Going Berserk for BASORK
The genre-defying ensemble is set to intoxicate Belfast this September with a cocktail of celebratory sounds gathered from across the continent
For fans of heady brass riffs, odd-metre rhythms and fiery fusions of pan-European folk, then the MAC is the place to be on September 7, when BASORK rocks up with its intoxicating, Balkans-inspired fare.
The concert is a celebration of the band’s debut release, Balkan Alien Sound Orchestra, already a contender for ‘Best of Year’ lists in World Music/contemporary folk categories.
Not that BASORK’s music fits snuggly into any preconceived genre, for the influences of Irish traditional music and the spirit of jazz improvisation are equal parts of the equation, in keeping with the band’s ‘music-without-borders’ ethos.
Founded in 2008, the all-Irish ensemble began life as the six-piece Balkan Alien Sound, evolving into the current ten-piece incarnation during bouzouki player and co-founder Marty Coyle’s tenure as Musician-In-Residence at Derry’s Nerve Centre.
‘The Balkan Alien Sound had already been going as a six-piece for about ten years and we were composing tunes that were essentially a bit bigger than the band could handle,’ Coyle explains.
‘I saw the residency as an opportunity to expand it to tackle the compositions. I spent most of the year composing the tunes with founding members Robert Peoples and Marc Forbes and then rehearsing for the album.’
The album was recorded between August 2016 and April of this year and proved challenging in more ways than one. ‘They were intense sessions because there were so many people involved,’ says Coyle. ‘It was also quite an intense few months because my wife had twins in the middle of it, so there was a lot of juggling, but we got there in the end.’
When one thinks of Balkan folk bands, Romany-Romanian legends like Fanfare Ciocârlia and Taraf de Haïdouks with their 200-beats-per-minute onslaught spring to mind. If anything, however, BASORK’s music has more in common with the more expansive musical ethos of Serbian-Croat composer Goran Bregović, whose Wedding and Funeral Band absorbs influences as a mighty river does tributaries.
The source of BASORK’s music that sprang up a decade ago was certainly purer and simpler in essence than the polyphonic, multidimensional music it has evolved into today.
‘At the start we were almost like a European trad band with something like a jazz set-up so there was a lot of improvisation, but it’s developed over the past 10 years. Our original compositions draw from all our influences, rather than just taking, say, a Bulgarian piece and treating it like a jazz standard,’ Coyle explains.
‘There are elements of jazz and Irish traditional music,’ he acknowledges, ‘but we try to be as free as we can be with our own influences. It’s about bringing your own personality into the Balkan influence.’
Listening to the album Balkan Alien Sound Orchestra, the overtly Eastern European colours are most in evidence in the knotty time signatures and odd rhythms, while the disparate musical personalities of the orchestra members make themselves felt in a potent cocktail.
‘The violin player [Robert Peoples] is from a punk and classical background,’ says Coyle. ‘We’ve got a lot of traditional session players, both jazz and Irish traditional, and our tuba player [Amanda Koser-Gillespie] is a marching band leader, so there’s a wide palette.’
BASORK’s palette has been widened still by guest musicians Nick Roth on saxophone and harmonica player Tom Byrne.
The multifaceted Roth, head of Diatribe Records, arguably Ireland’s most consistently daring music label, and founder of Yurodny, the country’s preeminent Balkans-inspired group, was a logical collaborator.
‘I’ve been following Yurodny for the past 10 years and they’ve been a massive influence on my writing style,’ recognizes Coyle. ‘I’ve had Yurodny up to Derry a few times to play and our friendship has developed as well. We’re definitely two different types of band though I think the ethos where we’re coming from is the same.’
Roth’s alto saxophone weaves a snaking improvisation on the albums’ one non-original tune, ‘Dog River’, by the genre-defying Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou Khalil.
‘Rabih Abou Khalil has been one of the most influential artists for myself certainly. When we were putting together the orchestra we were heavily influenced by Rabih Abou Khalil’s set-up as well,’ says Coyle.
‘Marc Forbes [bass player] and I probably learnt ‘Dog River’ while we were studying music at university and it’s taken almost 10 years to find a band to do a treatment of it live. It’s one of my favourite tracks to play live with the orchestra.’
The other guest musician on Balkan Alien Sound Orchestra, harmonica player Tom Byrne, may seem like a more left-field choice, but he brings something special to the mix, as Coyle explains.
‘Tom’s harmonica playing is almost like listening to an accordion – he is an accordion player – so he does come at it from a different angle. We actually found a lot of Bulgarian traditional music played on harmonicas in duos with guitar, so I had a sense of how that music was sounding on harmonica. He’s playing chromatic harmonica so he can easily tackle those weird Bulgarian scales that we’re using.’
There’s also a strong vocal element in BASORK, courtesy of Aideen Davis, who has been in the band for around seven years.
‘Throughout her career she’s sung in Spanish, Serbian, Roma-gypsy and a lot of Macedonian,’ says Coyle. ‘She also has free range to improvise around scales where she’s really just belting it out, improvising on gypsy scales.’
Coyle is clearly satisfied with the balance of elements within the band. ‘I’m eager to keep this line-up of the BASORK because as we play more live gigs we can bring in more elements of improvisation as we get to know each other better.’
The music was mixed by David Lyttle and the production qualities on the self-produced record are high. ‘It’s out on vinyl on Sick Records in Belfast,’ says Coyle, ‘and it comes with a free digital download as well.’
Marty Coyle and David Lyttle
A CD version of Balkan Alien Sound Orchestra will be released a little later in the year to coincide with a larger tour, which will take in other Irish dates as well as a tour of Poland.
Poland is a country that BASORK knows well, having undertaken a 19-date tour there in 2016. ‘We did the whole country,’ says Coyle. ‘We did workshops in the schools as well as concerts – a sort of East-meets-West workshop. We mightn’t speak each other’s languages but through music we can communicate.’
The group has toured the length and breadth of Ireland, performed at Glastonbury and WOMAD and also played clubs, concert halls and festivals in England, Holland and Spain.
For what is essentially celebratory music, BASORK might seem best suited to a festival environment, but the band is just as much at home in more formal venues such as the MAC.
‘I enjoy both settings,’ says Coyle. ‘In the MAC we’re going to have a high quality on stage sound but the music does translate to a party and if a crowd start dancing we’ll be dancing along with them! This is our first Belfast show with this line-up so we’re kind of buzzing to get on it.’
For those who may be a bit unsure about BASORK’s Balkans-inspired, jazz and Irish trad-influenced brand of music, Coyle has a simple message.
‘There are many different genres coming under the umbrella of BASORK, so there’s a bit of something in there for everybody. Get out, come along and have a nosy. You’ll be surprised.’
BASORK will perform at the MAC, Belfast on Thursday, September 7 at 8.00pm. Tickets can be booked online at www.themaclive.com/event/basork or by phoning the box office on 028 9023 5053.