UKRAINE: Trans Balkan Express - OMFO
The Ukrainian DJ takes us on a magical mystery tour of his own, calling at Athens, Bucharest, and Chisinau
The idea of taking the listener on a journey through music is probably as old as music itself, with many concertos, operas, and symphonies all taking that idea and running with it. In the album format as became consolidated in the 1950s and 1960s, it was perhaps most successfully popularised by the Beatles and their Magical Mystery Tour. Though that album is genuinely fantastic, the Beatles were not known for their ability to stick to a theme, and as such while they helped pioneer the concept album (and before you classic rock nerds try to get me, yes, I know Magical Mystery Tour is a soundtrack album not a concept album, and the Beatles only true foray into the concept album was Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but the fact of the matter is they’re both attempting musical journeys of different sorts), the format was taken to much greater heights by people other than themselves, namely The Who, Pink Floyd, and Marvin Gaye. Since its peak in the 1970s, the concept album has since become seen as a relic of the past, though there have been some attempts at a revival, usually in the Marvin Gaye vein of concept album as method for dissecting social issues or personal problems, rather than the ‘let’s tell a story through music’. OMFO, a Ukrainian electronic music producer based in Amsterdam, has in some ways decided to return to the latter, creating an album that has a small concept, and is focussed on taking the listener on a musical journey through styles that are perhaps unknown in the mainstream, but are dear to OMFO’s heart.
“That said, OMFO is not content solely using Ukrainian and Romanian beats, he also borrows from Greek music in Sirtaki on Mars, as well as Romani music and Hungarian folk which are peppered liberally throughout this pan-Balkan goulash of an album.”
OMFO, meaning Our Man from Odessa, is the stage name of German Popov. His brand of electronic music mixes the music of Balkans with more northern European house and club music. Though Ukraine is not part of the Balkans, it is close enough to it for OMFO to have been exposed to it, and with Trans Balkan Express, OMFO is both paying tribute and putting his own mark on music he clearly admires. The album itself begins with the sound of a train, and then an electronic voice reciting the words ‘Trans Balkanski Express’, and through the following songs, OMFO takes us on an idiosyncratic tour of the Balkans. Imagine you’re on a train leaving from Odessa, crossing into the lands where the Hutsul people live, an ethnic group distinct from Ukrainians and Moldovans whose music OMFO reinterprets in Gutusl Electro. The train then passes by the Carpathian Mountains into Romania, where OMFO spends most of his time. Indeed, his most popular song Magic Mamaliga is a reference to the typical Romanian dish of mamaliga, a type of yellow maize flour porridge. It was this song and Money Boney which were selected for use in the 2006 comedy smash hit Borat, which helps to explain their relative popularity. That said, OMFO is not content solely using Ukrainian and Romanian beats, he also borrows from Greek music in Sirtaki on Mars, as well as Romani music and Hungarian folk which are peppered liberally throughout this pan-Balkan goulash of an album.
The album has been accused of being repetitive, and that’s a charge that I think does stick, no matter how much I enjoy the album. The songs are not very inventive, though they are fun. He takes simple folk riffs and repeats them over and over, on top of crunchy and energetic beats, and that is about it, to be honest. It’s lively and catchy, especially on short tracks like Magic Mamaliga, but equally that is where the album should have stopped in my opinion. The final four tracks that follow it are pretty forgettable and do not add much to the whole album, especially Drimba ‘n’ Bass, which at one minute and 22 seconds long, feels double the time. That said, everything else is eminently enjoyable, and I have to admire his ambition to include as much of the Balkan music scene as he could in the album. While he may outstay his welcome by four songs, it is not a dealbreaker for me, as I liked the scenic route OMFO takes us on through the Balkans.