A few bottles of Astika downed, a brass band furiously pumping out Balkanesque music and young New Yorkers are flinging themselves about with an abandon not seen since the days of pogo-ing. But Bulgarian beer, odd time signatures and drunken dancing are only part of a scene labelled (at least by promoters of events such as this autumn's New York Gypsy Festival) as "Gypsy music." It's a scene that includes the "Gypsy punk" of Gogol Bordello, the "fiery Gypsy Brass" of the virtuosic Slavic Soul Party and what the Village Voice described as the "Balkan hymns" of Zach Condon and his Beirut project.
The unfettered use of the word "Gypsy" shows remarkable disregard for the prevailing viewpoint that "Roma" is considered the respectful terminology for the diaspora of people thought to have originated in India a millennium ago. Matt Moran of Slavic Soul Party suggests it's because in North America, "Gypsy is a word that has always had the bad-boy mystique that cool sticks to." Writing by e-mail, he adds, "The word Rom or Romani - that many (but not all) Gypsies use for themselves - is associated with the movement for recognition of civil rights, which makes it uncomfortable to throw around for marketing purposes if you're not Gypsy/Rom."
So "Gypsy" has become the marketing term du jour, conjuring for some the wild abandon unleashed in bars like New York's Mehanata and a kind of "urban tribalism" rooted in romanticized notions of Gypsies and freedom. The music is freedom's voice, whether it's Balkan-laced indie, electronica or punk, and regardless of the cultural background of the musicians. It's about partying, not politics. That doesn't mean all the musicians involved are comfortable with the designation. Zach Condon, (whose upcoming release The Flying Club Cup is more about Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg than the Balkan brass-band sound of his 2006 hit Gulag Orkestar), dismisses the idea that he has any legitimate connection.
"I have no family ties to it, grew up in no way as a Gypsy," says Condon, speaking by phone from Brooklyn. "The only connection is just how I love the music. Even the album [ Gulag Orkestar]was almost a love letter to Gypsy music. I wasn't trying to write traditional music."
The 21-year-old trumpet player from Albuquerque now divides his time between New York and Paris; in Paris, he has played shows with his "heroes," Macedonia's Gypsy brass band Kocani Orkestar. Condon thinks that the passion young musicians have for the music of bands such as Kocani is in part a reaction to the ethos of the previous generation of indie rockers. "It was so taboo to listen to anything under the guise of world music before. It was as if this music was considered tacky and a novelty. It took a while for people to realize there was heart and soul to that music - it wasn't just something that burnt-out hippies were into."
It also took the German label Crammed Disc releasing recordings of traditional Roma bands like Romania's Taraf De Haidouks in the early 1990s for much of the music to even be readily available in the West. And traditional bands have not exempted themselves from the Gypsy music scene, partly through "Gypsytronica" remixes - Taraf De Haidouks is featured heavily on the popular Electric Gypsyland series. Interestingly its new release, Maskarada, turns to classical music, "re-gypsyfying" (as its publicity material says) compositions by Bartok and other classical composers.
But the clubby Gypsytronica is still going strong - particularly in Europe, where DJs such as Stefan Hantel, a.k.a. Shantel, have popularized "Balkan beats." His new release , Disko Partizani, claims to "undermine the quest for musical authenticity," defining instead the sound of "a new Europe." It may be the new Europe, but the first track showcased on MySpace features one Brenna MacCrimmon, a Canadian singer of Turkish music. Speaking from her Toronto home, MacCrimmon refers to Gypytronica as a "Western reinterpretation," music that "has not emerged from the Gypsy community, but has made the club sound much more interesting."
Some musicians who actually are Roma are benefiting from the interest - even those of partial Roma background, such as Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello (a band not unlike the Pogues in the Shane MacGowan days). And according to Condon, members of Kocani Orkestar are "quite happy" at the attention the music is getting. "There's none of that 'Oh stupid Westerners, what do they know about our music?' " he says. At the same time, Condon hopes people will move away from "drunken sing-alongs" and the punk approach. "I never really saw that attitude in Gypsy music," he says. "I always saw something a little deeper and less adolescent."
Beirut plays the Danforth Music Hall on Oct. 2. Gogol Bordello plays Koolhaus on Oct. 9.