Music: Hang on to your hats

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THE 12 men in ill-fitting suits and pork-pie hats left Romania in the wee hours of yesterday morning, and would rather kip in the corner of Ronnie Scott's than do anything so formal as tune up. The Taraf de Haidouks' resultant cacophony is, it turns out, merely a prelude to a lengthy set brimming with passion, melodrama and jaw-dropping talent. The older members deliver songs of love and loss in guttural howls with cheese-grater voices, before the ensemble breaks down into smaller groups for increasingly competitive and complex instrumental numbers. In showcasing individual skills on fiddle, flute, double bass, accordion and the rippling sounds of the cymbalom, things career along at such a breakneck pace that all tonight's largely "world music" audience can do is hold on for the ride.

The Taraf hail from Clejani, a run-down Gypsy village south west of Bucharest that is home to over 50 lautari, the professional musicians who follow village traditions and perform at weddings and other celebrations. This lot are the cream, a multi-generational line-up of larynx-wobbling virtuosos who tackle everything from medieval ballads to berserk dance tunes. With an Arabic flavour reflecting their Gypsy origins, these unlikely lads are also showmen, whose party pieces - squeaking out an entire number on a stray violin string, for example - were milked for all they were worth.

The Taraf found fame in the West after the fall of Ceausescu (to whom they dedicate a song, "The Ballad of the Dictator"), by touring the festival circuit, playing with the Kronos Quartet and Yehudi Menuhin, and releasing extraordinary collections of vernacular music. Their third and latest album, Dumbula Dumba (Crammed Discs) - which begins with barking dogs, and whose sleeve notes name-check Clejani's bartender - is helped along by a series of musafiri, or village guests, including descendants of the ancient order of bear-tamers on barrels, chairs, spoons and various body parts.

Tonight, however, it's just the regular Taraf, their battered instruments, and Caliu, a Brylcreemed show-stealer on violin whose lightning-fast fingering should have left his strings smoking. Proceedings take on a darkly soulful, Fellini-esque delirium; fiddles are smacked with bows, double basses are plucked, beer bellies become accessories in impromptu solo dances and duets offer a chance to settle grudges.

They escape the confines of folklore thanks to the elders' love of improvisation (the only conceivable link between the Taraf and this week's venue) and the more youthful members' drive to innovate. The resultant face-offs between the former's traditional rhythms and songs and the latter's predilection for Turkish, Serbian and Bulgarian sounds imbues the whole shebang with a creative frisson that keeps things fluid and fresh. Both exhilarating and exhausting, it's a window into a way of life which, by their very presence, the Taraf are helping to keep alive. None of them, apparently, can read or write. No matter: they can certainly play.