Asphalt Tango Records - the leading voice in Gypsy and Eastern Music

Fanfare Ciocărlia

queens and kings

Fanfare Ciocarlia December 7, 2006, Bucharest, Romania. Wind heavy with ice. Fog and mist obscure vision. Gridlocked traffic pumps mephitic fumes into the atmosphere. Bucharest is one grimy metropolis, an unlikely parish to inspire musical genius, yet as evening falls citizens flock towards Sala Palatului (National Cultural Palace). On stage eleven residents of Moldavia in Romania's distant north east are raising temperatures by blasting inimitable Balkan funk. These brass dervishes have conquered stages from Berlin to Rio, and from Tokyo to Moscow, yet tonight is their first ever gig in Bucharest. To understand why Bucharest only now chooses to honour Fanfare Ciocărlia, the nation's most internationally successful musical outfit, involves casting a cold eye on Romanian history: four hundred years of Gypsy slavery, fascist genocide and loco Stalinists mean the nation's two million Gypsies are accorded a low social status with generations of brilliant musicians relegated to restaurant hack work, or singing manele's synthetic pop. Fanfare Ciocărlia's eleven proud musicians were never about to kneel before the high and mighty in Bucharest. Not when they were being paid in euros, dollars, pounds and yen. Uh-uh. Thus their legend grew until Bucharest finally came to Zece Prajini offering the finest venue in all of Romania. How could they say 'no'? Just one thing: Fanfare Ciocărlia insisted on inviting a few friends along for the party. And what friends - legends of Gypsy song join them on stage! As they launch into Roma anthem Djelem, Djelem band and guests sing and play as one. Celebration time? Believe.

Right now Fanfare Ciocărlia are regarded as the hardest working band in the blow biz, heavyweight champions whose wit, groove, ferocious technique and ability to deliver fresh sounds marks them out as above all the rest. For those with their ears wide open, the brass orkestar from Europe's frayed edges has delivered both in concert and on disc like no one else in the last decade. The Fanfare sound . . . how can you describe music rooted in ancient Asia yet capable of delivering a dance blast so hard it launched Western Europe's latest club phenomenon: Balkan Beats? . . . all kinds of traces can be heard here : East European folk melodies, American jazz, Turkish pop, Brazilian lambada, old movie and TV themes . . . forgotten and discarded music, refuse scattered across a shattered Balkan peninsula . . . and Fanfare Ciocărlia, in classic Gypsy fashion, have reworked what others treat as trash into something new.

The legend of Fanfare Ciocărlia involves the reiteration of a little local history. Way back in 1445 Vlad Dracul - Bram Stoker's model for you-know-who - returned from battling the Ottomans in Bulgaria with 12,000 Roma captives. The states of Wallachia and Moldavia would keep those they called "Tziganes" (after an obscure heretic sect) enslaved (to work the land and as artisans) until slavery was finally outlawed in 1864. Many freed Tziganes fled Romania for Western Europe or the New World or, as in the case of Fanfare's ancestors, became farmers while continuing to play music.

"Zece Prajini means 'twelve acres' and stands for the land the local Boyar gave our ancestors to work when they were freed from slavery," so Ioan Ivancea told me in 2003. Zece Prajini today still shows little encroachment by the modern world: electricity is intermittent, there are no sewers or phone lines, horse and cart is the standard means of transport and farming remains an important part of community life. Ioan was born in 1942, just before his musician father was drafted into the Romanian army and sent to the Eastern front. Ioan's father was captured and kept in a Soviet gulag until 1947. Upon returning to Zece Prajini he found his five-year old son playing upon his clarinet: barefoot and in short pants, Ioan was a natural talent. Under communism Ioan's destiny involved working at the local steel mill. Here he led the factory brass band who played at weddings and Party events across the region. Locals knew these musicians were masters, yet their talent remained hidden from those in Bucharest who decided what would be recorded. After the collapse of communism the inhabitants of Zece Prajini lost their jobs at the mill, while keyboard samplers and DJs threatened an end to wedding work. Hard times are second nature to Gypsies, so the village musicians never stopped playing, and never gave up believing their talent would be recognised. Maybe an old spell worked or the silt of a coffee predicted good fortune or sheer chance intervened, because by 1996 outsiders were listening.

