In the video clip for "Ista Slika" that accompanies the CD Ruke, a sad, bearded man appears -- in a Paris subway, an Eastern European village, a medieval market town -- only to encounter the same characters, occurrences, and inevitable blood-stained stigmata. All the while, we hear "Ista Slika" ("The Same Image," we're told) in the background: round-mouthed Croatian harmonies, a smoky Parisian café bass and accordion, improvisationally plucked guitar and violin, handclaps, harmonium. In each scene, if only briefly, we encounter the same old and spooky woman, overwrought with makeup, her face weathered verging on carved by wind and smoke. Darko Rundek, in a rather successfully off-putting drag.
Rundek is most famous as leader of '80s new wave group Haustor. Well, "most famous" to those who spent that decade in Sarajevo or Zagreb, or dwelt the '90s in Paris's refugee nightlife scene, supping from Rundek's solo career amongst those who fled the Balkan wars. Few others know Rundek, but to the average emigrant, this Croat theater director-slash-art rocker might be the equivalent of Canada's Leonard Cohen, France's Serge Gainsbourg, or our own Tom Waits. On Ruke, like a musical Noah, Rundek has gathered together Bosnian Christian and Muslim refugees, a French sonic experimentalist, and a violin-wielding Swiss "transsexual samurai" who lives in a windmill to create the Cargo Orkestar -- and with it, what will certainly be one of the best albums of 2004.
Suckers for logistically improbable musical ensembles beware; haters of self-referentially über-ethnic "world music," tighten your belts; lovers of the graceful swoon and arcing theater of literate barroom swagger, gulp for air: Ruke may be your latest Citizen Kane. "Sjaj Sto Izdaje" winds and winks with the back-alley lean of Raindogs; the title track's distinctly Eastern European jaunt and dark, meaty refrain could be a Balkan The Good Son. The beauty here is that Rundek's ensemble takes so much musical input -- African percussion and Oriental plucked strings, American slide-and-bend guitar atmosphere and Russian fur-hat rhythms -- and processes it into something so uniquely the Cargo Orkestar. Like a Refugee Symphony Orchestra, or the house band at a Parisian sweatshop, dreaming of a life in Cuba and playing it in their own warped Croatian take of Afro-Cuban jazz, "Kuba."
Rundek hopes, in Ruke's liner notes, that the Orkestar sounds like the distant sounds of a band playing in an old ship, "in a cabin way below sea level, below the car deck even, where they store the tourists' RVs ... they fade away, but then they come closer again, soothing and haunting at the same time." But he's achieved more than that, creating in Ruke an album that is underground, underwater, and under our skin, inside the inherent theatricality of Western life in a way that might count itself medieval or early industrial as much as it might be 21st-century. So much "world music" -- the inward-looking result of explicit attempts at extroverted musical longing -- is hideously dateable, being simply ethnic stereotypes tacked onto modern Western pop. By being thorough in its refusal to self-examine, Cargo Orkestar has spoken something not about itself but about its circumstances, which are timeless, sad, funny and beautiful.