KAL have played a few dates in the UK in June. Here Garth Cartwright reviews the band's appearance at Celebration Sanctuary and interviews Dragan Ristic, KAL's charismatic leader the following day.
Celebrating Sanctuary - the free festival held on London’s South Bank every June literally celebrates the capital as a place of refuge for myriad peoples fleeing conflict and persecution - is bathed in crisp sunshine as 2009s headliners take the stage. It is the 10th anniversary of Celebrating Sanctuary so to really celebrate the festival organisers have gone the extra mile and hired KAL, a Serbian Romany Gypsy band.
This extra mile – and all involved have ridden it to get here: the cost of airfares and visas eating up the band’s fee, booking agent skipping her fee, Seb Merrick driving the band everywhere – proves well worth it as KAL create a great blend of what band leader Dragan Ristic calls "Rock 'n' Roma". KAL’s blend of electric guitar, bass, drums, accordions, violin forges a distinctive, high-energy sound, equal parts Balkan folk and ferocious, Clash-style rock’n’roll. The festival’s audience react strongly to this, dancing and leaping about, fists punching the air, caught up in the excitement and drama KAL generate. Ristic’s a consummate showman, getting everyone to shout and squat and shake the proverbial tailfeather. Celebrating Sanctuary has hosted many memorable musical moments over the past decade but surely none matches KAL – here a band who know all about persecution and seeking refuge (Ristic fled Milosevic’s Serbia in the late 90s so to avoid being conscripted into the army and sent to fight in Kosovo) are playing with real fire and singing about fighting racism and unity. That Celebrating Sanctuary has connected with the UK’s Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month, means KAL and the festival are connecting with local and international issues. This literally a week after right wing nationalists the BNP and UKIP have declared their best ever results in British elections.
The following day I catch up with Ristic so to conduct this interview and exchange notes on how our lives have been since we last met 18 months ago in Belgrade. Back then he played me demos of what would prove to be KAL’s second album, Radio Romanista, and I was none too enthusiastic. Do I, Dragan asks, like the finished album more than the demos? Well, of course. But I still have my reservations. Having just caught KAL in concert I now realise how Radio Romanista is very much a document of the band live: tough, fast, full of zip and anger and the desire to push Balkan Gypsy music head-on into a 21st Century collision with rock ’n’ roll. Combat rock, as The Clash once called it.
But ... but the sense of an epic Eastern folk rock that the best tracks on Kal’s eponymous 2006 debut album hinted at is gone. Radio Romanista offers very little musical space – this is more music for moshing than listening to in more tranquil environs. At least, I say to Ristic, he took my advise and dropped the song where he sang in German. He chuckles and admits that Radio Romanista is an extremely ambitious album, one that reflects both the touring band and the huge number of ideas he has running around in his head. “It would be easy to just play variations on what the West European public have come to expect as Balkan Gypsy music,” he says, “but I can’t do that. I need to take the music forward. It consumes me.”
Interview with Dragan Ristic
I first met Dragan Ristic in Belgrade in summer 2003. Back then I was researching what would become my book Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians and Lemez Lovas (leader of Oi Va Voy) had passed me Dragan’s phone number with the suggestion I look him up. I’m certainly pleased I did: here was a young Roma musician steeped in Balkan music making but wishing to push the musical envelope, to create what he called “a kind of 21st Century Gypsy music”. Dragan spoke fluent English and across an afternoon I watched him direct a black-haired young woman to do a vocal over and over. In a New Belgrade tower block Ristic was slowly creating what would become KAL’s debut album. At the time he was doing this completely independently, financing his recordings by translating human rights documents into Romani. Highly intelligent - he speaks fluent English and several other languages - I noted him as a future contender and mentioned KAL to Henry Ernst of Asphalt Tango Records in Berlin. This and a connection I made between Ristic and Kiwi expat producer Mike Neilson proved pivotal in Kal’s international development.
“Yes,” says Ristic, “it’s funny how England has played a role in KAL’s career. Meeting you and then Mike was a major turning point and our first international tour was across England in 2004. That was before we had a record deal and when my brother Dushan was still playing violin in the band. Then he decided to shift to America to pursue a career as a painter and that gave me total control of KAL. Dushan was much more concerned with keeping the band acoustic and traditional. I’ve developed Kal into something beyond that.”
He certainly has: KAL are the first East European band I can think of who successfully blend the East-West musical dynamic. As was seen when Emir Kusturica’s No Smoking Orchestra sold out London’s Barbican with their excruciating mock rock it is still metal and prog rock that most East European musicians connect with when looking West. Ristic dismisses Kusturica as a megalomaniac and says it was hearing the likes of Mano Negra and Les Negres Vertes back in the early 1990s that set him off on his journey of discovery.
