Forget about Roman London. Last night, London was proudly Romani. The Electric Brixton was packed to the rafters with well over fifteen-hundred frenzied punters as first Taraf de Impex, and then Fanfare Ciocărlia, brought a taste of the Balkans to Lambeth. ‘Felicitări!’
Ask the average Brit on the street to name a Romanian contribution to the music scene and, sadly, you would be hard-pressed to hear anything other than the Cheeky Girls. Ask someone a little more erudite and, if you’re lucky, they may have heard of Angela Gheorghiu, the soprano singer, whose version of Puccini’s La Rondine is out of this world and a firm favourite among opera enthusiasts.
As it happens, many Brits and indeed people around the world will have heard Fanfare Ciocărlia’s music before, though they will be excused for not realising they were Romanian. During the end-credits of the controversial comedy about a fake Kazakh journalist, Borat, cinema-goers heard their bizarre uptempo cover version of Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild, originally made famous in the classic 1969 movie Easy Rider. However, with no prior knowledge about the soundtrack, most will have assumed, erroneously of course, that this was a Kazakh band. But Fanfare Ciocărlia are no more Kazakh than Hammersmith-born Sasha Baron Cohen. They are Romanian. Very, very Romanian.
Given that the average Brit’s knowledge of Romanian music is so poor, it is thanks to music promotors such as Kazum, the Romanian Cultural Institute in London, and the media company Romanians in UK, among others, to help set the record straight. And, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of the congregated throng appeared to be from the Romanian diaspora, a decent percentage of those voices I heard around me appeared to have London accents. So perhaps, in a few years time, and with more concerts such as tonight’s, there will be less ignorance about Romanian music in general.
I first fell in love with this type of music via the outstanding opening to Emir Kusturica’s Palme d’Or-winning Serbian movie, Underground, which came out in 1995. The classic comedy begins with a marching band running behind a horse and cart, playing Balkan gypsy music written by Bosnian composer Goran Bregović, who later went on to compose Ovo Je Balkan, the song that allowed Milan Stanković to represent Serbia at the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest. It is a scene that has stayed with me for almost twenty-five years and it introduced me to this genre.
It is not at all odd to discuss Serbian traditional music in a review about Romanian music. Balkan traditional music is very much intertwined across those many borders that have been defined politically. A brief look at Fanfare Ciocărlia’s discography will reveal songs written by the legendary Romani Serb Šaban Bajramović (aka Šabi), and you must check out an album called Balkan Brass Battle, in which Fanfare Ciocărlia took on, battle-style, the Boban & Marko Marković Orchestra, a brass band from Serbia, which was recorded at the Pensiune Dracula hotel in the north of Romania in 2011, one of the classic albums from the Berlin-based Asphalt Tango Records, who were furthermore one of our many hosts yesterday evening in Brixton.
The evening started with a real treat. Taraf de Impex is a brand-new side-project of Taraf de Caliu, a group of lăutari (Romanian traditional musicians) headed by charismatic violinist “Caliu”, which is the nickname of Gheorghe Anghel (no relation to the similarly-named aforementioned opera singer). Many of the other musicians bedecking the Electric Brixton stage were, like Caliu, former and present members of a rather more well-known group called Taraf de Haïdouks, who appeared in many movies, most famously Sally Potter’s The Man Who Cried, starring Johnny Depp among others, who is a huge fan of the band.
The best way to describe their music would probably be ‘electro-Gypsy’, though it’s very hard to define it exactly. We were introduced to one song as being a cha-cha-cha, but it was like no other cha-cha-cha I had ever heard before. Many tracks were gloriously jazzy. Various guests were brought on, clearly luminaries from the Romanian gyspy scene, including Haïdouks’ accordionist Marius Manole and some really unique singers towards the end who deftly showed how one can truly turn one’s own voice into a musical instrument.
It was a joy to watch some of the traditional instruments come out, in particular to hear the cimbalom, a type of hammered dulcimer originally from Hungary and known in Romania as the țambal mare. This was a unique opportunity for most of the Westerners in the audience, though no doubt quite old-hat for the many Romanians who made up the majority.
