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Another Balkan Break-Up

San Francisco’s original Balkan brass band bids farewell—but it's not too late to catch their final show.

 San Francisco's own Balkan brass band is set to play their final show on Friday.

Peter Jaques, founder and musical director of the Bay Area’s original traveling Balkan brass band, Brass Menazeri (pronounced like “menagerie”), was still riding high off the vibe of their Seattle show when he and Menazeri trumpet man Darren Johnston shuffled into Santa Cruz for the latest stop on their West Coast tour.

“We were playing this Russian Center [in Seattle],” Jaques explained, “just wood floors and empty space with two mics. And there were 300 people dancing in a circle around us, grandmothers and grandchildren, you know. They felt like our family.”

"That's community," Johnston said, still sounding breathless days later. 

“Family” and “community” are the words that band members keep bringing up when talking about the music. Menazeri’s trademark brand of traditional Balkan folk music (from a notably non-Balkan lineup of musicians) has brought a sense of community and family to the Bay Area for years. But this latest tour is a farewell; after 12 and a half years and nearly 300 shows, Jaques and company will blow their last note together on Friday, February 1 at Oakland’s New Parish music club

Jaques plans to spend the next year traveling around Greece, studying folk music on a Fulbright scholarship. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the band’s iconic front man, but it comes with a heavy price: Menazeri itself. None of the band’s nine other members feel up to filling Jaques’ shoes.

“He’s the perfect musical director,” Johnston said. “I can be a band leader, but what I know about this music I learned from Peter.”

“I’ve been playing [Balkan music] for 12 years,” adds trombonist and baritone horn player Larry Leight, one of Brass Menazeri’s founding members, “but I haven’t steeped myself in it quite like he has. I just couldn’t do it.”

When it comes to the Menazeri sound, every band member may be crucial—but Jaques is simply The Man, and no substitutes need apply. The band, and by extension almost the entire Bay Area Balkan music scene, began simply with Jaques’ unexpected love affair with a then-obscure genre of music. He attended the Eastern European Folk Center’s Balkan music and dance workshop in Mendocino a dozen years ago and got hooked on the sound. 

“I like to say that it was a dark and stormy night and then the telephone rang,” Leight explained. “He said, ‘This is Peter Jaques, I’d like to hire you for my Balkan brass band.’ I told him I had two questions: One, what is that, and two, is there any money in it?”

“I told him no, probably not,” Jaques said, “and he said, ‘Okay, I’m in.’” Jaques’ penchant for the music was contagious. “The first time we ever played a club, the audience was just dumbstruck,” Leight says. “They stood there with their jaws dropped. And then they caught the beat and started moving. They weren’t doing the traditional folk dancing, of course, but they caught the beat.”

Menazeri brought the Balkan sound out of classrooms and folk festivals and into the Bay Area’s popular consciousness. “A lot of folks have been doing Balkan roots music and folk dancing for years, but you’re not going to find them at clubs,” said Mike Perlmutter, saxophonist of Balkan brass band Inspector Gadje. “Then Brass Menazeri started playing and all of a sudden Balkan brass music became hip.” 

Over time, Jaques started adding elements of Turkish and Egyptian folk music, Western jazz and R&B, or even electronica to his arrangements, creating a singular sound but still cleaving to Balkan roots. “I keep everything sounding like it could be from over there, even if it's a weird band over there.”

The final show will bring in a few collaborators, including belly dancers and Boston hip-hop artist Mr. Lif. And a few old faces will make guest appearances: Menazeri members past.

As Jaques heads off to Greece, what comes next for the rest of the band? “Probably a good cry,” Leight says. But Leight, for one, isn’t about to step away from Balkan music. “It got me through two heart attacks,” he said (one of which happened onstage with Menazeri—he still finished the set). He and fellow Menazeri members Rachel MacFarlane and Evan Stewart have a new Balkan brass band, Fanfare Zambaleta. Johnston cites his work with other groups like Nice Guy Trio and a choral project in the works. And there are plenty of other local Balkan bands now to help fill the void.

But none of them will be the original.

 

Brass Menazeri’s final show will be at the New Parish, 579 18th St, Oakland at 9:00 PM. Tickets ($10-15) are available at the door.

 

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