Beats Without Borders | Immigrant Suns

Beats Without Borders | Immigrant Suns

Logan Juncaj, Writer/Volunteer

What do migrants bring with them? On a one-way trip to an unknown new life in a foreign land, perhaps they pack money, documents, clothes or some small keepsakes. Invisibly, intangibly and arguably most importantly, they also carry their culture.

Culture is made up of specific beliefs, attitudes and customs, as well as values, behaviors, clothing, cuisine, art and music. Far from erasing the existing culture of their new home, immigrants change culture for the better. By continuing to practice their own culture, immigrants do not only stay in touch with their homeland but also add diversity to the new nation. Throughout history, music has traversed borders, introducing new listeners to music from other parts of the world and even contributing to the creation of entirely new forms of music.

Detroit musicians have bestowed innumerable works to the musical world stage in genres including jazz, blues, gospel, country, soul, rock, rap and techno. However, Detroit’s Immigrant Suns were a group that brought the music of the world to the city. Formed in 1992, Immigrant Suns were pioneers of a new wave of American interest in the music of The Balkans, The Middle East, the Romani of Eastern Europe and ethnic folkloric music in general. 

The term “world music” is generally considered to be a misnomer, as no one group can truly represent the music of the world. Or so one would think until they heard Detroit’s Immigrant Suns. Their base sound is Eastern European with a Mediterranean inclination — their first album is titled Montenegro, after cofounder Djeto Juncaj’s homeland. However, Immigrant Suns’ music is much more than just the sounds of the Mediterranean. Drawing influences from every conceivable corner of the globe, Antarctica included, this combination of sounds is unlike anything you have ever heard and most likely will ever hear again. 

The group developed a cult fan base across the United States through its constant touring of the country in the 1990s, with some of their most notable performances including the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and Detroit’s 300th anniversary celebration. 

They also enjoyed critical acclaim and were featured across various mediums, including radio, television and in critics’ picks from papers like the Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Reader, Metro Times and numerous others. 

One could argue that the innate purpose of music is to foster a sense of community and social cohesion. By performing the music of different cultures for an American audience, Immigrant Suns united diverse groups from all aspects of the Motor City melting pot. 

With a sound meant to unite diverse groups, it is no wonder that Immigrant Suns were such a highly collaborative band. Their collaborative work included dance groups, multi-media events and films; they even composed the score for Jeremy Schroeder’s short film, Stand in the Water.

In the music world, they have worked with The Gold Sparkle Band, Only a Mother, The Eyesores, Shaking Ray Levis, Gaida Hinnawi, Eugene Chadbourne and Frank Pahl. The group joined forces with Pahl for the song “Wisconsin,” which is the first track off Pahl’s 1997 album, In Cahoots. Their work has been featured on numerous compilation albums, with “Wisconsin” being included as the fifth track on the 1997 experimental indie folk compilation album Oh God! Mother Blood!. Immigrant Suns also contributed the track “Surfing Albania” to the chart-topping world music compilation Balkans Without Borders

The group released five albums over an eight-year span, evolving from early fusions of Eastern European archaic folk music and art rock into music that wisely and respectfully embraced various traditions and cultures. They also explored experimental hybrids and a big band version of the group known as Immigrant Suns Orchestra. 

In my opinion, the best and most accessible Immigrant Suns album would have to be their fifth and final work, Supernova. Released in 2002, Immigrant Suns brought a refined and restless approach to their old-globe style articulations in the context of new arrangement and improvisation.

Supernova is a true picture of the group at full strength: Its tracks host anywhere from three to 10 players. Immigrant Suns wondrously take on notions of popular song as interpreted through Russian folk tunes with “The Huffer,” through gypsy blues in an Applachian setting with “Farewell,” through scorched-Earth Eastern dirge music bathed in country swamp rock with “The Veil” or through a pop song with a worldly and orchestral approach with “All Over The Street.”

My favorite song off the album is “Let’s Take Today.” Characterized by steady percussion and an enchanting violin, it is a true wonder to me that this song is not a massive hit. But the glory of this album lies in its closer, “Antipodes,” a near 11-minute long improvisation that nonetheless keeps the various modalities and scalar considerations of expanded and extrapolated harmony in full view.

Supernova is a journey from the highest peak to the lowest valley. It is not only an album: It is a gratifying experience, a sonic delight and a work that truly exemplifies the greatness of Immigrant Suns. 

Immigrant Suns’ eclectic sound is characterized by a combination of various instruments. Each band member plays at least four instruments over the duration of a show: among them are the qyteli (Albanian two-string gourd), bouzouki (Greek eight-string lute), mbira (West African thumb piano), oud (Persian 10-string lute) and targato (Hungarian folk clarinet). Armed with more than a dozen folk instruments — as well as such staples as bass, drums, violin, guitar, bassoon, cello and mandolin — Immigrant Suns create something truly unique. The group has been largely inactive since 2002, besides a few festival and benefit appearances, however their performances are fabled for their high energy and collective enjoyment. One thing’s for sure: If you’re going to see them, you’d best bring your dancing shoes. 

Over 30 years since its inception, Immigrant Suns’ music still holds up today. A musical collective devoted to exploring sounds from all corners of the globe, the group reminds us that the world is much bigger than Detroit, but also that the entire world is contained within Detroit. Their sound, with its exotic spices and cross-cultural combinations, can be heard as a musical expression of the Motor City melting pot. Their combination of various ethnic sounds allows them to perform at not only the customary rock venues, but anywhere from Arabic functions in Dearborn to folk dances in Hamtramck and church parties in Southwest Detroit.

Immigrant Suns inhabit a borderless musical world that stretches from Eastern Europe to East Detroit, from Africa to Asia and everywhere in between. Bring dancing shoes from the culture of your choice, because their shows sport more dance floor activity than a tarantella outbreak at a whirling dervish convention.

Immigrant Suns are not only staying in touch with their homeland through their music, but are diversifying their new home by introducing an American audience to the sounds of varying cultures and ethnicities. Combining art-rock sensibilities with sounds from every conceivable corner of the globe, here is a band that truly proves that Michigan music is world class.