Innerviews, music without borders

Balkan Fanatik
Balance and Coexistence
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2010 Anil Prasad.

When Balkan Fanatik first hit the scene in their native Hungary in 2002, the innovative electronica act was taking a big risk. It chose to mesh modern beats, grooves and loops with traditional Hungarian music—a rarity in a nation that has infrequently explored its folk heritage within the pop spectrum. The group had no idea what reaction to expect when it released its 2003 self-titled, debut release. Would Hungarian youth embrace it? And would traditionalists reject the attempt at creating a new musical hybrid?

It turns out Balkan Fanatik had little to worry about. The bold album—combining hard-hitting dance music, English and Hungarian rap, traditional Hungarian vocals, and myriad regional instruments—was an instant hit and celebrated as a major cultural achievement across multiple demographics. It also went on to win two of Hungary’s most prestigious arts awards: the Bezeredj Prize from the Cultural Ministry for preserving national heritage, and a Fonogram Prize—the Hungarian equivalent of the Grammy award—for Best World Music Album of the Year. An equally adventurous follow-up, 2006’s Hungarikum, served to cement Balkan Fanatik as one of Hungary’s leading musical voices.

The success of its first two albums catapulted Balkan Fanatik’s creative nucleus of Gábor Lepés, known as Lepe, and Georgios Tzortzoglou, who goes by Jorgos, to domestic stardom. They also served as a catalyst for the emergence of many other Hungarian electronica artists that integrate traditional music into their work. But Lepe, Balkan Fanatik’s sound engineer, producer and programmer, and Jorgos, a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist who plays lute, trumpet, flute, and hurdy gurdy; wanted to push themselves further for their recently-released third effort American Perestroika.

The new album finds Balkan Fanatik combining forces with acclaimed U.S. hip-hop artist Prophet, known for his work with Timbaland, Chris Cornell and Hillary Duff. Prophet performs on several tracks, including the lead single and video “Love Gone Wrong” and “Don’t Be Shy”—a rap/spoken-word duet with the group’s frontwoman Sonita. The goal of the collaboration was to create an even more seamless blend of Hungarian and Western music, as well as introduce Balkan Fanatik to overseas audiences. Balkan Fanatik and Prophet recently performed together at the group’s debut U.S. concerts in Los Angeles to enthusiastic crowds. Further U.S. shows are scheduled in September for New York City and Miami, with Mexico gigs following in November.

Another major Balkan Fanatik-related project is A Gathering of Strangers, by Urban Native Traditions Of Integrated Europe (U.N.I.T.E.). It’s an album by Transglobal Underground’s Tim Whealen and Hamid Man Tu that showcases and integrates musicians, traditions and genres from across Europe. Lepe and Balkan Fanatik’s folk singer Nori Kovacs are significant contributors to the disc. Lepe and Sonita spoke to Innerviews about Balkan Fanatik’s fascinating history, U.N.I.T.E., and the group’s future plans.

Why did you choose to name the new album American Perestroika?

Lepe: We’re referring to our “fanatical” determination to introduce our Eastern European and Balkan culture and heritage to Western audiences, even those across the ocean, via our new music. The title also symbolizes our work with Prophet, a fantastic American hip-hop artist. This collaboration is one of the most important East-meets-West elements emphasized on the album.

American Perestroika continues to illustrate Balkan Fanatik’s drive to serve as a bridge between Hungarian and other global cultures. We established the band so we could explore our own folk culture, reinvent it for Hungarian and international audiences, and ultimately resurrect it from the abandoned, neglected state it has been pushed into through the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon cultural influence of today and the earlier Communist dictatorship.

The title also reflects our feelings about having the U.S. open up to the rest of the world, in a way similar to how The Soviet Union did under Gorbachev. We're starting to see some of this happen with Obama, so progress is being made.

Why is there a bigger emphasis on English lyrics on this album compared to the previous ones?

Lepe: We wanted to reach wider audiences through English lyrics. On earlier albums, we tried to be accessible to our Hungarian audiences with the help of Hungarian rappers, which was previously very important to us. Since then, the younger generation of Hungary has grown up and for them English is such an obvious second language—it’s the “official language of pop music.” Having said that, we’ve left the authentic, original folk pieces we integrate as they are, since these are treasures we wish to share with the world. 

