There’s a point where the rhythm of the cumbia, the sound of Cuba and Balkan music all come together. And it’s right in the heart of the Jaro Milko and the Cubalkanics. It’s a place without borders, wild and wonderful; it’s Milko’s creation, where surf guitar, Cuban son and the powerful hit of Gypsy brass dance side by side. The five-piece Swiss band fuse his vision into a unique, delicious whole on their debut Cigarros Explosivos! (released March 28th, 2014 on Ashpalt Tango).
Jaro Milko first put the Cubalkanics together four years ago, his own guitar along with organ, drums, percussion and trombone.
“I was thinking of the people more than the instruments when I set the lineup,” he explains. “I knew I wanted a band with a different sound, and we don’t have a bass player.” But in trombonist Luke Briggen he has a secret weapon. “He actually plays some of the basslines. He has a pedal that lowers the notes by an octave. To me it sounds just like Balkan brass and that’s what I want.” With Eric Gilson’s organ picking up the rest of the bottom end, “which is very ‘60s,” they were set.
The Cubalkanics quickly began recording and playing shows to hone their sound. But they took their time to let it all develop, and the irresistible Cigarros Explosivos! is the result. The offbeat syncopation offers a nod to ska while keeping its feet dancing in Latin America, and many of the melodies and lyrics are homages to time spent in Cuba.
“Cumbia No. 5” is a remembrance of falling asleep there, all the sounds that come up like a fever dream,” Milko explains, while “Music Rum And Cha-Cha-Cha” was inspired by a visit to Casa de la Trova, the legendary musical haunt in Santiago de Cuba, home to so many of the island’s greatest musicians. “It’s more about the Cuba that most tourists don’t know.”
The lyrics are short fragments, but that, Milko states, is quite deliberate.
“I’m not a writer. I’m a guitar player. I write the words as short lines so I don’t forget them!” The Cubalkanics first took shape in 2010, but the genesis for the project began long before that. Milko, who was born in Switzerland after his parents moved from Czechoslovakia, had played Balkan music for many years, then began mining the Gypsy swing of Django Reinhardt as a member of Prekmurski Kavbojci. The Cuban influence arrived after Milko visited the country with his girlfriend.
“There was so much familiar stuff. Furniture and glasses that were the same as my parents had in the 1970s. It was familiar and weird at the same time.” He began an ongoing affair with Cuban music, especially the guitar and tres. The final strand fell into place in 2008, not long after Milko became a member of Firewater, the band formed by ex-CopShootCop singer & bassist Tod A.
“We were touring in the US and someone gave us a cumbia compilation. We all feel in love with it and played it all the time on the road.” But it resonated deep for Milko and the seeds were planted for his new sound.
It’s the culmination of years as a musician. He began as a child by taking classical guitar lessons, then buying his first electric instrument in his teens, moving through punk and rock until he found jazz and started Strange Fruit, an avant-garde ensemble where “most of the music was heavily composed and extreme but with some free sections.” From there his path has wound through other bands, but with Cubalkanics he feels like he’s come home.
“It’s very close to me,” Milko says. “It’s very personal. The songs are mine, the lyrics are mine. It’s certainly the most emotional music I’ve made; the other things are more intellectual.” Milko goes on to mention how the album couldn't have been made without the drums & percussion team of Ines Brodbeck & Eric Gut. "This is a well-established duo transforming straight tumbaos into Balkan odd meters. Making you want to dance immediately, these Caribbean-Rhythm experts are willing to hit hard enough to compete with distorted surf guitars and a mad-gone organ."
And there’s certainly emotion on the album. Cigarros Explosivos is an album of moods, from the playful “Cumbia Griega” to the dark twang that spreads across “All The Past” like a shadow all the way through to the lazy sunniness of “Summer in January.” The cumbia beat underpins the music, pushing it along, while Milko’s guitar is the real powerhouse, bringing color and drive and adding to every track, and completing the package.
Jaro Milko and the Cubalkanics bring plenty of surprises. And, of course, the exploding cigars.
Jaro Milko’s tracks