Flipping over columns of tertiary sandstone in the New Mexican desert, you’d never think you’d find an accordion-toting Balkan brass band in the mix. But that’s exactly what Albuquerque native Zach Condon built in his bedroom. Now 20 and living between the towering girders of New York City, Condon was constructing his own version of traditional music, wringing its swells of melancholy and war-torn yearnings into a self-made world of modern pop.
He might have done the same with any number of other indigenous diasporas, but he doesn’t seem to be a world music tourist or Balkan dilettante. “I kind of gave my all on working with Balkan music,” Condon says a little breathlessly via phone.
On a trip to Europe, Condon found the sounds around him alien, at least compared to his life as a kid raised in the Southwest art scene. As it turns out, many of those original Eastern European songs were about universal, sometimes mildly scandalous affairs that were also funny bits of trouble: “If I really got down to it, sometimes they tended to be childish jokes about their wives.”
The oom-pahs and marching band clang led Condon to create the sounds himself, on a sans-guitar basis with the ukulele, mandolin and glockenspiel. The bubbly micro-pop of “Scenic World,” from Beirut’s Gulag Orkestar (think of a Kimball organ in the mall), reveals Condon wearing an ornate pop bandleader’s badge to go with his new red-star comrade hat.
One would think Russian youth would find him ultimately uncool, but Condon says that, at a recent open air festival performance in Moscow, the reaction was stunning. He found it strange to be playing his version of Russian folk songs–created on the fly in his room in Albuquerque–to a crowd shadowed by the Kremlin’s bulb-shaped spires.
“A lot of these kids grew up with this, probably played to them by their parents, though they were looking to get away from it and move onto something like American rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “And here we were giving it back to them.” But, Condon says, he stopped worrying when he noticed the crowd knew the words by heart to some of the songs, as they bobbed their heads and sang along.
Beirut plays the Duke Coffeehouse on Friday, Sept. 22. The show starts at 9:30 p.m. and costs $7.