There’s a very strong message of female and sexual empowerment on the album. Tell me about your interest in making those statements.

Sonita: When I wrote those songs, I concentrated on the feeling of the music. I asked “What does it give to me?” and “How do I feel about it?” The first thing that came to my mind when I heard the basis of the song “Don’t Be Shy” was the Kama Sutra. I started to read about it and realized it’s about embracing yourself as you are and not being shy to show it to the person you love. I tried putting these studies into my music and that’s how it got created.  I think what I sing about in that song should be treated as something totally natural in anyone’s life.

Some of the lyrics are highly provocative and politically incorrect by U.S. standards. Describe the desire to include such bold words.

Sonita: On the new album, I wrote all the lyrics that I sung and frankly, I did not think about being politically correct while I was writing. Music is simply about feelings and what they give to you. I am doing music for myself—this is my life. But if there are people who like what I do and what I sing about, then they understand it. So, I don’t really have to worry about people who are concerned about me being politically incorrect, because that was never my intention.

How did you hook up with Prophet?

Lepe: While we worked on "Love Gone Wrong," we felt the only way we could overcome cultural boundaries was by having an American hip-hop artist contribute to the song. Luckily, with the help of our friend Eszter Zakarias and her L.A. connections, we got in touch with Prophet, who we got to know through cyberspace.

Describe the collaborative process with Prophet.

Lepe: What we did was send Prophet the finished base and structure of "Love Gone Wrong" as an MP3. We translated the story of the original folk song to help him understand what it’s about. He wanted us to leave him alone with it for a few weeks, and then he came back with a fully-developed concept. He found his role in the story right away. It was genius how he reacted to the original Hungarian folk song from his own perspective. He placed the familiar, everyday love situation within this new dimension, giving it new meaning.  It was so successful that we felt as if we had been working together for over a decade.  We were so happy that we ended up doing a third of the album with Prophet.

What can you tell me about the creative process for Balkan Fanatik in general?

Lepe: It usually begins with Jorgos who’s always bombarding me with new ideas and melodies based on his 40 years of folk music knowledge and experience. He’s the one who provides the initial push for the projects. I try to imagine a new idea in one style or another, and then the creative process pushes forward, often filled with lengthy debates involving the two of us. Once the basic concepts are discussed, we involve other contributors in the process. We work together well as a production team. 

What are the biggest challenges you face when making music and how do you overcome them?

Lepe: Most of the time, we’re able to balance the harmony of the coexistence of the authentic folk and modern music. There are periods, however, when we feel stuck. In these cases, we usually go back to the starting point and look for a new direction. We always have a bunch of material we simply put aside or trash. This definitely happened with American Perestroika. We worked on the new material for over two years after the Hungarikum album. At one point, we finished 80-90 percent of the songs, but during the fall of 2008, we were struck by some new impulses. We started creating the newer songs along the lines of a more modern concept and poured a lot of new ideas into them. By the beginning of 2009, we came up with enough material for a Dual Disc release. We threw out the songs that didn’t fit into the new concept and with that, American Perestroika was born.

What can you tell me about how you go about integrating traditional Hungarian and Greek music into electronica?

Lepe: We are working as painters and artists. In fact, Jorgos is actually a contemporary painter, as well as a musician. Together, we shape the material, combining authentic music with electronica until we feel it works together seamlessly, using a progressive production approach. The formula is simple. The secret lies within feeling the ecstatic nature of it all. Our Hungarian culture of folk music is very deep-rooted, and comes from a very ancient, sometimes shamanistic, mystical place. Perhaps I could compare it to the Native American Indians which we all know have a lot of similarities with Siberian shaman cultures. The Hungarians are relatives to those tribes. If we succeed in creating an ecstatic quality in our songs, then the presence of the two elements—authentic folk and electronica—will be authentic as a whole. You have to feel what kind of electric pulse the authentic music requires and carefully incorporate it.

Do you feel Balkan Fanatik has helped young Hungarians establish a relationship with traditional Hungarian music?

Lepe: Our folk music culture has typically remained a completely separate genre. However, for a very long time, folk music has been a part of pop music around the world.  In Hungary, this breakthrough only occurred in the past 10 years. We played a pioneering role in this process. But ever since we helped open the door, lots of young talented bands have emerged that are trying to do similar things like us, which is a positive development.