Germany was the first nation to experience (and embrace) the force of Fanfare Ciocărlia. Western Europe soon succumbed, followed by the USA, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Russia, Israel and - hey! - Romania. How these regional musicians developed a ferocious brass attack without compare remains a mystery - the mehter brass bands accompanying Ottoman armies must have left some impression, but no one has ever sounded quite like Fanfare Ciocărlia. Four albums - Radio Pascani, Baro Baro, Iag Bari, Gili Garabdi - and a DVD (The Story Of The Band) have established Fanfare Ciocărlia not only as the hottest Balkan Gypsy band but as musical Mohammed Alis - masters of a heavy, heavy monster sound, purveyors of a unique Eastern funk. Rockers and ravers bow before them. Jazz fans look on in awe. Internationally revered for their ability to tear up stages, rock clubs, blow minds - they make ya hips twitch, ya backbone slip - Fanfare Ciocărlia serve up ancient Oriental grooves dusted with secret Gypsy flavours. Sizzling! Tasty! Red hot!

For the musicians, who a decade ago were eking out a living practising subsistence farming, their wildest dreams have come true. Yet in early 2006 Ioan Ivancea began feeling exhausted whilst on tour. Cancer was diagnosed but Ioan refused to be hospitalised, still turning up for rehearsals, so committed to the music he died clutching his clarinet. Devastated, Fanfare wondered how best to pay tribute to their patriarch? They decided to reach out to Europe's extended Gypsy family. Fanfare Ciocărlia had toured Spain and the USA with the Gypsy Caravan (see Jasmine Dellal's documentary When The Road Bends: Tales Of A Gypsy Caravan) and enjoyed the bonds formed with fellow musicians. Ioan was a forward thinker and interested in the world beyond Zece Prajini, so his spirit animated sessions with friends old and new. Gypsies have long relied on song and storytelling to recount their history, struggles and myths, and through a dozen tunes, Fanfare and friends brought forth songs of love and combat, suffering and joy. Thus Fanfare Ciocărlia present Queens & Kings singing Tales of Gypsy Life.

The Guests:
Esma Redzepova. Born in Skopje, Macedonia, in 1943, Esma's talent was such that band leader Stevo Teodosievski negotiated a contract with her father so the 13-year old Esma could join his ensemble as a vocalist. Esma was crowned Queen of the Gypsies (by Indira Gandhi), twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and has written and recorded thousands of songs.

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Mitsou. Fronting Hungarian Gypsy band Ando Drom, Mitsou's extraordinary vocal has commanded much admiration. She now leads electronic fusion band Mitsoura who mix dance beats, Indian tabla and Hungarian Gypsy flavours.

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Ljiljana Butler. Bosnia's Ljiljana Petrovic was one of the great singers of Tito-era Yugoslavia before fleeing to Germany in 1989. Ljiljana married (hence 'Butler') and worked as a cleaner until Bosnian producer Dragi Sestic located her in 2002, thereby bringing the deep-voiced singer to international attention.

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Florentina Sandu. Born in the legendary lautari village of Clejani (Romania), Florentina is the granddaughter of Taraf De Haidouks' late founder (and visionary violinist) Nicolae Neacsu. At 20 she is the youngest contributor to Queens & Kings.

Saban Bajramovic. Born in Nis, southern Serbia, in 1937, Saban's huge talent and wild lifestyle made him the exemplary Gypsy singer of the Tito-era. As a singer and songwriter Saban documented Roma life like no one else and his rich soulful vocal draws comparison with America's greatest blues and jazz singers.

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Jony Iliev. Jony grew up in the south western Bulgarian town of Kyustendil, singing professionally with the family band from the age of 13. A gifted singer and songwriter, Jony is celebrated for his ability to rock mahalas.

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Dan Armeanca. Godfather of manele (Gypsy pop), the hugely talented yet elusive Armeanca rose to prominence as Romania's Ceaucescu-regime fell. Celebrated amongst Bucharest's Gypsies, Armeanca refutes all attempts to bring him to a wider audience yet, on occasion, enjoys sharing a song with Fanfare Ciocărlia.

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Kaloome. Band leader Antoine "Tato" Garcia attracted attention whilst leading Tekameli, the acclaimed rumba Gitano group from Perpignan. Guitarist-vocalist Garcia formed Kaloome to further explore the fusion of Gypsy and North African cultures happening around the French Mediterranean basin.

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Kal. Lead by Roma activist Dragan Ristic, Belgrade's Kal are rooted in traditional Serb Gypsy kafana music while inspired by rock'n'rave culture.

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Pancirel Constandache. The noted Bucharest-based trumpeter joined Fanfare Ciocărlia for the recording of Gili Garabdi before finding the life of a road warrior too rigorous. Here he returns to play trumpet on five tracks.

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Text by Garth Cartwright author Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians (FR: Buchet-Chastel; UK: Serpents Tail), www.garthcartwright.com

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