A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 5, 2007
Oh no! Not another newspaper story about Borat. That’s so 2006.
Well, it’s probably true that Sacha Baron Cohen’s hilarious movie about the clueless “reporter” from the great nation of Kazakhstan got more than its share of media hype.
But one aspect of the movie that didn’t get as much attention as it deserved was the music. It’s not often I leave a movie theater thinking, “I’ve got to get my hands on the soundtrack CD!” O Brother, Where Art Thou? was one case where this happened. And now there’s the Borat movie, which has a lovely companion CD called Stereophonic Musical Listenings That Have Been Origin in Moving Film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
The soundtrack is peppered with short dialogue segments and other bits from the movie.
There’s even the infamous Borat honky-tonk singalong “In My Country There Is Problem (Throw the Jew Down the Well),” which was not in the movie but has become a YouTube hit. (I believe this little performance doesn’t prove that the people in that saloon, or Americans in general, are anti-Semites as much as it proves that if you get Americans drunk enough, and keep the melody simple enough, we’ll sing along with anything.)
But the Borat shtick here is the least interesting part of this album. It’s the music itself. Before any serious, scholarly ethnomusicologist types get themselves in a tizzy, the first thing you have to know about this soundtrack is that just like the character of Borat, there’s little, if any, Kazakhstan in it. Oh, well. We Americans don’t know much about geography.
Instead, the bulk of the music on the CD is from Eastern Europe. It’s a good sampling of Gypsy music, Balkan brass bands, and a smattering of Eastern-bloc Euro-cheese. As Borat might say, “It don’t mean a thing unless it’s got that ‘Bing bang, bing bang bing.’”
The CD features a couple of brass bands I’d already checked out on Calabash Music: Macedonia’s Kocani Orkestar (pictured below right) and Fanfare Ciocarlia, a Gypsy group from eastern Romania that does a splendid (and nearly unrecognizable) cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.” (Listening to the CD the first time in my car, I didn’t realize what this song was until the chorus.)
When watching the movie, I perked up when Kocani’s joyful, infectious song “Siki, Siki Baba” played. I recognized it from the concert by the band Beirut at the College of Santa Fe a few weeks before.
There are a couple of fun remix experiments. Mahala Rai Banda’s brassy “Mahalageasca” gets a jacked-up “Bucovina Dub” treatment by German DJ Shantel and “Eu Vin Acasa Cu Drag” — which longtime Borat fans know as the bingy-bangy theme to his segment on Da Ali G Show — gets a hip-hoppy version by Stefan de la Barbulesti. And some of the guiltiest pleasures are the synthy faux-Balkan sleaze from O.M.F.O. (Our Man From Odessa), who provides a couple of tasty if tacky tunes on the album.
The Borat soundtrack also features the great Macedonian singer — and Nobel Peace Prize nominee — Esma Redzepova. She’s reportedly planning to sue the film producers for using her “Chaje Shukarije,” which begins the soundtrack CD with a rousing shout. Take a number, Esma. The Borat litigation line is getting long.
And seriously, a lawsuit would be extremely shortsighted. This soundtrack provides excellent exposure for the wonderful music from the region — even if that region isn’t where it’s supposed to be.
So you want Kazakh music ...
*The Best of Urker: 10 Years Anniversary. No, this isn’t music by that weird little kid with the big glasses who had a sitcom back in the early ’90s. This is one of Kazakhstan’s most popular bands. If this is the best the country has to offer, I can see why the Borat crew decided to go with the Balkan stuff instead.
There are a few tracks here that are more than listenable. But most of it is earnestly overproduced pop that sounds like a bad Central Asian version of ABBA. The western world must have dumped all its toxic ’80s synths in this poor Third World Nation.
Surprisingly, one of the better tracks here is a patriotic number called “Moy Kazakhstan.” It’s got a cool electric-guitar riff and loud rhythm track. I don’t know what the words mean, but it would sound great in a set with Borat’s fake Kazakh national anthem.
You can listen for yourself HERE.
*Lon Gisland by Beirut and The Way the Wind Blows by A Hawk and a Hacksaw. Here’s a couple of good examples of domestic versions of the Balkan sound. And both of these bands have ties to this Enchanted Land.
Beirut is led by former Santa Fe kid Zach Condon. H&H is based in Albuquerque. Lon Gisland, a five-song EP, is the follow-up to Gulag Orkestar, Beirut’s astonishing debut last year. There’s even a new version of “Scenic World” from Gulag. Like the previous effort, the EP is full of trumpets, accordions, old country melodies and Condon’s melancholic vocals. “Elephant Gun,” with its ukulele intro, is my favorite track here, but the best title is “My Family’s Role in the World Revolution.”
H&H, which opened for Beirut in Santa Fe last year, is full of sweet Roma and klezmer soul. The group consists of Jeremy Barnes (formerly of Neutral Milk Hotel) on percussion (including a jingle-bells hat) and accordion and Heather Trost on violin.
They are fortified on this record by horns and other instruments on some songs (played by members of Fanfare Ciocarlia). All are irresistible. My favorites are “Fernando’s Giampari,” which sounds like the best circus band you’ve ever heard, and “God Bless the Ottoman Empire,” which begins with an oud solo followed by menacing drums and what sounds like a clarinet or alto sax.
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