Old world meets new wave

Shantel's Balkan pop finds its Jewish roots.

Shantel 311 (photo credit: courtesy )
Shantel 311
(photo credit: courtesy )
Israelis don’t need to be told that electro-ethnic music is the hottest thing going these days. From homegrown Mediterranean electronic mash-ups like Balkan Beat Box and Boom Pam to the recent sweat-drenched live Tel Aviv shows of international hybrids like Emir Kusturitza’s Non Smoking Orchestra and Gogol Bordello, taking tradition and standing on its dancing head is providing some of the freshest sounds around.
Shantel, one of the originators of the Euro gypsy beat, has his own theories as to why audiences are embracing the frenetic synthesis of old world and new wave.
“There’s a vacuum in the music mainstream these days, with the classic Anglo-American pop stereotype no longer fulfilling the dreams of the younger generation,” said the German DJ/bandleader in a phone call from Dusseldorf, where he was performing later that night with his own acclaimed turbocharged, brass-fueled Bucovina Club Orchestra.
“Balkan pop is not a cooled-down concept or a sound with a marketing campaign. It’s something really different and mysterious, combining rebellious and anarchistic elements with romance and emotion. This is something really new in the music scene, and young people really appreciate it.”
They’re certainly appreciating the 43-year-old Shantel (born Stefan Hantel), who built his career in the 1990s in Germany’s techno scene.
After releasing his first album, Club Gorilla, in 1994, Shantel became a staple in DJ booths around the world. And one of his trips in the late 1990 brought him to the Ukraine to perform. While there, he took the opportunity to visit his grandparents’ birthplace of Bucovina, on the northern slopes of the Carpathian mountains and the adjoining plains, which is currently split between Romania and Ukraine.
“I changed my artistic point of creation from that point on,” said Shantel. “I realized that so much culture got wiped out by the Nazis and then later Stalinism. I remember stories my grandmother told me about life there – the mix of Jews and Christians, Romanians and Germans. I found it quite inspiring,” he said.
“Coming back to Germany, I had the feeling that I wanted to restart that lost culture, to reinvent the mythos of Bucovina and present part of my identity by bringing diverse elements together and creating something new.”
He inaugurated dance evenings in Frankfurt, which he called the Bucovina Club, blending traditional Balkan Gypsy sounds into his DJ set. It proved to be a huge success and further raised Shantel’s profile.
But a couple of years later, something he had learned on his trip to Bucovina led him to a year-long detour in Israel.
“I received papers about my grandmother there that she had been in a DP camp in Austria, which is where my mother was born. It described her as an Ethnic Romanian Jew, whatever that was,” he said.
“This fact that I was part Jewish was never a subject for discussion in my family. But I was very curious about it and decided to go to Israel to explore Judaism.”
Shantel lived on Borgrashov Street in Tel Aviv and worked in a studio in Florentine, exploring the secular side of Israeli life instead of immersing himself in Jewish studies.
“It was quite inspiring to me, but I was still focused on music,” he said. “I started organizing these little Eastern European party shows in Tel Aviv, and I remember that some young people used to come up to me and say, ‘Please stop playing this hassidic bullshit.’ It was pretty funny to see their reactions then, before the crossover sound started, that we call Balkan pop or whatever.”
Shantel was involved with the early recordings of both Balkan Beat Box and Boom Pam before moving back to Germany and igniting his career in earnest. His 2007 album Disko Partizani and 2009 follow-up Planet Paprika established him as a performer in his own right, and not just a DJ, and set the stage for the 12-piece Bucovina Club Orchestra.
The band’s Anarchy and Romance Tour, which is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Bucovina Club, will touch down in Tel Aviv on August 11 at the Barby Club.
Shantel explained that the tour’s title aptly described their music.
“People used to ask what kind of music we’re doing, and it’s so hard to categorize,” he said. “But anarchy – despite it’s negative connotation – means a situation where everything is self-controlled.
I see that as more positive, an outlet for a variety of influences.
And romance – of course, we’re dealing with emotions, real emotions.”
Shantel is also emotional about returning to Tel Aviv for the first time in close to a decade, an event he sees as a homecoming.
“I’m really excited to be coming back to Tel Aviv. It’s been too long,” he said. “These days, cities like Tel Aviv, Berlin, Vienna and Istanbul have become very relevant as cultural melting pots and meeting points. Before, it used to always be London, New York and Paris. Balkan pop is a big part of this European music culture. It’s not folklore or world music or ethnic music, it’s a very Diaspora sound, a bit similar to the phenomenon of klezmer. Klezmer wasn’t popular in Eastern Europe; it became popular in New York after the big immigration. I feel the same way about Balkan pop – it’s not a sound that could have been created in Belgrade or Bucharest. It was created outside.”