What’s the situation with traditional Roma music in the Balkans today?
We’re noticing a better critical reevaluation of traditional music in the Balkans, also in connection to rising nationalism.
How is this expressed in Romania?
First of all when we are talking about Gypsy music, there has been a rise in the number of gigs at weddings, celebrations, festivals, national festivals, where national music as well as Gypsy bands are in demand, which didn’t exist fifteen, twenty years ago. That above all. And then over the course of time, a local music industry has established itself, which is profiling itself through streaming, like Youtube. And they are permanently producing. There are a bunch of small studios which are producing bands, songs, singles. If it’s good stuff, is another question.
Sounds good, or?
Yes, with regards to the cultivating of a musical culture, bands, musicians. Musically, from my point of view, it’s totally uninteresting.
Why is that?
It’s a music industry. And they are following tried and true models. It’s not as though you can say, Wow, exciting things are happening! It’s a music business. It’s flourishing. It’s nice if you are a guest at a wedding and you can enjoy your bottle of schnapps. But from a musical view, artistic view nothing interesting is happening on the East European markets.
One had the feeling that this brass music from Romania, be it Fanfare Ciocarlia or Mahala Rai Banda, or the music of Taraf de Haiduk, was a creation of Western record labels. It wasn’t what was currently being played on the weddings, rather what Western audiences wanted to hear. But was this something in fact organic, or was it put together by outsiders like you guys?
No, it was above all organic. I think this is mainly a false perception on the part of some people. It was organic in the sense – I can speak only speak for Fanfare Ciocarlia, but this applies just as well to Taraf de Haiduk – there is a village which consists of musicians. Some say eighty years. Others say, no, it must be 120 years. In any case in Zece Prajini there were musicians. Only the devil knows when they started. Word spread around in the neighboring villages – it started, say eighty years ago – the father said to the son, You’ll learn clarinet, tuba, whatever. And suddenly you had a village of musicians. There was never a band, rather there was a group of ,say, eighty male musicians. Then came the farmer from neighboring village X. He had a connection in Zece Prajini, and said I have a daughter who is getting married in three months. I have the budget. I want fifteen men to play at the wedding. And then Ion goes through the village and says, Paul, are you in? Gregor, will you play? And so a brass band was put together for a wedding that would last three days. This brass band didn’t have a name, rather it was called Fanfare from Zece Prajini. Just like in there was Taraf from village X. And these bands split up after the weddings, and then three hours later reassembled because farmer Y from another village went to another musician to get together his own people.
So, this culture, this phenomenon, the foundation exists in the village. There are amazingly talented musicians, amazingly well-trained musicians, who have played at every wedding, and that’s why they are so musically strong. And there are the middle of the road figures and the peripheral figures.
When I visited the village in ’96 and was confronted by the music and experienced my shock and surprise, and said to myself, Wow! What is this?! The kind of brass music I am familiar with is something completely different. This is crazy! – it was a constellation of 25 people. Young children up until old codgers. And they played, and it was just grand! It was phenomenal.
In the beginning I just wanted to stay half a day, a couple hours. I ended up staying there three months. And in the time being from all the interested musicians, a hard core materialized, who came every day. And in the end, after these three months, as a natural course, the core of Fanfare Ciocarlia was formed. They just liked it and thought it was cool that someone was interested, who said, okay, I’ve got everything you’ve played so far; are there other titles? And they looked into it, and it was fun. And then we had the idea that Germany, Europe had to hear these twelve people. And then we came up with a name. If we go on tour what do we call ourselves? Fanfare Zece Prajini was a bit complicated. And then at some point we came up with the name. And the same was true with Taraf de Haiduk. And then: you’ve got a name, you are twelve people, would you like to go on tour? Yes, we want to do it. And the repertoire, as a brass band – but this also holds true with Taraf – was wedding music. They were wedding musicians. That’s their reason for being. They aren’t artists who suddenly decide, I’m going to be an artist and I’m going to embark on a career, and I have the feeling I can market myself real well, and I have the feeling I have to express myself. Not at all. There is talent backed up by training and a family, who pushes it, stands behind it, and says: hey, this is how you will earn your money; do it. That’s how children grow up. They start when they are four. And when they are sixteen they start playing at weddings, and this is how they earn their money. And this is the philosophy of life.