What did it mean for you to win the Bezeredj Prize for preserving Hungarian cultural heritage?

Lepe: This recognition means a lot to us, since it demonstrates that our movement and efforts have been important and resonated at a very high level. In the last 10 years, something special was born that should have started at least 40 years ago.

What musical evolution do you see across your three albums to date?

Lepe: Our debut self-titled album was a call out to the world to announce our existence. The material had a lot to do with soul searching, and was very experimental. In many ways, we were very careful with the authentic folk music. For us, it was a bit about “preserving heritage.” For many people, it remains the most easily accessible album. The second album, Hungarikum, has a message to the world and also to Hungarians that there is a way to carry our ancient culture into the future, and that it can only originate from Hungary. Musically, the album reflects our courage to “crush” the authentic. American Perestroika is our most modern album. It’s more built-up and based on a concept than any of the previous ones. We love this one the best. This album has three components. One-third is Prophet’s rap. One-third is Sonita’s sexuality. And one-third is the Greek "Ipyros" atmosphere, which refers to the beautiful, sad and moody melodies the region is known for.

I was at the Hungarikum album release concert in Budapest and was blown away by the combination of electronics, rappers, singers, live musicians, and dancers. The amount of effort the show required must have been incredible.

Lepe: This concert came together with the help of many enthusiastic friends and supporters. Without the help of real financial supporters, we could only rely on ourselves and our friends to build up the project. Fortunately, our music has inspired all our creative friends who took on this challenge to be involved. Everyone who worked with us contributed their talent and creativity and gave their all according to our ideas and concept. The good thing about Hungary is that people have a heart.  We made a lot of things possible through people’s enthusiasm and love which otherwise could have only been achieved by hundreds of thousands of dollars. The show you’re referring to was professionally filmed and is available on the DVD side of the Dual Disc version of American Perestroika.

I was surprised at how few places there were to buy music in Hungary when I visited.  Describe the economic situation young people face and how it affects their ability to see gigs and legally obtain music.

Lepe: The Hungarian economy is in pretty bad shape, so this affects the legal ways of purchasing music and also concert-going. People love music in Hungary, but since the average salaries are low compared to the West—especially for young people—they quickly find alternative ways of listening to music with the help of computers and the Internet. This situation is even worse if you go further East than Hungary. There’s a limit to how much people can spend on a concert too. This is why outdoor venues and festivals that offer free or low-cost concerts are very popular in the summer.

Give me some background on the Urban Native Traditions Of Integrated Europe (U.N.I.T.E.) album and how you got involved.

Lepe: U.N.I.T.E. is the new European Union-supported project of Transglobal Underground, and it’s about the discovery of migration within Europe, including the topics of immigration and asylum through music. It mixes traditional folk music from the British Isles and Eastern Europe with modern sounds. It’s a similar concept to what Balkan Fanatik is about. It’s led by Tim Whealen and Hamid Man Tu of Transglobal Underground, and features the collaboration of British, Bulgarian, Polish, Czech, French, Danish, and Hungarian musicians. They invited us to participate in this project as a result of our work together previously on our album Hungarikum and their album, Moonshout.  Our folk singer Nori Kovacs represents the band in several songs on this album. I worked on an English folk song with the theme of migration and I interpreted it in the style of urban dubstep. I also mixed six songs on this album.

When did you first encounter Transglobal Underground and how did that evolve into a musical partnership?

Lepe: I have been a great admirer of Transglobal Underground’s work since the ‘90s. Then in 2005, the two bands played after each other at a summer festival in Hungary on the same stage. They saw us and liked our show and our rapper of the time even jumped onstage and performed freestyle with them. Our friendship started right then and there. Then they came back to Budapest in the fall to play on the A38 boat, a popular club on the Danube, and asked us to be their backing group. We were working on our Hungarikum album at the time and dragged Hami, their drummer, and Sheema, their sitarist and singer, into the studio to play on our song “As The Rain Falls,” which is an interpretation of a famous Hungarian folk song. We then invited them as special guests to play at our album release show in 2006 that you attended. After this show, we put some of our rap and music onto their album Moonshout which was released in 2007. I was the recording engineer on a few songs on that one.  

