Look to the East

Examining Slavic pop music through the lens of YouTube reveals sleaze, soul and the Moldovan version of Cake

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

Visit Jackson Griffith’s blog at http://jacksongriffith.blogspot.com, for additional music-video links.

For the past month, more days than not I’ve been waking up with this song running through my head. I have no idea what the lyrics mean, except that the line “Buna Diminyatsa” sounds kind of like how you say “good morning” in Romanian and that the band, Zdob si Zdub, is from Moldova, which is sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains.

The video for the song is a feast of images from the old Soviet Union; Moldova was once one of the 15 Soviet republics. The band, whose sound might be described as an Eastern European version of the Sacramento band Cake, has a John McCrea-like singer, along with a horn player who provides counterpoint. Parts of the video look like a vintage Ripple wine commercial mashed up with a rolling Communist Party rally in a Russian flatbed truck, showing Zdob si Zdub having a great time while waving a red banner that reads “Buna Diminyatsa” in Cyrillic lettering.

It’s infectious as hell.

I’m not sure how I stumbled into this enchanting little world. Probably boredom. One night, I was sitting at the computer poking around YouTube, and something possessed me to enter “Hrvatska,” the domestic name for what we in the West know as Croatia, into the search box. What came up were several performance segments from Hrvatski Idol, the Croatian version of the British crowd pleaser and its popular American knockoff. The songs didn’t suck quite as bad as the ones on American Idol do, and there were no obnoxious judges to be seen. But as novelty, it had little value, and it looked close enough to the familiar to bring on a severe case of Simon Cowell dread.

Other videos came up, too. “Natrag u Garazu,” by the Croatian band Psihomodo Pop, was such a train wreck of musical and visual cues—flamenco, ska, metal and bad ’90s Los Angeles hipster rock—that it made almost perfect sense. Another, “Sexy Body” by the Croatian group Colonia, was a live-performance example of a genre that Canadian electronica artist Countess Christsmasher, of the Toronto-based duo ProCon, calls “czechno”—a low-budget Eastern European approximation of electroclash, or ’80s synth-pop and dance music, generally performed on cheap keyboards and sung in thick Slavic accents. In that video, Colonia’s equine singer, Indira, demonstrated a testosterone-enhanced presence that came off like Rocky and Bullwinkle Show spy Natasha Fatale working undercover as a Jazzercise coach. Another video, by the Croatian disco group Karma, featured almost major-label production values. A Roman Polanski look-alike intoned “Unbeleeevable, eeets eeencredible,” while a beautiful Croatian woman writhed on the floor and sang, an exquisite tumescence-inducing sight.

But the capper was a Croatian duo named Flamingosi, two white-guy twins with greasy hair and Elvis shades who dressed in matching pink suits and surrounded themselves with a band of quite hot women in bikinis. The song, a bouncy Slavic ska number, was earworm-catchy, made even more irresistible by the video’s frequent zoom shots of cleavage, camel toes and bikini bottoms. And another video by the same combo, “Hir Aj Cam, Hir Aj Go,” was the sort of thing that would never have passed muster on 1980s MTV. It was way too politically incorrect, with too much objectification of scantily clad women over a James Bond-style guitar riff, and even some erotic sausage eating.

Surely, Zagreb couldn’t be the new capital of the pop-music universe. Could it?

Sensing pay dirt elsewhere, I branched out. I plugged “Shqiperia,” the domestic name for Albania, in the search box. Up came “Vec i Imi” by Lori, an Albanian disco singer with what must be the skankiest eyeliner this side of the San Joaquin County Fair circa 1968. Like the Croatians, she had a propensity for almost Arabesque minor-key melodies, but here those characteristics were even more pronounced, like a Giorgio Moroder reanimation of the old Ottoman Empire. Another video, “Me Thuaj te Dua” by the stylish hippie disco couple Sabian Ft. Katy, shifted into some oddball double-tracked vocals mid-song that sounded quite disconcerting.

After Albania, I typed in Moldova, and that’s when I found Zdob si Zdub. And when the novelty of “Buna Diminyatsa” started wearing off (which it never really did), I found some other videos by the same band: “Everybody in the Casa Mare,” “Nunta Extremala (The Extreme Wedding Party)” and “Cucusor (The Little Cuckoo).” All of them were quite fun to watch.

Zdob si Zdub seemed rather unabashed in its Moldovan nationalism, the videos featuring weathered peasants along with scenes of Moldovan countryside and Kishinev cityscapes—with plenty of old Soviet automobiles and architecture. No “let’s pretend we’re English” posing with these guys. A bit more poking around online turned up a band Web site, whose bio stated that Zdob si Zdub has been around for at least 10 years and is signed to Warner Music in Hungary.

Another Moldovan track, “Made in Moldova” by Serj Cuzencoff, was a marriage of a czechno sound bed with faux-soul buttrock vocals; the resulting Eurovision Song Contest-ready union had all the emotional resonance of American Idol winner Taylor Hicks’ recent Ford commercials.

But real soul could be found on the other side of the Black Sea, or its online equivalent, in the marvelous singing policemen of Tbilisi, Georgian Republic. Imagine three portly guys in uniform in a squad car—which looked like an older Hyundai sedan—with cherry-top lights flashing, singing a lovely, Christmasy minor-key melody in perfect barbershop harmony into a police-band radio mic, a sort of Barney Fife moment of unexpected charm and brilliance.

There were other great finds, too, like a circa-1962 short film advertising the Tatra 603, a bulbous Czechoslovakian rear-engine sedan that looked like what might’ve happened if a 1950 Nash Ambassador had impregnated a Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia. The ad featured a long chase scene involving hapless motorcycle cops to the tune of a cool jazz background, with top-flight cinematography and a vibe similar to the British TV series The Avengers.

There were also strange anomalous clips: A Croatian talk-show host, interviewing handicapped people, who was trying desperately to keep from bursting into laughter; a middle-aged Orthodox Jew egging on a dim-witted Russian kid to guzzle two liters of vodka and then laughing at the kid when he projectile-vomited and collapsed in a heap as a result; a carload of drunken Croatians with their faces painted in a clown-like but patriotic red-and-white checkerboard pattern like their country’s flag, on their way to the World Cup; and a television interviewer getting kicked in the face by his interview subject. In another clip, a doppelganger for Courtney Love was literally swept off her feet by the beery Balkan entertainer Bora Drljaca at a foot-stompin’ Slavic whoop-de-do.

It would be easy to get sidetracked by drunks and freaks, but there’s so much music to be found: rap groups from Poland; wimpy emo bands from Latvia; wigger acts from obscure Russian oblasts; cookie-monster bands from Turkey; and much more czechno—like “Bubblegum Boy” by Lollobrigida, a campy but zippy low-budget animation from Croatia that made the B-52’s look and sound like Radiohead at its most ponderous. Or, speaking of animation, a cartoon, for a song called “Moja Stikla,” that featured a singing black-haired woman stepping in a cow pie, serenaded by an accordion-playing dwarf and some guys in lederhosen, with a psychedelic flying chicken and paper-airplane sequence in the middle.

So, what does it all mean? Well, first, you can make a complete idiot of yourself by sitting in front of a computer typing words into the YouTube search engine to see what comes up, and it can keep you occupied for days. Second, there are a lot of strange videos out there. Some of them are worth watching, and some of them are not.

But most importantly, there’s a world of pop music that translates just fine, even though the lyrics may not make sense. You won’t hear these parallel-universe hits on your radio station, but you can take the initiative and find them yourself.

Oh, and one more thing: Croatian women are goddesses.