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četvrtak, 09 oktobar 2008 00:00

Most people don't realize it, but using the term "gypped" is demeaning to Gypsies, a misunderstood minority who, like the Jews, suffered a millennium of wanderings and persecution throughout Europe, as well as mass extermination during the Holocaust. In most cases, the Gypsies have not yet acquired the kind of universal equality promised during the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. Instead, the seven-piece KAL (which does include a violin, but also two accordions) presents itself as a group of young, hip, post-modern Europeans, sharply dressed in their suits and hats. The band is led by Belgrade resident Dragan Ristic, a theater producer by profession.

"When the [Yugoslavian] war started in 1999, I crossed the border to Hungary," he recalls. "When I was living in Budapest, I built this theater company which involved the idea of presenting Roma culture in a way compatible with contemporary drama and culture. We did some progressive plays, and in 2001 we won a European theatre prize in Warsaw." But theater wasn't quite making the splash that Ristic wanted. "I realized that theater is a Renaissance entertainment -- there were at most 100 to 200 people there, and in the 21st century that's not enough. I wanted to achieve a much bigger audience and to be more pragmatic. That's why I decided to deal with the music -- you can spread around the ideas better, like for example about how much Roma people are harassed, what kind of discrimination exists, and other important topics."

He founded KAL with his equally proficient musical brother Dushan, but the pair eventually split. "After 2004, Dushan didn't play with us because he decided to go live in America," Ristic explains. "That's when I went in a completely different direction -- not playing the traditional music but doing stuff in my own way. That means I am playing music composed by myself with a strong element of Romani music from Central Serbia, while putting it in a contemporary musical context." Which, on their latest self-titled CD translates to adding bhangra and drum 'n bass two-step rhythms, throwing in a tango and a waltz, and even a politically satirical rap from Rambo Amadeus, a humorous rocker from Montenegro. In this pursuit, Ristic feels a kinship with groups such as Balkan Beat Box (which has members from Israel) and Gogol Bordello.

"There's no law that says it's forbidden to non-Roma people [the Gypsy slang is 'gadje'] to play Roma music. I see them as bands who can help pave the way for us." There's no doubt that in the music of KAL and similar Balkan bands, you'll find considerable similarities to both klezmer and Arabic/Middle-Eastern styles, as well as a bit of the polka which one might find in ethnic beer-halls around Pittsburgh. "I'm listening to all different kinds of music," says Ristic. "The boys with whom I'm playing really like Laco Tayfa, [an ethno-jazz-fusion band] from Turkey." One kind of contemporary Roma-derived music you won't find Ristic endorsing, however, is the crass, kitschy techno-pop called "turbofolk," which swept Eastern Europe and Turkey in the '90s.

The Zappa-esque Amadeus (a.k.a. Antonije Pusic) originally coined the term, and was later quoted as saying he felt as guilty for helping to start "turbofolk" as Albert Einstein did over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While Ristic may not harbor sentiments quite as vehement, he still dislikes the genre intensely, and distances KAL from it, yet still deploys some keyboards and electronic beats. "It's a question of aesthetics. We are definitely not like the people who are using [these beats] for turbofolk. It has to be a strong reason why I'm using these, and not to be imitative. I'm using elements of Roma music in my own musical concept, and I don't have any problem mixing things up." In between tours and recording albums, Ristic also finds the time to help run the Amala School, a summer Romani cultural program located in his hometown of Valjevo, located 100 kilometers southwest of Belgrade. "Everyone who is interested in Romani culture can come, including a lot of foreigners, people from America and Europe. They learn to play accordion or violin, and we provide teachers from the surrounding villages. They live in our homes for two weeks, and we bring them to Romani weddings, show them historical monuments, and so on."

 By Manny Theiner,a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer

 
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