Beirut is not your grandparents’ folk music

I’d encourage everyone to step outside their comfort zone and give them a listen. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Originally the solo project of high school dropout and Sante Fe native Zach Condon, Beirut has developed into an immensely popular six-man collective since its first full-length release in 2006 entitled “Gulag Orkestar.” This album received plenty of pre-release buzz and more than lived up to the hype, garnering critical acclaim from many critics.

“Gulag” served as an impressive and precocious debut for a band that would carve out its own small but significant niche in the indie community. Complete with an orchestral arrangement of unconventional brass and string instruments, Condon gives us a sampling of traditional Eastern European sounds with his inventive use of instruments often unfamiliar to American listeners. Instruments such as the flugelhorn, sousaphone, accordion, mandolin, organ and ukulele all make appearances over the course of Beirut's five studio albums.

It prompts the question, how did a 19-year-old kid from Southwestern America come to be so heavily influenced by the sound of the Balkans? The seeds were sown when Condon first began working at a local movie theater which showed a number of popular international films. He developed a fascination with the European culture he saw through Fellini film and Sicilian brass. It also served as his first exposure to Balkan folk music. Not long after, he dropped out of high school to travel Europe with his older brother. There, while mingling with some kids from Paris, he was introduced to world music as a genre.

“The kids (in Paris) are obsessed with Balkan music,” Condon said in an interview with Pitchfork. “The kids have ‘Moon Safari,’ and it's their favorite record. They also have Boban Markovic Orkestar CDs lying around too. It's the same thing for them. It's kind of pop music. When I came back to America, I realized that world music is no joke; it really has a lot to it.”

This was a pivotal moment in the life of the young budding musician as he set out to create world music that wasn’t the drab crap you’d hear playing at your grandparent’s house.

When it comes to writing hooks, Condon is in a league of his own. If you listen to just about any of the groups’ more popular songs, fair warning, it will be stuck in your head all day. They have received some criticism along this route, however. As of recently, following the 2015 release of “No No No,” they have been accused of stripping down their style so much that they only have a catchy chorus left in a barren wasteland of a beat. Then again, others critiqued their earlier work as being too busy and uncoordinated, so someone is always there to tell you you’re wrong regardless.

Personally, I can’t say enough good things about Beirut old and new. Years later, “Elephant Gun” remains one of my favorite songs of all time. I’d encourage everyone to step outside their comfort zone and give them a listen.


Mitchell Clark is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at mitchell.clark@uconn.edu.