Fanfare Ciocarlia – Born to Roma
January 13, 2009 § 2 Comments
Published: The Age, A2, January 10, 2009.
On the eve of legendary Romanian group Fanfare Ciocarlia’s Melbourne appearance, Dan Rule looks at the motivations behind our fascination with Gypsy music.
THE story behind Fanfare Ciocarlia’s rise to prominence is the stuff of myth. Hailing from a line of Roma farming families in the tiny north-eastern Romanian village of Zece Prajini, until 1996 the 12-piece ensemble had played no stage larger than a local wedding, baptism or funeral. Twelve years on, their frenetic brass sound – born from traditional Roma melodies and the brass bands of the Turkish military, which had occupied the region at the start of the 19th century – is one of the drawcards of the world music circuit.
“They were unlike anything we had ever come across, just letting the music flow out from themselves, completely different to trained musicians in Western music,” says Helmut Neumann, one of the group’s label managers at German imprint Asphalt Tango Records.
“It’s very human and very emotional – so honest that you can’t leave it. You are automatically attracted by it.”
But according to Neumann, who discovered the group with business partner Henry Ernst in 1996, there was no great fable to Fanfare Ciocarlia’s unearthing. It was pure chance.
“We were both living in Leipzig, which is a city of about half a million in East Germany, so until the ’90s the East was our only possibility for travel,” he says, talking on behalf of the group (who don’t speak English) on the eve of its Australian tour, which will take in next week’s Gypsy Queens and Kings concert at Hamer Hall as part of the Arts Centre’s Mix It Up series.
“We had gotten to know Romania very well,” he continues. “But it was just good luck that Henry entered the village where Fanfare Ciocarlia were living. Very quickly Henry made the decision to bring them to Germany and France to do a tour. We thought of it as a one-off because we were so fascinated by the music – it was not thought of in a professional way. Financially it was a disaster.”
The archetypal image of the Gypsy – boundless, anchorless and free – is instilled with romanticism and mystique. But the Roma’s signifiers are still the source of both reverence and derision in the West. While their cultural product, from the great Django Reinhardt to the pop chart-ready sound of the Gipsy Kings, has been happily consumed, as a people they have been held at arm’s length by a Europe still fixating typecasts of the thief and the mystic.
According to Neumann, this “heavy” lineage engenders the music of Fanfare Ciocarlia and other Gypsy artists. He frames their sound in the context of a kind of activism and adaptation. “They’ve dealt with long travels, persecution and racism all the time, because they have basically been considered as outlaws, not involved in any society,” he says.
“But somehow they’ve adapted to each society in which they arrive, so the question then becomes: what is their own culture? What is their way to express their own culture? Because they have been adapting so many of the local things wherever they settle, there aren’t many things of their own left. I think one of the last ways they have to live their own culture is through music, and there’s a real pride in that.”
Billed as “an epic celebration of Gypsy life”, the Queens and Kings project seems to embody these ideas of both expression and fusion of culture. Along with Fanfare Ciocarlia, the concert features Gypsy vocalists and musicians from throughout Europe, including twice Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Macedonian Gypsy Queen Esma Redzepova, Hungarian master-vocalist Mitsou, 21-year-old Romanian star Florentina Sandu, Bulgarian songwriter Jony Iliev and Perpignan guitar trio Kaloome, and blends several disparate Gypsy styles and stories.
“It’s the common way of performing music, but it’s not common music,” says Neumann.
“The Gypsy music is very human and not about reading music from a page. It’s more about feel and emotion and the stories of life, and I think that’s why audiences relate so much.”
Indeed, Roma music has survived longer than most in a world music market constantly on the prowl for something new. But is our fascination really connected to the tales of the Roma, or is their visage simply more exploitable?
World music observers, such as veteran Melbourne broadcaster, journalist and DJ Kate Welsman, tend to the latter. It’s the exotic and the quixotic, rather than our sense of empathy, that draws us to Gypsy music, she says.
“Meanwhile, the reality is that these people are still persecuted and hated throughout Europe.”
But Welsman, who also curated Africa (the first concert in the Mix It Up series) and will be DJing under her Systa BB moniker in support of Gypsy Queens and Kings, also sees the music’s appeal in terms of it’s sonic relationship to rock.
“Some of the tones that are used in Gypsy or Balkan music and the timings are very, very different, and there’s a shrillness and a big bass that comes through, so much so that people relate to it almost as punk,” she says.
“Anything is possible with this music. You don’t have to do a particular style and there’s constant dancing and there’s an energy to it.”
It’s what Neumann hopes the audience will take away from what promises to be a typically frenzied set from Fanfare Ciocarlia and their guests at Hamer Hall. “With this music, it’s definitely about experiencing it firsthand,” he says. “There’s a magic to it.”
And according to Neumann, the songs will ring on for years to come. “You know, the world music community, they just want new, new, new exotic things all the time. It’s something we’ve really had to fight against.
“We took Fanfare Ciocarlia from a far-flung corner of Eastern Europe and brought them to the rest of the world because we loved their music. And it is our responsibility to help them travel the world and play their music for as long as they want.”
Mix It Up: The Gypsy Queens and Kings is at Hamer Hall, the Arts Centre, Sunday, January 18, at 5pm (free pre-show activities from 3pm). Tickets $79 premium/$63 adult/$34 concession: theartscentre.com.au, 1300 136 166 and ticketmaster outlets.