For a Serbian superstar who attracts rapt crowds throughout Europe, trumpeter Boban Markovic is hardly known in the United States. Tours over here are far too few, and his CDs on the Hungarian X-Produkcio label are entirely unavailable stateside. Only recently has Harmonia Mundi US started distributing Live in Belgrade and Boban i Marko: Balkan Brass Fest on the German Piranha label, following the popularity of similar Piranha recordings by Romanian Romany combo Fanfare Ciocarlia. If you've ever seen Emir Kusturica's 1995 film Underground, you may recognize the Boban Markovic Orkestar as the brass band that's always chasing the protagonists, or you may have heard them in Kusturica's bizarro Johnny Depp vehicle Arizona Dream. But it's far more likely that you didn't, and have no idea how incredibly unfortunate that is. A Balkan Gypsy brass band is a hell of a thing, and the Boban Markovic Orkestar is a hell of a Balkan Gypsy brass band. ("Roma" is the preferred term, but "Gypsy" is still standard in discussing the music.) Hailing from Vladicin Han in southern Serbia, Markovic's eleven-piece combo with three trumpets, five tubas, a saxophone, and two drummers has won awards time and again at the annual Guca Brass Band Festival in central Serbia, "the Woodstock of brass music," where Miles Davis is said to have once marveled, "I didn't know you could play the trumpet that way."
Just as the music of the Roma developed around the fiddle in Hungary and the guitar in Spain, in Serbia it grew up around brass, originally inspired by the trumpets of occupying Turkish soldiers fighting to quell the Karageorge uprising in 1804. The resultant fast-paced, jubilant, and dizzyingly complex dance music sounds to Western ears like a marching band gone berserk, heady concoctions by turns manic and melancholy, with echoes of funk, klezmer, spaghetti Westerns, Dixieland, and any popular tunes that might strike their fancy. A Balkan wedding without a Gypsy brass band would be a somber affair indeed, and when a preeminent combo like the Boban Markovic Orkestar tours Eastern Europe, it's not uncommon to see a mob of Hungarian teens jumping around as if they were in a mosh pit, singing along in a language entirely unrelated to their own.
Whether a similar crowd shows up for Boban's ultrarare appearance at Ashkenaz Sunday (8:30 p.m., $15) depends entirely on whether they know who they're dealing with. One thing's certain: If they've heard him, they will come. Ashkenaz.com -- San Hurwitt
Famed Pharaoh rises again
A man of enigmatic mystery, Akhnaten was the original Sun King, having existed several thousand years before Louis XIV. He's a complicated pharaoh, and no one understands him but his queen, Nefertiti. He's the cat that won't cop out when Amon priests are all about, and furthermore, he brought about an Egyptian spiritual revolution whose ripples are still reverberating today. After a sold-out run last May, the Oakland Opera Theater reprises its production of Akhnaten, Philip Glass' rarely performed opera, perhaps more avant-garde performance art than a typical operatic event. The performances are all top-notch, and the stripped-down stage design brings home the message (peace, love, iconoclasm) without sacrificing the power or majesty of the heretic ruler-turned-pop icon. Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through October 3 at Oakland Metro, 201 Broadway. $18-27.50. 510-465-8480 or OaklandOpera.org -- Eric K. Arnold
Folk dance from Ukraine is the name of the game when the Virsky Ukrainian National Dance Company treads the boards Sunday afternoon (3 p.m.) at UCB's Zellerbach Hall. Named after the renowned Russian ballet master Pavlo Virsky, the 67-year-old troupe is famed for combining classical ballet technique with the trademark virile athleticism of the Cossacks and colorful folkloric costumes. For more information, or to purchase tickets ($24-$48), call 510-642-9988 or visit CalPerfs.Berkeley.edu. In addition to the Sunday show, the Virsky company performs Monday at 11 a.m., also at Zellerbach, for students. -- Kelly Vance
Bird Is the Word
A dancer, two vocalists, and a visual artist join forces Saturday (1 p.m.) for a tribute to the birds of Oakland's Lake Merritt, purportedly North America's oldest wildlife refuge. The performance piece, Under the Wing, is danced by Patricia Bulitt on a floating platform in the lake, interwoven with improvisation and accompanied musically by David Worm and Sunshine Becker, members of the vocal group SoVoSó. Nearby is Birds You Can Read , a bird-art exhibit of paintings by Debra Green. The free event at Lakeside Park is part of National Coastal Cleanup Day. For more information, visit OaklandParks.org -- Kelly Vance
Culture Spy - February 19, 1:45 PM
What the Fork - February 15, 2:00 PM
Culture Spy - February 15, 10:30 AM
Culture Spy - February 12, 5:45 PM
What the Fork - February 8, 3:57 PM