East Meets East by Kroke and Nigel Kennedy

This is an album I grew up with. I am also writing this review on my birthday. This article has hence been granted a uniquely personal touch which I hope will help me to communicate this album’s brilliance. Growing up as an aspiring violinist, I largely knew Nigel Kennedy as the 'fun' classical violinist. I very often imitated him (and by extension, this album) and danced to the consequent squeaks I was producing with my violin (proudly visualised in the photo supplied). It is with now over fifteen years of reflection and digestion that I realise how impressively my love for this album has grown despite the thousands of times I have listened to it. The slow ‘boring’ songs I skipped at the age of eight, are now those which bring me to tears; the fast ‘dancing’ songs I used to sing to are now some in which I find the most depth of meaning. It has been with much joy (and sometimes repression) that I have attempted to explain and communicate my opinions and love for this album in a mere 1958 words, but I hope to still give justice to the masterpiece that it is.

This collaborative studio album by prominent British classical violinist Nigel Kennedy and Polish ensemble Kroke, was released in 2003. Kroke are mainly known for their unique fusion of Balkanic, Klezmer, jazz and Oriental sounds and is comprised of Jerzy Bawoł on accordion and additional vocals, Tomasz Kukurba on viola, vocal, flute and percussion and Tomasz Lato on double bass. In the album, Nigel Kennedy joins on violin and electric violin with a production team of ten engineers, mixers and artists. This album takes on a great deal of musical styles and associations. While Nigel Kennedy’s involvement resulted in a more ‘classical’ branding of the CD, reaching #46 on Billboard's Classical Album, the album’s strong Eastern European and Klezmer influences brought in a nomination for the Europe Category in the BBC's Awards for World Music. Aside from these set categorisations, the album explores electronic, synthetic and heavily edited sounds, all in the context of often experimental interpretations. Due to the album’s intricate structure, beautiful music and brilliant interpretations, however, it gently puts aside such categories and lets the music speak for itself. The album’s title, East Meets East, perfectly encapsulates the dialogue between the colourful array of cultures and musical styles that this album achieves. Through a combination of arranged traditional folk songs and specially-written ones, the album give us the journey of a lifetime.

It could not be guessed that exactly half of the album's pieces are composed by the players. The songs’ brilliant composition and sandwiching between traditional tunes are an excellent example of the album's ‘unity through difference’. The first song, ‘Ajde Jano’, is the only song of the album with continuous singing throughout. In this song, the ensemble is joined by Egyptian-British singer Natacha Atlas, known mostly for her Arabic and Western fusion music. This traditional Serbian folk song begins with an introduction by the band, with Kennedy on melody. The ensemble's texture and sound is full, complete with a rich bass line, healthy percussion line and accordion chords. Atlas’ warm and compelling voice suits well the lyrics’ invitation for the girl, ‘Jana’, to dance. In the instrumental interlude the band explores more experimental textures such as electric violin harmonics and softly whispered spoken lines by the singer. This then brings us to a lively final verse. The song is an appropriate start to the album, which will enjoy even more extreme experimentations, beautiful melodies and rich harmonies.

'Lullaby for Kamila' was composed by the ensemble and fits nicely with the style the first song initiated. It begins with a bare boned single melodic line played by two violins (an octave apart), accompanied by the accordion. For each subsequent verse, instruments are added, further accentuating the piece’s 7/8 time signature. The full band, complete with a heavily mixed bass line and humming male voices, gives a sense of completion to the song's slow beginning, only to return and end on an eerily thin texture. The next song, 'T 4.2', was also composed by the band and is the longest song in the album at 6:11 minutes, allowing the band to traverse a world of different timbres, structures and harmonies. It begins with a solo pizzicato line by the violin introducing the theme, accompanied by accordion chords. A grooving bass and relaxed percussion are then brought in. Structurally, the piece is divided into small units, which at first do not seem natural in their juxtaposition - some short and unexpected and others long and rhythmically complex. But once listened to many times, their combination makes complete sense. At the song’s middle we reach a repeating ostinato on top of which Kennedy improvises with his highly saturated electric violin, resulting in strange and mystifying harmonies. This quickly degenerating line is ended with the entrance of the original theme in an ever more powerful and full texture involving more percussion and various layered string lines. The song ends with an intimate and playful unison pizzicato passage. This song is an all-encompassing menu of what this whole album offers us: ingenious compositions based on Eastern European music characteristics, experimental interpretations, varying timbres and an evident enjoyment on the part of the players.

