“Holy Miscegenations, Batman!” “You’re right, Robin. They’ve crossbred pop, jazz, and various world musics with Bulgarian folk melodies! And yes, his accordion was hooked up to a Hammond amplifier. What should we make of this? Is it a comedy act? Hyper-charged Vaudeville for the Media Age? A post-modern joke? Improvised madness? Technical wizardry from a bunch of musical polymaths? Ironic posturing? Crowd-pleasing theatrics? To the Bat typewriter, Robin!”
Our confused cape-crusaders came away from the Farmer’s Market concert at Jyväskylä’s Jazz Bar with more questions than answers, and now are left to wonder if answering them might ruin all the fun. But the Norwegian/Bulgarian quintet’s performance begged to be deconstructed, just as they deconstructed and re-assembled pieces from virtually every genre of 20th century popular music, plus a few older styles.
They poked, prodded and entertained the capacity audience, creating instantaneous rapport with send-ups of pop hits such as “Nothing would Change my Love for You” and by sprinkling some of their frantic workouts with musical quotes from Finnish humppaa (basically the Finnish polka). At one point the accordionist/guitarist/vocalist Stian Cartensen even read words at random from a Finnish dictionary.
It was this kind of stunt that left me with an ambiguous feeling about this group. Do they really enjoy this cultural melting pot, or are they satirizing the idea into oblivion, killing it by doing it faster, slicker and more stylishly than most before them? Do they have respect for the genres they skewer with their musical wit?
The answer lies maybe in their origins. Five Norwegian music students created the band in 1991, playing a mix of free improv and Bulgarian folk music. When the original saxophonist left, they turned to alto saxophonist Trifon Trifonov, a Bulgarian peanut farmer, as the story goes.
It is the Bulgarian folk music-nasal, rapid-fire minor melodies and insanely fast rhythms-that they filter all their ideas through, which results in a musical tornado of shifting styles and time signatures onstage. And like a tornado, they pick up anything in their path-any style, language, joke, rhythm or melody that catches their fancy. By retaining that base, they focus their explorations, so when they decide to do a compressed version of Indian raga-complete with vocalized tablas, a synthesized tamboura drone and the vocalization of beat syllables-it doesn’t feel so strange. It fits.
They take a devilish pleasure in not only satirizing, but in fusing heretofore uncombined styles. Take their country-western version of the jazz standard “All of Me”, hilariously sent-up by the guitarist Nils-Olav Johansen. Putting on his best country twang, he first crooned his way Hank Williams-honky-tonk style through the lyrics, then picked a pitch perfect country-slide solo, bending that genre to its musical and emotional breaking point.
They could probably be one of the world’s greatest cover bands, but instead they chose to be the world’s greatest musical blender, and by the looks of it, have a hellishly good time doing it. What they whip up is an intoxicating milkshake, one you can’t help but want to slurp up, preferably with one of those curly straws.