Following a short musical interlude of Balkan tunes courtesy of DJ Sacha Dieu, the main act came on to rapturous applause. Fanfare Ciocărlia began fairly low-key, with openers Toba mare and Sirba monastirea, the latter from their celebrated first album Radio Pașcani, but soon began to up the tempo in a way that only these twelve Roma musicians know how, including a number of tracks from their most recent album, Onwards to Mars!, including Saintes & Dates and Mister Lobaloba, the latter being as far removed from Mr Bombastic aka Shaggy’s original song as you could possibly imagine.
As it happens, there weren’t as many cover songs as we were anticipating. A blast of the intro to their version of Gershwin’s classic Summertime was disappointingly short, as was their nod to the 007 James Bond theme-song. They didn’t even bother with the Venezuelan classic Moliendo café, though I was most disappointed not to hear their famous version of Duke Ellington’s classic Caravan, one of the many songs they played alongside the Serbian brass band on the aforementioned Balkan Brass Battle album of 2011, and which had previously appeared on their fourth album, the 2005 Asphalt Tango release Gili Garabdi – Ancient Secrets of Gypsy Brass.
There again, with such a large back-catalogue, there were always going to be some disappointed people. Not that we could see many, however. All around us people were whipped up into a frenzy, with hands in the air, girlfriends on shoulders, coats and jumpers thrown around the auditorium.
When the band finally played Born to Be Wild, the crowd went, well, ‘wild’, as foreshadowed from the song’s title. Now, back in the mid 1990s I was a regular at this venue, then known at The Fridge. I was a devotee of the Goa trance scene, attending the legendary Friday-night parties Return to the Source and Escape from Samsara, as well as the odd Pendragon event. I have not, since those heady days, seen a more up-for-it crowd in this venue than I did last night. In fact, I would even say that they were on a par. Hands flailing around to the high-energy Balkan beats made trips to the bathroom hazardous, especially while carrying an expensive camera like we were. Plastic glasses of beer procured from the bar often did not complete their journey intact as they made their perilous voyage towards our vantage point. Although the smoking area on the top floor was packed early on in the night, so much so that people had to sit on the floor between the legs of strangers, as soon as Fanfare Ciocărlia came on, said area was completely empty, as this photo below shows. Indeed, in my three visits to the smoking area during their set, I did not see another soul.
Such was the power of this village band from Zece Prăjini in the north-east of Romania that that the hoards of erstwhile chain-smoking Romanians that had earlier filled the smoking area had decided to stay on the dancefloor, as though under a gypsy spell; a spell that had so captivated a sound engineer from Berlin who came across them by chance in 1996 – around the time I was dancing to Goa trance at The Fridge, as it happens. The rest, as they say, is history. Come 2012 they were entertaining the audience at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. Ironic, as ‘peace’ is the last thing you can expect from this loud band. They are not called a ‘Fanfare’ for nothing.
Born to Be Wild was swiftly followed by Iag Bari, the eponymous track from their third album, and two stage invaders began to dance with the musicians, which did not appear to faze them too much. As the security chased them off, the band was coming to the end of their set, which – unless we imagined it – included a short cover of The Turtles’ classic Happy Together. Finally, to rapturous applause, they finally left the stage, but not before all twelve members decided to join the audience and play their instruments among the sweaty already tightly-packed crowd. Some members of the public even slapped notes onto the shiny foreheads of some of the players. This is a tradition that goes back some time, most notably at Balkan gypsy weddings, and commonplace at music festivals such as the famous Trumpet Festival held at Guča in Serbia, which attracts over half a million people every year and succeeded in leaving Miles Davis astounded.
Below you can check out a nine-minute video we filmed last night, starting with Fanfare Ciocărlia’s version of Born to Be Wild, followed by the band’s promenade through the Brixton crowd at the end of their set.
Do check out the book Gypsy Music: The Balkans and Beyond, by Alan Ashton-Smith, which dedicates quite a lot to both Taraf de Haïdouks and Fanfare Ciocărlia as well as describing traditions such as the gifting of money to musicians as detailed above, and so delightfully reconstructed in London SW9.
Kudos to Kazum and all the other promoters and organisers who made this fantastic evening happen, and for promoting Romanian music to a wider audience. Hopefully, one day the Cheeky Girls will no longer be the first to come to the mind of the average Brit when asked to name a famous Romanian musical act. A fantastic evening. Or, as the Romanians would say, ‘Extraordinar!’