The last time they headlined a gig in London was five years ago.
They’ve been the house band for the Gypsy Kings and Queens tours, featuring the likes of Esma Redzepova, went head to head in a Gypsy brass battle with Serbia’s Boban Markovic at Koko, and despite the curveball the British winter throws at them – all three inches of precipitation and days of transport chaos – Fanfare Ciocarlia make it from their home village of Prajini in north-east Romania and are in the UK for one night only to blaze the Scala in King’s Cross with the kind of searing heat and power you expect from a blast furnace. If it’s a fireball of brass you’re after, these are the men to call.
The 12-strong band – whose name roughly translates as “‘lark’s song” – are book-ended by two DJ sets, from global beats DJ Sacha Dieu, and XFM’s John Kennedy, and while the venue’s heating may have packed up as Sunday-night temperatures hit minus three, it was the full-throated London-Balkans alliance of a standing-only audience that stoked the heat for the band to play off.
A backline of four men in black – two huge tubas, tenor and baritone horns – opens with Vivaldi, as Dan Ivancea blows his alto sax, cascading ribbons of finery, and band elder Costica Trifan lays down beautiful clear trumpet before the rest of the players swell the ranks to inflame a brace of Balkans dance tunes driven so fast you expect the wheels to come off.
Ciocarlia knows about dynamics, and the surge of bass brass floods like a rush of blood to the head on the slow, gorgeous “Lume Lume”, while the massed trumpets on “Ciocarlia Si Suita” sound as frenzied and potent as the pipes of Jajouka, layered across punch-the-air rhythms like a heavily decorated cloth.
Further in, after echo-laden alto showcases from Ivancea, swinging as far into space as Sun Ra, and the funky, sweaty dance rhythms of Hora Tiganeasca, there’s a burst of “Happy Birthday” for Cerys Matthews, who briefly steps from audience to stage, and a turn from a spectacular Roma dancer from Serbia, soon to be joined by two bellydancers.
Big fat crowd pleasers “Born to Be Wild” and the “James Bond Theme” close the set and provide the first encore before Ciocarlia step into the audience for a finale of Balkans classics “Ederlezi” and Esma Redzepova’s “Caje Sukarije”, conjuring banknotes from the crowd – Cerys among them – before they finally depart to a primal roar of appreciation as they continue down their endless highway.