Borderline Latin: Beirut, Marching with the Zapotec

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Borderline Latin is an exploration of the influence of Latin music in styles, places and rhythms beyond its traditional borders, and of different types of cross-pollination between Latin music and other musical creatures. Each week, we will feature the works of a ‘non-Latin’ artist via song or musical style whose rhythm, themes, melodic inflections or influences have earned it the name of Borderline Latin.

When I first listened to Beirut, I thought they were just another American band making indie versions of old Balkan tunes, refurbished for hipsters. But I must admit that Beirut’s pop-stained melancholy has grown on me. When I wrote about Goran Bregovic in this column, I mentioned the strong similarities between Balkan music and certain Latin musical genres. The heavy use of brass instruments, the strong presence of the accordion, as well as some rhythms and harmonies are just a few of those similarities between eastern European and, say, banda music. But their Balkan flavor is not the only reason why Beirut qualifies as borderline Latin.

Zack Condon, a New Mexican –a native of New Mexico, that is– who grew up listening to mariachi music and watching Balkan films, recorded all of the tracks of Beirut’s first album, Gulag Orkestar, during four months, at his house. He uploaded some of the songs to his MySpace page, and was soon spotted by Ben Goldberg, from Ba Da Bing! Records, who encouraged Zack to move into a loft in Brooklyn, recruit some badass musicians and start performing. Beirut’s first performances at places like The Knitting Factory were not great; however, slowly but surely the band started gaining a steady online following, with the help of people who blogged about them, and encouraged Zack to keep on playing. They got international attention, too. They became big in Brazil rather quickly, inspiring a phenomenon called “Beirutando,” which congregates Brazilian bands that play covers of their songs.

After a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, Zack Condon recorded a double EP: March of the Zapotec/Holland, which features a band from Teotitlán del Valle, called The Jimenez Band. From that EP, check out a track that references one of Mexico’s biggest legends: La Llorona. Enjoy.

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Click HERE to read more “Borderline Latin” profiles. For comments and tips, please contact me at:, and for more info on my “Borderline” works, visit Borderline Projects.