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Report: World Music Matters

Mix klezmer, Croatia, north Africa and France ... you've got Tram des Balkans

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Take some klezmer, add some Croatian and Czech songs, some music from north Africa and even some Celtic fiddle playing, and you get Tram des Balkans, five French guys mixing and matching traditional music from around the world.

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"It's a surprise," says drummer Mathieu Cervera. "Whether with the lyrics, from one country to another, or changing the music radically, from northern Africa, to eastern Europe to Celtic music. We just make some surprise."

Tram des Balkans started 10 years ago with clarinettist Vincent Westphal and accordionist Vincent Gaffet, who today writes most of the songs. But Westphal says it started with traditional music, in particular the traditional Jewish music from eastern Europe, klezmer.

"It’s like falling in love," he says about his attraction to klezmer. "We like those [eastern European] influences and the sounds of that music."

The five band members are French, from the southern city of Lyon, and none have any cultural ties with eastern Europe, where most of their music comes from. Westphal says it's about the sound.

Their first album, Shtrip' Tour, is a live recording of traditional music, klezmer and other. The latest album, Rubber Man, is made up of their own compositions.

"Not to change too much, we decided to keep on singing songs in foreign languages and if possible more in eastern European languages," says Cervera.

Most songs are first written in French and then translated by Czech, Croatian or Russian friends, he explains.

"What's nice with using foreign languages is that in France, where we perform the most, people don’t focus on the lyrics. They take the voice as another instrument."

Tram des Balkans perform mostly in France, but when they go abroad, it can be tricky playing someone else's traditional music. When they played in the Czech Republic they had a good reception, says Cervera. People danced, though some didn't understand the lyrics.

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He says they came up after the concert saying, "Oh, I kind of understand a bit of what you’re saying. Maybe not everything!"

Now that the group has explored traditional tunes and written its own. 

The next step?

Classical music. A project with a harpsichordist will mix their sound with Baroque music.

Westphal says it's a natural next step, breaking down musical barriers.

"For me it’s important to go through the borders. It’s just music."

Sarah Elzas's radio report will be broadcast and posted on the website on Sunday 26 August.

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