To be a 21st Century Gypsy in Serbia involves navigating a potentially explosive cultural and social minefield. Currently no one acts as a more forthright guide through this mess of history, myths, traditions, prejudice and community pride than Belgrade's Kal.
Kal are a young band, rock'n'roll in attitude, fuelled on dance beats and rooted in the Balkan blues. In their wit, imagination, ability to throw disparate sounds together and refusal to play by "folkloric" rules Kal mark themselves as both part of Balkan Gypsy tradition and 21st Century Roma cultural activists.
The identity Kal carry forward is racially proud yet ethnically inclusive, forward looking while embracing the treasure of the last thousand years of lungo drom (long road), a culture determined to operate as equals in the ever evolving Nu-Europe we all share. While our post-modern, polyglot times may find employing terms like "commitment" and "mission" unfashionable Kal are a band who aim to make a difference.
Kal the word is Romani for "black" were formed by the Ristic brothers, Dushan and Dragan, to confront the prejudices and clichés the Roma face. Dragan, a theatre producer who has set up Romani theatre groups in Budapest and Belgrade, and Dushan, a painter, aimed to use Kal to blend influences from traditional Balkan Gypsy music with the contemporary music they heard whilst living in Belgrade and Budapest.
The Ristics grew up in Central Serbia, sons of Sreten Ristic, a school teacher ("our father was the first openly Roma teacher to graduate from teachers college") who also played music: this album is dedicated to Sreten. Their parents benefited from President Tito's efforts to include the Roma more in Yugoslav society and they encouraged Dragan and Dusan to take pride in their heritage while getting an education. This they continue: every summer they lead the Amala Summer School (www.amala.com), a two week gathering at their home village in Valjevo where students from across the world come to learn Roma language, music and history.
I'd previously met Dragan at his apartment amongst New Belgrade's blighted housing estates. My visit coincided with Dragan recording a session for this album at his home studio. As we broke for cigarettes and coffee he explained his musical philosophy: "Other than legends like Saban Bajramovic very few people in Serbia are playing Gypsy music in the traditional manner. Most are using the electronic keyboard, which is a curse upon Balkan music. Our ancestors on our father's side have always made music, for centuries they travelled around playing at weddings, funerals, baptisms, so we feel we are continuing this tradition. But we are not living in the past. I admire Manu Chao, how he mixes things together, has fun with sound. I'm an urban person, belong to the modern world, go to rave parties, so by mixing traditional and urban is the best way of presenting our culture."
For their first international album, Dragan reshaped the band's line-up and pushed the envelope of what a 21st Century Roma roots band can achieve. Recorded on a bare bones budget at Dragan's ramshackle home studio this brilliant, intuitive album shifts Gypsy soul into cyberspace.
To help achieve this mix Kal employed Mike Neilsen to mix, arrange, find beats and produce the album. Neilson's experience involves everything from mixing Dizzy Gillespie¹s live sound through working with Maori and Turkish musicians to producing/engineering Underworld, Jamiroquai and Natasha Atlas.
"The first time Dragan played me his demos of the album I was knocked out by the combination of singers and instrumentation, how fresh and invigorating everything sounded," says Nielsen. "Kal's music has a very positive feeling; each song made me smile. Dragan would explain to me what the singers were singing. On one song the woman is singing how she wishes she had wings to fly away and find her husband. And the chorus is going "Oh my dear, oh my dear". I thought that was great.
Ristic's vision of how Kal embrace 21st Century Roma music is a generous one: bhangra rhythms underpin one song, a violin dances around a two-step rhythm played on double bass, weeping Hawaiian steel guitar drifts over a lovely waltz tempo, an accordion feeds tango flavours, Montenegran rock satirist Rambo Amadeus delivers an acerbic, hiccupping rap whilst the striking voices of Zumrita Jakupovic, Adil Maksutovic and Dragana Berakovic lend earthy, sensual qualities to the songs.
"With this album Kal aim to set an example to the young Roma musicians across the Balkans that you can be both modern and roots at the same time. So many young Roma are just making pop crap because Balkan society, especially Serbian society, has, after the collapse of communism, allowed the lowest common denominator to rule. Many good young musicians compromise their music because they can¹t imagine anyone wants to hear anything but turbo trash. I hope we set an example of young Roma musicians using beats but staying true to Romani culture and music" says Dragan.
Garth Cartwright author Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians