their collaborators have created. An album of many moods and surprising turns, The Way The Wind Blows nears soundtrack-waiting-to-happen territory, but only because of its evocative range of emotions. Playing best from start to finish rather than in segments, there are still several pieces with stand-alone potential; Gadje Sibra is the closest we get to wedding music, and it’s consequently a party all of itself.
The Way The Wind Blows is a celebration of collaborative willingness to experiment with fusing and developing traditional music forms, that are little heard in Anglophonic countries, to express emotion. The world as purveyed by A Hawk And A Hacksaw – and Beirut – is a place where 4/4 rhythm is anathema and where instrumentation does not begin and end with guitar. Even farmyard animals turn up on this record – it’s a chicken clucking at the end of The Sparrow, one supposes. All of which comes as high recommendation indeed.