The next song, 'Eden', is a Klezmer tune originally composed by American clarinettist and Klezmer musician, Harry Kandel. The ensemble’s interpretation and instrumentation does not stray far from what you would expect from a Klezmer band. The song is characterised by a joyful quick tempo and playful interactions between instruments. It is bookended by a slow and reminiscent version of the tune, forcing us to be blown away by powerfully rhythmic next song, 'Dafino'. This song is based on the traditional Macedonian folk song, 'Dafino Vino Crveno' (‘Dafina, Red Wine’). It tells the story of 'Dafina’ whose boyfriend has his vest stolen and traded for red wine by rebels. Dafina concludes by admitting that she does not care as long as her boyfriend is alive. At only 2:51 minutes and ending with a fiercely virtuosic finish, the songs feels like a fleeting memory once finished. The next song, 'Jovano Jovanke', is also traditionally Macedonian and is known and played in many of its neighbouring regions. It tells the story of young lovers separated by their parents. On the banks of the Vardar river (running through North Macedonia and Greece) bleaching her white linen, the girl hears her lover asking her to return to him. The ensemble achieves an immensely satisfying balance between melancholy and playfulness; it musically translates the lovers’ simultaneous sadness and enduring love for each other. With the addition of voices in the last verse and frenzied acceleration to finish, the lovers’ story is beautifully concluded.

Although attributed to Goran Bregovic, whose famous arrangement in the 1988 film 'Time of the Gypsies' has become internationally recognised, ‘Ederlezi’ can actually be traced back to a Romani minority in the Balkans. The song has spread to surrounding regions in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia and Albania, not to mention the countless 'gypsy' and Eastern European inspired ensembles formed in recent decades. This song is a veritable standard in the ‘repertoire’, and it is no surprise that the ensemble decided to include it in their album. The song recounts the Spring Festival of the same name, which occurs in most regions of the Balkans. Consequently, there are many translations of the song, none of which are particularly important to the ensemble's interpretation due to there being no singing. In this way, their interpretation is universal. It is a testament to the ensemble’s interpretive genius that their music is able to communicate the nuances usually addressed by the lyrics. The song begins with a chilling tremolo and gentle first theme played by violin harmonics. Each verse differs in its texture and timbre, culminating in the full ensemble enjoying a verse together. Layered string lines indulge in interweaving lines, the melody is beautifully embellished by Kennedy and the bass and accordion lag calmly behind. Following the verse’s climax, the quiet tremolo and harmonics return to end the song. The ensemble’s interpretation is understated compared to the countless others which, rightly so, get so eagerly carried away with the melody’s beauty. But in its sobriety, this arrangement is a truly sentimental and moving interpretation of this culturally and musically rich song.

The next song, 'Kazimierz', is a Polish Klezmer tune dedicated Kraków's Jewish community. The ensemble, not counting some virtuosic alterations and passages by Kennedy, stays true to the tunes vivacious attitude and energetic character and uses minimal experimental techniques. It gives you the real impression that you are hearing a recording right off the streets of Kraków. ‘One Voice’ is perhaps the most famous songs of the album. Composed by the ensemble and with Klezmer influences, the piece is vast in its emotional range and textural and harmonic experimentations, resulting in a touching and strikingly beautiful experience. It is a truly cathartic moment in an album full of such vivacity. The melody is passed between various string players and instruments (Kennedy, Kukurba and guest violinist Aboud Abdoul Aal) with the accompaniment steadily increasing in intensity, helped by the Kraków Philharmonic string section. Much of the song's development, which is based on a repetition of the theme and its stunning chord progressions, is filled by Kennedy's signature virtuosic improvisations. The song's emotional intensity is perfectly captured in Kennedy's audible exclamation of satisfaction, which was, with good reason, not left on the editing room floor. True its name, the song is a beautiful unification of the album’s array of styles, cultures, colour, textures, and voices.

Next comes the more jovial 'Tribute to Maria Tănase', a Klezmer influenced tribute to Romanian folk music singer Maria Tănase. The song is joyful and playful in its manner and finishes in an exciting flourish. 'Time 4 Time' is another Klezmer influenced song composed by the ensemble. It begins with a humorous ticking of a clock, with the pizz of the violin and bass coming in at unexpected and surprising times. Together with the sudden moments of silence, this creates a sense of disorientation. The piece is a clear example of layering and clever mixing skills on the part of the production team. With the accumulation of various string lines, synthetic clock ticking noises, electric violin echoes and hums from unknown voices, a sense of timelessness, ironically, is instilled. This allows us instead, to appreciate the weird sounds and textures ‘in the moment’.

'Vino', composed by the ensemble, is an otherworldly and loosely structured violin line floating over a scattered bass pedal. Heavily reverbed string lines are layered with the addition echoing chimes to create a mythical and directionless landscape of interweaving solos revelling in their harmonic and timbral complexities. ‘Lost in Time' is a composition for solo violin. In this, Kennedy embellishes a simple melody with various arpeggiated figures and improvisations. It explores a wide array of the violin's capacities all while remaining limited to its acoustic capabilities, unlike many of the other songs which opt for electronic sounds as a means of experimentation. The final song, 'Kukush’, is a wild flurry of energy and colour, acting as a perfect finish for the album. Following the dreamlike ‘Vino’, we are now reminded of Kennedy’s crazy electric violin, the ensemble’s dynamic bass and percussion and the players’ signature passion and vivacity. We hear whistling, untamed flute solos, a storm of electric violin passages and weird, playful harmonies all driven by the perpetual rhythmic bass. It is a truly brilliant ending to an album so full of passion, emotion, interpretative ingenuity, compositional creativity, technical prowess and a sheer love for making music.

Rita Fernandes, September 2020

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