Fanfare Ciocarlia from the tiny village of Zece Prajini, Moldavia in north eastern Romania were one of the last brass bands in the country. With no tradition to draw upon, and almost no contact with the outside world during the communist era, they developed their own unique approach to the music. Barnstorming through Western Europe and even North America, they have wowed audiences everywhere they've been. Somehow, the two bands never crossed paths until a few years ago, although each had been asked about the other by fans. Until now the two bands have never shared a stage, let alone been in the recording studio together, so there has been no way for aficionados of the music to compare the two and perhaps decide which is the better.
All that has changed with the release of Balkan Brass Battle on the German Asphalt Tango Records label and a whirlwind tour of European cities under the same name. The CD features both solo and combined performances from the bands, four tracks of each, as they stage a semi-mock competition for the title of King of the Romany Brass Bands. For those of you, like me, whose only previous experience with brass bands has been limited to marching and military bands or those euphemistically referred to as stage bands (massed brass instruments playing pop tunes a la the James Last Band) the music of these two groups will be nothing like you've heard before. Sure the instruments are the same as those used by the other types of bands, but the music produced is something else all together.
I'm not even going to attempt to pass judgement on which of these two bands deserve the title of King of Brass Bands, but I will say that after listening to both of them I'll never be able to sit through any other type of brass music recital. It's like the difference between listening to a Muzak rendition of Jimi Hendrix and listening to the real thing. Aside from the occasional solo performance from the best jazz players, I've never heard these instruments played with the energy, passion and soul as they are in the hands of both these bands. Of the two the Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra are probably the one which sounds most like bands you might have heard before. However that's only because trumpets play a larger role in their sound than they do in Fanfare Ciocarlia. Occasionally you'll hear something in their trumpet playing that might strike you as familiar, the high silver sound we've come to identify with Mexican/Spanish trumpet playing for instance. But that's only one moment in one song and you quickly realize they have more ways of coaxing sound out of trumpets than you'd have thought possible.