At the weddings they have to play everything. There is the standard set – traditional Romanian music, with a local focus, say, in Moldavia , what is normally played there, horos and so forth. There is a ceremony which they go through, the procession through the village, the bride is fetched, the groom is accompanied. These are rituals which have a musical foundation and have a long, long history. Then they play at night when the invited guests, paid for by the bride and the groom, get a band. It was again a brass band. And the wilder the night the more ad hoc requests are made. Give me this song, that song. And you have to know, a brass band has no other function than an event DJ, who shows up with huge packs of records and has to be prepared for all sorts of characters. There’s the farmer who wants his dances. There is the farmer whose children live in the town and watch TV, and Dallas is popular at the moment, and then suddenly the drunken groom who demands, “play Dallas for me”. And if you can’t do it then you have problems as a Gypsy band. Nights, everyone is pretty drunk and everything is pretty raucous. Therefore a Gypsy musician, who is trained, will go to the ends of the earth to learn what is en vogue. If Michael Jackson came out with a hit, then you can bet that three weeks later it’s going to be played in these musician villages. Because they know that at the next wedding the mayor is going to come and say, play for my daughter this song. And if you can’t play it then you might risk a fight. So there is always one or two who say: ten minutes, boss? No problem. Coming right up. Someone does the harmony. Another does the melody. The one takes the one part, the other the other. And it’s quickly improvised. And perfectly. And that’s why Fanfare was highly esteemed among wedding organizers. You give them a song – they have never heard the song before – and after an hour – they hear the song five times, the sixth time they begin to whistle the tune, the tenth time they know how it works harmonically, and the twentieth time they are making their own arrangement out of it. And by the thirtieth time you’ve got a song where you think, wow, they’ve been playing this song their whole lives. That’s the way it goes. That, is Gypsy culture. Soak it up like a sponge, react very quickly, of course with their own improvised touch, which makes a real impression on the listener. So we say, musical culture created by the Gypsies is always a service industry. They offer up a huge treasure which is highly esteemed.
And so, you can’t diminish it’s importance by saying the music is somehow forced upon them. It’s all about, what is cool, what can you play? I would have never known – the first Western hit which I became acquainted with through Fanfare was One-Way Ticket To The Sky. I said to myself, Hey?! What is this? I was like, Where do you know this from? That was at a wedding. And then they started to play Dynasty or Michael Jackson. And they said, We have to play that. Of course, we can play everything. We listen to the radio. We watch MTV. We have to be prepared. We also listen to our colleagues, when they tell us what they played at their last wedding. And that’s the definition of this music. So one should stop comparing it with bands who show up and say Music is my vocation and I have to express myself or else I’ll explode, and voila, suddenly they are successful. These guys deliver the soundtrack of day-to-day life. And this recipe is valid for all of the Balkans.
And what you said about the weddings, that’s still true today?
It’s true once again. Twenty years ago when Fanfare Ciocarlia went on their first tour, the business was totally down. Then it was about throwing away everything that had to do with communism, that was old. The borders are open, we want to hear the West. With regards to the local music business, what was hip? There was a keyboard and it could play an entire orchestra. For the farmers this was amazing. From a financial perspective: I’ll hire him; he plays as though there’s twenty people playing – and much nicer. And in addition he is bringing this amazing technological gizmo which is going to wow all my guests. The wedding is always a chance for the wedding giver to profile himself: I’ll show them what I have. I’ll show them what I have to invest. I’ll show them what my daughter is worth. The keyboard was the absolute hit. It was as if you showed up in a Porsche. People were like: wow. Then it was ramped up a bit, and they stuck a trumpet in there, vocals, a saxophone. Then you had small bands, with three four band members. Little orchestras. But brass music bands were out! A, it was expensive, and B, it was no longer en vogue. It wasn’t in line with the Romanian zeitgeist, the opening of the borders.
Now, in keeping with this new trend of casting an eye on the past, and as a result of what has been accomplished in twenty years – the echoes of success – there is a move to revive brass. They say, Wow, they are paying to listen to this in America. It’s back in fashion. It’s more and more back in demand. If Romania has an export hit then it’s Fanfare Ciocarlia. And after that comes Taraf de Haiduk. And as I said, the echoes come back to Romania, where the people say, Wow, here they are in Hong Kong and next they are in Australia. Crazy. And of course this influenced the local music market. It took a long time. I thought it would take three years and then the country would be filled with brass music orchestras. In fact there was a time when brass music orchestras started shooting up like mushrooms all across the country. All of them small Fanfare Ciocarlias. But they quickly saw that it wasn’t remunerative. So they stopped. Now, in the last two years, there is in fact a revival in the wedding business.
Maybe it was the same thing in Serbia with the music of Goran Bregović. Suddenly people is Serbia said to themselves, “if this is so popular in the West, then there must be something to it”.
And then you’ve got even here in Berlin this band Fanfare Kalashnikov, which is a sort of small wannabe Fanfare Ciocarlia band.
