30. April 2022
In the early 2000s, the Eastern European sound suddenly conquered the West. Unlikely pop stars, Romanian and Serbian brass bands could be heard everywhere. In addition to the techno raves and reggae parties, discos with exclusively Eastern European repertoire were suddenly taking place in every club.
In these good times, my fellow musicians often raved about Balkan Trafik, the festival in Brussels with a great program, grateful audience and delicious Belgian beer. The tremendous popularity of this music has waned, but Balkan Trafik has survived.
It’s my first festival appearance in two years
This year I’m invited to be part of the program with the eight piece band Rasta Zeneca. I land at Brussels airport and the first thing I notice is the blue and yellow flags on every advertising display. “Our hearts go out to Ukrainian people,” it says.
Rasta Zeneca is an international band, its members are not only from Belgium but also from France and Spain. Everyone arrives a day early to rehearse. I worked with some of them just before the Corona outbreak, it’s nice to meet them again. We hug like we just saw each other yesterday.
The beer is flowing and I wish I could drink to finally relax. But I can’t drink and I can’t switch off either
The plan is for the band to play a few songs alone first, and then the guest singers will come in – me for four songs and then Amparo Sanchez from Amparanoia. I’ve had her album on my CD shelf for at least 20 years, I used to enjoy listening to it and playing it, including the song “Somos Viento”, where the songs are sung in Russian as well as Spanish. During the rehearsal, I find out that the song is also included in our joint concert.
When we’re on stage the next day, everything works out much better than I feared after the chaotic sound check. It’s my first festival in two years, it’s sold out, the audience is happy. The musicians are euphoric, they can play again! I should be happy too. But that’s just not possible. It looks like I’m the only Ukrainian on the festival stage. I tell the 3000 guests please don’t stop, Ukraine at war to support against the Russian monsters.
Goran Bregović, probably the biggest star of Balkan music in the last 30 years, will play after us. The enthusiasm can be felt in front of and behind the stage. Suddenly the space between the artists’ dressing rooms is full of women in long colorful skirts who would like to snap a selfie with the maestro. I used to be a fan too – until 2015, when Mr. Bregović played in Crimea, which was occupied by Russia. In his interviews he often says he is apolitical. And against wars, of course.
On stage, Bregović appears in all white. He and his orchestra for weddings and funerals start their set. The maestro introduces his musicians. The women’s choir to his right comes from Bulgaria, he says, the wind instruments on the left are from Serbia. The audience cheers. I load my electric guitar and heavy amplifier into the minibus.
Amparo Sanchez is also here. Because I don’t want to listen to Bregović’s greatest hits and I’m about to leave, now might be my last chance to talk to her. “Amparo,” I ask, “why are you singing in Russian in ‘Somos Viento’?” She once had a babysitter from Moldova, she tells me, and when Amparo wanted to write a chorus in an Eastern European language, she suggested Russian, because that’s how all other Eastern Europeans would understand the text.
Interesting how times change and with it the meaning of songs. And so I say that I’m having a hard time singing in Russian right now. Amparo can’t understand that, “But the Russians are really sad about the war,” she replies. I think I don’t quite understand them, maybe it’s because we speak English or the music is just too loud.
“In the death car we’re alive,” sings Bregović, and the women’s choir responds with a long, beautiful “Aaaaaaaaa.” “Unfortunately I can’t agree with you, there are a lot of Russians in my country right now, Amparo! I don’t think they’re sad!” I say. “But they aren’t Russians,” she contradicts me. “These are… soldiers! The soldiers do the same everywhere, they kill people… the American soldiers…”
I briefly consider whether I want to get involved in a discussion. At this moment we hear the first notes of Goran Bregović’s biggest hit, “Kalasjnikov”. “I LOVE this song!” says Amparo, singing along. I used to love this song too, but now all I want to do is throw up.