Ah, gypsy music! The wild violins, the flamenco style guitar, the hammered strings of the cimbalom, the deep rumble of a double bass and the careening clarinet accompanying a tortured voice singing of love, religion, troubles and other aspects of their marginalized lives. In spite of the fact there are Romany people living across a span of territory stretching from India to Spain in Asia, the Middle East and Europe, most people tend to latch onto this one, very romantic, notion of what their music should sound like. While its true there are bands where the violin is important, the music can not only be radically different depending upon which country those who play it reside in, even within a single country it can change from province to province and town to town.
For not only were the Romany a nomadic people who absorbed the musical influences of those whose territories they passed through, they were also survivors who learned quickly how to adopt the music of the local dominant culture so they could earn their keep as entertainers. While in some cases it has become difficult to tell whether the Romany have adopted local folk traditions or vice versa, in others the non Romany influence is obvious. When the Ottoman Empire of Turkey swept up the Danube River through Eastern Europe, until they were halted at the gates of Vienna from entering the West, they brought with them a sound that was new to European ears. While marching bands, military bands especially, are now commonplace, they were first introduced to Europe by the conquering Turkish armies. Throughout the territories they occupied they brought with them their love of brass bands and those wishing to perform for the new rulers quickly learned to play what would sell.
Not only did the Romany people under the Ottoman Empire pick up brass music, they gradually developed their own distinct styles of performance which reflected both their own musical heritage and the regions of Europe they lived in. Although it’s only been recently this style of music has made its way over to North America, it is easily as popular and well known as what we refer to as “traditional” Romany music elsewhere. The Guca Festival of brass bands in Serbia, featuring Romany bands from across Europe, is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year and routinely draws over two hundred bands who compete for the title of champion brass band of Europe. One of the most celebrated contestants was Serbian native son the Boban & Marko Markovic Orchestra, who, after receiving unprecedented high marks from all the judges in all the categories at the 2001 festival, no longer competes but performs as a special guest every year. Needless to say they were shocked when whispers began reaching their ears of a band of part time musicians from a small town in Romania who were gaining international recognition and acclaim and being talked about in the same reverential tones usually reserved for them.
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.
Any of you who have seen the movie Borat will have already been exposed to Fanfare Ciocarlia as they were the band covering “Born To Be Wild”. While the novelty of listening to that played on brass instruments made it fun to listen to, you’ll soon realize how much more there is to this band than this tune. First of all, while it might have seemed like they were playing fast and furious on that rendition, judging by what you hear on this disc the reality is they were only playing at about half their potential speed. Unlike other bands who play flat out, the thing you quickly understand about Fanfare Ciocarlia is they aren’t rushing. No matter what speed they play at each note is distinct and clearly defined so that we feel and hear even the smallest nuances. Unlike their Serbian counterparts whose main weapon is the trumpet, Fanfare are led into battle by their woodwinds, clarinet primarily, which gives them a much more distinctly Eastern European sound. You can easily believe how at one time Romany musicians joined forces with Jewish Klezmer bands when you hear the almost plaintive sound of the clarinet dart like a small bird through the thunder of the brass rhythm section.
While individually each band is a force to be reckoned with, on the four songs where they combine forces you have to wonder how the studio walls stayed standing under the onslaught. It’s not just because of the volume of sound they produce, but because of the intensity of their music. In fact its hard to believe that the CD you’re listening to has managed to capture all that was created during the recording sessions. Listen to the sound of the band member’s voices in between and before the tracks and the joy and excitement they express just from being involved in the process. You’ll quickly become aware of the limitations of even our most sophisticated technology. There’s no way in hell it could have captured what all those voices represent during the recording of the music. We are able to hear the music and a good deal of the passion that has gone into its creation, but we can’t see the smiles on the musicians faces, the laughter in their hearts or the pride in their souls.
If you are lucky enough to be in Europe at some point over the course of the summer of 2011 and you have the opportunity to witness one of the Balkan Brass Battles that will be occurring in cities throughout the continent, don’t pass it up. Judging by what has been captured on this CD it will be a concert experience unlike any you have had before or are likely to have ever again. The rest of us will just have to make do with this recording, and be grateful that it at least exists. For those who have never experienced the uninhibited ferocity of either Fanfare Ciocarlia or the Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra this disc will be a revelation as to what a brass band is capable of producing. Even those who might be familiar with one or other of the two bands will be amazed at how they each push the other to new heights. After listening to Balkan Brass Battle you’ll feel like you’ve never heard brass band music before as everything else will pale in comparison.