Gypsy music blows up a storm

There's a world of pain and rage in Gypsy music, but stunning artistry and showmanship too. Oh, and don't forget to dance, says Garth Cartwright
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The Independent Culture

Dirt roads, no phones, intermittent electricity, shanty housing... welcome to Zece Prajini, a Gypsy village in north-eastern Romania the modern world appears to have passed by. When not disrupted by horse and carts, the main street is occupied by chickens and pigs. The only sound is that of a trumpet playing mercurial oriental melodies.

Zece Prajini is an "invisible" village, meaning that it doesn't appear on any map. But from here arose Fanfare Ciocarlia, a brass band of such formidable artistry that they have conquered stages from Tokyo to Berlin and were honoured as Best European Act at the recent BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards.

The musicians' homes aren't hard to spot. They are merrily jerry-built constructions, with wages from tours and CD sales financing extra rooms and all manner of adornments. One musician even added an indoor toilet, much to the fascination of the rest of the village.

How fortunate do the musicians rate themselves? "When communism ended, all the factories closed and we, us Gypsies, were the first to lose our jobs," the band leader Ioan Ivancea tells me. "Without the success of our music, the village would have died."

Romania's a tough place to live for anyone not connected to the political/criminal élite - especially so for its Gypsies, who are estimated to make up close to 10 per cent of the nation's 22 million populace. Ever wondered why it's so often Romanian Gypsies arriving at Dover and requesting asylum? Visit Romania and hear nationalist politicians calling for the "black plague" to be locked in concentration camps and you realise this is simply the continuation of a fear and loathing that has existed for centuries.

The medieval tyrant Prince Vlad Dracul (Vlad the Devil) - the role model for Bram Stoker's Dracula - enslaved 12,000 Gypsies in 1455 and, in doing so, set in place a system of slavery that lasted for four centuries. Gypsies were kept as slaves by the monasteries and the Boyars (landowners) until 1864. Less than a century later, the Romanian fascist regime aligned itself with the Nazis and began massacring Romania's Jews and Roma, and 70,000 Gypsies were deported to death camps in Transdniestr, the chunk of Ukraine Hitler gifted Marshal Antonescu. Even today, fiery pogroms and police brutality are not uncommon. No wonder Romania's Gypsy musicians create a dark, raging blues.

From Django Reinhardt's silvery Gypsy jazz through Camaron de la Isla's titanic flamenco howl, the Gypsies have provided Europe with its greatest roots music. And right now four Balkan states - Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedonia - are overflowing with sorcerers of sound that several wars, fascism, communism and every kind of oppression have failed to crush.

I've crisscrossed the Balkans constantly for the past 15 years, initially as a backpacker and then as a journalist researching features and my book Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians. In London, friends knew only the tabloids' "Gypsy Invasion" headlines as applied to Balkan asylum-seekers or Irish travellers. I'd recite adventures involving Gypsy princesses and legendary outlaws, and meeting Gypsy musicians whose artistry draws comparisons with the likes of Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. "Go on!" they'd say, then sing the tapas-bar favourite "Bambolero".

Well, this month sees the start of an actual Gypsy invasion. Armed only with violins, accordions, trumpets, tubas, guitars and turntables, many of the finest Balkan Gypsy musicians are finally landing in the UK.

Yet who is a "Gypsy"? The word's origins begin with the distortion of "Egyptian", a name stuck on a swarthy people who began arriving in Constantinople in 1068 or so. Europeans, upon noting these new tribes' dark skin and black hair, surmised they were from Egypt. In fact, these weary travellers were refugees from the Indian subcontinent, forced out as Islamic armies invaded. Rom/Roma - Sanskrit for "man" or "husband" - is the term many now employ to describe their ethnicity, while Gypsy remains the tag for the musicians as this is how the music is marketed and consumed across the West.

That the music of the Roma is valued while the communities the music springs from continue to be denigrated is nothing new. From Catherine the Great to Franz Liszt, from Pablo Picasso to Johnny Depp, the gifted and the glamorous have courted and praised Europe's musical alchemists - although it's only recently that the UK has started expressing any real enthusiasm for the music. Well, better a few centuries late than never.

