Notes from the Yugoslav Dub Underground: La Cherga Rocks the Mic and the Diaspora with Pan-Balkan Funk
Founded by a former Croatian punk turned dub DJ and infused with pop sensibility, La Cherga knows how to organically meld hip-hop MCs to Macedonian Gypsy brass, booming bass and eerie flute melodies, post-Cold War irony with optimistic uplift. Don’t let the crazy-quilt of descriptors fool you. La Cherga is no hybrid band.
The Austria-based, pan-Balkan crew is the product of natural musical evolution, the defiant, hard-hitting energy of a Yugoslav dub underground that spans from small-town Bosnia to the jazz conservatory of Graz. Revolve (Asphalt Tango Records; June 14, 2011), goes beyond the band’s party-hardy dubbed out past into deep funk, rock, and soul territory, guided by the unquenchable spirit of Sarajevo.
In Bulgarian, cherga is a quaint term for a rag rug, a reflection of the band’s love of sonic recycling. Yet it has other resonances as well: “In Romany, ‘cherga’ means a bunch of people, often wandering around without a purpose or direction,” La Cherga founder and producer Nevenko Bucan explained in an interview. “You could say it describes the Gypsies themselves, but we in the band are now immigrants, too. There are definitely links between the choice of that band name and the course of our lives."
The course of La Cherga runs through a vibrant musical diaspora, a fraught world formed by civil war, economic displacement, and a bubbling sense of irony. La Cherga waltzes and skanks through these complexities like a Roma band kicking out the jams at a Jamaican dancehall. Singer and lyricist Adisa Zvekic whispers poetry one moment, channeling Nina Simone, and raises hell like Ari Up the next.
The sultry sway of “Melaha,” backed by a wild lashing of beats and Gypsy brass, bleeds into hardcore defiance, calling for change (“One”)—or at least another round of drinks—while rocking the mic Yugoslav-style. Hints of Augustus Pablo and Bettye Lavette swirl around pop hooks and introspective jazz horns (“Rise Up”). Tales of immigrant life’s boozy woes (thanks to Croatian MC Killo Killo on “Votka dot kom”) alternate with calls from Zvekic’s rebel soul for peace, love, and an end to nationalism and conflict.
La Cherga came together accidentally on purpose. Bucan became a fixture on the Graz music scene, gaining a reputation for his seamless mix of dub, drum & bass, and rootsy grooves from the former Yugoslavia. But Bucan wasn’t satisfied with the DJ-centric approach of Austrian avant-dub, a scene led by producers like Kruder & Dorfmeister, who put Bucan’s work on their label’s compilations. “There was something missing,” Bucan reflects. “The scene needed live bands.”
Serendipitously, Bucan met Bosnian guitarist Muamer “Muki” Gazibegovic, who was studying music at the university in Graz, a magnet for young musicians from across the former Hapsburg realm. Regular jam sessions, which soon involved Macedonian horn players Kiril Kuzmanov and Trajce Velkov, turned into an album and a live touring band.
But dub and reggae have deep roots for La Cherga that extend beyond the cool Central European club experiments. Zvekic, who got her start as a teenager MCing with her brother and close friends as part of Bosnia’s Dubioza Kolektiv, grew up on dub, thanks to a community of music fans in her small home city of Zenica, Bosnia. People of all generations traded cassettes and exposed each other to anything and everything. “The dub approach is my roots. It’s something very natural that already is inside,” Zvekic notes. “It’s natural and spontaneous because I listened to a lot of music for a very long time.”
Putting odds and ends together has long been the cultural norm for musicians like Zvekic and in cities like Sarajevo, where, despite a decade of war, that spirit remains. That Bosnian vibe—a curious mix of cultural diversity and local distinctiveness—powered much of Revolve: Bucan worked with producer Nino Skiljic at a studio there, and Zvekic recorded with Dubioza’s MCs at a home in nearby Zenica (“One”).
“Sarajevo is a very old town, and its spirit carries on, sometimes despite its people,” Zvekic muses. “Its spirit reflects the efforts of cultured people who wanted to save its true values.”
Bucan summed up these values perfectly: “Nationalism and patriotism are so passé!” he exclaimed with a laugh during a recent interview. “In a way, we're like the orchestra on the Titanic. Everything around us is going to hell, but we keep on playing. We're just trying to create our own micro universe.”