“I loved those French bands, the way they mixed French traditional music or Latin music with this punk rock dynamic. That got me thinking. You see, I was brought up playing and singing traditional Roma music - my father was a gifted musician - but at the same time I was going to school with Serb kids and hearing all the new rock and electronic music coming through. Initially I saw both music forms as completely alien to each other but hearing the French bands made me see how all music is connected and if you are willing to experiment, to play around and try new things, you can succeed in creating something new.”
Ristic then picks up a guitar and starts singing Manu Chao’s Hey Mr Bobby, transforming the song from a tribute to Bob Marley to one about the late-Serb Gypsy soul icon Saban Bajramovic. It’s an appropriate gesture as Saban has influenced Dragan hugely, he being the first Balkan Gypsy singer to master a narrative singer-songwriter style comparable to Bob Dylan or Curtis Mayfield in its lyricism and power.
“Saban was, for me, a really great artist. He remains, I believe, the biggest representative of both Serb music and Serbian Roma people. Sure, I like Esma and Boban and those people but Saban was the greater artist. He created a new style of Romany music. When he spent those years in prison on Goli Otock (Tito’s gulag-like prison island where Saban was sent for deserting the Yugoslav Army) he created something new. It’s impossible to find someone like him before he started recording.”
“My father knew Saban, played violin with him on occasion and even wrote a song that Saban recorded. I recall him coming to visit our home when I was about ten years old. He made a huge impression and back then he was really on top of his glory.”
Ristic laughs at the memory and then recalls being a teenager and wanting not to emulate Saban but the late-Texan blues-rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“I was so inspired by Stevie Ray. I wanted to play guitar like he did. I literally wanted to be the best Stevie Ray-style guitarist in Yugoslavia! But then I heard Les Negres and I began thinking differently about making music.”
The Yugoslav civil war - launched by Serbia’s President Milosovic and Croatia’s President Tudjman - devastated and destabilised the region so ending Dragan’s dreams of making music for a career. Instead he studied theatre at university and then, as mentioned, fled to Budapest to escape being drafted. Whilst in exile he was surprised by the high level of Roma music and culture being promoted in Budapest and this inspired him to begin building what would become KAL.
“In Budapest I could feel myself developing into this artistic person. Dushan and I got involved with producing Roma theatre there and the people we worked with spoke such fine Romany. I learnt Hungarian and was tempted to stay but when you are abroad your life as it was can be looked at from a distance, evaluated, and the fall of Milosevic was a signal to me that I had to be back in Serbia to set up positions. Across so much of East Europe the fall of communism meant little changed for the better for the Gypsies and I wanted to get a cultural movement going in Belgrade.”
“Back in Belgrade I re-engaged with my peoples’ music. Initially, I played it very badly but I knew I was on to something. I played the kafanas (bars), put everything into KAL, met great local talent who lived in the mahala (ghetto), musicians who spend their entire lives playing in restaurants or at weddings, no idea of the bigger picture. That’s how KAL took shape.”
Fast forward to today and KAL have released two impressive albums, toured internationally, found Dragan’s song Duj Duj becoming a staple of Fanfare Ciocarlia’s Queens & Kings set, been remixed by many a Balkan Beats wannabe DJ and become inspirational heroes across former - Yugoslavia. Not that the living is easy: KAL are yet to get the break that will launch them to a wide public. This means they have to tour relentlessly to earn enough money for the band’s six musicians to support their families. A gruelling US tour in 2008 found the band starting out in New York and gigging all the way West to Texas then all the way north to Seattle.
“Never again,” says Ristic. “That was too tough, too stressful.”
“Turbo-capitalism,” is KAL bassist Aleksandar Cuejic’s astute observation on what he made of the US.
Ristic smiles wanly and adds, “sometimes I have to carry so much on my shoulders. I’m leading this band and so the guys are looking to me while my wife and children are back home knowing I’m away so to earn a living. But I’ve also taken on this role of being something of a spokesperson for the Roma and that means I get asked to talk on social and political things, the problems of my people. To be trying to do all this in a society as alienated as America is too much.”
Ristic sighs. When I met him six years ago he was a more light hearted man, always laughing, ready to take on the world. Today he’s battered from such an undertaking. Yet determined to keep taking his rock ’n’ Roma agenda forward.
“Coming here for Celebrating Sanctuary and as part of Gypsy Roma Traveller Month, now that is more what KAL are about,” he says. “Maybe next year we can tour the UK in June and really spread the word!”
Thanks to Max & Rita at Celebrating Sanctuary, Florence Arpin, Sebastian Merrick, Rocky & Jake of Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month.
Read more about KAL, and watch a video of the band in action.