And, being British, we're learning quick: at the BBC awards, Germany's DJ Shantel, who creates dance-floor-friendly remixes of Fanfare Ciocarlia, picked up the gong for Club Global. Felix Buxton of Basement Jaxx and Cliffy of Futureworld have compiled an album of Balkan dance mixes. Second Site, a touring exhibition of Roma visual arts, opens tonight at the West Park Centre in Leeds. Mahala Rai Banda, Romania's hottest young Gypsy band, take their first steps on a UK stage tomorrow night. Balkan Fever, the UK's first Balkan music festival, is set for June. And everyone from the Croatian rock god Darko Rundek to the King of the Gypsies is set to tour. All that makes 2006 the year the UK got musically Balkanised.

This sudden surge of in interest in Gypsy music has seen the Balkans described as "the new Cuba" by those with more than a passing interest in world music fashions. And the Roma, Europe's largest - and most marginalised - minority are now employing music not only for wages but also as a forum to focus on their community and rights (or lack of them). The most obvious comparison is with black Americans who, almost half a century ago, looked to Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin as the civil rights movement's musical broadcasters.

Not that it's so simple. There's no Roma statesman comparable in stature to the likes of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, while their native tongue of Romany has many local dialects, ensuring that communication across myriad states is not always easy. Also, ties to tribes can prove stronger than pan-Roma identity. And the likes of Romania's self-appointed Gypsy King, Florin Cioaba - who gained international infamy when he married his 12-year-old daughter off to a 14-year-old suitor in 2003 ("Our tradition," he claimed) - are polar opposites to progressive Roma. This all tends to put pressure on the musicians, most of whom would rather let the music do the talking.

And who should do the talking is another moot point. DJ Shantel - Stefan Hantel - is a veteran of the Frankfurt techno scene. At the BBC Radio 3 awards press event, Fanfare Ciocarlia, asked what they thought of Shantel's remixes, called them "dogshit". This recalls Sonny Boy Williamson, having collaborated with The Yardbirds and The Animals, describing them as "wanting to play the blues so bad, and they play 'em so bad".

Shantel may not have won over the Romanians, but alongside the Berlin-based club night and CD compilation producer BalkanBeats - started by the Bosnian refugee Robert Aoko in 1995 to keep the spirit of Yugoslav brass-band partying alive - he's captured a growing enthusiasm for dancing to Balkan Gypsy brass.

The roots of this popularity rest in Fanfare Ciocarlia's constant touring and in Emir Kusturica's epic films. Fanfare's roaring brass blast, rooted in military bands employed by the Ottoman Empire, is harsh and beautiful; weird jazz, mutant funk, brand new yet wearing ancient West Asian roots. Internationally, audiences respond to Fanfare's huge sound as a form of musical catharsis, a trance music from Europe's frayed edges.

As Fanfare stormed concert halls and clubs, the Bosnian film director Emir Kusturica's award-winning features Time of the Gypsies, Underground and Black Cat, White Cat were hits across Europe and Latin America, emphasising a comic (if caricatured) version of free-spirited * * Gypsies partying to a wild brass ruckus. For Underground's soundtrack, the composer Goran Bregovic employed the Serb Gypsy trumpeter Boban Markovic, who is widely acknowledged as the heavyweight champion of Balkan brass, having won the Golden Trumpet award at Serbia's annual Guca festival (imagine the Notting Hill Carnival but with Gypsies and brass bands) more often than any other musician. The huge success of the films' soundtracks won a global audience for Bregovic's Balkan-blend orchestra, while Kusturica now fronts The No Smoking Orchestra (Balkan brass mixed with thuggish pub rock) and spends more time touring than filming.

The No Smoking Orchestra's spiritual kin are the New York cabaret punks Gogol Bordello, who attracted much UK attention last year with their Gypsy Punks album and tour. None of Gogol Bordello is Roma - although the band leader Eugene Hutz occasionally likes to claim he is - and their music remains more akin to a fiddle-driven Sham 69 than an Eastern Bloc Clash. But they have great energy and project a colourful chaos not unlike that in Kusturica's films, one that skims the surface of Balkan Roma culture without touching on its artistry or struggle, so that it may revive several stale Gypsy clichés (wild, freewheeling, violent etc). Songlines magazine has even suggested that this constitutes a new genre: punk-world music. I loathe them, but they'll probably be huge.

