March of the Zapotec

The music of Beirut cannot ever be described as anything in any way remotely resembling cool; it’s most certainly not the kind of thing you would hear in nightclubs, being sung along to in shops, or even being played on the radio. Instead it is far more reminiscent of an idealistic world; a simplistic, rustic one, drenched in culture and colour and the solitude of nature. It is the sound of gypsies dancing in the moonlight, buskers singing on the side of the pavement, French orchestras and carousels spinning round and round and round. Yes, all very bizarre, and most definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet completely spellbinding.

When Zach Condon cancelled Beirut’s European tour last year, in order to “change some things, reinvent some others, and come back at some point with a fresh perspective and batch of songs”, he disappointed and broke the hearts of thousands of fans across the continent. It almost seemed like the band and its musical history would be no more, until he announced that he was writing an EP to be released this Easter. The EP would come in two parts; the first largely based upon Mexican influences, with many of the songs recorded in Teotitlan, Oaxaca, Mexico, and the second half venturing down a road that Beirut had never really come across.

March of the Zapotec is something in which to fall in love with Beirut; it is a record shrouded in nostalgia and melancholy, interspersed with a wonderful flourish of rustic instruments and that gypsy-like quaintness that has infused the band’s previous two LPs. After opening with a vibrant, grandiose recording of an unknown band in El Zócolo Plaza in Mexico, the EP continues in much the same, gloriously Mexican, fashion. ‘La Llorona’, the opening song, takes Condon’s beautifully distinctive and unfaltering voice and enriches it with brass instruments and the backing of a little-known Mexican orchestra. ‘My Wife’ is a swirling, dreamy, ukulele-driven waltz, reminiscent of old-fashioned dancing, whilst ‘The Akara’ conjures up images of marching bands and lonely French horn players sitting atop deserted mountains. Much like the rest of this EP, both songs are so far removed from brand names and technology and contemporary Western culture that is hard to believe that Condon himself is American. Instead it is a baroque journey back to the indigenous roots, musicality and vibrant culture of the rural Mexican world. It flips poetically between the funeral melancholy of slow, mournful clarinets and trumpets to more chaotic bursts of music; managing to be both artistic and ultimately completely captivating.

The opening of the second EP suddenly whisks you away from the sunshine-splattered, dusty streets of Mexico, across the Atlantic Ocean and, quite surprisingly, into the corner of some electro-pop club in Eastern Europe. The jump from one EP to another is so astonishingly vast that, if it weren’t for Condon’s spellbinding voice layering the ricochet of synths and electronic beats which punctuate the second record, it could have almost been written by a completely different band. From the moment that the first song starts, it is clear what Condon meant by “fresh perspective”. ‘My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille’ is a tame whirlwind of electronica, whilst ‘No Dice’, probably the weakest song on the record, jumps around excitedly in a rush of European cheesy pop.

Yet that is not to say that the EP is in any way worse than the first; it is just so startlingly different from Beirut’s culture-infused musical roots. It is also clear that, whilst the first EP built its foundations upon French horns, ukuleles, mandolins and every other unlikely choice of instrument, Realpeople Holland is based upon the mournful elegance of Condon’s voice. It does indeed manage to turn even some of the most watery synthesised songs into poignant, heart-wrenching numbers. There is also a throwback to the old Gulak Orkestar days with ‘The Concubine’; an accordion blanketed song which delves back into beautifully rustic music of the scarcely populated, forested villages of Eastern Europe. This second EP loses a degree of the colourfully carnival-like quality that encompasses Beirut’s style of music, but its more open-minded view to contemporary culture and modern life makes it much easier to listen to for those might not find any inspiration in the quaint instrumentality of the March of the Zapotec.


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