Clinker advertise themselves as a “ragtime quartet”, which leaves a lot of what is remarkable about the band and their music unsaid. This is somewhat remedied by a phrase on the label of their record Mi Gabán, which reads “musica llanera/joropo.” To the uneducated—a group in which I included myself before asking Wikipedia—this is a musical style with its origins in Venezuela and Colombia drawing from the musical traditions of Africa and Europe, as well as Native South American cultures.
Finally, Clinker also associate themselves with another style: rebetiko, a term describing “originally disparate kinds of urban Greek music which have come to be grouped together since the so-called rebetika revival, which started in the 1960s” (thank you again, Wikipedia). Taking all this information, together with the Montreal-based band’s own description of their music as “slappy sounds similar to a sack of mud hitting a whale’s back,” curious listeners might have a much better idea of just what to expect from their one record to date.
It might all sound a bit intimidating, but don’t worry—anyone even passingly familiar with jazz manouche or zydeco should be able to get their head around it. In fact, listening to Mi Gabán (it means “my overcoat,” in Spanish) is like being taken by the hand and led through a Mardi Gras parade, down a kaleidoscopic tunnel and a hall of distorting mirrors, then pushed—confused but undeniably elated—into a big top filled with exotic animals and careening clown cars. It draws the listener in with familiar intervals and syncopated rhythms, gradually exposing them to more unusual harmonies and intricate time signatures until the unsuspecting trad jazz fan finds themselves neck-deep in Eastern European folk country. We’re not in New Orleans any more, Toto.
This process of seduction and corruption begins with “Wrongfoot in Dallas,” a blistering, banjo-slinging (Kasey Tivy) second-line number featuring two-step sousaphone (Blanche Moisan Méthé), scatterings of accordion (Lucy Lambert) and harmonies which will be mostly comfortable in Western ears. It even sticks to common time and follows the expected format of intro, head, chorus and solos, before concluding with more chorus. Things begin to get a little weird with “Mainstreet Stumble,” which throws in a few bars of waltz and some very crunchy semitone harmonies.
In a seemingly deliberate act of bamboozlement, track three confronts the uninitiated with the title “τριαντάφυλλο” (pronounced triantáfyllo, meaning rose). Opening ominously with a Jaws-like sousaphone line, it takes the melody on a Mediterranean cruise of traditional Hellenic forms and phrases, the guitar work sounding more like a bouzouki in Josh Greenberg’s skilled hands. Appropriately to the cruise metaphor, “Temptation Rag” opens with foghorn-like blasts from Méthé before transitioning via a particularly creative passage into Henry Lodge’s 1909 tune. Lambert takes the lead on her accordion.
“Geampara” takes the complexity to a new level with its brain-twisting time signatures and is perhaps the furthest from New Orleans that the collection gets. Having taken listeners to the edge of their comfort zones, the record concludes with George L Cobb’s “Russian Rag”—something comfortingly familiar, but with a genre-bending Clinker twist. Here’s a fun fact to finish off, with credit due once again to the people’s online encyclopaedia: as well as referring to the flower, τριαντάφυλλο also describes a Mediterranean sweet treat which is commonly offered to house guests as a gesture of hospitality.
You could regard Mi Gabán as something similar—a delicious little morsel to whet the appetite, inviting intrigued listeners to check out this outfit and the various jazz-adjacent genres they so compellingly represent. Follow them on Bandcamp to learn more.