Orkestar Šlivovica finds kindred collaboration

Orkestar Šlivovica, Vancouver’s Balkan Brass orchestra, has had its ups and downs over the years but its main strength is in its ability (and willingness) to adapt and grow.

The Danube river is but a trickle at its source in the uplands of Bavaria, but as it wends its way through Vienna (where it’s famously blue), on to Budapest, Belgrade and dozens of Balkan cities and towns it gains power until it finally thunders into the Black Sea. If the cultural riches of last Saturday’s Balkan Bhangrashow were the Danube, it would flow even further to commingle with the waters of the sacred Ganges.

Strathcona’s funky off-the-radar Russian Hall is a venue that's big enough to be raucous, but small enough to reveal more intimate moments. For Vancouver’s Balkan Brass Band, Orkestar Šlivovica, it's practically its home base. Last Saturday, Orkestar Šlivovica was joined by its Indian counterparts: Vijay Brass Band, the Royal Bhangra Academy, VanCity Bhangra, the Luciterra Bellydance Company to show, if nothing else, that the Danube and the Ganges now flow into the mighty Fraser. And flow they did.

Balkan Brave

While Orkestar Šlivovica normally plays a set repertoire of Balkan wedding and party music (such as what one might hear on a Danube party barge in Belgrade). Having heard the band play its standard repertoire (a lot), I welcome that it’s brave enough to branch out and create fusion collaborations with other cultural organizations in the Lower Mainland. Last year, its Mariachi Trubachi! show fused Balkan music with Mexican (probably for the first time ever). This year, they’ve gone out on a different limb in a massive collaboration with Vancouver’s Indian community. 

But could there possibly be any commonality between southeast Europe and the Indian sub continent? Probably not much unless you consider the music the semi nomadic Roma (Gypsies) peoples carried with them from India to Europe (particularly to the Balkans). So, the plaintive yet upbeat Opa Zupa played by Orkestar Šlivovica has echoes in the Indian Brass Wedding music played by Vijay Brass Band.

Prior to the show, Kristina Zalite told me, “We are totally excited about all of this. It is like a massive puzzle that we are piecing together.” A drummer herself, she shared a YouTube video showing how similar Vijay (Indian) Brass Band is to a Balkan Band, right down to the drum techniques used. “If you watch this video”, Kris said, “what you will see is directly comparable to a Roma wedding in Serbia”.

Orkestar Šlivovica, Vancouver’s Balkan Brass orchestra, has had its ups and downs over the years but its main strength is in its ability (and willingness) to adapt and grow as a musical organization. For example, I’ve watched its trumpet section grow and morph over the last few years and last Saturday and heard how they’ve grown in confidence as performers. For Balkan Bhangra, young Sky Lambourne performed his original composition, “Road to Wells”, a road trip spectacular for trumpet and brass band that showed its Balkan roots.

So while Indian ladies in saris offered traditional Henna hands, Hungarian men in handle bar moustaches sipped hot chai tea and watched exotic Turkish-inspired dancing. And everyone stopped what they were doing when the VanCity Bhangra dancers, probably the most thrilling part of the evening, took to the stage. These men were a powerhouse of energy and enthusiasm for, well, life. Even dancing to recorded music, they were pure electricity.

Photo courtesy of VanCity Bhangra

Is all this blending a good thing? Not always. I remember a low point at the Vancouver Folk Festival in which every possible combination of cultures was blended--Swedish nickleharpas, Navaho flutes, and xylophones from Bali--until a thick brown soup of musical mud was achieved. Nifty yes; useful no.

What Orkestar Šlivovica did was exploit a sonic commonality between two regions. They carefully curated an experience of two distinct cultures and held them up for us to see, hear, taste, and feel their similarities. Flow on Orkestar Šlivovica, flow on Vancouver.

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