Yes. And of course every Romanian brass band copies Fanfare Ciocarlia to the T, because the source of inspiration is extremely limited. It’a Romanian custom: one copies, copies, copies.
Does Fanfare Ciocarlia still play weddings?
They still play weddings. Definitely. It’s just a question of whether they play as Fanfare Ciocarlia, as a unit, or when there are breaks in the tour, in smaller formations.
But the fee must be quite high.
No. It varies totally. It’s a range from three to ten. There could be a musician who says, I’m game, I’m bored, let’s do it for a hundred euro. Sometimes, when there are five other bands, then it’s about five hundred euro per person. It’s totally flexible. A farmer wedding pays differently than a yuppie business wedding in Bucharest.
Taraf de Haiduk is known for being a personal favorite of Johnny Depp, and has played at his parties on occasion. Does Fanfare Ciocarlia sometimes play for celebrities?
There are many. The only thing is, does one need to show off these credentials? There are many. From royalty to actors. But this isn’t my world. It’s not important to me. Fanfare fortunately has a name. They stand for themselves.
The last thing relating to Fanfare Ciocarlia that I was up on was their Brass Band Battle with Boban Marković Orkestra. There was a concert here in Neue Welt, in Neukölln. Since then what has the band been up to?
Nothing extraordinary. Fanfare has been touring constantly for twenty years. They are old tour warriors who live from their one hundred, one hundred-and-twenty concerts a year worldwide. And then there was a new record and collaboration. What happened since Brass Battle? They were invited by Adrian Raso, a Canadian guitarist, to play on a record.
How would you describe Adrian Raso?
He’s a cool guy, very funny, and a wonderful exponent of the American – North American – music industry. The country is full of ingenious musicians, where you think, they have to be superstars. But no, they are just totally normal. Doesn’t matter to them what kind of big name you have. There are two systems: either you made it in the music industry and have a mafia godfather who takes on the business end of it. Then you’re top and you earn your million dollars. Or you play for your ticket and your soup, and in the best case you get your bed paid for. And you’re just as good. And Adrian is a musician, who is extremely multi-faceted and has amazing finger work, and his focus is on Gypsy swing music. That gives him his kick, and he plays with a lot of musicians, produces records and for one of his records he wanted to have is absolute favorite band, Fanfare Ciocarlia, for one song, knowing full well that nothing would come of it, because those guys are kings, and they would never answer.
But since we as a rule answer everything that is worthwhile, and since the demo songs were so interesting and sounded as though they were tailor made for Fanfare, and also reflected the band’s wish for a bit of variation, and not just this oompah-oompah, and faster, and still faster, and went in a totally different direction – so we said, hey, Adrian, great, thanks, sounds fantastic, the band is interested. And from the two or three songs that one had in mind, we had a substantial pool of songs, and so we said, let’s make twelve demo songs. And we sent it on over to Adrian for him to choose which songs he wanted, which arrangements he was interested in. And he was, of course, totally blown away, cool, were you in the studio? No, we weren’t in the studio; we did a home recording. And then with that, we took the next step and said, hey let’s produce a record together. You like us. We like you. And he said, Okay, come over to Canada, to Montreal and we’ll play. We did it and then it was clear, this is a record which we wanted to put out on our label. And then we wanted to tour together.
I heard it. To be honest, it wasn’t my cup of tea, actually. But I heard a bit of the last CD, clips of it, and I’m really enthusiastic about the latest project. Can you tell me about the direction of this latest one?
The latest CD is a realization of the band – we said, Okay, we’ve done Queens and Kings. That was a CD only with guests. Then we did the Battle, which was also a collaboration with Boban Marković. And then we jumped right into the next project, Devil’s Tale. And then we wanted to make our own CD. The question was do we do it now, do we do it later? And because the anniversary, twenty years Fanfare Ciocarlia was approaching, the band said if we are going to make a party and put on shows, twenty years Fanfare Ciocarlia, why not make a CD? So we decided, give us the repertoire list, let’s see what you collected in the intervening years, and then the idea crystallized, let’s make an album reflecting twenty years on the road. And these fourteen songs came out of it, which represents a total cross section, beginning with songs from when the band began, through Latin America, film music, cover versions…And the band really made a celebration out of it.
I couldn’t make out much from the clips, but I saw they did a version of a Zdob si Zdub song, Bunica bate toba.
That was hit that Zdob si Zdub had. And Zdob si Zdub are great friends of Fanfare. There were some collaborations in the past. And because some years ago Zdob si Zdub did cover version of Fanfare’s Mista Lobaloba, this was the quasi-fair deal; we’ll take a song from you guys to celebrate you guys and interpret you in our own way.
