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World Music Features


By Jim Bessman
Published June 3, 2008

Based in Denver, DeVotchKa has left an eclectic stamp on modern Balkan music. After four indie releases, the group made it big with the soundtrack to Little Miss Sunshine, and now returns with a new album on the Anti- imprint—home to Antibalas, Tom Waits and Xavier Rudd.

A groggy Nick Urata is huddled in a corner of his Madrid hotel room, grateful that the journalist on the other end of the phone agreed to call back after rousting him from a dead slumber a few hours earlier. “I’m a casualty of the Madrid nightlife,” he sighs, his voice tired and hoarse. “I’ve been at it for a few nights—the people here don’t sleep! We did a show a couple of nights ago, and some friends from here have been showing me the city. It’s just rife with nightlife.”


The rigors of Spanish clubland sit just fine with Urata, whose Grammy-nominated and internationally flavored pop band DeVotchKa channels a high-energy strain of polka—not to mention other European, Eastern European and south-of-the-border styles. The group has drawn comparisons to the exceedingly inventive and lively Grammy-winning Texas polka band Brave Combo, which is likewise all over the place musically.


“They’re a really cool band,” Urata [seated second from the right] agrees, now fully awake and warming to the subject of musicianship. In addition to singing and writing for DeVotchKa, he plays guitar, piano, trumpet, theremin, and bouzouki. Classically trained Tom Hagerman adds violin, accordion and piano, while Jeanie Schroder, who got her start playing Civil War band music, contributes sousaphone, upright bass and vocals. Rounding out the rhythm section is Shawn King, whose family roots in Lithuanian polka inform his playing on drums, percussion and trumpet.


“I grew up in New York in a very musical household,” Urata continues. “My family was very old world. A lot of them were fresh-off-the-boat Italians and Sicilians, so I was exposed to a lot of accordion. My grandfather was a musician and turned me on to a lot of great music when I was a kid, and I found as I got older that I was pining away for that old world sound. Everyone was doing the two guitars, bass and drums thing, so I started trying to write for more exotic instruments—accordion, bouzouki, theremin—and I hooked up with like-minded musicians who could play those instruments well.”


Urata also credits his DNA, and the influence of “my Spanish brothers here,” for a pronounced flamenco influence in his music—yet another color in DeVotchKa’s wide-ranging palette. “Certainly our musical philosophy is global,” he notes, “but I never thought that people would lump us in with world music, since we shift gears a lot. Still, I’m pleased.”


The grandson of a Sicilian and a Romani gypsy whose marriage was arranged, Urata named his band after the Russian word for “naughty young girl,” which he gleaned from Anthony Burgess’s legendary dystopian novel A Cloc