Zabe i Babe (pronounced something like ZHA-bay ee BAH-bay) is a bi-national folk-pop ensemble. The Bosnian-American group is a side project for members of the American folk-punk group Cordelia’s Dad, whose frontman, Tim Eriksen, sings and plays on this disc, joined by Cordelia’s Dad drummer Peter Irvine on vocals and percussion, and Eriksen’s wife Mirjana Lausevic on vocals and keyboards. Other members of Zabe i Babe include Tristra Newyear, vocals, and Donna Kwon, vocals and percussion, with American fiddler and singer Rani Arbo as guest vocalist on one track.
For about half of this recording, the group is joined by members of Ansambl Teodosijevski, a well-known Balkan Gypsy orchestra.
The group’s name, Zabe i Babe, translates as “grandmothers and frogs,” and is roughly the equivalent of the American idiom “apples and oranges,” used for comparing non-comparable items. But the elements go together better than that, at least most of the time. The first six tracks and the last were recorded in a Massachusetts studio with the Ansambl Teodosijevski. The rest were recorded just by Zabe i Babe in the backyard of another producer, also in Massachusetts.
The collaborations with the Ansambl are all more or less rocked-up versions of Balkan and Gypsy folk songs. “Djurdjevdan” is a multi-section song celebrating St. George’s Day, with lots of horns and lots of voices in ensemble-type singing. “Bol” features Eriksen on lead vocal, a modern folk hit with a bouncy, upbeat sound and lyrics about the pain of love. “Sjaj Mjesece” was justifiably included on the sterling 1999 benefit compilation, Balkans Without Borders. Tristra Newyear sings lead on this one, another modern folksong about love; she’s backed by intricate unison playing on clarinet and trumpet, and the whole thing is underpinned by a lurching bass line. Eriksen also sings lead on “Lipe Cvatu,” a modern folk-rock song by Goran Bregovic in celebration of the linden trees of Sarajevo. “Esma” is a tribute to the queen of the Gypsy singers, Esma Redzepova, an impressive instrumental dance tune that resembles mariachi in its passion and cinematic scope. And “Zuta Baba” and the final track, “Visoko Drvo” sound pretty much like Cordelia’s Dad songs in Bosnian and Croatian — electric folk-rockers with close harmony and, in the case of the latter song, droning distorted electric guitar.
The rest of the tracks are a series of unaccompanied songs for mostly female voices, many with substantial solo sections. There’s a lot of the type of singing common in Balkan folk that sounds like a cross between yodelling and ululation. It’s a striking effect, but one that can sound very harsh to Western ears. Perhaps spreading these out among the “band” songs would make the whole project flow more smoothly. Eriksen sings lead on a duet, “Sarena Guja,” a double-entendre song about a man, a woman and a snake — a motif common in folksongs of many lands. In “Pcelice,” a song used to charm a honeybee swarm into a new hive, the singers start by whistling and clicking and softly uttering threats and promises, before breaking into song. And the neighborhood birds accompany the women’s beautiful singing on the penultimate track, “Lepo Pevam,” a Serbian song about a girl whose three suitors respond to … her beautiful singing.
Fans of Tim Eriksen — and he has many more since his vocals and shape-note songs played a prominent part in the soundtrack of the Cold Mountain film in 2003 — will probably enjoy this project, which shows one more side of his multi-faceted talent. Cordelia’s Dad fans likewise, and fans of Balkan music should also check out this American-Balkan collaboration. You can learn more at the Omnium website and find them on streaming services.
(Bison Publishing, 1997)