Manhattan’s dark, smoke-filled Mehanata Bulgarian Bar is crammed with a chaotic circus of hipsters, stomping and shaking in time to the fast-paced fiddles, flamenco guitars, Balkan beats, and tzigane melodies blaring from the speakers. At the front of the sticky cluster, a tall, lanky DJ with a burly Russian Cossack hat scrunched down over his thick mop of hair cues up the next track, while by his side a thin flower child of a woman sways to the music, her long tresses cascading down the back of her peasant dress. They’re an unlikely duo, but Dr. Schnaps and DJ Olga Kamienik, known to the packed house (and fans worldwide) as the Gypsy Sound System, are just getting started on a 110-date cross-border club tour that will bring their distinctive blend of ragga klezmer, electro gypsy and balkanic fire to the masses.
The two teamed up in 2005 after meeting at a party in Switzerland, where Schnaps was hyping the crowd with his own brand of gypsy-infused techno. The son of a Canadian mother and Swiss father with Mediterranean origins, he grew up on gypsy music and had started folding it into his sets. Meanwhile, Polish native DJ Olga, a self-proclaimed wandering gypsy since age 14 who landed in Switzerland to go to art school, had been DJing on her own for years. Together, they began mixing gypsy-inspired music against outernational sounds like reggae and ska, Spanish rumba, Eastern dance, swing, techno, and trance.
Back at the bar, Dr. Schnaps moves to let DJ Olga take over and bums a cigarette off one of the locals outside. Jumping up and down from the cold, he sings the praises of the new tzigane sound in a heavily accented voice thick with excitement. “One of the good things about DJing is breaking down doors of clubs and making them know this new wave of sounds,” he explains. “Most people still think that gypsy music is just swing manouche or old folk stuff. We’re here to change all that.”