5 Eastern European ethno-jazz groups you should know about – the Calvert Journal

In Eastern Europe, ethno-jazz is a revered genre. A basic definition would see ethno-jazz as an umbrella term for any non-Western fusion with modern American jazz. But, as always, the story is more complicated than it looks. Romanian jazz critic and historian Virgil Mihaiu argues that, fundamentally, the spirit of ethno-jazz lies in improvisation – “whether it is an improvisation on the African-American jazz tradition, or by a village kobza player standing on top of a damn hill, feeling connected to the stars.

This improvisation is done with great technical rigor, built by the many schools of folk and classical music in the region. As Mihaiu states, “the musicians build on the more classical foundation created by piano composer-performers such as the Polish Krzysztof Komeda, who wrote the music for the films of Roman Polanski, Vagif Mustafa-Zadeh, who a museum in his name in Baku; and Romanian Richard Oschanitzky, who wrote the music for more than 30 films. They were musicians already integrated on the world cultural scene.

But although the roots of today’s avant-garde music can be traced back to the art created by composers during the Communist era, the ethno-jazz label was adopted in the 1990s as a means of marketing this local musical tradition in a westernized music market.

The current ethno-jazz scene in Eastern Europe may not yet be extensive, but it is solid: festivals in cities like Wrocław, Chișinău, Dushanbe, Tulcea or Rostov-on-Don, as well as in idyllic rural villages and castles defend the genre. Georgia even sent its own ethno-jazz groups to the Eurovision Song Contest – The Shin represented the country in 2014 in Denmark, and Iriao was the face of Georgia in Lisbon in 2018.

Here are five ethno-jazz groups to give you a taste of the rich jazz landscape of Eastern Europe.

Ada J. Kenney