Dorian Lynskey on bands looking to the Balkans for inspiration

From Basement Jaxx to Beirut to Gogol Bordello, bands are looking to the Balkans for inspiration. But, asks Dorian Lynskey, is this a genuine new musical hybrid or just cultural tourism?

The man who calls himself Beirut has never seen Lebanon. His debut album, Gulag Orkestar, is steeped in the music of the Balkans, but he's never set foot in the region. In fact, he grew up amid the highways and strip malls of New Mexico, and the other nine members of his live band are as American as he is.

The man who calls himself Beirut, a thoughtful 20-year-old named Zach Condon, sits on a bench on Primrose Hill, jams his hands into his pockets and wonders if any of this matters. "All I can say is I spent my whole life fantastising about being from somewhere else, being someone else. Since I don't fit anywhere else, to be brutally honest, I tend to be a bit of a dilettante." He gives a tired smile. "All I can do is whine and say, 'No, no, it's sincere.'"

When Condon made the album, he thought it would reach "about five people", but it quickly became a blogosphere cause celebre. It's not hard to see why. On first hearing, its gorgeous whirl of accordions, ukuleles and rich, resonant brass sounds like it emerged not from Albuquerque but from some forest-cradled village in Romania. It is probably the most un-American American album of the year.

A decade on from the minor crossover success of Gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks, the music of south-eastern Europe is on the move again. In the past 12 months, Condon's friend Jeremy Barnes, of A Hawk and a Hacksaw, has travelled to Romania to make a record with local brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia; Germany's DJ Shantel has won a Radio 3 World Music award for his remixes of Gypsy music; Basement Jaxx's Felix Buxton has compiled the ear-opening, if painfully titled, Gypsy Beats and Balkan Bangers album; and no festival has been complete without a clamorous performance by self-proclaimed "Gypsy punks" Gogol Bordello.

It is not exactly a scene; most of these musicians have never met. It's more like something in the air, something that is hard to label, let alone define. "There is no music called Gypsy music," insists DJ Shantel. "You can only talk about traditional music from different regions in south-eastern Europe." Even "Balkan music" is misleading because the Balkans excludes Romania. Though the geography is confusing, the sound is unmistakeable. Music from this part of the world combines brawling energy with unfathomable sadness. It could be the sound of a wedding or a wake. "This is very emotional music," says Shantel. "It's something you cannot really compromise on."

Emotions certainly run high among those who love it. Over the summer, Condon made an enemy of Gogol Bordello's frontman, Eugene Hutz, a half-Roma Ukrainian, when he told New York magazine: "Half of what makes that band work is the fact that the singer dresses crazy." Condon says he was simply trying to avoid being corralled into a scene, but the damage was done. "It surprises me that people like that even have the nerve to open their fucking mouth about it," snorts Hutz. "To me, that's digging your own fucking grave. For us, this whole movement was about getting people thinking about authenticity rather than the ironic plastic crap we've been force-fed for generations. Then, of course, there's people who are simply in it for fashion."

But Hutz himself has fallen afoul of Gypsy music purists. Garth Cartwright, author of Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians (the people are Roma, but the music is still labelled Gypsy), dismissed Gogol Bordello as "a fiddle-driven Sham 69". Cartwright also gleefully reported that Fanfare Ciocarlia had described Shantel's remixes of their work as "dogshit". To confuse matters, the writer hails from that well-known eastern European state, New Zealand. "I think he is a racist," Shantel retorts. "Who is he to judge this is wrong and this is right?"

There were bound to be problems with adapting music from a corner of the world that has become a byword for conflict and fragmentation. The distinctive brass playing of Balkan music dates back 500 years to the marching music of the Janissary during the Ottoman occupation of south-eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Roma fleeing persecution in India traversed Europe, adapting local folk music as they went. Gypsy music has always been a hybrid, but for centuries the underdogs assimilated the music of dominant societies. Now they are the ones being assimilated.

This is not lost on Condon. While Hutz has recently completed a documentary exploring his Roma roots, and Shantel named his club Bucovina after the region between Romania and Ukraine where his family came from, Condon has no prior connection to Balkan music. He first encountered the Balkan sound while travelling in Europe three years ago. It was already removed from the source, filtered through the films of Emir Kusturica, and through the young musicians Condon, a trumpet player, performed with in Paris. "One of them was Serbian and he was teaching his Parisian friends to play these brass parts," he says. "It was so simple. All they needed was a tuba, a euphonium and two trumpets, and it was beautiful. They would play all night long." He glows at the memory. "It was so different and so far away from everything I was around."

He returned to Europe after dropping out of college, hoping to make it to Istanbul, but ran out of money and never made it further east than Prague. "I'm willing to take the music at face value," he says, shrugging his skinny shoulders. "I don't have to tie in historical and racial and political elements to make it mean anything more to me. Isn't a melody enough?"

Condon makes a principle of naivety. He admits that he can't play as well as real Gypsy musicians, describing his own technique as "smoke and mirrors". And he picks things - words, sounds, pictures - that resonate with him, regardless of their baggage. His song titles resemble a backpacker's route map: Brandenburg, Mount Wroclai, Rhineland, Bratislava. His lyrics, when audible, are pretty gauche. The photographs on the CD cover were found in a library book in Leipzig; he still doesn't know who the people in the pictures are. The title of one song, Postcards from Italy, invites comparison: is his interpretation of south-eastern European music as picturesque yet insubstantial as a postcard? Is he just a cultural tourist, holidaying in the colourful otherness of old Europe before moving on to the next thing?

Then there's that unfortunate choice of band name. "That was awful," he admits. "I called myself Beirut because I was so naive about Lebanon and that was the point. It was so foreign to me. And then the war broke out, and all of a sudden it's not so much fun anymore." He's been reading up on the city and intends to play there next year. "I think it's time. I feel like I've toyed with it enough."

So Condon tried to shut out history only to find it hammering down his door. Similarly, he has found himself retrospectively researching the culture that inspired his music and acknowledging that, no, sometimes a melody isn't enough. But he still tells his critics the same thing. His music may not be authentic - he never pretended it was - but it is never less than sincere. Taken at face value, it is also stirring, beautiful and brimming with life.

The broader questions that Gulag Orkestar raises will only become more pressing over the next few years. Is all music now up for grabs, regardless of context, or do some traditions merit handling with care? Condon is conflicted. "Sometimes I feel like there's no musical secrets left in the world," he sighs. "That's a double-edged sword. Fusion can be a terrible thing and fusion is the way of the future."

As someone whose music incorporates dub reggae and who plans to record with Algerian rai musicians, Eugene Hutz has no desire for musical border control. "Gogol Bordello is about embracing other cultures because the more sources of joy you have, the better you are. It enhances your culture of life. There is no yes or no, no black and white here. I guess it all goes back to not where you came from, but how deep in your bones does the music really reach? Does it reach that level of madness or not?"

Anyway, in the long history of Gypsy music, this is just a blip. The music is strong enough to survive any number of reinterpretations. "Does the bad reggae that's out there really prevent good reggae from existing?" asks Hutz. Shantel goes further, suggesting that the current wave of interest will help keep the Balkan sound alive. "In south-eastern Europe, these Gypsy brass bands are totally vanishing away. The success of this sound helps the young generation of musicians in the Balkans to continue the tradition." He thinks rows over authenticity are interesting but ultimately nothing more than a distraction. "It's only music, you know. It's to make people happy, not to fight against each other."

· Gulag Orkester by Beirut is out on 4AD.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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