Rattling along at a breakneck pace, King Ferus shows off his abundant talents in this album of Balkan brass
The American actor and writer of the 1920’s and 1930’s Will Rogers is known for having said that “I’ve never met a man I didn’t like.” Whether you take it literally as some kind of testament to Rogers’s ability to find the humanity in all people, or whether you see it as a more tongue in cheek phrase considering Rogers’s career making fun of powerful and political figures, I myself would like to take this phrase and repurpose it for my own ends. I’ve met plenty of people I didn’t like, but I’ve never listened to an album of Balkan gypsy music that I’ve not loved. Balkan music has been for me one of the great discoveries of this process, with bands and musicians like Fanfare Ciocarlia, Tihomir Pop Asanovic, Boris Kovacs, JK Soul, and Dubioza Kolektiv all providing countless hours of musical joy, and my favourite Balkan genre has to be the gypsy folk music, a musical tradition of which Macedonian multi-instrumentalist Ferus Mustafov is a part. Mustafov himself is a virtuoso on the saxophone, born into a long line of Romani musicians, his father even having been credited with introducing the saxophone to the world of Balkan folk music. In his teens he began studying music, and after a while joined a band on tour. The rest, as they say, is history.
“‘King Ferus’ is his nickname, and while he may not have dominion over any countries or territories, he certainly does rule the dance floor with his supreme musical talents.”
His style is sometimes referred to as wedding music, and indeed that is the subtitle of his 1995 album, King Ferus, which proudly declares the album to be ‘Macedonian wedding soul cooking’, which itself is an intriguing phrase, inviting you into the culture of his music. Combined with the album art, where Mustafov is holding outstretched his saxophone and looking for all the world like a cross between Zero Mostel and British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, it is almost like he is beckoning you to come and listen, and perhaps dance furiously after several pints of Skopsko. Like most Balkan music, it contains so many cultural influences as the Balkan regions contain many diverse and Macedonia itself has Greek, Turkish, and Albanian populations, all of whom left their mark on the folk music of the area. As such, the music occasionally sounds more oriental, occasionally it sounds more like central European jazz, all the while containing that distinctive Balkan Romani beat.
‘King Ferus’ is his nickname, and while he may not have dominion over any countries or territories, he certainly does rule the wedding dance floor with his supreme musical talents. His music is so fast-paced he even rivals Romanian Romani superstars Fanfare Ciocarlia in terms of sheer rapidity of the tempo. On this album you can hear the saxophone played so fast, and with such complex rhythmic structures it might be overwhelming for people new to the genre. However, it’s not all fast-paced. Romska Riznica is comparatively calm, and features some beautiful saxophone solos. Turska Igra is similarly calmer, with beautiful melodies. However, let’s not kid ourselves. This is music made for dancing, and it features some of the fastest sax playing I think I’ve ever heard. You just need to hear songs like Revisko Oro or Romaniada and you’ll be swept up in the Balkan beats, the infectious drum rhythms, the jaunty clarinets and accordions, while also wondering just how on earth these musicians can make music that could be cacophonous into a fantastic symphony of joy.
For me, Balkan brass bands of this type bypass the critical faculties and just go straight to the soul. Consideing how much fun it is to listen to on an album, it must be a million times better in a live setting. Macedonian Romani weddings often spill over into huge street parties, and in his heyday, Mustafov was a big part of that culture. He now rarely plays live due to a heart condition, I can only imagine what it must have been like to hear his marvellously manic saxophone playing in the flesh. At just over one hour long, the album might test the patience of some, but not me. For me, the music flies by, with each song, though in a mostly similar style to each other, display so much skill and musical flair that I can’t help but love it.