You may know the Rough Guides from their series of travel books devoted to off-the-beaten-path locales, but now they’ve hit on a fantastic idea that’s great news for fans of world music. Through an association with the World Music Network, Rough Guides is compiling world music CDs that highlight sounds from all over the world.
The Rough Guide to the Music of Balkan Gypsies is a perfect example of the value of this project. Dan Rosenberg, who works as a journalist for the Rough Guides and Afropop Worldwide Radio has put together a fascinating collection of music made by the Roma people of the Balkans.
In general, the music of Balkan Gypsies bears certain similarities to klezmer and Greek rembetika, but the groups tend toward larger ensembles with more of an emphasis on brass instruments. Like klezmer and rembetika, the music on this CD is rooted in European traditions, but is colored by strong eastern influences. This can be attributed to the fact that the Roma people maintain cultural traditions that come from their land of origin in northern India, and to the fact that most of the Balkan peninsula was dominated by the Ottoman Empire until the end of the 19th Century.
Gypsy musicians are known for their virtuosity (for example, the Belgian Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt), and this CD shows why. The Roma people are also often known as outcasts in the societies where they live, and so their music is at once celebratory and mournful—both a reflection of their participation in the local culture and their exclusion from it.
The first song on the CD is from Romania, where the vast majority of Balkan Gypsies live. “Mahalageasca” by Mahaka Rai Banda is a captivating instrumental that sets the stage for the CD by introducing the listener to the combination of brass, violin and accordion that is a signature of much Balkan Gypsy music.
Another Romanian group, Taraf de Haidouks, adds “Cintec de Dragoste Si Joc,” an absolutely mesmerizing song that features a nimble rhythm section that forms the backdrop as a call-and-response vocal duet, violins and accordions all vie for the spotlight. The song ends with a frenzy of impassioned sawing on the violins in double-time.
A Serbian brass ensemble of some international renown, Boban Markovic Orkestar, plays “Mundo Cocek,” a jazz-influenced number that could easily have been performed by Duke Ellington’s orchestra.
Two outstanding songs on the CD benefit from a mixture of traditional Turkish and Gypsy music. One is by Ivo Papasov and Yuri Yunakov, who hail from eastern Bulgaria near the Greek and Turkish borders. They reunited in 2005 to record “Lenorije Chaje,” a song with soaring clarinet and saxophone parts and an exotic air, for this album. Both men spent time in socialist labor camps in the 1980s for the crime of playing traditional music. The second is “Lume, Lume” by Fanfare Ciocarlia, a brass band from Moldavia who play in the tradition of 19th Century Turkish military bands. On this song they team up with the vocalists of the Bulgarian Voices to create a haunting and gorgeous pan-Balkan melody.
In addition to Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia, The Rough Guide to the Music of Balkan Gypsies features music from Macedonia, Albania and Greece. It even features the unlikely pairing of Omar Faruk Tekbilek of Turkey and Richard Hagopian of Armenia. The most bizarre track is “Taraf” by Shukar Collective which takes traditional Gypsy music into the hip hop era thanks to samples and remixing from Serbians DJ Vasile and Dreamdoktor.
As far as that traditional Gypsy virtuosity goes, the standout track would have to be “Felix Kolo” by the Hungarian Serb violin wunderkind Felix Lajko and the Boban Markovic Orkestar. The speed and feeling with which Lajko can play just need to be heard to be believed.
The most arresting song on the CD, however, is also the shortest. It is simply titled “Rom” and it is performed by the Greek trio of Kostas Pavlidis, Dora Masklavanou and Nikos Kyprourgos. Originally used as the title song for a 1989 Menelaos Karamaghiolis documentary about Gypsies, “Rom” captures all of the beauty and haunting melancholy of Balkan Gypsy music. In these lines the listener can feel both the vibrancy and the hardship that mark modern life for the Roma people as they live, even today, at the periphery of modern European culture.
The lyrics to “Rom,” translated from the original Greek, are reprinted in the extensive liner notes to the CD:
How fine it is to be called a Gypsy
Though it’s not easy a Gypsy to be
I don’t know what I’ll become
I don’t know
It would be fine to be Gypsy
I would adore a Gypsy to be
I don’t know what a Gypsy is
I don’t know