Can you tell me another story about a song from this new CD?
Stories….for example, the opener….In general the band said, we know Koby Israelite, someone on our label, who the band knows from our tours through Europe – we have a hundred CDs in the van, and we spend out time checking everything out. There are the CDs which we’ve played a hundred times including releases by Koby Israelite, because they always found that totally crazy and cool, and they always had the vision how to interpret that in their style. So pretty soon it was clear there was a favorite CD list, which we listened to on every tour. It was about songwriting, etc. etc. and then they got it into their heads, why not do a song by Koby Israelite? We had the connection to him and he was honored.
Where’s he from?
He’s an Israeli, who has been living I don’t know for how many years in London. A film composer, a rock musician, jazz musician. Totally chaotic, but very interesting stuff, which he produces every which way. We made the request to Koby, and he was totally enthusiastic, couldn’t believe it. You want me to write something? And we were like: Are you up to it? And he wanted to, and six songs came about which Fanfare reworked and re-interpreted. For example Crayfish Hora, the first song, which has a vocal element – because people love it when the band imitates what people play on their own instruments during rehearsals – they never take instruments into their hands when they want to explain a phrase or a melody line; everything is conveyed by mouth: Teke-teke-tek, teke-teke-tek. Of course, it’s totally funny because it sounds funny. It sounds totally offhand and casual. And out of this came Crayfish Hora. At first they played it all on instruments, and then they thought, no, we should make a stab at it vocally.
So, there are six songs from Koby Israelite. There is the cover version of Bunica bate toba, a reminiscence of Zdob si Zdub, the heroes of the Republic of Moldova. Then there was the song which stood for years on the request list, I put a spell on you by Screaming Jay Hawkins, which was finally implemented thanks to the input of a Gypsy friend, who knows the band and generally just plays blues, who laid on the trump card on the table, and said Julian, this is your day; this is your take; what do you think? And he said, Cool! Amazing! Crazy! Of course I want it. He jumped in.
There are new generation musicians. The clarinet player – an example of how Fanfare Ciocarlia renews itself with time and evolves. He is a son, seventeen years old, goes to the university, plays clarinet, an unbelievable talent, who was brought into the production of this CD.
There is a song that we recorded in Medellin in Columbia, which became a Columbian hit with a Balkan theme.
In the time being Balkan music has become big in South America.
The band is known in South America. There were a couple of successful tours. And a seven, eight country tour is in the works.
In the time being do some band members speak English?
Everyone can make themselves understood in English, whereby there is really only one band member who is good for conversation, while all the others can make themselves understood and that’s about it.
The band played already some time ago in Japan.
Fanfare started to play in Japan already in 2000.
Back then Balkan music was sort of an unknown quantity for the Japanese.
The person we were working with was a woman, who brought a lot of unknown styles to Japan. That continued so that we’ve been seven or eight times in Japan.
I’ve spoken with Robert Soko and he has a monthly gig in Japan. He says the Japanese are finally getting into Balkan music.
It’s finally getting play there. As of three or four years.
And now about the label, Asphalt Tango, what else is new with you guys?
In addition to Onwards to Mars, we are presenting a pretty off-beat act, from Sweden.
Sweden of all places.
Exactly, Sweden. Robi Svärd.
Does that fit into the concept?
That’s the question. Do we have a concept? Or do we get a concept imposed upon us by people from the outside, who maintain Asphalt Tango can only sound like this, or can only put out that. He plays flamenco, and that amazingly well. And we were really impressed by the quality of his interpretation, and then to think it’s from someone from Scandinavia, where it’s cold. Someone who renown musicians from Seville give accolades to and well-respected Spanish musicians said to him, Hey Robi, get over here into the studio in Seville, where they realized the CD. It’s amazing. Spanish flamenco musicians are renown for their hermeticism. No strangers can get in there. Non Spaniards very difficult, and then someone from Sweden. Sounds totally crazy.
Is he known in Sweden?
No. It’s also a story like Adrian Raso. Talented people who appear often on stage, but ultimately are not well known. Totally unknown, and also a nice adventure for the label Asphalt Tango in, which in these chaotic times of media technology when label structures are falling by the wayside, has a chance to put out new, unknown stuff.
And with Kal in Serbia – did you have a dispute with Dragan Ristić?
Not at all. Dragan is a wonderful person.
But you decided not take him on in his newest project.
There was no new activity.
Another label put out his last CD.
