Barons of Tang Review

Barons Of Tang at the East Brunswick Club, July 15th

Henry Gye

The East Brunswick Club in Melbourne. Nine o’clock pm. A popular band that’s been gaining momentum for the past two years boisterously push their way through the crowd and get up on stage. The Barons of Tang are all at their stations, an accordion, a violin, a bass clarinet, a saxophone, one guitar, a drum and percussion kit and one double bass.

The motley lot look at each other and begin clapping their hands slowly. Gaining speed, each member drops out and begins to play their instrument and before I knew it, something of an homage to Djengo Reinhardt is being belted out by the Melbourne band. Even if you’re missing fingers you can a make a fist has begun playing, with the accordion and clarinet showing obvious musical roots in eastern European music and the percussionist playing cowbells and tambourines like a flamenco’s palillos and castanets. Not before one begins to slide in time with the band’s tempo, the self-proclaimed “deathcore” aspect of the Barons kicks in and the lead singer who also plays the double bass is screaming:

“HEY!

I will not go quietly no

There’s gonna be a hell of a noise

If you wanna revolt you better make a list

Even if you’re missing fingers you can make a fist

HEY!”

On each successive shout of “hey”, the whole band joins in encouraging everyone to begin dancing around something like that of a punk show. With the piece slowing down, the crowd catches its breath clapping and snapping their fingers also like the flamenco’s palmos and pitos. The break down begins and with just the accordion playing only two notes for every eight, the guitarist starts to play. Like a lot of melodic progressions in Baltic, Macedonian and Gypsy music, he plays within the Phrygian mode, leaving a lot of tension which is only to be released just as the double bassist begins slapping away with a more percussive persuasion that melodic. Before you know it, the band has been playing for ten minutes and the song has ended.

I took a step back just to let the series of events sink in. You’d think that for a Melbourne based band, the Barons of Tang would supply one with the standard indie rock, not the heavily roots and eastern European orientated performance they’d just given.

However, in the 1970s, a surge of interest from musicians and performers exposed a large and thriving Macedonian and Baltic arts scene. Initial exposure for most of today’s performers comes from a CD released in 1999 called Sezoni. The CD compiled years of music, with specific contributions from the eclectic Australian band, Mara!. From there, exposure has been furthered from Australian festivals like the National Folk Festival. Since the CD’s release, “…many young Australians have found the music of the Gypsy and Roma people fascinating…” (Jordan 2010). Not only the gypsy music but also jazz manouche that started from the French Gypsies around the 1930s, with pioneers like Djengo Reinhardt.

As the band begins again, the palmos and pitos begin again, the percussionist rattling away on their kit with the castanets again. The violin starts, Phrygian of course, and the guitar accompanies. The accents falling on the third, sixth, eight, tenth and twelfth beats, the band having all joined in and “yipping” away, the double bassist begins slapping at a speed I’d though dangerous for ones fingers. Before you know it again, the “deathcore” kicks in again the double bass and double kick pedalled drum set belting out a hectic rhythm, the guitar punching out strange diminished chords that only vaguely get resolved whilst the saxophonist plays at half time, leaving you begging for the rest of the song. The song The Of Of Of  has the same kind of lament and despair of the Cante in Flamenco.

“Some Musicians promote their repertoire as Gypsy Music, using popular concepts around the “gypsy” theme to provide a theatrical framework for their performance”, (Jordan 2010). Attributed majorly to the Andalusien Gitanos Caseros, I’d say the Barons of Tang have done a good job emulating certain characteristics of the Flamenco. Whilst not actually singing as much in this particular piece, The Of Of Of seems to relay feelings of despair and suffering that the Andalusiens had undergone due to poverty, famine and no work. The Cante Falmenco became an outlook of the world and a way of life. Bernhard-Friedrich Schulze wrote on the tonal quality of the Flamenco guitar, saying they would “…play close to the bridge…” and produce a “…harsh, rasping quality…”. Though not playing flamenco guitar, the timbrel qualities of the band’s guitarist had high levels of treble and a rasping light distortion to it.

