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Mahala Rai Banda + Shekoyokh @ Jazz Cafe, London - 2/10/2012

by AlanAshtonSmith
AlanAshtonSmith
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on 03 October 2012 in Live
Rating 8/10

It’s not the first time that Mahala Rai Banda have played in the UK, but this date at the Jazz Cafe marks the start of their first proper UK tour. This is a significant event then: the Romanian group are canonical figures when it comes to contemporary music from the Balkans, and it’s good to see that the market for their sound in this country is spreading beyond the occasional festival show.

They are supported by the much more local Shekoyokh, who declare their intention to start the weekend really early (it’s a Tuesday night). They’re more of a klezmer band than a Balkan one, but their set tonight leans less towards the Middle East and more into South-Eastern Europe. Particularly impressive is the way that their rhythm section, augmented by guitar and violin, manages to replicate the pumping motion of Balkan brass. Their vocalist is very strong, bringing an air of gypsy queen Esma Redzepova to her delivery, but it’s the clarinet that takes centre stage throughout their performance, whirling above the rest of the band to create detailed and extravagant patterns of sound.

Mahala Rai Banda aren’t a band to ease gently into their set. Many of them begin playing their instruments before their feet touch the stage, as they make their way down in a line from the Jazz Cafe’s balcony. They open with their lively signature tune ‘Mahalageasca’, well known for having been remixed by Balkan Beats producer Shantel and for making an appearance on the soundtrack to ‘Borat’. Bandleader and violinist Aurel Ionita reminds us of this latter fact when the song finishes: he doesn’t seem to mind that a number of his countrymen were unwittingly presented in the film as dumb and depraved Kazakhstanis; it’s all good publicity for his music after all.

The ten piece band are joined by their singer for the next song, ‘Kibori’, and he keeps up with the pace that’s set by the brass players. Then, as the set progresses we are given a demonstration of how Mahala Rai Banda work with genres from far beyond their own corner of Europe. ‘Balkan Reggae’ is exactly what’s implied in its title; it’s laid back by the standards of Balkan brass but there is still a tight groove to it. There is also a venture towards hip-hop, with a series of callouts and a showcase of the trombonists breakdancing skills.

The playing is consistently first rate, but Mahala Rai Banda also excel at entertaining. Some of the techniques they use are almost clichés – jumping into the audience for a dance, and inviting girls up on stage – but they still work. However, the night’s biggest applause is reserved for the band’s most patriarchal figure, a white-haired horn player who shows of his dance moves to the rhythm of the rest of the brass section. When he group leaves the stage he’s the last to go, and he makes his way slowly and reluctantly up the stairs. He’s as excited about the encore as the audience are, and it’s this level of enthusiasm that creates a great show.

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