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The Balkan Beat

by Allen Davis

It’s the rhythm that often drives interest in Balkan music, originating in SE Europe (Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, Greece, Romania, Macedonia, Turkey). After all, it is music meant to be danced to! But when you stream the concert of Orkestar Banitsa presented by the Northampton Community Music Center on Friday, April 30 at 7pm, don’t be surprised if at first your feet become a bit bewildered as they tap-tap-tap-tap to the music. “These are Balkan beats”, Joe Blumenthal, the band’s bass player explains in an interview we conducted recently. “They are different from the four beats or three beats we’re accustomed to. But after a little while you will find that your sense of rhythm has been stretched in new directions, whether it’s 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3 (the famous Turkish rhythm Dave Brubeck appropriated for his “Blue Rondo a la Turk” of the 1950’s) or 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2. And it’s that rhythmic complexity and excitement it generates that has led listeners, dancers, and musicians all over the world to bend to the Balkan Beat and make it their own.”

It’s also the richness and beauty of the melodic lines and harmonies, sometimes with vocals, sometimes all instrumental, and the fascinating and differentiating use of ornamentation, and unusual (to American ears) instrumentation. Orkestar Banitsa features two accordions, tambura, clarinet, vocals, bass, and traditional percussion. (In case you’re wondering, banitsa is a wonderful Bulgarian pastry made with phyllo and cheese.) Joe speaks of the ways in which a single melody, “while common to many regions and nationalities, can take on an identity totally different from its other manifestations by the local ornaments to the melody applied by the performers.” He goes on to describe ways in which “many different regions will claim a tune as their own – the same basic tune, but rendered in a way specific to the musical culture of the region that claims it as their own.”

Joe fell in love with Balkan music while watching a folk-dance session on the quad at the Univ. of Rochester, where he studied Russian history, language and literature. When he moved to Baltimore after college he started dancing on the quad at Johns Hopkins, where he met his future wife Barbara. She came to the Valley as a Smith student, and there they met future bandmate Becky Ashenden who came to dances at Davis Hall with her sisters as pre-teens. They have been making music together for many years.

Another thing happened in the Valley that had a profound influence on Joe’s musical journey – a West Coast klezmer band called “The Klezmorim” performed a concert in 2006. An important connection was made for Joe between Balkan music and the music of Eastern European Jews, known as Klezmer. Joe noted that the common denominator was Romani music. “The Roma traveled all over the region and influenced the musical traditions of all they came in contact with. The musics remain distinct – each grows from its own culture and history,” but Joe points to “clear similarities between the traditional dance musical traditions of Klezmer and Balkan music.” And this in fact can be a gateway to appreciating Balkan music for lovers of klezmer. “Start with the similarities, and then understand and come to love the differences.” In a way, Joe is a living bridge between the two musical worlds – he has been a core member of the region’s best klezmer band, “Klezamir” for many years.

Orkestar Banitsa performs 4-5 times per year, including on Balkan Music Night in Concord, MA. The performance this month is a great opportunity for folks to hear live Balkan music performed by masters, and for those new to this music, a chance to open themselves to rich new and exotic cultural traditions and experiences. “After a few tunes”, Joe says, “you will all be tapping out rhythms effortlessly, rhythms you might not have imagined before”.

Don't miss the opportunity to see and hear Orkestar Banitsa perform on

Friday, April 30th at 7:00pm

as part of the NCMC Virtual Concert Series!

NCMC is proud to present a series of fantastic online concerts this spring and summer. Donations benefit the Music Center's programs and scholarship fund.

A link to the streaming event will be posted at on Friday, April 30.

We look forward to seeing you then!

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