Choban Elektrik is Balkan Psychedelic Jazz-Rock
If a prog rock power trio had ever sprung up in the mountains of Albania, it would have sounded like Brooklyn’s Choban Elektrik (“Electric Shepherds”). They use the vintage grit and funk of the Hammond organ and Fender Rhodes, along with drumset and electric
bass to open up new facets of Albanian, Macedonian, Greek and Armenian traditional songs. The band adds this classic American soulful sound to the music of the Balkans in a far reaching open jazz rock approach that combines influences from across the spectrum of world music.
“We never set out to do this, but it flowed naturally from our other musical influences,” explains masterful keyboard player and arranger Jordan Shapiro. " I’d bring in songs I learned in Balkan singing class or at the Balkan music camps, and we’d play them, just like anything else we’d tackle as a trio, as if they were jazz, funk, or rock.”
The results burst with crackling distorted guitar lines ripping through odd Albanian meters (“Beratche from Prespa”), traditional Greek dance tunes gone deeply funky (“Koftos”), and mysteriously dreamy space-outs for Caucasus wedding parties (the wonderfully titled “Mom Bar”). Slow-burning melodies unwind as whammy bars and Leslie speakers take old songs in a radically new and powerful direction.
“I feel like I was primed for this experimentation by all the prog rock and American folk music I’ve played and listened to, though I only got exposed to world music much later in life,” says
Shapiro, who trained intensively as a classical pianist and oboe player. “My parents loved classical music and Broadway shows, and that was what I grew up with.”
Conservatory trained in piano and guitar performance and jazz studies, Shapiro arrived in New York and soon found himself working hard; like many multi-instrumentalist pros, Shapiro spent a decade performing in a diverse array of bands, as core member and as sideman. He started a progressive bluegrass band, Astrograss. He joined a Zappa tribute ensemble (which included original members of Zappa’s band), Project/Object, where he met Choban’s bassist, Dave Johnsen.
Like the rock maverick, Shapiro was always hungry for new musical challenges. He got wind of the Balkan scene, as many of his friends had gotten into playing music from Eastern Europe. After hearing some music at a party, he headed to the Golden Festival, New York’s annual gathering of Balkan fans and top performers. “It inspired me to get an accordion,” Shapiro recalls. “Lugging around vintage keyboards is not nearly as much fun.”
It was the unexpected beginning of a new, powerful passion. A year later, Shapiro found himself in a circle of twenty accordionists of all levels, staring amazed at the quicksilver technique and fluid ornamentation of Albanian accordionist Raif Hyseni (composer of “Steve’s Gajda”). He was hooked.
“Raif teaches by ear. He started playing a tune, this beautiful Albanian folk song,” remembers Shapiro. “That was a new thing for me, to be right in front of someone playing this complicated melody. I hadn’t done that kind of music by ear at that point.”
But beyond Hyseni’s stunning chops and easy grace, he opened Shapiro’s eyes to the East European approach to improvisation. Hyseni emphasized that soloists had room to express and expand on the theme. He pushed Shapiro to find his own, Balkan voice when playing. Over a year of subsequent lessons, Shapiro picked up not only Hyseni’s trove of melodies; he also explored the possibilities—both traditional and radical—suggested by the repertoire.
Though he first perfected tunes like “Valle e Shqipërisë së Mesme” on the accordion, Shapiro soon tried things out on his collection of vintage organs and keyboards. During frequent sessions, Shapiro worked closely with Johnsen (bass) and multifaceted percussionist Phil Kester (who plays everything from drums to riq to marimba). The trio discovered that songs
meant for very different instruments and different contexts fit perfectly into their wide-ranging world of post-rock complexity and improvisatory pleasures.
With all the drive of a power trio, they dove into the odd meters and nimble melodic lines with precision and grace and explode on the solo sections with raw intensity and collective exploration. Johnsen brought his flexibility and formitable bass skills to make sense out of the complex forms, while Kester drew on his early childhood fascination with the Greek music in his community, musically combining hand percussion and marimba to create an exotic soundscape to balance the power drumming of his jazz and rock influences.
Bending and blending genres is a major part of recent developments in Balkan roots music back in Europe, as well, like the jazz-inflected traditional arrangements of Bulgarian accordion master Petar Ralchev that inspired Choban’s grooving “Kopanitsa.” They opened up jams that fully
showcase the keys’ timbre and that segue gorgeously into stirring songs like “Çobankat” (where Kotansky’s sweeping violin and Primack’s rich vocals form the perfect counterpoint to Shapiro’s psychedelic solos).
“The album starts off with a thirty-second exploration, an improvisation,” muses Shapiro. “It shows off the Fender Rhodes. But then it shifts into a different key and the traditional melody Raif taught me. That transition really reflects our approach beautifully.”
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