Why music from the Balkans is booming in Mexico

The World
The Mexican Balkan music band, Polka Madre
The Mexican Balkan music band, Polka Madre

Raúl Pérez-Mejía

Ten years ago, at a spontaneous jam session at the Mexico City home of accordionist Marina de Ita, the band Polka Madre was born — by accident.

"We were not professional musicians," de Ita remembers. "We were not studying as the others that came from the conservatories, we just wanted to jam and play, so we started the band together. And then we met Enrique, the clarinet player, in Coyoacán. He was busking. He used to play more jazz and bossa nova, but the sound, he sounded like this klezmer clarinet player so we invited him."

No one was even intending to start a band at the beginning, de Ita says, but Polka Madre ended up launching an unlikely Balkan music scene in Mexico. She says it makes sense because Balkan music has a lot in common with Mexican traditional music. At least how it sounds.

"I don’t know the history, actually," de Ita admits. "I haven’t been, like, researching. But if you hear the polkas, norteño, sometimes it sounds the same as the Balkan music. Because you can hear some polka and they say it’s from Mexico but a German friend came and he said, oh, this is from Munich." 

Bruno Bartra, aka DJ Sultán Balkanero, is leader of another Balkan band called La Internacional Sonora Balkanera. He says the Balkan scene in Mexico really took off when Goran Bregovic, one of the most renowned artists in the genre, came to play at a massive festival in Mexico City.

"Ten-thousand persons showed up and it was madness," Bartra recalls. "He also played alongside an orchestra from Oaxaca, so, since then, there was a symbol of this link between the Balkans and Mexico City."

Bartra says many of the musicians who joined the Balkan scene in Mexico came from other counter-cultural communities like "the Ska movement, which was pretty linked to the Zapatista ideology, or the World music movement, which was much linked to a multi-cultural idea."

Today, there are dozens of Balkan-influenced bands in Mexico City and across the country. For the past three years, there has even been an annual Balkan music festival in Mexico City featuring bands from Mexico, the US and even eastern Europe.

So far, there's only one place Mexico’s Balkan bands don't seem to have reached: the Balkans themselves.