Said the Guests: Beirut
by Sean
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.


Beirut snuck up on us. There was no PR machine, no celebrity guests. Gulag Orkestar (Ba Da Bing) appeared in some writers' and bloggers' mailboxes and we listened and we loved it. A riotous mix of trumpet and drum-thump, Zach Condon's bobbing voice and his boisterous melodies. It's fast become one of the year's most talked-about indie rock debuts, and even a few months on, the band's gypsy stomp has lost none of its gleam. Beirut has drawn comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel, Rufus Wainwright, Calexico, Magnetic Fields and Hawk in a Hacksaw - he's drawn comparisons but the songs draw for themselves: tall and wobbling pencil-sketches, foreign gates and Slavic villages, mountain roads and fortress walls, wedding nights, dust and dusk.

He's from New Mexico, lives in Brooklyn, is playing summer dates in the Northeast, has mp3 samples here, and you can buy Gulak Orkestar for $10 or $12, postage-paid.

Today, Beirut is going to tell us about four great loves: Balkan brass, eurohouse, dub, and tropicalia. Please make Zach welcome. -- Sean

Balkan brass has inspired me more than any other music I've run into - so I'll mention one of the best songs ever written by the Roma, then move on to music I love from other, perhaps unexpected places.

First, a quick geographical rundown: Balkan brass music was born of the music of marauding Turkish marching bands pillaging through the Balkans, picked up and redeveloped by Gypsy musicians of Macedonia and Serbia. Hot dance music comes from Germany. The Germans are no longer making war. Barrington Levy is from Jamaica. Dub music was created there before dancehall destroyed and patronized the country's culture. Caetano Veloso hails from Brazil, a country he embraced and then was promptly thrown out of.

Kocani Orkestar - "Siki, siki baba" (from Alone at my Wedding) [buy]

Perhaps the best album title ever. The Kocani Orkestar was the first Balkan brass band I happened to listen to, and still remains my favorite. This song is Gypsy music at its most delirious and drunken best. Watching me listen to this song is like watching a hyperactive four-year-old without his Ritalin. Pure excitement. Oddly enough, the chorus of this song is almost identical to that of "Chaje Shukarije" by Esma Redzepova, who wrote and sang that song when she was fourteen... Fourteen! Another one of my favorite tsigane songs. it sounds suspiciously like an old Bollywood soundtrack, which is something I relish.

Justus Khoncke ft. Meloboy - "Hot Love (Freiland/Frei)" [buy]

Seeing as how we get an eviction threat every time we sneeze too loud in our apartment in Greenpoint, I'm entertaining the idea of blasting this song as loud as it will go on the last day of our lease. Who the hell could be mad with a song like this playing in the background? That's like trying to be angry while watching Sesame Street. When will we catch up with house music stateside? This song really pushes alot of the excess boundaries in my head, melodically etc; but that ends up being one of the most fascinating things about listening to it...

Barrington Levy - "Here I Come" [buy]

I'm broad, I'm broad, I'm broader than broadway, wo-oh-oh! It's rare to find someone so free and creative with their vocals. Most people (soul singers included) never achieve that level of total freedom. Where they would just noodle around in the name of improvisation, Levy achieves something beautiful, concrete. It's an unforgettable melody. More people should aspire to this.

Caetano Veloso - "Tropicália" [buy]

I should start this out by saying that deciding on a song of Caetano's to feature was one of the harder decisions I've had to make on this list (besides boiling down all of Balkan brass music to one song, which seems like a crime now). After the year in which I listened to nothing but said gypsy music, I found myself looking for relief from the intensity and darkness that can surround music from that stretch of Europe... a kind of pop music minus frivolity. And lo and behold, I found Caetano Veloso. "Tropicália" is a good example of what Brazilian music is capable of, and in a way, what I want to do with my own music. Caetano starts with the intensity of a traditional sound (here tribal drumming and a typically Brazilian instrumentation) and builds a pop song out of it, each of the two styles enriching the other.

[Zach Condon is the leader of Beirut. You can buy Gulag Orkestar direct (and insanely cheap) from Ba Da Bing, and if you live in NYC, Philly, Massachusetts or DC, see the band live.]