Anyway, there's nothing new in popular musicians describing themselves as "Gypsy". Nicolo Paganini encouraged rumours of his Gypsy blood, while Jimi Hendrix formed the Band of Gypsies. Bob Dylan and Van Morrison wrote songs celebrating Gypsies as free-spirited romantics, while Cher took the tabloid line on "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves".

All of which poses the question: will the Roma actually benefit from the West's sudden enthusiasm for all things Balkan? So far, only two bands - Fanfare Ciocarlia, and the violin and accordion magicians Taraf de Haidouks - have established themselves firmly on the world circuit. Both have benefited from West European manager-producers who carefully emphasise the artistry of these musicians.

Romania's Mahala Rai Banda, who make their UK debut this weekend, are next in line to succeed. Sharing Taraf's Belgian management and record label, Mahala Rai Banda are a younger outfit who mix manele - a synthesised Gypsy pop-dance music hugely popular in Romania - with horns and violins to create feisty dance music.

Mahala Rai Banda's manele flourishes only hint at the electronic hybrids developing in the Balkans. "Mahala" means "Gypsy ghetto" and in these urban environments, digital technology is employed to make music. Most of this music will never leave the Balkans; it's just too trashy and bizarre for Western audiences to get their heads around. Which is a pity, as it's a lot more fun than, say, Babyshambles. Or Gogol Bordello.

Take the Serbian turbo-folk queen Ceca who, due to her marriage to the late warlord Arkan, cannot get a visa to sing in the UK. Ceca's reconstructed figure resembles Jordan on steroids, a plastic surgery disaster, and she casts a huge shadow across Balkan music.

Or take Azis of Bulgaria, an openly gay Gypsy singer who courts all manner of controversy. He sings in a high, fey voice, his music blending Balkan dissonance with Bollywood spectacle. He's a huge star in Bulgaria, a nation often intolerant of its Roma populace. Azis has sung in London twice, although you need to be connected to the city's Bulgarian community to know. Watching him perform in Walthamstow in 2004, I was amazed by how many Balkan Roma were in the room; you never see them when Fanfare or Taraf play the Barbican. These groups are largely unknown in Romania, focused as they are on Western audiences, while Azis is a huge draw across the southern Balkans. Today, with so many ex-citizens of the Balkans living in the UK, all kinds of concerts and clubs are being promoted by and for these communities.

The most compelling concert of 2006 could well be one organised by London's Serb Society, to be held at the Mean Fiddler in Soho on 14 May. The musician? Saban Bajramovic. For citizens of former Yugoslavia, Saban is, quite simply, the King of the Gypsies. His voice is an eerie instrument, capable of conveying great sorrow and beauty. As a songwriter - well, to the Roma he's Bob Dylan and James Brown in one, a man capable of singing "last night, another beating from the police" with great conviction.

Saban's life is the stuff of fiction: orphaned, illiterate, jailed on Goli Otok (President Tito's gulag) for deserting the army, he left prison literate and brimming with song. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he was a huge star in Yugoslavia, his talent only matched by his taste for gambling, alcohol and knife fights.

When researching Princes Amongst Men, I tracked him down in Nis, southern Serbia. I'd been told that he wouldn't talk - a week before he'd dismissed a BBC television crew when they wouldn't pay him - but I was in luck, and spent an entertaining afternoon in the company of this battered giant, who appropriately compared his talent to that of Diego Maradona. If Saban makes it to the Mean Fiddler gig - and he's notoriously unreliable - his first UK performance should be something to behold.

And if he doesn't, then his spiritual offspring Kal play Islington Academy on 25 June. Kal are part of next month's Balkan Fever festival featuring music from Bosnia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Serbia. The young Belgrade-based band's self-titled album topped the European world music charts on its release in March, its dynamic blend of traditional instruments, hard, driving rhythms and soulful yet confrontational style earning the label of a "Gypsy Clash".

Unlike Gogol Bordello, Kal - Romany for "black" - are more than pure spectacle, and they spit indignation at being called "Gypsy". "I'm a Roma," says the band's leader and vocalist Dragan Ristic. "Gypsy is pejorative, a misnomer. We've always called ourselves Roms, so I find it distasteful to be called a Gypsy."

Ristic's family were beneficiaries of Tito's desire to involve the Roma in Yugoslav society, and his father, a schoolteacher, emphasised education. The multilingual Dragan worked as a theatre director before focusing on music.

