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Wellington’s Balkan Brass Bandits going to Womad

Article – Joseph Cederwall
Wellington Balkan Brass Band Niko Ne Zna (Serbo-Croatian for ‘Nobody Knows’) are playing WOMAD this year for the first time.

I have known band leader and soprano saxophonist Frankie Curac since the band started about ten years ago. He is a bit of a fixture in the Wellington music scene, playing in legendary bands like Battle Ska Galactica, The Cosmonauts and a number of jazz bands. It was great to catch up and talk about the old days and the latest part of Niko Ne Zna’s journey as he cooked for his partner and fellow band member Nikkie Rich and their daughter Lilya.

I was delighted to see that Niko Ne Zna is finally playing WOMAD after a decade of hard work and dedication to spreading their dance inducing brand of Balkan influenced brass music to New Zealand and Australian audiences. They certainly deserve it, the band has come a long way from a little free-for-all jam project between a bunch of people to an internationally recognised Balkan outfit.

Frankie talks about these humble origins and how the concept took off pretty quickly as everyone really enjoyed playing the unique style of music. They started getting booked for gigs around town pretty soon and the rest was history.

So what is this unique musical style and where did it come from, I asked Frankie?

Firstly, Frankie is himself a product of the Eastern European diaspora so this music is literally in his blood. He is a first generation of a migrant family, his father is from Croatia and his mother is Ukrainian/Russian. Growing up in Lyall Bay he studied music at high school and went on to study jazz, however he was exposed to a diverse range of European music through his family. Curac’s maternal uncle Slava Fainitski was also a talented violinist playing with the Wellington Orchestra, and sadly passed away last year.

Partner and Niko lead singer Nikkie Rich is originally American but sings in Romani, Serbian, and Greek despite not actually speaking any of those languages. Frankie says she has an extraordinary ear and a knack for languages and is constantly amazed at how she is able to do this. She was in World Music choirs growing up, which is probably where she developed that talent, he speculates. But he recounts that on more than one occasion she has had people approach her after gigs speaking Serbian or other languages. The rest of the band members are a real cross section of cultures with Japanese, British, and Rotorua heritage.

Frankie tells me he was first exposed to balkan brass music in the late 1990s through the films of Serbian director Emir Kusturica (Black Cat White Cat, Underground), which heavily features brass bands. Kusturica himself is a member of the No Smoking orchestra that provides much of the film’s soundtrack.

From the outset the Niko Ne Zna concept was to follow this rich tradition of Balkan Brass bands, featuring no stringed instruments or electronic amplification so that the band was a mobile unit. Basically the Niko Ne Zna rule is if it’s brass or can march, it’s OK. So even the bass drum and percussion is strapped on and mobile.

Romania’s famous Fanfare Ciocarlia are legends of this Romani brass style and were also a big influence lending Niko Ne Zna a few of their tunes as early covers.

I ask Frankie where this tradition came from, as it is quite different to most of the Croatian music I saw in that country which is mostly vocal, goatskin bagpipes and stringed instruments. He explains that Croatian music is influenced a lot by its proximity to Italy and is hence more Croony.

The rest of the Balkan region seem to go more for odd time signatures, intricate melodies, and feature lots of trills and instrumentation. This comes from the fact that the Balkan region was historically a part of the Ottoman Empire, so the Brass instruments as well as the Eastern scales and harmonies were transplanted to the region. There was also a strong Romani influence in the region with migration down from the Indian subcontinent, and the Romani, wherever they have gone have proved very adept at picking up whatever musical instruments or traditions that were lying around.

It also helped that brass instruments are mobile and suitable for a nomadic culture that can use them for marching and most importantly for dancing. These bands became very common for ceremonial occasions such as weddings which helped the Romani to eke out a living in often impoverished areas. The region was essentially a giant melting pot of cultural and musical influences, however the Serbians, Macedonians, Romanians, Bulgarians and others took this brass tradition to a whole new level creating a whole new branch of Romani music and shaping the folk music and dance tradition of the balkan region.

Audiences in New Zealand also resonate with this music as I have witnessed myself on many occasions. Frankie thinks this is because there is something in it for everyone. Because of this diverse background that gave birth to it, the music has rhythms and melodies that resonate with some ancient part of us and make us want to dance. Niko Ne Zna are known for parading down Cuba Street before gigs or during festivals and I have seen them surrounded by huge crowds of Kiwis literally dancing in the streets. Everyone from older people through to gangster teens find something in it to move to.

This video promoting the first Niko album, Balkan Brass Bandit’s shows some of this dancing action.

Niko Ne Zna have now played across the country, touring regularly. They have played at Splore, Cubadupa, Newtown Festival and other festivals as well as selling out shows in Melbourne and a Victorian Arts Festival last year. They also played a massive run of 17 shows at the WOW awards and a big break came when they had three original tracks off the first album featured on the Soundtrack of Taika Waititi’s What We Do In The Shadows. They played at the film’s premiere and after-party and it opened them up to a whole new audience in NZ.

Niko Ne Zna have just released their second studio album ‘Babushka’s Balkan Banquet’, a hat tip to all those ‘Borscht banquets’ of the Russian and Balkan Grandmothers of yore. This connection between the music and food is something Niko Ne Zna have taken further with their famous ‘Borscht Parties’, a ‘dine and dance’ concept involving professional chefs and live music. They hosted a successful event at the Wellington Croatian Cultural Club recently and would love to do more.

In early January Niko also played at music in parks and did a show after that at The Wine Cellar – however the venue turned out to be too small and they turned 60 people away. They didn’t realise at the time that their reputation had spread quite wide amongst the sizeable Auckland Balkan community but this bodes well for future trips to Auckland.

Niko Ne Zna now plays around 80% original tunes. They still play some of the more popular covers, mostly songs from the Balkans. Frankie explains these songs are covers for a reason: As people round world been playing them for years now and they always get a good response.

Frankie explains that because they have been playing and composing together for so long now, it is easy to figure out what works and how the songs in this tradition operate. This makes it possible to write tunes and make them your own. As Frankie says, the music is so powerful, it has an ability to be accessible for a range of people and just has this feeling and energy perfect for having a good time that everyone can relate to.

Niko Ne Zna will play two sets at WOMAD and will also be on the Taste World stage, no doubt cooking a borscht, and will chat with Kim Hill on Saturday for the RNZ show broadcasting live from WOMAD. They will also be parading as part of the Kids Parade on Sunday which should be a great moment for their daughter Lily and her Grandmother who will both be attending. Three generations of proud New Zealanders of Eastern European descent, will be there celebrating their unique culture and music.

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