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S & H Alternative Music Review

Sanja Ilic and Balkanika, St Cyprian’s Church, London, 26th October 2002 (MA)

 

 

I attended this concert, upon invitation, not really knowing what to expect, and enjoyed every minute of it. Sanja Ilic is a Serbian pop musician and song-writer with a strong interest in enthnomusicology; in the items performed in this hour-and-a-half long presentation, he has ranged the length of the Balkans, taking ethnic material and fusing it with pop means. The result is enormously appealing: the strong bass line you expect of pop, though here with far more rhythmic variety, the pungent harmonies of Balkan folk-singing and a startling variety of instrumental sonorities. Indeed, I started making notes every time one of his six musicians picked up a new instrument: flute, violin, cowhorn, mandolin, clarinet, lute, oud, electric guitar, bagpipes (in several sizes), bouzouki, piccolo and a percussion section that included tambourine and every manner of drums and small bell and gong; Ilic himself presided at piano and electric organ. The players were joined by five female singers, often intoning, over the instrumental tapestry, in the parallel fifths that seem to be a staple of virtually every folk culture.

Ilic’s hunting ground ranges from Greece up to Romania, although the bulk of the folk influences (at least in the material we heard) are Serbian and Croatian – it’s the very opposite of ethnic cleansing and, who knows, the idea may have occurred to him as the musician’s means of making his own protest; it certainly has that conciliatory effect. The melismata in the melodic lines, the frequent portamento, confirm that we are in the border area between Europe and Asia. I once travelled to Tîrgu Mure in Transylvania, and it wasn’t until I heard a clarinettist play in a local restaurant that I realised how far east I had come. This concert offered a similar reminder of how much the musical traditions of the Middle East and eastern Europe soak each other up.

How did it work as music, particularly for someone whose diet of concerts is almost exclusively classical? Very well indeed. Rhythmically, most of Ilic’s numbers (he wrote it all himself) have the kind of charge that keep the feet tapping vigorously; the others are emotion-charged laments, with female voices – often alternating with flute – keening over an instrumental weft.

Ilic, his musicians and his singers performed with obvious relish and just that blend of professionalism and spontaneity that leaves you unable to judge whether their apparent enjoyment of what they were doing was real or part of the act. So I was astonished to discover that they had arrived in London from a tour of Mexico only four hours before they began – there was no hint of it in the vigour of their presentation.

If you want to try out Ilic’s folk-fusion for yourself, you’ll be glad to know that he has recorded most of the material we heard in Ct Cyprian’s on an immediately attractive CD, BaLKan 2000 – published on the IDEA label (CD 145) in, indeed, 2000 – where his musicians and vocalists are intermittently joined by a choir whose participation occasionally makes the music sound like an Enrico Morricone film score, which the concert didn’t. The disc was recorded, apparently, during the NATO bombardment of Belgrade, though thankfully there’s no audible evidence of that. You can find out more about Ilic and his project at www.sanjailic.yuonline.net; he can be contacted at sanjamus@Eunet.yu.

This was the opening event of the London ArtsFest, which is presenting an amazing cornucopia of (largely classical) music associated with eastern Europe from now until the end of the year. You’ll find details at http://users.classicfm.net/lbproms; enquiries should go to lana@lbproms.co.uk.

Martin Anderson


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