(Previous guest-blogs, in and out of the Said the Guests series: Jonathan Lethem, Will Butler (Arcade Fire), Al Kratina, Eugene Mirman, artist Dave Bailey, Agent Simple, artist Keith Andrew Shore, Owen Ashworth (Casiotone for the Painfully Alone), artist Kit Malo with Alden Penner (The Unicorns) 1 2, artist Rachell Sumpter, artist Katy Horan 1 2, David Barclay (The Diskettes), artist Drew Heffron, Carl Wilson, artist Tim Moore, Michael Nau (Page France), Devin Davis, Will Sheff (Okkervil River), Edward Droste (Grizzly Bear), Hello Saferide, Damon Krukowski (Damon & Naomi), Brian Michael Roff, Howard Bilerman (producer: Silver Mt. Zion, Arcade Fire, etc.). There are many more to come.)

Posted by Sean at June 21, 2006 3:00 AM

Bless the Balkans. Kocani wouldn't be top of my list, but they're thereabouts. Taraf de Haidouks probably hold the top spot (and, thanks to StG, Felix Lajko is up there too).
If anyone's interested in knowing more, try the book 'Princes among men- journeys with gypsy musicians' by Garth Cartwright (Serpent's Tail pub.)
Looking forward to listening to the other tracks at home, especially the euro house one!
Thanks mister- keep up the good work.

Posted by Robert P, Dublin at June 21, 2006 6:34 AM

I think they covered Siki, siki baba at a gig recently, b(oot)log has it. I guess I wouldn't have expected him to pick a house song...

Posted by shane at June 21, 2006 8:49 AM

nope, not b(oot)log but ryspace. No way was this bit of information worth two comments.

Posted by shane at June 21, 2006 8:54 AM

yeah, good write up zach! thanks so much for letting us in on your inspirations. your album is truly a marvel.

Posted by talbot yancy at June 21, 2006 12:31 PM

That Beirut record is my favorite so far this year, but I was curious as to whether or not there was any novi val influence on the record.

Posted by Mr. Foole at June 21, 2006 2:01 PM

Thanks for the post, Zach. I've been loving on the Balkans and the Tropocalia for a while now. I'm glad our interests coincide. Also, thanks for the album, I've been thoroughly enjoying it.

Posted by tim+ at June 21, 2006 2:05 PM

you'd think in greenpoint they'd really enjoy that Justus track, complete with vocoder. When I lived there, this was the kind of shit blasting from the car stereos day in and day out.

Posted by ed at June 21, 2006 2:07 PM

THIS is brilliant. I've been thinkin about the lack of music-historical awareness in the blogosphere--it's hard to find people talking about stuff that ain't new, even if new-and-hot music is clearly has older influences--and this is just the kind of stuff I wish there was more of.

That's horrible syntax, but still--thanks!

Posted by K at June 21, 2006 6:07 PM

I would really, sincerely appreciate it if you considered playing Victoria BC on your next tour. Really. Sincerely.

Posted by Danica at June 21, 2006 7:40 PM

I'm down with Tim, the Kocani and Caetano Veloso rock! Great stuff.

Posted by Gary at June 23, 2006 9:47 AM

surprised and not surprised at the same time for kocani orkestar, that song is a well known traditional song in the balkans and turkey, it's so nice to see it mentioned here by Zach, at the same time, I'm not soo much surprised because Beirut's music hints all kind of obscure but great influences..

Sorry for the self promotion but here's some more Balkan stuff from Fanfare Savale and Fanfare Ciocarlia here to keep you interested..

thanks for this great feature :)

Posted by mersenne_twister at June 24, 2006 7:38 AM

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about the authors
Sean Michaels is the founder of Said the Gramophone. He is a writer, critic and author of the theremin novel Us Conductors. Follow him on Twitter or reach him by email here. Click here to browse his posts.

Emma Healey writes poems and essays in Toronto. She joined Said the Gramophone in 2015. This is her website and email her here.

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Dan Beirne wrote regularly for Said the Gramophone from August 2004 to December 2014. He is an actor and writer living in Toronto. Any claim he makes about his life on here is probably untrue. Click here to browse his posts. Email him here.

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