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

Boban & Marko Marković Orchestra vs. Fanfare Ciocărlia

balkan brass battle

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall much wonder has emerged from that vast, troubled land we know as the Balkans. No region in Europe today possesses a comparable vernacular music culture and amongst the sonic treasure uncovered - from Bosnian sevdah through to Kosovar tallava - surely no sound is both more eerie and fierce than Balkan brass. Twenty years ago few in the West had any idea of Balkan brass: communism had promoted an official folklore (aka "fakelore") that rarely hinted at what music the local people actually produced. And any consideration of the region's Romany Gypsy musicians suggested they were, for the most part, an extension of Hungary's restaurant violinists, moist eyed purveyors of lush romantic melodies. The apparatchiks who controlled culture never dared suggest there existed brass bands playing frantic dance music in a style that suggested James Brown's most leftfield grooves had escaped, rolled in radioactive waste, then mutated to create a force field of Eastern funk. This untamable music refuted folk kitsch and stood for a joyous collective freedom of expression

Rampaging through the West, Balkan brass has infected jazz, spawned a techno remix scene, influenced rock bands, inspired brass bands from New Orleans to Glasgow and lent itself to all kinds of fusions and confusions. As with reggae in the 1970s, the otherness of the Balkans and this sour sound's raw restyling of brass, has widened musical perimeters. And the two Balkan brass orchestras held most responsible are Romania's Fanfare Ciocărlia and Serbia's Boban & Marko Marković Orchestra. These two orchestras are the Duke Ellington and Count Basie of Balkan brass. Both feature extraordinary musicality and fearsome technique, radical horn arrangements aligned with dance floor dynamics. These cats can blow but, as with Basie and Ellington, they never forget that people love to shake it. And, when necessary, both orchestras can slow down, dig deep and deliver the Balkan blues. Take note: for all their similarities these bands are extremely different.

Where Boban's been a professional musician all his working life, the members of Fanfare worked as factory hands until first brought to the West in 1996. Boban and his son Marko, who left school aged 13 in 2002 to join his father, are household names across Serbia, popular with fans of rock and rave music as well as those who treasure the region's music forms.

Fanfare Ciocărlia were, for decades, a part-time orchestra, existing in isolation, one of the last brass bands in Romania. Even today after their huge international success, Fanfare remain largely unknown in Romania.

In this age of instant communication and all information being available at our fingertips, it can be difficult to remember when a sense of mystery, of secrecy, still hung over things. Growing up in Ceausescu's communist Romania and Tito's socialist Yugoslavia, the musicians of Fanfare Ciocărlia and Boban & Marko Marković Orchestra knew nothing of one another. Although their nations shared a land border and the musicians' Romany ethnicity meant they shared both tongue and musical ancestry, Tito's break with Stalin ensured an invisible wall was erected between the two states. Neither trade nor music passed through this wall.

Before World War II and its communist state aftermath, music had traveled widely across the Balkans and Gypsy brass bands (alongside Jewish klezmer musicians and other wandering minstrels) plied their trade from village to village, state to state.

Fascist regimes were followed by communist regimes and both sets of idiot ideologues did their worst to destroy areas of free expression. It's a testament to the musicians of Fanfare Ciocărlia and Boban & Marko Marković Orchestra that they refused to be subjugated. That they refused to forget. Instead, they engaged in remembering and recreating the music of their ancestors every time they picked up their instruments. To re-member. To make whole again.

This isolation meant neither band were aware of the other. Boban may have been champion of Guca Festival but Fanfare had never heard of Guca. Fanfare might have rocked clubs from Berlin to Tokyo but in Milosevic's Serbia such news went unpublished. Inevitably, Western fans of both bands began asking each orchestra what they thought of their closest contenders. "Boban who?" said Fanfare. "Fanfare what?" snapped Boban. Finally, at a Gypsy music festival in Belgium a few years ago, they got to witness the other perform. From then on both orchestras, when asked those prying questions about the competition, answered "they're good, sure, but not as good as us!".

These brass bands may be rooted in a common ancestry but the sense of competition between them is fierce. Balkan brass loves a musical clash like no other genre, bands facing off one another and blowing hard to win dancers and diners. Yet to get the two heavyweight champions of Balkan brass sizing one another up is rare. Different managements and touring agendas mean Fanfare Ciocărlia and Boban & Marko Marković Orchestra have circled one another for a long time before finally stepping into the ring. This CD documents what happens when 25 of the hardest workingmen in the blow biz finally face one another. Word went out: there's gonna be a showdown! As with the gladiators of ancient Rome (or Ali versus Frazier or Federer versus Nadal), this is a seismic event, the one everyone wants to witness.

Who will be the winner of this Balkan soundclash? Fanfare, who look to Transylvania's Hungarian dancehalls for inspiration, or Boban and Marko who refer to Turkish pop and folk music? Can Fanfare, those masters of groove who claim they play brass instruments because farming made their fingers too rough for string instruments, overwhelm Boban and Marko's fleet fingered finesse? Here the Gypsies from Romania's chilly north and the Gypsies from Serbia's humid south pick up their instruments and engage in a musical battle.

After all those years this album allows both bands to step up and get their game on. Here, the wizards of Balkan brass come together to battle for those high C's on the trumpet and see who executes the phattest snare and bass drum breakdown. Are you ready to rumbbbbbbbbbllllllle? Let it rock!

Garth Cartwright, author Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians