Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  And It Don't Stop
  Book Reports
  Is It Still Good to Ya?
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Xgau Sez
  And It Don't Stop
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Rolling Stone
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
Web Site:
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
CG Search:
Google Search:

In the Crucible of the Party

Romani Lives and the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia
Photographs by Dick Blau, Text by Charles and Angeliki Keil
Wesleyan University Press

"The power of music lies in its participatory discrepancies, and these are basically of two kinds: processual and textural." So declared Charles Keil in his previous book, Music Grooves, an essay collection he co-wrote with MacArthur Fellowship-winning ethnomusicologist Steven Feld. Since you're probably wondering what this jargoneering academic is spouting about, let him continue: "Music, to be personally involving and socially valuable, must be 'out of time' and 'out of tune.'" Now perhaps you're getting Keil's gist, grinning or just as likely grimacing. He's saying that any music worth a damn forswears foursquare rhythms and pure note values. But let him go on: "For participatory discrepancy one could substitute 'inflection,' 'articulation,' 'creative tension,' 'relaxed dynamism,' or 'semiconscious or unconscious slightly out of syncness.' For process one could say 'groove,' 'beat,' 'vital drive,' 'swing,' 'pulse,' or 'push,' and for texture, 'timbre,' 'sound,' 'tone qualities,' 'as arranged by,' and so forth." And so on. You know.

Music Grooves appeared in 1994, the third straight year in which Keil had collaborated on a new book, and in 1995 won the University of Chicago Folklore Prize. It's about far more than music or folklore--Feld's scholarship is broadly suggestive, and Keil is a strikingly original anarcho-humanist thinker. Nevertheless, Keil remains almost unknown outside the tiny discipline of ethnomusicology, where he cuts too wide a swath and too many corners to enjoy the preeminence he deserves. In 1966, at age 26 he published Urban Blues, a study of B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland that both presaged rock criticism and led ethnomusicology away from isolated nonurban "purity" into the global village. Even so, Bright Balkan Morning, Keil's sixth book, is his best so far. Accommodating some 200 illustrations shot and collected by photographer-collaborator Dick Blau, with a Feld soundscape CD situating the somewhat archaic music of the Macedonian Roma in a modern ambience of Stevie Wonder and Christmas carols, it's a beautiful and important work recommended to anyone who cares about how ordinary outsiders get by and get over in a world economy of rampaging corporations and embattled nation states.

Keil's theory of participatory discrepancy was seeded by his experience of black musics in America and Africa. But it was formulated after prolonged contact with the white ethnics who inspired 1992's Polka Happiness, and now the crucible of northern Greece, where his wife and co-author Angeliki grew up. Fundamentally a musical concept, participatory discrepancy serves too as metaphor and model for both universalist humanism and radical pluralism. Africans meet Polish-Americans meet "Gypsies"; the groove of the process meets the roughness of the texture meets the tense-yet-relaxed dynamism of the slightly out-of-sync.

Rather than equating the serious with the somber, the painful, the long-suffering, the tragic, Keil valorizes the urge to party: "Today we let it all go--release, discharge, breaking, spilling, spraying--we give of ourselves, our substance, to each other, and it feels very good." And balancing Charles Keil's flights is Angeliki Keil's detailed attention to human context. Not that Charles doesn't see such things; he's a sensitive reporter who scrupulously follows the money that passes to these professional musicians. But he leaves full description to his wife, a sociologist who fills in some history and contributes nine oral autobiographies and three round-tables. And first, Roma scholar Ian Hancock lays out origins.

Gypsies, as the Roma are still often known, began as soldiers and/or camp followers in armies raised in India to repel Islamic invaders shortly after 1000 A.D. Their language is a patois inflected by all the many tongues with which it's coexisted, especially Byzantine Greek, and while their musical vocation goes back to their army days, "gypsy music" per se is a chimera. The Roma have no music of their own--Spanish flamenco and Hungarian verbunkos, both also considered Gypsy genres, sound nothing like the zurna-and-dauli trios chronicled by Keil, who had no luck locating the "authentic" music he was told Greek-Macedonian Roma played for themselves. They are entertainers who are prouder of their technique than their culture and who call themselves "instrumentalists" rather than the artier "musicians." Keil dwells on this distinction; he likes the idea of artists being merely "instrumental," servants of some larger force. In Macedonia, two such forces are prominent.

First is the ancient sound of the zurnas (imagine a cross between a clarinet and an alto sax with wavery pitch), and the dauli (a double-headed bass drum thumped with a big stick on one side and rattled with a little one on the other). Second is the modern culture clash of Greek Macedonia, where Keil breaks down influences into "Vlach, Sarakatsan, Slavic, Pontic, Thracian, Romani--and so many more local variants"--not least the "ethnic Greeks" from Asia Minor who were forcibly repatriated circa 1923, after the Greco-Turkish War. The zurnas, which are fighting a rear-guard battle against clarinets, bouzoukis, and DJ sound systems, link Macedonian revelers to both immemorial ritual and the party ideal of kefi, a borrowed Turkish term whose meaning Keil teases out in an eloquent endnote. But the zurnas achieve this link to the deep past only by encompassing the heterogeneous impurity of the region where they happen to survive.

Given the ethnic warfare that triggered World War I and has beset the Balkans post-Tito, we may think of Greece as a paragon of democratic stability. But into the bitterly fought Communist insurgency of the late '40s, its 20th century history was every bit as Balkanized, with the Roma a visible dark-skinned minority. Identified with none of the region's supposedly indigenous groups, they mediate among all of them. Weddings typically bring together families of inconveniently mixed ethnic loyalties as well as a stew of bosses, clients, employees, co-workers, neighbors, and fellow students. As a result, Roma musicians pride themselves on their knowledge of multiple song traditions, all filtered through instruments that predate those traditions and played with technical skill, crafty showmanship, and expressive flair--in strict request order.

Bright Balkan Morning celebrates the interactive energy of this process--the participatory discrepancies that animate the relationship of an instrumentalist to his audience and his fellow players. Moreover, its form embodies the values of collaboration--Blau and Feld contribute illuminating essays, and in the end Angeliki gets more pages than Charles. This is a plus--her prose has loosened up since Polka Happiness, and her vivid description of the war-ravaged Greece of her childhood helps establish a tone that the interviews flesh out.

The slant here could be branded anti-modern; after 30 years pursuing an instrument that could be disappearing from the face of the earth, no anarcho-humanist is likely to be down with disco sound systems or, more broadly, capitalist development and homogenization. But the Keils never allow their devotion to music to compromise their deeper devotion to human society. Angeliki's documentation of the material struggles of the Roma make it seem not just natural but admirable for the instrumentalists to count their money, move up the class ladder, and put music aside when a more remunerative line of work presents itself in or out of Macedonia. And far from dismissing self-consciously "cultural" if not government-supported attempts to prop up old musics as unnatural, they welcome them as the progressive historical developments they are.

In the end, however, it's the music itself that inspires Charles Keil--music he describes with a vigor and affection that's rare in any species of writing, much less the academic kind: "With my back to a wall, I immediately feel the throbbing overtones. Sometimes I feel them as an identifiable higher-pitched tone inside my head, but more often they register as a sensation of blurring, static, dust on the needle of a record player, a buzz like the one that sometimes comes from being too close to the speakers of a loud rock band." Mere sensationalism, sniff the canon-keepers of "classical"'s rival European tradition. Keil, who has been combatting this tradition all his life, begs to differ. The party goal of kefi, he observes, is a conscious spiritual mechanism, different from duende or Gemutlichkeit or even ecstasy--it's more a "contemplative 'emotional engrossment'" that shouldn't be romanticized, or sensationalized. "There is in Greek parties an element of 'fake it until you make it,' as when African American gospel shouters pretend to be filled with the holy spirit until in fact they are. But as Greek partyers shout out 'Oh!' or 'Aman!' or people at tables burst into song, they may be in their kefi or inducing it in themselves and others, but they are not out of their minds or having an 'out-of-body' experience."

This is what Charles Keil envisions--nothing less than a reconciliation, as opposed to obliteration, of the mind-body dualism that causes so much pain in the world. He's too realistic to believe that this reconciliation will be accomplished in history with zurnas; he'll be pleased if the horns he loves hang on at all. But he's never going to stop promulgating it. Bright Balkan Morning is his strongest argument yet.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, Dec. 3, 2002