Choban Elektrik – Choban Elektrik (2012)

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Imagine if in the mountainous region of Albania or southern Yugoslavia during the Communist ruled days of the 1970s, the sons of sheep herders clandestinely tuned in to rock radio from the other side of the Iron Curtain, becoming transfixed by the heavy, ambitious trio sounds of Third-era The Soft Machine and early Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Inspired by these strange, exciting sounds, the lads managed to procure instruments: drums, electric bass, electric guitar, organ and an electric piano with a partially blown amp. They figured how to play these instruments like their heroes but the only songs they could learn to play were the traditional folk tunes they grew up listening to, mostly from the accordion of Uncle Leotrim. They call themselves “Choban Elektrik,” or the “Electric Shepherds.”

Such a band, as far as we know, never existed then. There is, however, a band in New York now with that name and it sounds just like what this fictional band would have likely sounded like. The brainchild of keyboardist/guitarist Jordan Shapiro, the idea gestated after he got caught up in the Balkan music scene in NYC. Going as far as to learn the accordion, Balkan singing and learning old Balkan folk tunes — many of them from the Albanian accordion master Raif Hyseni — Shapiro intended to only learn to play the music the way it’s been played in the country of origin. It didn’t take too long after he got a handle on this kind of music that he saw the possibilities of introducing its pretty, serpentine melodies and odd meters to equally challenging environs of vintage progressive rock. To this founder of a progressive bluegrass band (“Astrograss”) and member of a Zappa tribute band (“Project/Object”), he was plenty prepared to carry out his innovation. He enlisted fellow Project/Object band mate Dave Johnsen to play electric bass, and also brought in the diversely skilled percussionist Phil Kester.

Except for the Hyseni-composed “Steve’s Gajda,” all the songs on their upcoming debut album are traditional songs of Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria, with an Armenian wedding song tossed in for good measure. There’s enough of the original spirit of these old songs present in these recordings to set this apart from The Yes Album and Brain Salad Surgery. There’s also plenty of the power trio mojo to give these songs the amplified girth to rock your soul.

The balance they strike to reconcile both works wonderfully from the get-go; Shapiro unleashes the improvisational nature built into Albanian music through his Hammond B-3 on “Valle E Shqipërisë Së Mesme” as Johnsen and Kester lay down a Slavic groove perfect for any danceable event. On the next track “Moj Xhemile” Shapiro favors a heavily distorted electric piano over the rhythm section’s lopsided time signature, and though you might not heard anything like this before, it seems someone should have done this a long time ago. For “Beratche From Prespa,” keyboards are dispensed for a feedback heavy guitar, and the clamor Shapiro makes with an old Albanian dance ditty supercharges the song even as the group remains faithful to the original melody and beat. Kester’s marimba adds another exotic layer to the Bulgarian dance tune “Kopanitsa” (video of live version below), and for the Armenian wedding dance song “Mom Bar,” the trio explores dreamy textures coming mainly from the organ.

A few strategic cameos are made to further bolster the Balkan Factor: Eva Salina Primack adds native tongue vocals to “Moj Xhemile,” while violinist Jesse Kotansky underscores the Albanian vintage of the songs with nifty organ/violin unison lines on “Valle E Shqipërisë Së Mesme” and “Steve’s Gajda.” Both appear on the blues and psychedelia tinged “Çobankat.”

By making Balkan music feel right at home in the house of progressive rock, Choban Elektrik reminds us that prog rock is more about how it’s played than what is played. Having both the attitude and the know-how to create this unlikely hybrid makes Jordan Shapiro’s idea not only believable, but also quite embraceable, too.

Choban Elektrik goes on sale May 16. Visit Choban Elektrik’s Facebook page for more info.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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