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A dozen years ago, if someone told me that one of the liveliest, most inventive party albums of the year would come from a band originally associated with wedding celebrations and beer festivals, I would have been all, "Yeah, sure, you bet." If it was further explained that the band's roots were much closer to polka than rock, funk or hip-hop, I would have responded, "Don't push it." But nowadays, I'm familiar with the Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar, whose retrospective Golden Horns will lighten the heart and lift the feet as surely as anything you'll hear in 2012. I'm just glad the band finally released an irresistible introduction.
Expanding on longstanding brass-band traditions of the Roma people in southern Serbia, band founder Boban Markovic was a regional powerhouse well before his group was heard in the West. The Orkestar only plays at the major Balkan brass-band festival as a guest of honor, so that somebody else can win prizes. But it's hard to deny that the ascendance of Boban's son Marko Markovic is what opened the door to the world for the group. Boban and Marko are equal-but-different trumpet stylists — Boban more languid, Marko more jabbing — but as the de facto current leader of the Orkestar, Marko gives the newer numbers worldly juice, a quicker pulse suited to the Internet age.
Yet as immediately appealing as individual Orkestar tunes can be, there's something elusive about the way they work. This not a tight band led by virtuoso soloists, instrumental or vocal. The punch comes from the ongoing collective interactions of more than a dozen players — plus guests — with a rollicking feel that most suggests early jazz ensembles such as Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers. Before Golden Horns, the Markovic Orkestar tended to hit snags with slow numbers that felt too old-fashioned or vocal features that seemed oddly melodramatic. Although obviously not an issue during free-flowing concerts, finding the right vocals and how to mix them in had been a challenge in the studio. The tracks on Golden Horns were selected and programmed by DJ Robert Soko, and his sense of how to get Balkan beats going in your living room is key to the album's appeal. In "Cinnamon Girl," Soko picks a vocal tune that's not typical for the Orkestar, but perfect for changing the pace from a dreamy sequence of songs. Then there are wonderfully robust passages for tuba, such as those in "Clock."
I played tuba in my high-school marching band. How come we didn't do wild stuff like that? Because sly folks like Boban and Marko Markovic weren't calling the shots, that's why.