Music

Honey, Blood And Harmony: Jordi Savall's Balkan Journey

NPR | April 20, 2014 3:43 p.m. | Updated: April 20, 2014 6:22 p.m.

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NPR Staff

Early music specialist Jordi Savall has turned his attention to the widely varied music of the Balkans. "For me," he says, "it's one of the most exciting projects that happened in the last 20 years."

Early music specialist Jordi Savall has turned his attention to the widely varied music of the Balkans. "For me," he says, "it's one of the most exciting projects that happened in the last 20 years."

Courtesy of the artist

Jordi Savall has made a career of reviving ancient music. Whatever the age of the songs, though, he doesn’t play them as museum-piece recreations, preserved in isolation. Savall takes great pleasure in smashing together music from different times and different cultures.

At his concerts, it’s difficult to predict what might happen — or who might show up. There might be musicians from Afghanistan or Africa onstage; those same musicians might perform an medieval French song or a Jewish lullaby.

His latest project, Bal-Kan: Honey and Blood, requires no such mashup of regions. Instead, he delves deeply into the music of the Balkans and uncovers a truly incredible variety.

Of Blood, Beauty And Belief

Savall says his fascination with the Balkans stems from the period when the region was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks were the first to give the region the name “Balkan,” shortly after conquering it in the 15th century. As for what exactly that name means, well, dispute persists.

Not surprisingly, Jordi Savall prefers the poetic version: a combination of two words, “Bal” and “Kan.” He explains, “‘Bal’ means in Turkish ‘honey,’ and ‘kan’ ‘blood.’ [The Turks] found a beautiful country, but they found also a very strong population who resist in a very exceptional way. And they tell that this is the country of the honey and blood.”

Savall says the Ottomans gave locals a certain degree of independence, tolerating religious and cultural differences. Because it was essentially a place where East meets West, the Balkans were extraordinarily diverse. The region was home to more than 20 distinct ethnic groups, including Jewish refugees expelled from Spain. This gave rise to many styles of music, all of which could be played freely.

Out of the Balkans came music untouched by the Renaissance or the Baroque period. Despite its diversity, or perhaps because of it, the Balkans were a place outside of time — where songs may be a thousand years old and yet still swing like jazz. And as he studied the modern-day Balkans, Savall noticed how many cultural traditions remained, while in other places they had succumbed to globalization.

He says of the project: “It’s a way to reflect this extremely big diversity of ways to sing, to play music — to believe also. And this is, I think, for me it’s one of the most exciting projects that happened in the last 20 years.”

The Musician’s Language

It’s a project that’s too big to contain on one record. The three CDs of Bal-Kan come in a small book fit for the coffee table, filled with essays on the music, art culture and history of the region, along with photos and art reproductions.

His last several projects have been issued this way. It’s all part of a master plan by Savall: In this day of downloads, he’s trying to revive the idea of a record album as a thing to be held and experienced.

“This is something you can take your time to read, to listen,” he says. “I think it’s also important to bring to the music all the elements to understand the music — to know about the history, about the political situation. What are these societies? What are these people? What they represent in our world today, no?”

And it’s impossible to shy away from the political history. The 20th century saw a lot of bloodshed in the Balkans. The different cultures don’t mix as well anymore.

Remarkably, the inspiration for this Balkan project came from a performance in memory of the victims of the siege in Sarajevo. For that concert, Savall had assembled a potentially volatile blend of ethnicities. He lists them: “Serbian musicians, Bosnian musicians, Armenian musicians, Turkish musicians, Sephardic musicians, Christian musicians. It was clear to see in the ambience was a certain electricity. People was happy to be there, but many of these people had never played together.”

But he says that after only a few hours of rehearsal, the atmosphere had completely changed. Between the different ethnicities, above the different melodies, a universal language took hold — a language common to all musicians.

“What makes one a musician is having sympathy to another musician,” he says. “It’s when he understands the other musician, has the same language as he has, the same sensitivity, the same virtuosity. Then it’s a respect. And then it’s creating something fantastic.”

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