Keepers of the flame take Gypsy sounds to the world

by Paul Fisher

Under Soviet communism, the ethnic and folk music of Eastern Europe was often hijacked as a form of propaganda. Words were changed to express patriotic sentiments and slogans of peace. In Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, the country’s dictator for 25 years, would bus out thousands of peasants to sing such sentiments in picturesque hills to be filmed and shown on television every Sunday.

Fanfare Ciocarlia

After filming, musicians would simply go back to their villages and carry on with the real music. Years of isolation meant traditions survived intact, virtually unchanged for hundreds of years. Since the collapse of communism, the traditional groups are still mostly flourishing, but are coming under increasing threat from more Western and mobile bands.

One such secluded village in the east of Romania is Zece Parjini (meaning 10 fields), home to 400 people. Close to the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, the tradition here is of brass bands, who mostly perform at weddings and other celebrations. The tradition derives from the Hapsburg and Turkish military brass bands, an influence that spread right across the Balkans. Upholding the tradition in Zece Parjini, almost single-handedly in the Moldova region, is a group of 12 Romany Gypsy musicians, who compose the Fanfare Ciocarlia brass ensemble.

This band of all ages (20s to 70s) plays their clarinets, trumpets, tuba, saxophones, tenor and baritone horns at a breathtaking pace, accompanied by a large drum and percussion. Various melodies and dances are known as geamparale, sirba, hora and ruseasca, which are rapidly expressed in short bursts of mostly two- or three-minute tunes. Occasionally the pace breaks for a doina, a slow, semi-improvised song, with lyrics of grief and separation, and the closest thing Romania has to the blues.

On their latest album, “Baro Biao,” the group has expanded its repertoire to include dance tunes from Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia. Some tunes have a klezmer feel, not surprising as it was partly Romanian-Jewish immigrants in the U.S. who helped to revive the music. More surprising is the Latin-tinged “Casablanca,” but Fanfare Ciocarlia is intent on expanding the tradition.

Back home the group sometimes performs for 30 hours nonstop. The concerts here will therefore be no more than a warmup stroll for this highly energetic group of musicians, who will be bringing two dancers with them as well. Be forewarned though — it can be an exhausting experience for your ears and feet just to keep pace with their frenetic music.

Fanfare Ciocarlia in Tokyo, 7 p.m. Aug. 22 at Kameari Lilio Hall, for information and tickets call Lilio Hall at (03) 5680-3333; 7 p.m. Aug. 23 at Ginza Oji Hall; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 25-26 at Shibuya Club Asia. Tickets 5,500 yen in advance, 6,000 yen at the door (including one drink). For more information call Plankton at (03) 3498-2881.

In Kyoto, 7 p.m. Aug. 28 at Taku Taku. Tickets 5,000 yen in advance, 5,500 yen at the door (including one drink) from Ticket Pia. For information call Taku Taku at (075) 351-1321.

The rising popularity of Gypsy music in Japan this year has been both welcome and surprising. After witnessing a blistering Fanfare Ciocarlia show in France three years ago and trying to drum up some interest in them here, I was told by promoters and record companies that there was no market for Gypsy music.

What seems to have changed things, and paved the way for successful releases by Fanfare Ciocarlia and the Taraf de Haidouks (who played here earlier in the year), has been the cult popularity of various films featuring East European Gypsy music, perhaps most notably “Underground,” directed by Emir Kusturica and originally released in 1995.

“Underground” features a Gypsy brass band, most famously in the opening chase scene through the streets of Belgrade, but also throughout the film. Although the group in the film are actors, fans of the film might be pleased to know the music is that of Fanfare Ciocarlia.

Several films will be shown Aug. 25-27 at an event called “Gypsy on Cinema,” in connection with the Fanfare Ciocarlia concerts. All the films, which feature music and are subtitled in Japanese, will be shown at Shibuya Club Asia.

The schedule is as follows:

12 p.m. Aug. 25, “The Gypsy Camp Vanishes Into the Blue” (in Russian); 2 p.m., “Taraf de Haidouks,” video plus talk session (in Japanese), followed by the Fanfare Ciocarlia concert.

12 p.m. Aug. 26, “Latcho Drom” (in French/Romany, mostly music); 2 p.m., “Chat Noir, Chat Blanc” (in Romany/Serbo-Croation), followed by the Fanfare Ciocarlia concert.

12:30 p.m. Aug. 27, “The Gypsy Camp Vanishes Into the Blue”; 2:30 p.m., “Gadjo Dilo” (in French); 4:30 p.m., “Chat Noir, Chat Blanc”; and 7 p.m., “Latcho Drom,” plus “Gypsy Festival,” a talk-and-dance session.

Tickets for each film are 1,200 yen, or a concert-and-film set (one of each on any date) is available for 6,000 yen. Call Plankton, (03) 3498-2881, for tickets. For film information call Moviola at (03) 5366-1545.