One of my favorite songs of the autum of 2023 is Lakvar’s “Koga.” They’re a big ensemble of at least seven musicians from all over central and eastern Europe, based in Stuttgart, playing a rock-influenced version of Eastern European folk music. The core of the group are its founders, the lead singer Hajnalka Péter, a Hungarian-Bulgarian composer, singer, percussionist, and activist, and Georgian composer, guitarist and panduri player Zura Dzagnidze.
“Koga” is a traditional Moldovan mouring song translated into a driving worldbeat dance number, sung with anguished pathos by Hajnalka, accompanied by the insane picking of Zura and a dense wall of music from the rest of the band: Hungarian Jazz bass player bassist Péter Papesch (Hungary), violinist Florian Vogel (Germany), drummer Santino Scavelli (Italy), accordion player Aleksejs Maslakovs (Latvia), and Bulgarian-Turkish percussionist Tayfun Ates. The juxtaposition of so many disparate elements – the modern rhythm, the hand percussion as well as a drum kit, Zura’s lightning riffing on the panduri (a Georgian traditional lute), and Hajnalka’s wailing vocals – make it irrestible and quite memorable.
It’s a difficult album to pin down. Rooted in folk traditions (“folklore”) but swept together from numerous sometimes disparate corners of Europe, vigorously stirred and shaken (“fiction”) by these musicians from different cultures, traditions, and genres. The bulk of the album booklet consists of an essay by Kincses Réka, Hungarian film director, which says, in part:
They are all rebels, people who question authority, who do not tolerate being patronised. Proud Central Europe meets the infamous Balkans, meets the Caucasus, attracting and repelling each other, for all eternity. They refuse to accept their shared fate, never quite belonging to Europe and always standing on the edge. A half-continent crashing on its journey. That is Eastern Europe. The Caucasus. We no longer know for sure when and where. Maybe it was in Austria, or elsewhere, west of the Carpathians. In a sharp, dangerous curve, a plunge into the abyss. Those who leave their homeland are doomed to suffer endlessly. Those who leave their homeland are free. The expulsion from paradise is the beginning of history. Before that, there is nothing to tell.
Thus we get “Daniova mama — Balkanum reliquit,” a traditional Bulgarian song in which a woman tells her son about how his father abandoned them to go to the Balkan Mountains, in a synth-heavy club arrangement; followed by the tender traditional “Ilona’s Lullaby,” Hajnalka’s straightforward, lilting vocals accompanied only by the plucked panduri and a lightly droning fiddle; and then the song that supplies half of the album’s title and theme, “Fiction,” a driving Balkan-style dance in a fairly common electro-acoustic style arrangement. Hajnalka’s lyrics, delivered in a wide range from whispered to wailed, say in part:
Without a past,
You will go nowhere.
No matter how often you run away,
You always take yourself with you!
This way?! Which way? Broken!
To me the real centerpiece is the seventh track “Moknili: One Day and One Night in Bukistsikhe, Guria Region, Georgia,” which is entirely instrumental, composed by Zura Dzagnidze. It features the playing of guest musician Áron Eredics of the Hungarian acoustic dance band Söndörgö on tambura, and Dzagnidze on panduri, uniting the music and instruments of Georgia and the Balkans. It comes across much better than many such attempts at synthesis from different traditions.
Lakvar’s Fiction and Folkore is one of the most intriguing and multi-faceted world music releases of the year. Worthy of serious attention, but you can also dance to it.