MONTENEGRO: Eh Kad Bi Ti - Šako Polumenta
Enjoyable pop with some interesting flourishes, yet Polumenta's music does not stand out from the crowd
The European region of the Balkans has a truly fascinating history and an extremely rich musical heritage. Whether it’s the brass band music popularised by many Romani performers from across the region, or the more Middle-Eastern inspired styles of folk, I find the music of the region to be endlessly rich. Montenegrin Bosniak singer Šako Polumenta, while not one of my favourites from the region, does still manage to entertain with his brand of folk-pop, though the album does have flaws. Popular in Montenegro and Serbia, though he has a following across all the former Yugoslavian republics, he has forged a successful career over the past 30 years, despite a scandal involving his alleged relationship with a 16-year-old girl which almost ended his career. Having recently discussed the nature of separating the art from the artist so recently in my Jukka Tolonen review (albeit for very different reasons), I’ll refrain from going into that topic too much, though I will say that whatever the truth of the matter, which we only found out after listening to this album and scheduling it for review, does not impact my view on what is a pretty decent album. For now, anyway.
“Polumenta is at his best when combining those inimitable sounds of his region with the pop music he so clearly loves.”
The unpleasantness in his personal life aside, his 2002 album Eh Kad Bi Ti has a certain charm to it, and it’s definitely easy on the ears. Polumenta has a good voice, smooth and powerful if perhaps lacking in character, and the instrumentation is a nice mix of pop and the folk traditions of Montenegro and the wider Balkans. I feel that there is a certain ‘Eurovision’ quality to the music, by which I mean it is Euro-pop with a touch of national characteristic overlain on top of what is essentially an extremely generic synth pop base, and that does turn me off slightly, but I recognise that is an issue of personal taste. However, it is a clear product of its time, sounding firmly like a lot of European pop from the turn of the millennium. It does fall slightly flat on occasion, with a song like Vino I Ljubav sounding messy with its almost bagpipe-like synths, but more often than not, it’s good fun, with the title track being a stand out. It has an inviting rhythm reminiscent of Turkish or Arabic music, and strings that evoke that region as well, yet still retaining a pop core. Another good song on the album is E Sto Nisam Sunce, which features a saxophone intro that evokes Balkan brass band music. Polumenta is at his best when combining those inimitable sounds of his region with the pop music he so clearly loves.
While it does not blow me away, Eh Kad Bi Ti is still an enjoyable album, if not an amazing one. It is largely forgettable, with the exception of the title song which does have a memorable hook to it. Perhaps in a region which has so many world-beating acts who have achieved global success with their reinterpretations of traditional styles, Polumenta seems to have not been able to do the same, and I would not put him in the same category of musicians as I would Boris Kovac, Fanfare Ciocarlia, or Ferus Mustafov. Though they all, to one extent or another, implement fusion music, they have all managed to do it in a more organic and effective way, whether it’s Mustafov’s effortless pioneering of the saxophone into truba music, Kovac’s ability to bring klezmer, truba, and much more into jazz, or Fanfare Ciocarlia’s ability to cover Western songs in their own frenetic way. Polumenta seems stuck in the typical mode of taking somewhat generic pop and imposing folk sounds on top. That said, for what it is, it’s certainly fun and enjoyable. While it may not stand up to scrutiny on an active listen, as a passive listen it’s a good time. If Balkan pop is your thing, it’s probably worth your time, but if you need an introduction to this side of world music, perhaps start with those other artists first, and then decide if you want to dip your toes into the music of Šako Polumenta.