SERBIA: The Last Balkan Tango - Boris Kovac
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
The King of Apocalyptical Cabaret serves up and interesting and entertaining album where he mixes Balkan music with wider influences
During this process of finding music from all around the world, Danny and I have come across some alternately brilliant and amusing nicknames of artists and names of genres. Fela Kuti was nicknamed the Black President, which is a very cool nickname. Cesária Évora gained the moniker The Barefoot Diva, which suited her intimate style. Esquivel’s music was called Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, which was ludicrously nonsensical. Boris Kovac has been described as Serbia’s King of Apocalyptical Cabaret, which, quite frankly, is as bonkers and excellent a nickname can get. First off, it implies that there are other kings of Apocalyptical Cabaret in other countries (which I doubt, but who knows) and secondly, what on earth is Apocalyptical Cabaret? I had to find out.
“These dashes of different styles pay dividends overall, as they are what make the album interesting to listen to on repeat listens, but it’s not just that. It helps solidify his central premise that people can be united by music, no matter how different their cultures may be.”
Well, it turns out that Apocalyptical Cabaret is not the world-ending spectacle of music and dance I had imagined, though this is more the case in the live work of his that I have seen recorded. Instead, the truth is rather more sombre. Boris Kovac decided that after the Yugoslav wars during the 1990s and the ensuing genocide of Bosnian Muslims, he would play his own unique mix of folk music and ballroom music in an attempt to exorcise the madness the war had brought. His band, the Ladaaba Orchest, reflects that ambition – it stands for La Danza Apocalyptica Balkanica. Though he himself is Serbian, by using the term Balkan, he is identifying himself with all peoples of the region in an attempt to unite a now fractured region that had recently suffered much bloodshed. Kovac himself has stated that his music borrows from all Eastern European folk traditions, and to me there’s definite Jewish Klezmer and Hungarian Romani influences in his music. Though I was not aware of this when I listened to the album for the first few times, it speaks to the universality of cultures that can at times feel so disparate and alien to us.
Furthermore, as we have noticed so often during this project, many different genres can be incorporated in styles you would not expect, and Boris Kovac shows us once again that this is the case. He does this by combining Balkan folk music with Argentinian tango and Middle Eastern music in the songs Tango Apocalypso and Oriental Express respectively. There are even elements of Mexican music to be found in Rumbatto, and German music in Octoberburrekfest. These dashes of different styles pay dividends overall, as they are what make the album interesting to listen to on repeat listens, but it’s not just that. It helps solidify his central premise that people can be united by music, no matter how different their cultures may be.
The Last Balkan Tango is the title track, and it is the one that kicks off the album, and what a belter it is. Whatever else you might think of Kovac, he creates music that evokes a particular time and place, a certain scene, and when I close my eyes and listen to that song, I can easily imagine myself in another, older world, akin to something you might see described in the literary works of Stefan Zweig or the aesthetic conjured up by the film The Grand Budapest Hotel. I’m in an ornate Hungarian café in around the 1920s or 1930s, I’m having a coffee and some Hungarian layer cake, and I’m listening to this music as people dance. It’s mood music but it’s also acutely interesting music, and from his opening statement of ‘apocalypsa balkanica’, you know you’re in for something out of the ordinary.
At 69 minutes long, it’s a hefty album, but it’s also one that pays dividends on repeat listens. Kovac is a consummate musician, and there are plenty of catchy hooks and tracks, especially in the second song, Begin-ing, which I think might be the biggest earworm on the album. It’s also not an album that is repetitive or samey, and that is because of the variety in the music. The album as a base in Balkan folk and ballroom music, but he dips into different cultures’ music for inspiration, and that elevated the album for me. It is music that encompasses many moods, settings, and styles. It is by turns melancholic, joyous, triumphant, uplifting, sad, provocative, and yes, apocalyptic, and it is that ambition that makes me admire it so.