Gypsies are one of music’s great cross-pollinators.
Since beginning their migration from the Indian subcontinent over a thousand years ago, the Romani people have adopted and helped spread the music of each country through which they passed. Defining “Gypsy music” is an anachronism because it’s forever changing, forever adapting to its surroundings. All the same, there’s something more than a little unexpected about the latest album by one of the genre’s best-loved practitioners, Taraf de Haidouks.
“Maskarada,” released in Japan last month, finds the 12-piece band ditching their wedding party settings typical of their earlier work and moving into the conservatory. Yes, the Haidouks have gone classical. Not just any old classical, mind you: over the album’s 14 tracks, the band tackle works by composers who were themselves influenced by European folk and Gypsy music, including Bela Bartok, Aram Khachaturian and Manuel de Falla.
Orchestral pieces are retooled for Taraf’s lineup of flute, guitar, violins, accordions, double bass and cymballum (a kind of hammered dulcimer). It wasn’t easy. Unable to read music, the group had to learn the pieces by ear — a tortuous process that required the help of musical coaches and took more than two years.
“None of them thought they would be able to master classical music,” Stephane Karo, the band’s manager and musical director, tells The Japan Times by e-mail from Brussels. “But the moment we started a Bartok piece and realized it was actually quite familiar, everyone got into the swing of things.”
Karo understands these musicians better than anyone: he has been working with them since 1989, when an encounter with a CD compilation of Romanian Gypsy music sent him on a quest to the remote village of Clejani, near the Bulgarian border.
There, he found a community of some 200 professional musicians, from whose number Taraf de Haidouks was formed. (Their name roughly translates as “Band of Honorable Brigands” — a haidouk being a Robin Hood-esque character in Romanian folklore.) Since the release of their first album, 1991′s “Musique des Tziganes de Roumanie,” the band have scored widespread acclaim, embarking on numerous international tours and picking up endorsements from the likes of Johnny Depp. They also lost some key members — notably violinist and de facto leader Nicolae Neacsu, who passed away in 2002 — and today find themselves in an increasingly crowded market catering to fans of Gypsy and, more broadly, world music.
Karo admits that, prior to “Maskarada,” Taraf had reached a creative impasse.
“We’ve seen a proliferation of Gypsy bands — both real and fake — and the whole culture has become quite fashionable,” he says. “Given all that, we didn’t want to make another album focused on the region that most of the band’s members are from. We wanted to try another concept, and one of the most logical was to reclaim from classical music the pieces that had been borrowed from the traditional [Gypsy] repertoire.”
Those doubting the wisdom of Taraf’s latest venture should find their fears allayed by their rendering of Bartok’s “Ostinato + Romanian Dance,” which opens the album. It’s a spirited rendition, though it’s overshadowed by original compositions that capture the band in all their anarchic, fleet-footed glory. Not every one was satisfied. When “Maskarada” was released to mixed reviews in the U.K. this year, a few critics even suggested that the Haidouks should stick to what they do best.
It’s a charge that Karo predictably rejects: “There are always people who’ll tell you that what you’re doing is fine, and that you don’t need to change. Then there are others who argue that you can’t do anything different, that you have to preserve tradition. But Gypsy music isn’t a museum piece. Everything changes, especially music in Romania: it used to change every generation, but now it’s more like every day.
“Besides,” he adds, “Gypsy ensembles have been adopting and reinventing so-called ‘serious’ music throughout history.”
Taraf de Haidouks perform Sept. 24, 6 p.m. at The Phoenix Hall in Osaka (¥5,500) and Sept. 26, 7 p.m. at Shibuya O-East (¥5,500). They will also appear at Kyoto Ongaku Hakurankai festival on Sept. 23, 12.30 p.m. (¥6,800,  996-611, kyotoonpaku.net) with Cocco, Quruli and more. For more information call (03) 3498-2881 or visit www.plankton.co.jp.