Not the gypsy kings

The sound of Romania's poorest nomads has been mixed with electronica and dub. Tim Cumming hears a cry from the dark
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The Independent Culture

Until recently, the likelihood of hearing Shukar outside their village would have been close to zero. They are the 38-year-old Napoleon Constantin and the 24-year-old Clasic Petre, both raw-throated Roma from the village of Gracia, 40 kilometres from Bucharest, and the sixty-something singer Tamango - a trio who have been joined by an unlikely gang from Romania's club scene - including the classically-trained Dan Handrabur. The result is Shukar Collective's album Urban Gypsy.

Until recently, the likelihood of hearing Shukar outside their village would have been close to zero. They are the 38-year-old Napoleon Constantin and the 24-year-old Clasic Petre, both raw-throated Roma from the village of Gracia, 40 kilometres from Bucharest, and the sixty-something singer Tamango - a trio who have been joined by an unlikely gang from Romania's club scene - including the classically-trained Dan Handrabur. The result is Shukar Collective's album Urban Gypsy.

The original music is the living embodiment of one of Roma culture's oldest manifestations. When the Mongols and the Tatars passed through Dacia (the old name for Romania), they brought with them the cruel practice of bear-handling. Shukar (it means "fine") are one-time Ursari, or bear-handlers, historically despised and too poor even to buy instruments.

"In Turkey," says Handrabur, "people still come into a town and play this weird music with percussive instruments, and have a bear in chains, and the bear dances because it is tortured. But we have stopped it in Romania."

In its traditional form, the vocals are accompanied by an aggressive, clattering percussion created using spoons, or simply by knocking stones on a wooden barrel. For Urban Gypsy, however, the frenetic home-made rhythms have been replaced by a soundscape that ranges from hard, angular beats and heavy dub to jazz bass-lines combined with intermittent snatches of the original rocks-and-gravel percussion. The untethered vocal phrases are cut and spliced along with the music - Tamango is said to have cried when he first heard the results.

Though all three share lead vocals on the album, it is the bear-like Tamango's hoarse, guttural tones that stand out the most. His cry seems to be one of expulsion, not redemption. He knows it will go unanswered. "Tamango is about 60," explains Handrabur. "He's been in jail a few times. He has tattoos over his whole body, and he's had a rough life. He's got nine children and he's got to do something to keep them. That's really all I know about him," he admits. "It's really tough communicating with these people. They were all a little apprehensive at first. They didn't know what was going on when we started working together. They weren't sure what was going to happen."

"We don't even know what the lyrics are to most of the songs," reveals Handrabur. "These guys don't often translate for us. And their language keeps changing all the time. It isn't written, it's only spoken, and it varies a lot, almost from month to month. New words are added, and only among themselves can they really understand what they're singing."

'Urban Gypsy' is on Riverboat/World Music Network

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