In a world where politics, diplomacy, and institutions often fall short, music emerges as the true catalyst for change. We were fortunate enough to witness this transformative power just a few weeks ago at Balkan:MOST Festival, held in the historic Hungarian city of Veszprém against the stunning backdrop of Lake Balaton.
Over three electrifying musical days, Veszprém burst to life with vibrant sounds and rich cultures from the Balkans and beyond, defying the historical divisions of the region. Balkan:MOST, where ‘MOST’ translates to ‘bridge’ in Slavic languages, flawlessly fulfilled its mission of bridging communities, styles, and traditions. The festival was a unique amalgamation of an expo featuring conferences, workshops, and round tables; a lively music festival with dozens of showcases and gigs; and a heartwarming community gathering that embodied its multifaceted nature.”
The origins of the Balkan:MOST project can be traced back to 2019 when Hangvető took the helm. Their primary objective? To introduce Balkan music, spanning traditional and contemporary styles from sevdah to electro-minimalism, folktronica to body music, ethno-jazz to dubstep, muzica lăutărească to indie-rock, and much more to a global audience. This ambitious project united over 30 bands, nearly 80 managers, agents, promoters, music professionals, and 60 festivals, clubs, and cultural centers, culminating in the grand finale held in early September.
A grand finale that illuminated the European Capital of Culture in 2023 with three days of Balkan, Eastern and Southern European, and Mediterranean music. From the Castle Square to the heart of the Old City and the scenic backyard of Foton, the city’s audio-visual center, the festival’s stages hosted an array of captivating performances.
The musical journey through the Balkans began on Thursday evening, figuratively and musically transporting us to Skopje, the hometown of the quartet (trio for the occasion) Perija. Skillfully blending Macedonian traditional music with Middle-Eastern maqam, North-African scents, post-folk, atonality, and ethno-jazz, they took the stage. Singing in various Balkan languages, their lyrics draw inspiration from social issues, contemporary poetry, and ancient village songs, delivering a compelling and thought-provoking performance.
Just minutes later, at the Foton stage, the enchanting PJEV, a female a cappella quintet from Zagreb, celebrated the vocal traditions of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their harmonious fusion transcended borders and music eras, emphasizing the unity and shared heritage of these nations while countering divisive rhetoric.
Veszprém’s central square burst into vibrant life with the eclectic and dynamic performance led by Neapolitan artist Daniele Sepe and his exceptionally talented band. Their revolutionary jazz stylings captivated the audience, reaffirming that music and dance know no bounds.
Meanwhile, over at Foton, E.U.E.R.P.I., the guitar drone ambient project by Mirian Kolev, transported listeners into a minimalist, visionary, and subtly psychedelic realm through a live performance that wove a unique tapestry of sound.
On a different note, at the Castle Stage, the Barcelona Gipsy Klezmer Orchestra showcased their virtuosic skills by blending Gipsy, klezmer, and Balkan music, creating a vibrant, foot-tapping, and dance-inducing experience.
Then, without much time to rest after the high-energy performance by BGKO, the main square came alive again with Corina Sîrghi, accompanied by Taraful Jean Americanu, who transported the audience back in time to Bucharest during the interwar period. Their music bridged the gap between the city’s historical eras, with a mix of passionate romances, sultry tangos, fiery lăutar dances, and raucous manele classics.
Closing out the festival’s opening night, Poklade Band took the stage, delivering an electrifying performance of Pan-Balkan folk classics that ignited a collective dance frenzy and immersed the audience in the very essence of Balkan culture.
As the weekend unfolded, Balkan:MOST continued to enchant attendees with a captivating lineup of diverse musical acts. On Friday evening, the program kicked off with a duo hailing from the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, Flying Nomads. Their music seamlessly blended traditional and modern elements, as well as Eastern and Western European influences. They skillfully combined instruments like the Bulgarian tambura and the Iranian daf with the guitar, ukulele, bendir, and more, creating a musical tapestry that bridged cultures.
Shortly after, the stage was ignited with the enthralling gypsy vibes of the French group La Caravane Passe. From their classic “Gipsy for One Day” to their latest releases such as “Insulaire” and “Maria Kalash,” the band embarked on a musical journey through the Southern and Eastern corners of Europe, creating a unique fusion of global beats.
Meanwhile, in the Castle Square, fans of Dubioza Kolektiv, the Bosnian musical phenomenon, gathered in large numbers to witness their electrifying performance. They were all decked out in the unmistakable black and yellow colors that have become synonymous with the band. Renowned for infusing their spirited Bosnian energy into diverse styles like dub, punk, ska, and hip-hop, Dubioza Kolektiv demonstrated that they were as ageless and incendiary as ever, celebrating their second decade on global stages.
On the other side of the Old Town, the Main Square hosted Naked, a band deeply rooted in the intricate history of ex-Yugoslavia. They delivered music that was both jubilant and soulful, characterised by unwavering honesty. With a blend of instruments like the violin, saxophone, and clarinet, they crafted a diverse global urban sound, melding elements of swing, funk, bebop, psychedelic dub, free jazz, and hints of Mediterranean, African, and Eastern European traditions.
The night continued with a performance by the Bulgarian institution, Oratnitza, at the Castle Stage. Despite some travel delays, they won over the hearts of the audience with their fusion of Bulgarian folk melodies, Orthodox-style chanting, world music, hip-hop, dubstep, trap, and irregular rhythms. Oratnitza reimagined traditional Bulgarian songs with their unique “ethno-bass” sound.
As Friday night drew to a close, DJSabs took the reins, offering a musical journey that spanned roots and hybrid music before transitioning into a wide range of Balkan-inspired pop, from punk to disco. To conclude the night, Mumush Festival booker JozsefHalmen delivered an eclectic and bass-heavy DJ set that kept the energy alive into the early hours.
On Saturday, the excitement for Manu Chao’s late evening performance was palpable, yet the day was brimming with more highlights. Alice in WonderBand, an artistic duo melding Balkan tradition with body music and percussion, captivated the audience with their lively and rhythmic show. Their performance was a profound journey through the Balkans and the depths of the human experience.
Meanwhile, on the Castle Stage, Macedonian vocalist Zarina Prvasevda seamlessly merged Macedonian and global traditional music, drawing inspiration from nature, history, and diverse cultures. She presented traditional music in a unique and authentic form.
From Macedonia, the festival moved across to neighboring Albania, where the duo Shkodra Elektronike, now based in Italy, offered an original electronic reinterpretation of their hometown’s traditional music. Their innovative approach breathed new life into old traditions, highlighting the resilience of the Albanian people in their pursuit of evolution.
A short while later, Marina Satti, a rising star influenced by her Greek and Sudanese roots, graced the Old Town Stage with her contemporary urban sound. Her unique blend of electronica, R’n’B, and age-old vocal tradition, enriched by Balkan polyphony and Greek choirs, created an irresistible musical experience.
The grand finale of the three-day event was an electrifying acoustic and crowd-rousing set by the legendary Manu Chao, accompanied by a percussionist and guitarist. The trio played a repertoire of old and new hits, taking the audience on a musical journey that transcended time and boundaries, from the days of Mano Negra to La Vida Tombóla through the Radio Bemba era.
To conclude the festival, Lenhart Tapes delivered a far-reaching analog set, manipulating field recordings, spoken word, and traditional music. This unique performance, featuring master folk vocalists like Svetlana Spajić, perfectly encapsulated the spirit of Balkan:MOST and served as a fitting conclusion to a project that celebrated not only music but also cultural diversity, cooperation, and the unifying power of music.