Choban Elektrik (2012)
Choban Elektrik, the self-titled debut album by Choban Elektrik (“Electric Shepherds”) is one of those recordings that automatically hooks you in. The Brooklyn-based band artfully concocts a hybrid sound that includes jazz-rock fusion, traditional music from the Balkans and southeastern Europe, psychedelia and improvisation.
The group is led by multi-instrumentalist Jordan Shapiro and features Dave Johnsen on bass and percussionist Phil Kester. Although most of the pieces are instrumental, Eva Salina Primack and Jesse Kotansky provide vocals on three songs.
What characterizes Choban Elektrik is the fabulous vintage sound of the Hammond organs and Fender Rhodes playing high energy electrified Balkan music. It’s as if a Canterbury band like Hatfield and the North had spent some time in Albanian and Greek villages digesting their folk music.
“We never set out to do this,” explains Jordan Shapiro. “But I’d bring in songs I learned in Balkan singing class or at the Balkan music camps, and we’d play them, just like anything else we’d tackle as a trio, as if they were jazz, funk, or rock.”
Choban Elektrik performs enthralling arrangements of Albanian, Bulgarian, Armenian, Greek and Macedonian dances and one original composition by Albanian accordionist Raif Hyseni. “I had no exposure to world music my entire upbringing,” says Shapiro. “My parents loved classical music and Broadway shows. This was the last thing I’d ever have imagined doing.”
Jordan Shapiro is conservatory trained in piano and guitar performance and jazz studies. He moved to New York and played in numerous bands as principal member and as sideman. Shapiro formed a progressive bluegrass band called Astrograss. He also joined Project/Object, a Frank Zappa tribute band that included original members of Zappa’s band. That’s where he met Choban’s bassist, Dave Johnsen.
After listening to some Balkan music at a party, Shapiro went to the Golden Festival, New York’s annual meeting of Balkan music fans and top performers. “It inspired me to get an accordion,” Shapiro recalls. “Lugging around vintage keyboards is not nearly as much fun.”
A year later, Shapiro found himself in a ring of twenty accordionists of all levels, learning the technique and graceful ornamentation of Albanian accordionist Raif Hyseni. “Raif teaches by ear. He started playing a tune, this beautiful Albanian folk song,” recalls Shapiro. “That was a new thing for me, to be right in front of someone playing this complicated melody. I hadn’t done that kind of music by ear at that point.”
Although Shapiro played some of the Balkan pieces on the accordion, he wanted to try something radically different. He used his collection of vintage organs and keyboards and gave new electric life to the traditional pieces. “The album starts off with a thirty-second exploration, an improvisation,” says Shapiro. “It shows off the Fender Rhodes. But then it shifts into a different key and the traditional melody Raif taught me. That transition really reflects our approach beautifully.”
Choban Elektrik delivers a remarkable mix of vintage electric keyboards and world music sounds from the southeastern corner of Europe.