various artists,
Music from Macedonia 2
(Caprice, 2004)

Music from Macedonia 2 is a dizzying album; with 22 tracks by seven performers and/or groups, the range seems to be across most of the possibilities of traditional Macedonian music. And, given the history and prehistory of the region, the possibilities are astonishing. Macedonia, along with the Balkans in general, is not so far from what we now recognize as the real cradle of civilization on the Anatolian Plateau, and is within a band that marks the first entrance into Europe of agriculture, metallurgy and a host of other skills that have made what we call civilization possible. It has been home to musical traditions that include Europe, North Africa, the East and probably a few that have escaped our research. The instruments are variations on those that are used for music almost anywhere in the world: flutes, a variation on bagpipes, strings both plucked and bowed, drums and other percussion, even the accordion and piano -- and of course, the human voice.

One hears songs that sound as though one were in a Bedouin camp in Arabia Deserta, followed by something so close to a polka that one is tempted to check to be sure the right disc is in the player. (The near polka, by the way, "Chuchuk" as performed by Goran Alachki, keeps slipping off into something very close to an Irish jig.) This is not so surprising in an area that has in historical times been home to Celts, Goths, Slavs, Turks, Romany, Greeks, Albanians and perhaps a few more groups.

Some highlights: "Chudno mi cudo," by Synthesis, could be from almost anywhere in the West. A flowing, intricate piano line weaving through an accompaniment by tambura, drums and traditional stringed instruments (kaval, gaida, zurla) sets up a richly textured piece that moves seamlessly into passages of compelling intensity. Synthesis is one of the less traditional groups featured; although their music is based heavily in Macedonian folk music, they have expanded their instrumental resources and often use "modern" arrangements. "Kur do behesh mouse, coucou," provided by Xan Strajani, is one that sounds breathtakingly North African. An ethnic Albanian group, Xan Strajani provides an exotic, haunting piece in which flutes interweave melody and counterpoint. Marija Kostova, an ethnic Vlach, in "Shapiri lunea tahina," a traditional wedding melody, provides a simple song that could come from almost anywhere -- I found myself thinking of some of Miriam Makeba's quieter pieces.

Stojanche Kostovski, a renowned musician and instrument maker in Macedonia, provides in "Gajdarska improvizacija" a set of woodwind improvisations that call to mind sunset over fabled cities of the East. Kitka follows with a rousing traditional song ("Pita le mome vashite") that again defies definition while it gets the blood circulating very nicely, thank you. Orkestar Ace supplies, in "Djigulino oro," a lively near-polka that seems to wander between circus music, a Lithuanian wedding and a mariachi band. It's a wonderful piece of music that leaves you laughing for sheer joie de vivre. Accordionist Goran Alachki, in "Gajdarska ezgija," an improvisation in "bagpipe style," does begin sounding like the pipes, but soon moves into a lively accordion tune that calls to mind perhaps a French bistro on the Left Bank, interspersed with references to the Orient, and then wanders through a series of variations that hit us with hints of many places, many times.

The booklet is very helpful, with capsule commentaries on the groups, an informative introduction to Macedonian folk music and lyrics with English translations.

All in all, this is an immensely absorbing collection, dizzyingly diverse and a strong indicator of the variety and richness of the musical traditions of Macedonia and the Balkans at large. It's also a lot of fun.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 2 October 2004