Event Review + Gallery: Antwerp Gipsy-Ska Orkestra @ Jam Jar (Bristol; Friday, 19th April 2024)

Words & Photos by Ursula Billington & Simon Alexander

This is gangster ska!

It’s another sweaty, packed-out Friday night at the Jam Jar. This time, the audience is a slightly crustier festival crowd (think Balter at 3AM rather than BCUC’s Wilderness with a carafe of wine), lured in by the promise of ‘gypsy’ and ‘ska’. As it turns out, they’re gifted with so much more.

For 90 minutes, we’re led on a madcap tour of Europe by a formidably dapper crew of Belgians, Macedonians, Serbians, and Chileans with a decidedly rude-boy attitude. There’s a notable contrast between the band’s expensive tailored suits and the audience’s threadbare sleeves and baggy pants, but the love for the music and positive energy is universal.

Frontman Gregor Engelen calls his motley bunch his ‘crazy schnitzels’, and they definitely live up to the reputation. They kick things off with a meandering, stylish jam that sets the tone for a night of musical class, character, and confidence.

The band members are absolute veterans: playing for 21 years and touring 27 countries. They’re embedded in European traditions, producing flawless versions of folk tunes from Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, and Serbia, while adding extra flavours of ska, cumbia, dub, and reggae.

Gregor highlights their reach and pedigree acknowledging their cultural borrowing. His anecdote includes a Venezuelan band inspired by Antwerp Gipsy-Ska and a band from Kosovo who remade one of their albums: “They covered the covers we covered from the covers,” he laughs, to the crowd’s delight.

At one point, they break into a tallava (a genre originating from Roma communities in Kosovo and Northern Macedonia) with added heavy drums and intricate guitar. They call it ‘live trap’ before shrieking “this is motherfu**ing hardcore!” and launching into a convincing dub outro.

Gregor is a proper showman: a rakish mix of rat pack crooner and matador, sporting a black fedora and crocodile skin shoes. He’s got a serious penchant for Red Stripe and tries to convince us he’s scary. “In Antwerp they call me Gregor Terror. I’m the king of getting kicked out,” he proclaims, but he’s too likeable for anyone to believe him. He shares drinks with the crowd, chats endlessly, and radiates love for his band and their musical influences.

Gregor’s got the right chat for a Bristol crowd, too. As an ex-con, he notes, “I’ve only been in jail for f**king up fascists, believe me.” He laments Brexit (“It’s a f**k in the ass. A bad one.”) and reflects on a world in crisis before launching into Revolution (Has Never Been Simple), a bouncy single from their latest album. The upbeat song provides a great counterpoint, encouraging the crowd to forget their worries and go wild.

But it’s the two band members from Eastern Europe, on guitar and keys, who steal the show. Guitarist Ramadan Sali, just 18, shreds impeccably with an unnervingly straight face. His virtuosic solos intertwine with those of keyboardist Suhamet Latifi. The pair lock eyes regularly, daring each other into ever more impressive solos.

The music is fat, refined, multicultural, self-assured, and expressive. While the lyrics sometimes stray into the absurd, it’s all part of the jaunty fun. Overall, the Antwerp Gipsy-Ska Orkestra delivered another hit for Bristol’s premier independent world music venue with a masterclass in what is possible with a pan-European mindset.

Photos ©: Ursula Billington & Simon Alexander