I'm sitting in the backseat of an old Yugo hurtling at insane speeds around the corners of a winding mountain road somewhere in the middle of the Balkans. My life is in the hands of a pair of grinning lunatics who communicate to each other in some language I can't even name, let alone decipher, and who take turns maneuvering the wheel as we dodge boulders, potholes, and sheep on a ride of death. Eventually we screech to a halt at our destination without a single scrape, but then they fire up the Yugo and the ride starts all over again.
This combination of exhilaration and terror defines the experience of listening to the music of the Toids, an East Bay quartet holding their record release party at the Hillside Club in Berkeley May 19. Their just-released second album, Unblocked Ears, draws on the folk traditions of Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Thrace, and Turkey, but trying to explain how compelling it can be requires some instant musicology.
Lesson #1: Odd meters.
About 99.9 percent of American music comes in readily comprehensible meters of three or four beats; variations on "Eastside, Westside" and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." However, Balkan folk music uses asymmetrical rhythms built on five-, seven-, and eleven-beat cycles. At high speeds, these rhythms create the driving, disorienting feeling of never quite knowing where the downbeat is going to land.
"I remember what it was like the first time I heard it and was really confused," says the Toids' Ryan Francesconi, who plays conventional stringed instruments as well as the exotic Balkan variety. He would adopt one meter as his "meter of the month" and play it until he mastered it or a neighbor came knocking with an axe. "You get all these grooves that come out of one permutation of seven that are so unique and so tasty," says Dan Cantrell, who contributes mostly accordion to the mix and is the other founding member of the Toids.
Lesson #2: Strange scales.
Without even dipping into the world of the microtonal, Toids songs use progressions of notes we rarely hear in the music of the West to create moods variously described as haunting, hypnotic, or creepy. "These scales are fascinating," Cantrell says. "And the sounds that result from them are at times heartwrenching and, for me, very deep."
Mix these two lessons together, filter them through the sensibility of modern American music school grads, and you have the conceptual basis to begin to understand the music of the Toids.
Even before the two met at Cal Arts, Cantrell and Francesconi lapped up Balkan music. The gateway drug was Bartók, the Hungarian composer whose music borrows harmony and rhythm from Eastern European folk. It didn't hurt that one of Francesconi's guitar teachers at Cal Arts was Macedonian, and the duets they played further fueled his growing interest in the music. What they found in the Eastern European folk canon was a music combining intellectual rigor with a strong sense of heart and a groundedness. "There's a lot of speed in this music," Francesconi says, "but it doesn't seem cheesy to me in the same way that other kinds of fast guitar playing does."
In 1997, he and Cantrell formed the first version of the Toids. By the turn of the century they had resettled in the Bay Area and begun composing their own tunes in these styles. Fourteen tracks landed on their 2001 release, Ruupert Dances in Fins. Having proved to themselves they could fake it, they went back and learned what the hell they had done, delving deeper into the folk traditions that inspired them. By the time the two got the chance to make extended trips to Bulgaria, they'd been playing well enough to slacken jaws whenever people listened.
"They were like, 'Why do you know how to do that?'" Francesconi says. More importantly, their new contacts uncovered master musicians with whom to refine their skills.
The Toids insist that Unblocked Ears reveals this deepened sensibility. And while I can't pretend to that level of discernment, I can say that the new CD certainly offers more in the way of breadth. It transmutes some of the early mania into something more akin to soul. The rest of the quartet Lila Sklar on violin and Tobias Roberson on hand percussion are augmented by a small parade of cronies on strings, reeds, and drums. In addition to his usual stable of bouzouki, tamboura, and Bulgarian flute, Francesconi contributes tasteful touches of wah-wah guitar and electronica. Two songs even feature English lyrics, delivered by Cantrell in a fine, clear tenor.
Through it all, the Toids add their own elements and dynamics, blending the best of the traditions that preceded them with the best of what they listened to growing up, creating an unlikely bridge between Berkeley and the Balkans.
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