A quick Google will tell you that there are as many basic recipes for borscht as there are past and present members of Wellington brass act Niko Ne Zna. Actually far more, even though the capital’s self-titled ’renegade brass bandits’ currently number nine. Charlotte Crone talked with originator, band manager and soprano saxophone specialist Frankie Curac, ahead of the release of ’Babushka’s Balkan Banquet’, his eclectic band’s appetisingly-framed second album.
Niko Ne Zna, the name of Wellington-based Balkan brass band, translates in Croatian to ’nobody knows’.
“Because nobody knows…”, enigmatically explains Frankie Curac, leader and manager of the 9-piece band, who can legitimately claim the language with his own first generation Croatian-Ukrainian heritage.
“When we first started out, one of the main chorus lines was that phrase ’niko ne zna’ and when we were thinking of a band name it kind of stuck.”
His enthusiasm of the culture and musical traditions of the Balkan peninsula in Eastern Europe is shared by the whole band, regardless of where the members come from. The band is made up of a handful of cultures, some from the diverse peninsula, but also British to Japanese-Kiwi. Lead singer and percussionist Nikkie Rich who is originally from USA, sings in several different languages from the area – Greek, Romani-Gypsy, English and Serbo-Croatian.
“The thing is that it’s party music and when you’ve got that party vibe it doesn’t matter where you are in the world. People can hear it and feel it,” muses Frankie.
He remembers hearing the Balkan musical style in the late 1990s from the exposure in the work of Serbian film director Emir Kusturica (Black Cat White Cat, Underground), which heavily features brass bands. The likes of Romania’s Fanfare Ciocarlia, legends of Gypsy brass, have recorded and performed a lot of music from the area since the early ’90s.
Ten years ago, when the colourful Wellington band got together for the first time to play, it was as part of a theatre show, the original members having theatrical backgrounds. After the final curtain went down the band felt inspired to keep on playing the songs and started weekly jam sessions.
“It was like a free-for-all, lots of people would come and join. Someone asked us to do a gig and it was crazy instrumentation. I think there were like four drummers and five soprano saxophones, it was crazy. Since then it has evolved and the current band has been pretty solid for the last five years and we’ve gone from strength to strength. It’s kind of an evolution, it started with a drum kit and upright bass but it’s evolved into a traditional brass band.”
The currently regular structure includes nine members: Frankie Curac (saxophone/vocals and band manager); Nikkie Rich (vocals/percussion); Ben Hunt and Daniel Windsor on trumpet; Gareth Thompson-Darling (bass trombone); Kaito Walley (tenor trombone); Simon Grove (sousaphone); Darryn Sigley (snare drum/vocals) and Dayle Jellyman banging the bass drum.
Unsurprisingly the members come from a diverse variety of musical backgrounds, a few strongly rooted in the jazz realm, and everyone contributes to the writing to make the majority of their repertoire original songs. Nikkie praises the collaborative nature of the band.
“The guys are super, super multi-talented! It keeps it fresh as well. Somebody comes along and says, ’Hey, I’ve got the start of a song, what do ya reckon?’”
From raucous sing-and shout-alongs about soup as with Babushka’s Borscht, to instrumental numbers with trickster odd-time signatures that keep dancers on their toes, like Falafel Fiesta from their 2013 album ’Renegade Brass Bandits’. Gankino provides an example of the band’s interpretation of a traditional folk piece, recorded countless times around the world and apparently a ’right of passage’ for any band attempting the style.
Niko Ne Zna have becoming festival veterans around NZ and recently enjoyed a trip to Australia to perform their choreographed show at the Castlemaine State Festival.
“It was in an old theatre, similar to the old Harbourlight [Lyttelton] but much bigger – it was just packed!” describes Frankie. “We also played in a little place in Melbourne called Open Studio. That was in Northcote and jammed to the rafters, completely packed. That was a different vibe, but it was also fantastic playing on the floor with everyone. It was our first time in Australia, everyone was buzzing!”
Recorded by James Goldsmith at Blue Barn Studio in Wellington ’Babushka’s Borscht’ is the band’s second album. Frankie explains a bit behind their process for recording a nine-piece brass party band and capturing the bombastic live atmosphere.
“We really wanted to get the vibe of the band playing together. Originally when we were thinking about it, whether we should do individual tracks and layer them, we felt that would take away from the feel of the music, so we all played in one room with partitions, separating as best we could and then took the best takes. We rehearsed a lot and put a lot of preparation into it, even booked out the studio a couple of times so we could practice in our recording places.”
For the album release party in late April, Niko Ne Zna are planning to perform the album live, hiring out a hall and cooking up a huge pot of borsch to serve the lucky concert goers.