It was love at first listen for Oliver Sutton. As the Orkestar Slivovica bandleader reveals, once you’ve heard Serbian brass-band music, you can’t go back. And that’s just as well—had the extroverted saxophonist not been listening to the radio back in the days when he was working construction, he might still be playing the accordion.
“This all started because I was listening to a college radio station from Vancouver Island called Village 900,” Sutton recalls, on the line from his Vancouver home. “There were three of us musicians working together—we all knew each other from different bands—and this particular tune came on. We all stopped working and were absolutely mesmerized by it. The other two didn’t take it anywhere, but I was so enthralled by it that I researched it, discovered it was from Serbia, and that it was by some dude called Boban Markovic. And within a month I was booking a ticket to go to Serbia for the summer, to go to the famous Guca Festival.”
As Sutton describes it, the Guca fest sounds like heaven for brass-band fans, and a carnivore’s delight as well.
“I was just transfixed by the music,” he says. “We spent the four days of the festival just going from one music scene to another. It’s got a big main stage in a soccer stadium where all the big stuff happens, but all the fun is really in the streets of the village, which is transformed into a giant beer garden. You can walk about with your alcohol, and there’s pigs roasting on spits, and everywhere you look there’s a brass band playing.”¦It was absolutely amazing. I’ve never been to a festival before or after that compares.”
On returning home, Sutton put his accordion aside, bought a saxophone, and along with his bass-drum-bashing girlfriend, Kristina Zalite, started organizing the group that would eventually become Orkestar Slivovica—named, in tribute to the intoxicating effect of Serbian music, after the region’s fiery plum brandy. And now, just a few years later, they’re hosting their own miniature version of the Guca event, in the form of Ederlezi, which they’re billing as a Balkan Brass Band Spring Festival.
“Every culture in temperate climates has a springtime festival of some sort,” Sutton explains. “Very often there’s some saint’s day or religious holiday that’s picked as the main reason, but it’s really just about the coming of spring, and it always happens around the beginning of May. Ederlezi is the Roma version of St. George’s Day—St. George is really popular in Eastern Orthodox religions. But it’s all about celebrating the coming of spring and slaughtering sheep and having a big party, and we’re trying to celebrate spring in that kind of fashion. Except we’ll skip the sheep-slaughtering part and go right to the party.”
Vegetarians take note: the only thing meaty at this brassy bash will be the music.
Of the four featured bands, Sutton notes that Mezamazing works a kind of Bosnian punk sound, mixing accordions, horns, and electric guitars, while Lasqueti Island’s Bolting Brassicas lean toward the klezmer side of the spectrum. Both his group and Seattle’s Orkestar Zirkonium specialize in the kind of music that Markovic and Goran Bregovic have made mildly famous, however: fast-and-funky horn music anchored by tubas and tenor sousaphones.
“It’s important to distinguish between this music and the more folky Balkan music,” Sutton explains. “This is not the music one really thinks of when you think ”˜little Balkan village and a quiet village band with strings and accordion, maybe’. This is wedding music, and it’s derived from military music from the Ottoman Empire. So it’s an interesting blend. It’s got big piles of brass instruments, and a bass drum pounding away, but instead of having straightforward marches it’s in off-time rhythms—9/8 is very common. And it’s music that’s dramatic and powerful, very sad in some ways and very joyful in others, very danceable—it just reaches every level of you, as a listener.”
Within the style, he adds, there are some important variations. “The Roma musicians mess with it a lot more,” he adds. “They do crazy things. They mess with the time: the drum may be playing it straight, but everyone else is kind of shifting around the beat a little bit, pushing it or dragging it here and there. We try to play more that way too; it’s a lot more fun.”
So much fun, he adds, that Orkestar Slivovica concerts have, occasionally, become clothing-optional events.
“We’ve had people stripping in front of us, they just got so ecstatic from the music.”
Presumably the members of the Luciterra Tribal Bellydancers and the Gradina Serbian Folk Dance Troupe, who’ll also perform at Ederlezi, will remain at least partially clothed. But there’s no telling what those in the crowd will do.
“The traditional dances that go with this music are circle dances, so sometimes we’ll come down off the stage and have people circle around us,” Sutton says. “We’ll even play at individual people’s feet sometimes, to make them dance faster. That sort of thing’s just an awful lot of fun.”
Orkestar Slivovica plays the Ederlezi Balkan Brass Band Spring Festival at the Commercial Drive Legion on Friday (May 7).