As borders have opened and computer technology has improved communications, the exchange of information between countries on opposite sides of the world has become commonplace. Gone are the days where the only music you could listen was what was available on the local radio or what you were able to pick up via short wave on clear nights.
Now you can simply turn on your computer and the whole world is at your fingertips. Music and video from every country in the world can be heard and seen with just a click of the mouse while more and more sites have been set up to encourage collaborations between musicians thousands of miles apart who might never meet except through their exchanges of music. A bass player in Belgrade can contribute a rhythm track for a guitar player in New York and a drummer and keyboardist in Tokyo.
With the amount and variety of music people are now exposed to it should come as no surprise to discover that musical styles are no longer confined or defined by a person's geographic location. Still that doesn't stop it being somewhat disconcerting to hear the familiar pulse of a reggae beat being played underneath the commanding tones of the clear voiced Bosnian native Adisa Zvekic on the new disc from La Cherga, Revolve, being released in North America on the Asphalt Tango label June 14 2011. A new addition to the band for this recording, Zvekic joins with the other members in continuing their forays into fusing Eastern European, (other band members are from Croatia, Macedonia and Jamaica) Balkan with British and Jamaican style dub music.
As odd sounding as that mix might first appear, after listening to the eleven tracks on this disc one is left thinking there is either less difference between musical styles than you might imagine, or La Cherga have found some secret formulae which allows them to mix seemingly disparate ingredients together harmoniously. It soon become obvious that the reality lies somewhere in the middle of those two thoughts. Right from the disc's opening track, "Melaha", we can't help but acknowledge how well the syncopated reggae beat works with the sounds of the Balkan style brass it accompanies on this tune. Bands like Britain UB40 had used a horn section to great affect in their pop/reggae tunes of the 1980s and there are echoes of that sound in this song. Yet the horns don't just accentuate the rhythm, they also provide a flavour to the song which separates it from being just another pop tune.
If you were at all taken aback by the opening tracks Balkan reggae, the second song, "Sufi Dub" will leave you reeling. One of the major flash points in the ethnic violence that cursed the countries of the former Yugoslavia, especially Zvekic's native Bosnia, were the attacks on the Muslim communities. "Sufi Dub" draws upon the mystic Islamic sect's philosophy of love for its lyrics, which are sung in both English and Bosnian, (Unfortunately neither the liner notes nor the press materials accompanying the disc detail which of the various Balkan languages the band used on individual songs) while musically it uses what sounds like traditional Eastern European and Middle Eastern instruments to lay down what is essentially a hip-hop beat. Then instead of electronically overdubbing the vocals and music and relying heavily on bass tracks to create the layers of sound we associate with "dub" music, both Zvekic and the musicians create the effect by echoing their own efforts manually.
The result, at least in this case, is a refreshing change from what often just sounds like somebody skipping a record on one note over and over again in time to the rhythm. Here it sounds like an organic extension of both vocal and instrumental lines, creating an emphasis that makes us pay more attention to what is being said. Far too few dub songs carry meaningful messages anymore, they've just become so much fodder for the dance floor, and most people are used to ignoring their lyrical content. By creating the dub style live in the studio, not only does La Cherga re-energize a format that has become overused and tired, they have shown that it can be used for any style of music.
As most of the band members came of age during the horror of the civil wars in the Balkans during the 1990s and the recriminations and war crimes trials that followed, they can't help but be aware of the impact a song named "Sufi Dub" would have in their various homelands. For while every nationality was on the receiving end of some sort of ethnic violence, the Muslim population were the only ones without a designated territory behind whose borders they could find a semblance of shelter. Serbians, Croatians, Macedonians and Bosnians all had their own countries they could flee to for shelter if necessary, but the Muslims were left with no choice but to face whatever might come. Thus the inclusion of this song, with its recognition of the peaceful aspect of Islam, is a slap in the face to those who preached hatred in the region.
While there are none of the overtly political songs that other bands might have produced coming from similar circumstances, Revolve is in some ways one of the most intensely political albums you'll ever hear. For while the former Yugoslavia has divided itself along ethnic and nationalistic lines, La Cherga have steadfastly gone in the other direction and blurred the distinctions between the various people through their music. Maybe to people outside the Balkans this might not be obvious; most of us couldn't tell the difference between a tune from Macedonia and Serbia if our lives depended on it. However, for those who can, this disc will sever as a reminder of what has been lost by the segregation of the various people.
Above and beyond all other considerations remains the fact La Cherga are an immensely talented group of musicians who create music that is both interesting to listen to and fun to move to as well. They have taken both the infectious Eastern European and Balkan sounds which have provided the basis for so much great music and successfully combined it with the rhythms of a music whose beat could make even the dead want to dance, reggae. Lead vocalist Zvekic has the type of voice that immediately commands your attention no matter what language she is singing in. She not only has a great range, she is able to communicate through sound and intonation as much as she does with actual words. As a result even on songs where we may not understand the lyrics we've a fairly good idea what's going on.
While the fall out from the wars that followed the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia are still going on today with people still being arrested to face charges of crimes against humanity, La Cherga offers a ray of hope for the people of the region. They are a reminder that there is an alternative to the ultra-nationalism and ethnic isolation that has marked the Balkans in its recent history. Even if they only succeed in getting people onto the dance floor and moving to the music of those a previous generation took up arms against they will have done more to heal the wounds scarring the region than any tribunal or committee of reconciliation could ever hope to accomplish. Music might not be able to save the world, but in this case it offers people the chance to take a couple of steps in the right direction. This is a great band playing smart and danceable music whose very existence is a message of hope - what more could you ask for?
(Article first published as Music Review: La Cherga - Revolve on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted June 2011)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.