Balkan brass blowup

The Berkeley Balkan Bacchanal's last showcase of 2012, A Very Castle Face Christmas, CHURCHES' new release, and more

Fanfare Zambaleta

Tofu and Whiskey If you're going to book a Balkan-influenced band, don't expect the crowd to stay put. The Bay Area's Inspector Gadje, an offshoot of the Brass Liberation Orchestra, usually packs in around 15 players, including 12 on horns and three percussionists. When the raucous group came marching through the wilderness (read: Golden Gate Park) during Outside Lands, it filled in crevices between trees, and created an instant party atmosphere between the main stages. Those fast-walking through the thoroughfare of Choco Lands stopped in their tracks, surrounded the group, and started dancing, against everyone's better judgment. It all happened in the blink of a dirt-lodged eye.

"A lot of Balkan music has a great 'party' feel to it...even when the music includes moments or textures that might have a darker feel, the music is played with an undeniable exuberance," says Oakland's David Murray. "The rhythms of the Balkans; Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, etc., include many unusual time signatures that are compelling and especially attractive to musicians."

Murray, a graphic designer by trade, is one of those musicians — he's been playing bouzouki in Greek Rebetika band Disciples of Markos since 2004, and also plays fiddle in the Squirrelly Stringband, which is the house band for the North Oakland square dance (a "monthly underground hillbilly dance party," as he describes it). As a combination of his art and music backgrounds, he also produces and designs albums for the Dust-to-Digital record label, which specializes in reissuing obscure folk and world music.

His newest project, however, is all about the music of the Balkans. He began the Berkeley Balkan Bacchanal ( music series at Berkeley's Starry Plough in October 2011. He got the idea after meeting like-minded acts in the Bay Area, with affinities for Southeastern European styles of music. In the past year or so, the monthly Balkan showcase has seen performances by Murray's band, along with Inspector Gadje, Zoyres, Veretski Pass, Janam, Gadjitos, and a dozen or so more.

The last Berkeley Balkan Bacchanal of 2012 takes place this week, with Fanfare Zambaleta, "Middle Eastern marching band" MWE, and Helm, a group that specializes in Turkish classical and pop music (Thu/20, 8pm. Starry Plough, 3101 Shattuck, Berk. Murray says MWE, which includes three or four horns and the wailing Turkish reed (zurna), is known to play in the middle of the dancefloor with the crowd dancing around them. See? Instant party music.

I asked Murray if it's been challenging to track down acts for this series, as it has such specific influences but he shut that down quick: "No, it hasn't been difficult at all. There are a lot of great bands around here that fit into the theme of our series. At one point there were no less than three Balkan brass bands in town...And because we don't mind pushing the boundaries of the Balkans to include neighboring influences, we've been able to feature bands that play Algerian music, Persian, and more."

He added in some historical links, for good measure: "The Bay Area has a very vibrant Balkan music scene, which has some interesting origins in the 1960s, with bands like Kaleidoscope. The early California Renaissance Fairs provided an early outlet for many Balkan musicians, and music camps, such as Lark Camp in Mendocino, have been inspiring and teaching musicians for generations."

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