Warning: listening to the Brass Menazeri is addictive once they start, you can't stop. After a sold-out show at Ashkenaz in Berkeley last month, the band of nine was dragged out for an encore or six not an easy feat for an exhausted group of horn players. Meanwhile, the crowd got busy losing their minds the old-fashioned way: dancing and moving any way they knew how.
Though unquestionably exciting, brass band music from Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece sounds exotic to most American ears. But vocalist and baritone horn player Rachel MacFarlane isn't concerned about being written off as an novelty act.
"It's not a flash in the pan," she says of the growing interest in Eastern Europe and Romani, or Gypsy, culture in the wake of successful acts like New York City's punked-out, spectacle-oriented Gogol Bordello. She sees the band's success as part of a wider public engagement with cultures of the world, with roots in the folk revival of the 1970s.
Not that Balkan brass music has become mainstream, exactly. When vocalist Briget Boyle signed up for a college course on music from the former Yugoslavia, she says she had never even heard of the Balkans. Then she listened to the music. "Once I got it in my head," she remembers, "I couldn't stop." Boyle developed a serious cultural crush, not just on a collection of poignant melodies, but on a way of life in which music, rather than being a commodity, represents a "life-giving force."
I knew what she meant that evening at Ashkenaz as I unselfconsciously sang along to refrains in the Romani language, without a clue as to what I was saying. That vitality, though, is part of what makes the flair and pathos of native Romani and Slavic performers so hard to replicate. Though band member Peter Jaques has cultivated phenomenal stylistic command on both trumpet and clarinet, he's the first to admit this. In his efforts to learn from some of the region's master musicians, he resembled a nonnative speaker trying to shed a foreign accent: "No one needed to tell me that there were nuances I just didn't have," he explains. Still, Jaques says his teachers encouraged him, sending the message: "This is our music. We love it. You should play it, too!"
Moving toward a musical identity of their own, the Menazeri plans to include original tunes alongside the traditional picks on their second, still-untitled CD, which is slated for recording in May. It seems the group is feeling justifiably emboldened by steady support from wildly disparate Bay Area audiences, from folk dance enthusiasts and Balkanophiles to supporters of Romani culture and urban tastemakers like the Monterey Jazz Festival and Amnesia proprietor Sol Crawford.
Indeed, every band member I spoke with singled out Amnesia as a tinderbox for just the kind of music-driven near-rioting Brass Menazeri encourages. And it turns out the song I joined in with, "Opa Cupa," translates as a colorful invitation to work it out on the dance floor. So whether or not you can find Serbia on a map, the rat-a-tat of the tupan (a Balkan drum) mixed with sparkling, agile trumpets, unabashedly soulful vocals, and the gut-rattling throb of the low, low sousaphone is likely to send the same unignorable message as a New Orleans brass band during Mardi Gras. That message is: no matter who you are or what you know, dance!
With Rupa and the April Fishes
Sat/3, 1 p.m., free
Yerba Buena Gardens Festival
Mission and Third streets, SF
Also the Herdeljezi Roma Festival
Sat/3, 6:30 p.m., $15
Ives Park, Sebastopol