Dubbed Out in Bucharest: Mahala Rai Banda’s Balkan Reggae


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When Romania’s Romany pop supergroup Mahala Rai Banda set cimbaloms skanking a few years ago on “Balkan Reggae,” reggae DJs around Europe perked up and started dropping the track into their sets.

It was merely a matter of time before the obvious next step came. In honor of Jamaica’s 50 years of independence in 2012, Mahala Rai Banda reached out to Caribbean-inspired remixers. The result: Balkan Reggae Remixed (Asphalt Tango). A diverse crew of producers added their stamp to the Romany rocker—from old-school seasoned dub masters like Mad Professor (frequent collaborator with Massive Attack) and Nick Manasseh to hot newcomers like bass-loving JStar.

The Jamaica-meets-the Balkans connection is not as tenuous as it might seem at first glance. Reggae and dub have long intrigued musicians and listeners across Eastern Europe, especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall, as new sounds poured into relatively isolated scenes. Across the East Bloc and former Soviet Union, bands got into the signature pulse and vibe of Jamaica’s favorite cultural export.

Even in the remote Romanian villages of Clejani and Zece Prajini, home to Mahala Rai Banda’s members, popular wedding musicians picked up the reggae feel and ran with it, honing their interpretation at urban wedding parties, where bands typically play everything from traditional brass numbers to hard-hitting, globally inspired pop. “Balkan Reggae,” as part of the band’s acclaimed 2009 release Ghetto Blasters, is proof positive of how fruitful this fascination can be: The album made UK magazine Songlines’ yearly best-of, and topped European radio charts.

Now, as music moves freely from Bucharest to London, another layer of dubbed-out cool has been added to Mahala’s already funky, brassy mix. Artists like Caribbean bluesman Errol Linton (a former subway busker made good and egged on by the young London dub DJ G-Vibes) and reggae MC and London scene darling Gregory Fabulous put a distinctly Jamaican spin on the hybrid original. Hip club stars (Paris-born, London-based, open-eared DJ Sicarius and young French dub/bass musician Kanka) offer different ideas about what makes Balkan reggae tick. Others bring dubstep (Vibronic’s specialty), Bosnian funk (La Cherga), or an otherworldly, wry mix that could only be called dub manouche (Koby Israelite and Annique’s unexpected rendition) to the table, transforming the original track into something fresh.

The mix of perspectives, sonic approaches, and generations turn what could have been a repetitive venture into a multifaceted, upbeat exploration of the Jamaican-Balkan nexus.

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