The Trans-Siberian March Band (TSMB) is a London-based Balkan music band. They play not only the music of the Balkans, but also Russian, Turkish and Klezmer tunes. Their repertoire ranges from the well-known, such as Goran Bregović’s Mesecina, to the obscure. They also write their own material, described by the band as ‘affectionate pastiche’.
They are not purist in their approach to the music, and believe in mixing up styles and influences to create their sound. They mark the similarities between certain Balkan-style rhythms and ska, and include ska versions of Balkan tunes, such as their arrangement of Šaban Bajramović’s Buba Maro, from the Emir Kusturica film Black Cat, White Cat, which they have renamed Ska Maro, and of the Klezmer standard Golden Khassene, renamed Kompletely Khassene. They are prominent on London’s Balkan scene of bands playing what can be broadly described as Gypsy music. They have a brass-based sound, rather than one featuring violins, cimbalom, accordion or other instruments that could be classed as typical of this kind of music. With this approach, they follow a tradition established by leading Balkan music lights Fanfare Ciocărlia, the Boban Marković Band and the Kočani Orkestar, rather than, for example, violin pioneers Taraf de Haïdouks. A closer comparison would perhaps be with the 3 Mustaphas 3, the London Balkan band from the 1980s. Their line-up features a front line of 3 trumpets, 2 clarinets, and 1 alto saxophone and a back line of 2 tubas, 1 bass trombone, 1 tenor trombone, 1 guitar and 2 percussionists playing, variously, a darabouka, cymbals, a davoul and a snare drum. This is not fixed, and they have included a French horn, a violin and a mandola in their line up. To begin their gigs, the band often march while playing. This spectacle, the band usually playing battle marches from the Ottoman Janissaries’ repertoire, draws attention to the event. During the march, one of the trumpeters plays an ancient Greek instrument called a salpinx.
Band members of both genders cross-dress as part of their act. They present a cartoonish Soviet image, though they are not politically affiliated or oriented towards Soviet-style ideologies. The band costumes include showgirl-type outfits, a Russian sailor, a Yugoslav Pioneer girl scout, a baboushka, a Russian cyclist, outlandish hats, wigs and dresses, occasionally, and garish make-up.