Now, he's one of the fortunate few able to cross between Gypsy and Gadje (non-Gypsy) society. "No one believed in the ideal of Yugoslavia more than the Roma," Ristic says. "We so wanted to belong. The resulting collapse of the nation and all the nationalism has made us focus on what we are; not Yugoslavs, but Roma. Ironic that it takes war for us to push ourselves forward, huh? I ran Roma theatre companies in Belgrade and Budapest, achieved a lot, but realised that music remains a more powerful vehicle to articulate our culture.

"Which is why Kal exist. It's been a battle for us to survive in Serbia because the worst Western values have been adopted. Today, Balkan music is a sexy girl in a short skirt singing badly over an electric keyboard. Beyond the older generation, like Saban and Fanfare, there's very little quality left. If Kal succeed, I hope we show young Balkan musicians that you don't have to lose your roots. You don't have to play trash."

Ristic suggests there's little extreme racism in Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Hungary, but he notes that Nato's efforts to secure Kosovo resulted in the ethnic cleansing of 30,000 Kosovar Roma by Albanians wanting a purely Albanian Kosovo. Most of the Kosovar Roma now live in shanty towns on the outskirts of Belgrade and Skopje, out of sight of the Western leaders still congratulating themselves on the mess that is Kosovo.

"We, the Roma, are Europe's invisible nation," Ristic says. "We've no economic or political power, but we have our music. For a thousand years, you have danced to us. If our music makes you see us, then good."

Mahala Rai Banda play at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (0870 050 0511) tomorrow and Sunday; Darko Rundek plays there on 12 and 13 May. Saban Bajramovic is at the Mean Fiddler, London W2 (0870 060 3777) on 14 May. Balkan Fever festival (featuring Kal), London venues (, 16 to 25 June.

Garth Cartwright is the author of 'Princes Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians' (Serpent's Tail)


Markovic's mercurial trumpet solos conjure up ancient Balkan furies. His teenage son Marko, a trumpet prodigy, looks set to take over the Orkestar when Boban retires.

Recommended CD: 'Boban I Marko' (Piranha)


Stefan Hantel was once one of many techno DJs working the huge German dance scene. Hantel noticed the huge energy created at concerts by Balkan brass bands, so started DJing and remixing Gypsy tunes: a new clubbing phenomenon was born.

Recommended CD: 'Bucovina Club Vol 2' (Essay)


Macedonia's Gypsy diva has been singing professionally since 1956 (she was 13), was beloved by President Tito, regarded as an ambassador for the Roma and twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with refugees from the Balkan wars and Roma women. Her multi-octave voice wails the Gypsy anthem "Dzelem, Dzelem" like no other.

Recommended CD: 'Gypsy Queens' (Network)


The hardest-working brass band on the planet cook up a roaring groove and blow wonderfully sour solos. Best encountered live, the Romanian collective make a good case for funky jazz being more alive in the Balkans than the West.

Recommended CD: 'The Story of the Band' (Asphalt Tango)


Very loud, very obnoxious ("Think Locally Fuck Globally" is a popular ditty), New York's self-styled "Gypsy Punks" won a large British following with their Iggy Pop-flavoured live show in 2005. Coming to a summer festival near you.

Recommended CD: 'Gypsy Punks' (Side One Dummy)


Straight out of Belgrade's housing estates and Gypsy ghettoes, Kal's eponymous debut is among 2006's most exciting albums, mixing a rocking pulse with Balkan strings, chattering rap from the Montenegrin rock satirist Rambo Amadeus and a variety of Gypsy voices so young yet so bruised.

Recommended CD: 'Kal' (Asphalt Tango)


Bucharest-based band who mix horns and fiddles with a pinch of electro manele to create 21st-century Gypsy dance music. It's a real Roma party.

Recommended CD: 'Mahala Rai Banda' (Crammed)


Saban's voice can start as a caress and rise to a roar as he wails the Balkan blues. Also a great songwriter, Saban's artistry is matched by his taste for the wild life.

Recommended CD: 'A Gypsy Legend' (World Connection)


The 12-piece violin-accordion-cimbalom collective from the village of Clejani, south-west of Bucharest, are inspired and offbeat. Championed by the likes of Yehudi Menuhin, Kronos Quartet and Johnny Depp.

Recommended CD: 'Musique des Tziganes de Roumaine' (Crammed)