I understand you’re working on creating acoustic arrangements of your material.

Lepe: Yes, and it’s a very interesting task to rewrite the sequences of electronic music for acoustic instruments, including marimba, bouzouki and tubular bells. A group of musicians will be working with us to create these arrangements, along with Jorgos and myself. For now, we’re working with our guitarist Miki Czifra to rewrite the songs to ensure the acoustic versions still encompass the whole Balkan Fanatik experience. The first step in this direction was a successful performance we gave on Hungarian Public Radio, MR2 on its Acoustic Live program last March, available on our website, YouTube and the MR2 website.

You’re also working on a Balkan Fanatik Christmas CD. What’s its status?

Lepe: We started working on it at the end of last year and it almost got released, but we didn’t complete it in time for that year’s Christmas market. Maybe we’ll release it later this year if we manage to finish it. The Hungarian Christian folk culture is very rich. We have beautiful songs about the birth of Christ. We would like to do a really special Balkan Fanatik album about the topic.

Provide some details into your pre-Balkan Fanatik history.

Lepe: Jorgos is a contemporary painter and sculptor. He’s one of Ben Kingsley’s favorite Hungarian artists. Kingsley bought paintings from Jorgos during his film work in Hungary. Jorgos has been a key player in the Hungarian underground scene of the ‘70s and 80s. He’s been creating music for so long—music that’s coming from the same roots, similar to what we’re doing now under the umbrella of Balkan Fanatik in an electronic form. His former band, Barbaro, was a legendary folk-rock band. Before that, he was in other folk-rock bands including Kolinda and Gepfolklor. What he wanted to do was to bring folk music into progressive rock. He played in practically every Hungarian band at the time as a drummer and singer.

I started my career at the end of the ‘80s in an indie rock band called The Dandelions that played music inspired by U2, Simple Minds, Talk Talk, and The Cure. I was a keyboardist and vocalist in it. Meanwhile, I studied to be a sound engineer and mixer. In the beginning of the ‘90s, I became part of Hungary’s most popular pop-rock group, the Akos band, as keyboardist, composer, sound engineer, and later, co-producer. I worked as an independent producer and sound engineer in many other projects as well. 

Do either of you have formal musical training?

Lepe: Jorgos is a self-taught man. I studied classical music and piano for 10 years.

Your debut album was released on Warner Hungary. What happened to that relationship?

Lepe: At the time, it seemed promising to release our debut album on a major label. Soon, we realized that Hungary is only a province of the multi-region Warner establishment, which meant that the music of Madonna can come in with full force, but Balkan Fanatik’s music can’t go out of the country. Not even into the rest of Europe. So, we decided to go independent at the end of the contract.

What’s it like to exist as an independent recording artist in Hungary?

Lepe: It’s a struggle, but nowadays it’s a very liberating feeling. We learned to stand on our own feet. I don't need to discuss the material of my next album with leaders of record companies and I don’t need to make compromises in order to create profit for them.

What other projects are you working on at the moment?

Lepe: As far as solo stuff goes, the Akos projects are steadily continuing year-after-year for 16 years. This year, we’re working on his newest album. The first single just came out, and I also did a remix for that. It’s called “The Song of Szindbad." I’m also working on a fantasy musical called Ravin’s Diamond with two other writer colleagues. It’s going to be a family-oriented teenage musical. I’ve also been recently performing as an actor and working as a music producer in one of the most famous theater companies of Budapest, the Thalia Theater, in a new show called An Actress’ Daughter with the famous Hungarian actress Judit Hernadi and her daughter Zsofi Tarjan.

In terms of Balkan Fanatik, music from American Perestroika will be featured in an excellent short film called R, directed by Michel Comte, starring Rinko Kikuchi and produced by Edward Oleschak. In addition, I just performed at a few great Balkan Fanatik debut U.S. shows in L.A. with Sonita and Prophet, together with his rock band Terra Incognita. We played at the Roxy and also in a club in Beverly Hills. It was great fun. Prophet’s band members studied several of our songs from American Perestroika and we performed these with them. We loved working with these guys. They’re so talented and such hard-working, nice people. Hopefully, it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship and working relationship, soon to be continued in Hungary and in the States.