Friday, October 20, 2006


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
October 20, 2006

Q: Was growing up in Santa Fe boring?
A: I’m sure that’s every adolescent’s complaint about their hometown. When a city is unstimulating, you get pretty isolated. That’s probably why I did what I did.

It almost sounds like the confession of a teenage sociopath who’s discussing some hideous atrocity he perpetrated. But this interview isn’t from some A&E true-crime show; it’s from Pitchfork, an online music magazine.

The bored, unstimulated Santa Fe youth is not some school-ground psycho but rather Zach Condon, a rising young musician with an album that’s rightfully getting great ink and word-of-mouth from places far and wide.

And the deed that he did, inspired by his “isolation,” was to retreat into his room — you can almost feel the presence of Brian Wilson’s spirit at this point — and create what would become the album Gulag Orkestar, released under the name Beirut.

Condon, now 20, did what most Santa Fe kids unfortunately have to do. He got out. Moved to Brooklyn.

But he’s coming home to visit. You can check out Condon and Beirut — which has grown from a boy and his ProTools into as much as a 10-piece band — Wednesday, Oct. 25, at the College of Santa Fe and Thursday, Oct. 26, at the Launchpad in Albuquerque.

While most American musicians his age are inspired by punk rock or hip-hop, Condon was inspired by the soundtracks of movies by Sarajevo-born director Emir Kusturica and by the Balkan brass bands Condon heard while bumming around Europe.

Beirut isn’t the first American band to employ Eastern European elements. There are bands like the gypsy punk of Gogol Bordello, the Bulgarian metal of Kultur Shock, and Balkan blues-blowers Hazmat Modine.

But none of these are as richly textured as what’s found on Gulag Orkestar. Condon seems to be walking some of the same rainy streets that Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits have tread, though even these comparisons fall short.

The sound is based on slightly off-kilter trumpets, accordion, rat-a-tat drums, keyboards and — for reasons not explained, though it works — a ukulele.

One of his cohorts on the record is Jeremy Barnes, former drummer for Georgia indie-rock geniuses Neutral Milk Hotel (and the lesser known A Hawk and a Hacksaw, which opens for Beirut on Tuesday).

And his voice! Condon has a sweet but world-weary croon that seems to come from a soul much older than the kid at the microphone. There’s an undeniably sad tone at work here. Many of the songs sound like funeral dirges, a jazz funeral down the back streets of Budapest, or a circus parade through a Bosnian slum.

Songs like the bolero “Bratislava” suggest a Spanish influence. There are strange pieces, such as the dream-world pop of the final track, “After the Curtain.”

Something tells me that future works by Condon and Beirut might sound completely different. Condon is young, curious, and hungry. There’s a whole world for him to digest. It’ll be a pleasure to hear him do it.

Beirut plays at the College of Santa Fe’s O’Shaughnessy Performance Space in Benildus Hall, 1600 St. Michael’s Drive, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25; tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the door, call 473-6511. The band performs at the Launchpad, 618 Central Ave. S.W., in Albuquerque, on Thursday, Oct. 26. Doors open at 8 p.m., entrance is $5; call 505-764-8887.

Balkan brass bands and other Eastern European sounds: Want to hear for yourself some of the sounds that inspired Gulag Orkestar? One good place to start is Calabash Music, a major online source of world music.

* L’ Orient Est Rouge by Kocani Orkestar. In interviews Condon has listed this Macedonian band as one of his favorites. The group boasts two trumpets, three tubas, saxophone, clarinet, zurla (a traditional oboe), and percussion. The track that reminds me most of Beirut is the final song, “Djelem, Djelem,” which starts out slow and brooding.

*Live in Belgrade by Boban Markovic Orkestar. This 12-piece Serbian band has been featured in Kusturica soundtracks. They do a rousing version of “Hava Nagila,” though I’m most impressed by the percussion-heavy “Vodopad” and the 11-minute medley of several tunes that allows the band to stretch out.

*Gamagai by Cankisou. This one, which I’ve been listening to for several months, is my favorite of all these. It’s the least traditional and the most rocked out. This can’t be called a brass band — there’s no brass. But there are crazy saxophones and even crazier rhythms. And sorry, Jono, they make the didgeridoo sound really cool. They claim to be based on the culture of the Canki people, a legendary race of one-legged people with roots in Africa and the Mideast.

Radio Beirut: Hear Beirut, various Balkan brass bands, and other bands mentioned here on Terrell’s Sound World Sunday night on KSFR 90.7 FM. The show starts at 10 p.m., but I’ll start this set right after the 11th hour. And don’t forget the The Santa Fe Opry, country music as the good Lord intended it to sound, same time, same station, Friday nights.


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