We weren’t impressed by the CD, and so we didn’t do anything with it. We said, Look Dragan, we don’t want to put it out because it’s a repetition of what is already on the market. It was nothing where the style was further developed. And Kal has a style that is already rather repetitive. If you’ve heard the two albums you know that there are many songs that have a similar style. And then because there was really nothing new, it wouldn’t have been to the benefit of the artist and the label, so we said, Look, not this time round. But there was no dispute. Dragan understood. Clearly, as with every artist it took a while for the rejection to sink in.
If you look at what is being produced today in the West from the Balkans, you have the feeling that it become quieter. That there aren’t as many artists as in the past. I don’t think that’s the case, however. But why is it that knew artists aren’t being pushed?
It’s a very complex question. In the end everything is owing to the financial disaster of the music industry. And that is connected to rapidly sinking sales. The one consolation is there is no difference between major and independent labels. It is affecting everyone the same way. The one thing that connects us is, it’s sinking, sinking, sinking. Everything is focused on streaming. And streaming, in the world music scene just as in the pop industry means giving away something for nothing. It’s all reduced to simple math. And if I don’t have a grandmother who gives me two million euro than it’s difficult. And it’s a reflection on the times. When you jump back ten, fifteen years ago, with the money you had you could give three or four bands money to help start up. Some have disappeared. Some have stayed. That’s what doesn’t exist anymore.
What happened to La Cherga, for example?
La Cherga split up. A normal band story. Rock bands, pop bands, Balkan bands are around. And then there are the hardliners who push through and have success. And then there are those, who after five years, ten years and then come to the realization: Shit, you want to make it in the music industry? Better think twice if it’s not better to become a taxi driver. Because it’s safer, more relaxed and in the end you earn the same money.
If you have a look at youtube you see so many wedding bands from the Balkans, guys who have been around or who have just started up. And I think a lot of the stuff is suitable for western ears. But why isn’t there any interest in the West for this kind of music? Why can’t they play in a venue in the West?
That there are thousands of talented wedding bands in the Balkans, that’s an uncontested fact. Thousands. It’s a self evident fact: when a band plays a lot at weddings then they are by their very nature good. And that’s why people want them, and that’s why they appear in the various media. If that inevitably means that they would be good one stage is another thing. You appear at a wedding in Bosnia, it’s cool…
I mean, so many musicians got their start as wedding musicians. Fanfara Ciocarlia and even Tarkan got his start as a wedding singer.
Yes, but if you are honest – is it really so many artists? Or are they rather pearls which were discovered. Of course, a lot of pearls weren’t discovered. That’s how it is. But is it really so many, where you think, Wow, you could write a list. In the end it’s five, six. How many are there still? One. It’s always the question: does one need this as a concert. Or is it the ultimate party band that I need for my birthday or baptism? But a concert? It’s another medium. Or will people buy it and listen to it at home? Not really. I wouldn’t buy it. I wouldn’t listen to wedding music at home.
But let’s concentrate on this tallava sound. When you go to Balkan parties – I go now and then — it isn’t present. You have brass, you have many elements of Balkan music. But not that. And I have to ask myself why?
That’s true. A lot of genre elements from East Europe don’t appear in the western market. Balkan brass was for Fanfare Ciocarlia about being a the right place at the right time. It also had something to do with the success of the Kusterica films. And at the same time the soundtracks of Bregović came out. There is no question about it. At the right time there was a brass band and the people were educated. And then on the side we agency freaks tried to establish other styles on the market. No one was interested. As you said: tallava or romances. No one is interested. People have their stereotype in their ear. In the end you just have to accept that’s the way it is. And if you have a mission, than keep on with your own mission, but don’t expect that you will have success at it. But if you look at rock and pop it’s going to sound for five years like artist x, y, and z. There are so many things on the side, but no one is interested.
There are western acts who make use of this sound. Antwerp Gypsyska orchestra has a Gypsy keyboard player who makes use of this style. And there’s a band from Paris, Opsa that strives after this cheaply produced keyboard aesthetic. But knowingly.
Sure, there are people. It’s only the question, when do you start talking about them. As long as they are underground and making their tunes the visibility is meager. But there’s no one jumping out on the next level.
Shantel is someone who, when he does something, people tend to take note. He said that after Balkan, Oriental will be the new trend.
Two years ago he also said Balkan is out and he hates the Balkans, so he’s not someone you have to take so seriously.
But what do you think of this idea, that out of the Balkans something Oriental will crystallize?
I don’t know. Sounds about constructed in connection with political circumstances. I’m not a preacher. We do. We don’t talk. We do. We don’t analyze what will be in the near future hip, and then we do that. Doesn’t interest us. That’s not our reason for being, to perfect our chosen vocation with the brutal view toward short term marketing. People who are open and cool will find us.