Although self proclaimed, the “deathcore” aspect of the Barons’ music, I think, has more of an affiliation with that of the punk scene. Rebecca Jablonsky’s paper Russian Jews and “Gypsy Punks” contains an in-depth study of the Russian migrants from post Soviet Russia and the New York band Gogo Bordello. She studies the eastern European scene in Manhattan at the Baltic Lounge and makes a few observations on what it its to be “gypsy” and how a contemporary band like GoGo Bordello earn legitimacy of the “gypsy” status.  Jablonsky described one of their shows and how after the lead singer came on playing only a few chords, was joined by the other members, “…- firstly the accordionist and the violinist, who most noticeably bring the eastern European and gypsy sound to the music…”. Obviously Barons of Tang share these tonal and orchestral qualities, however, their idea of the stereotypical gypsy traits seems to betray their authenticity.

Post-Soviet Russia, Jewish migration began and their alienation because of the events had created “…sentiments of being the outsider…” for these people. GoGo Bordello draws heavily from post-Soviet ideology and having heritage ranging from eastern Europe and particularly Russia, are a band that Jablonsky describes as authentic gypsy. The band also draws from the anti establishment motifs found in punk and whilst, “…the punk movement became identified in mass culture as the definitive statement of the annihilation of music and societal norms…” (Jablonsky, 2012), Bordello’s definitive characteristics are their heritage, being the “outsider” and, albeit stereotypical, nomadic history of their families. “Gypsy Punk” for Bordello is their outlook on the world and way of life. Jablonsky identifies these traits. One can begin to see the parallel with the history of Andalusian gypsies and this idea of legitimacy.

Meanwhile, The Barons of Tang have finished recovering and begin to play their final song The Dogs of Rotterdam. The drummer yells out “1 2 3 4 5 6” and the accordionist begins to play slowly. He increases his tempo very quickly and before you know it two bars have passed and the whole band has joined in, one of the most notable sounds is the guitarist scratching, not too dissimilar to blues grass, only faster. This continues, the lead singer bellowing away, until they all halt and scream “The Dogs of Rotterdam”, the chorus of their voices again reminiscent of old Andalusien rhythmic shouts, encouraging the crowd in their punk-like crowd behaviour. After the shout, the guitar is the only one playing and in a reggae fashion. The rest of the band joins in, but only in singing. The guitar stops, plays a small atonal riff and then the band erupts and sings the chorus again. They stop abruptly and the scratching of the guitar starts, the rest of the band in a cadence, only to stop whilst the guitar starts playing faster with the percussionist banging away. The timbrel layers begin build up to a cacophony, and there is a drum solo to finish it all off. The percussionist steps up to the microphone and begins to sing what sounds like a legitimate flamenco cante. The set then finishes, everyone literally howling with the band and the lead singer signing off with a series of profanities.

After having heard the set, one can’t help but realise that the Barons had brought everyone together with their individual outlook on the world, had everyone dancing, clapping their hands and clicking their fingers. However, the reasoning of Jablonsky has its point, stating;

“The desire of the people…to express themselves as “gypsies at heart” is indicative of a process by which alienation from a monolithic national cultural group leads to the fetishization of nomadic gypsies whose stereotypical traits imply freedom from society, lawlessness, and the performance of these conditions through music and dance.”

And looking at the band now, the members based in Melbourne, the image of “authentic gypsy” begins to fall away. However, I will maintain that the Barons of Tang do emulate extremely well the orchestral, timbrel and harmonic qualities of the gypsy style and their expression of suffering in tandem with their understanding of the gypsy-style idiom.

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

  • Jablonsky, Rebecca. (2012). Russian Jews and “Gypsy Punks”: The Performance of Real and Imagined Cultural Identities within a Transnational Migrant Group. Journal of Popular Music Studies. 24 (1), p3-24.
  • Jordan, Seth, 2010, World Music: Global Sounds in Australia, 1st Edition, UNSW Press, Sydney
  • Schreiner, Claus, 2000, Flamenco, 4th Edition, Amadeus Press, Portland Oregon, USA

 

Reference List

  • Jung, Christof, Cante Flamenco (Singing), Flamenco, Schreiner, Claus, Amadeus Press, p 32-34
  • Papenbrok, Marion, History of Flamenco, Flamenco, Schreiner, Claus, Amadeus Press, p 14
  • Skiera, Erenhard & Schulze, Bernhard-Friedrich, Guitarra Flamenca, Flamenco, Schreiner, Claus, Amadeus Press, p 42-44
  • Skiera, Erenhard, Rhythmic and Percussive Elements: Palillos, Palmos and Pitos, Flamenco, Schreiner, Claus, Amadeus Press, p 45-47

 

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