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Music Review: Princes Amongst Men – Journeys With Gypsy Musicians

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It’s now pretty much common knowledge that the people most of the world refers to as Gypsies originated in the northern part of India. When they began their western migration isn’t exactly known, but it is known that from India they set out on a road that took them first to Egypt, then Turkey, and from there on into Europe. Even though they have spread throughout continental Europe as far west as the Iberian peninsula it is the East that most of us seem to identify as being where Gypsies live.

Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Balkan states that stretch from what was once Yugoslavia down to Greece are the primary countries associated with Gypsies. Roma, as they call themselves, have become part of their cultural fabric. This is especially true in Hungary and Romania, where the folk music of these countries is now irrevocably linked to Gypsy music. This hasn’t stopped them from being treated like second class, or even third class citizens in the years since World War Two.

Despised by a great deal of the general population, and denigrated as thieves, only Jews have a longer history in Eastern Europe of being ostracized and persecuted and both have suffered horribly for it. Yet somehow they have managed to survive. From the persecutions of the Inquisition to the Death Camps of the Nazis, and the intolerance of repressive Communist regimes, the Gypsies have been marginalized almost since they set foot in Eastern Europe. Living within their own communities and following their own traditions, the only bridge that has been built between them and the rest of the world has been their music.
Taraf de Haidouks.jpg
Garth Cartwright is from New Zealand but like so many other people fell in love with the romantic side of Gypsy life. It was that infatuation that brought him to the Balkans in 1991 to begin the travelling that would end up becoming the basis for his book Princes Amongst Men – Journeys With Gypsy Musicians.

The book recounted his meetings with the men and women who performed Gypsy music in the Balkans, specifically Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. He chose those four countries for their “deep reservoirs of Gypsy music” and because their proximity allowed him to travel back and forth between the four countries with ease.

The book has been translated into a number of European languages, and is distributed by the Asphalt Tango record label in Germany, who specialize in the production and distribution of Gypsy music from Eastern Europe and Russia. So it’s not surprising that they have just released a companion CD for the book.

Princes Amongst Men features the music of some of the best known performers from the four countries that Cartwright travelled through, performers that he spent time with and came to know personally.

While bands like Taraf de Haidouks and Fanfare Ciocarlia have achieved some name recognition in Western Europe and North America through touring and appearances in movies, (Taraf de Haidouks appeared alongside Johnny Depp in The Man Who Cried and he has become one of their biggest champions in the West), others on the disc won’t be as well known to audiences outside of their own countries.

Individuals like Fetus Mustafov and bands like the Docani Orkestar from Macedonia; Boban Markovic and Ekrem from Serbia; Sofi Marinova and Boril Illiev from Bulgaria; and Romica Fuceanu and Fulgerica from Romania, are names that probably won’t be familiar to many people west of the Balkans, but whose music is every bit as redolent with the fire and passion that has made their more well known brethren so beloved by those who know them.

While I’m probably somewhat more familiar with Gypsy music than the majority of people, I would by no means call myself more then an appreciative fan. More then half the names on this disc were unknown to me. In the past I’ve really only ever had the opportunity to hear Romanian music, and only the occasional performer from the other countries. So this disc was full of pleasant surprises for me. I’d not had the opportunity of hearing the four country’s different styles juxtaposed before, so I was interested to note the subtle differences that showed up in the music.

While there was the obvious differences in languages between the four, I began to notice traits that, judging by this disc, could be considered characteristics of the four countries. While I’ve grown used to the hell bent for leather apporach that both Taruf and Fanfare take to their music, (if you’ve seen the movie Borat you’ll have heard Fanfare’s version of “Born To Be Wild” which makes Steppenwolf’s original look like it was recorded in slow motion) and the Romanian appreciation for speed and agility in their music in general. While the other countries retained some of that feeling of abandon, there were also elements that changed the tempos and gave them a different feel.

For instance on the CD’s opening track, “Cocek Shutka” by Sudahan from Macedonia it was hard not to miss the the Middle Eastern influences that gave it a very distinct Arabic sound. It was followed on the disc by the almost Mexican sounding trumpet that marked the song “Molitva” by Serbia’s Ekrem. That this plaintive trumpet was driven along by something that sounded slightly akin to a polka beat made the tune all the more distinct.

Bulgaria’s Joey Illiev, on the other hand, combines some elements from the other traditions and adds some distinct flavours of his own. The clarinet that accompanies him matches his Arabic sounding vocals, yet there are Flamenco undertones to his music that can’t be ignored.

It’s quite amazing when you think about how close the four countries are geographically, and yet how they each seemed to have developed different flavours to what some people might consider one type of music. If there’s one lesson to be learned from the CD Princes Amongst Men – Journeys With Gypsy Musicians it’s that there is no such thing as one type of Gypsy music. It is as distinct as the individuals who play it and the countries where it is played.

For those who’ve not had the joy and the privilege of hearing the diversity of sound that is Gypsy music, and specifically Gypsy music from the Balkans, they won’t find a better introduction to this exciting world than this CD.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://www.radoc.net Sam Connick

    Excellent review of Princes Among Men Richard — our ancestors didn’t come into Europe via Egypt, though. Also, “Gypsy” is increasingly being treated as non-PC and replaced by the preferred lable Roma(nies).
    Info at http://www.radoc.net
    Sam Connick
    Secretary
    RADOC