Once they lived in a northern province of India, but something or somebody set their feet upon the road west. From India they followed the trade routes that brought them to the Middle East and Egypt where some stopped and began a life there. Others continued on into Asia where they circumvented the Black Sea and crossed over to Turkey and Istanbul.
Following the Danube River the people dispersed out through Europe, from Bulgaria to as far away as Ireland. The Romany, gypsies, travellers, tinkers, and Roma are the names we now know them by, and a great many of them still keep to the ways of their ancestors. While modern countries, visas, and passports have curtailed a great deal of their wandering other aspects of their lives have remained unchanged in the thousand or so years that they've lived among the "unclean."
Due to their taboos of what is considered unclean they still live apart from the non-gypsy community as they always have. Like their fellow second-class citizens of Eastern Europe, the Jews, their tendency to isolation has caused resentment and anger among the non-gypsies who they live among. Even now in countries throughout Europe they are still treated with derision and suspicion.
But since the fall of communism in the East the gap between the Roma and European culture has started to be bridged via the music that is the Roma's main means of artistic expression. Even as early as the 19th century Hungarian composers Franz Lizt and Bella Bartok were incorporating their music into orchestral pieces. Now it's the people who carry on the traditions of their nation who are playing the music for audiences around the world.
Fanfare Ciocarlia from Romania, are one of the foremost proponents of gypsy brass band music and are playing a large role in bringing the music of the Roma into the public eye. Their latest release on Asphalt Tango Records, Kings and Queens, is a perfect example of the work they are doing. Aside from their own prodigious talents they have gathered together other musicians from around Europe to join them in celebrating the music of Roma to be listened to by audiences around the world.
Initially the musicians of Fanfare Ciocarlia had come into contact with all the performers on the disc during an earlier tour of the United States and Europe called Gypsy Caravan. In 2006 the founder of the band Ioan Ivancea passed on and though the band vowed to continue without him they wanted to do something to commemorate his life. So they gathered together the friends they had met on the Gypsy Caravan tour to record the many flavours of Gypsy music.
The name of the disc Kings and Queens was to honour his memory, but was also more then just idle boasting when you consider some of the people who perform on the disc. Macedonian Esma Redzepova was crowned Queen of the Gypsies by Indira Gandhi and has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But even those who have not been given title by anybody are also considered royalty among the musical brethren and sistern of the Gypsy world.
From France came the Flamenco guitar sounds of Gitans Kaloome and somehow they are blended into the brass band sound of Fanfare without any problem. Strummed strings and voices soar in amongst the trumpets, clarinet, saxophone, and tuba to create tangos like you've never heard before.
Aside from turbaned Esma's magnificent voice singing two marvellous songs, the women vocalists on this disc represent three generations of singers and music. Ljiljana Butler (ne Petrovic) was born in Bosina in the early 1940's but fled to Germany during the civil wars and violence following the death of Tito. Her deep, almost masculine, voice is amazing for its strength and passion. From Hungary comes Mitsou whose use of modern technology and rap rhythms somehow some how works with tuba and sousaphone providing the beats. Florentina Sandu is the granddaughter of Nicolae Neacsu the founder of the Romania's other great gypsy band Taraf De Haidouks, and her singing shows the music gene still flourishes in her generation.
Of course male singers are equally represented across the generations and the continent. Serbian Saban Bajramovic was another survivor of post Tito Yugoslavia who made a name for himself as a singer songwriter during Tito's rule and continues to sing with soul and passion to this day. Romanian Dan Armeanca wasn't as fortunate as it wasn't until after the fall of communism he was able to achieve popular acclaim. He still shuns publicity, which is a shame because his voice is wonderful and has the majesty one expects from an elder statesman of the Roma. Representing the younger generation is Jony Iliev from Bulgaria who began singing in his family's band when he was thirteen. He sings a wonderfully funny and sexy song about his love for a black woman.
But the stars of the show are without a doubt Fanfare Ciocarlia themselves. They play with wild abandon and exuberance that lends credence to their claim of being the fastest band on earth. But in spite of their speed they never sound as though they are rushing through a song. Every note is played with precision and focus so that the sound is crystal clear.
Listening to them you can hear echoes of every type of music that's ever come out of Eastern Europe and the Balkans; Klezmar, Polkas and the sounds of every folk music you've ever heard from that part of the world shows its face in their music. For all of their traditionalism though they are not afraid of the new and the different. When the producers of an American movie were looking for somebody to perform "Born To Be Wild" like's it never been done before it was Fanfare Ciocarlia they turned to.
Believe me when I tell you there is no more apt song to close this disc than their cover of that seminal Steppenwolf classic. Once you hear their version you'll be a fan for life and quickly forget that it was ever done another way. Just like nothing can prepare you for their version of "Born To Be Wild," and nothing you've ever heard can be compared to it, nothing can prepare you for the experience that is Fanfare Ciocarlia and nothing compares to them. Once you've heard them you will never forget them, and will wish that there was at least just one more song on the disc.