In the 1990s, when Yugoslavia descended into the depths of ethnic cleansing and war, it was the final act in a drama whose curtain had risen in the nineteenth century. In the mid to late 1800s, the countries under the control of the Austro Hungarian Empire in Eastern Europe and the Balkans began to agitate for independence.
Nationalist fervour and pride received an outlet in the arts across the region. Today we might not think of Opera or orchestral music as revolutionary, but in the highly charged atmosphere of those times, anything with the whiff of nationalism was seen as provocative. Opera's written in the language of the people with lead characters who were barbers for goodness sake, (Barber Of Seville), or whose plots centred around the nefarious activities of the nobility (The Marriage Of Figarro), were considered nigh on treasonous by the ruling class.
However, it was orchestral music where the nationalist flag was waved the most vigorously. Composers looked to the folk songs and dances of their people for their inspiration. Bela Bartok was probably the most famous for this creating pieces with names like Romanian Folk Dances. The only problem with their choices of music was that in some cases it was actually the work of their age's version of the non-resident aliens, gypsies, or The Roma, not ethnic Hungarians or Romanians.
Ranking below Lepers in social acceptance doesn't seem to have affected the popularity of Roma music. Bartok wasn't the only Eastern European composer who appropriated their music as a symbol of his country. Lesser known names to the West like Aram Khachaturian, Manuel de Falla and Isaac Albeniz all made use of various elements to emphasis their association with the "homeland".
Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later I suppose, but it has fallen to the Romanian Roma band, Taraf de Haidouks, to get a little of their own back. Their latest recording on the Crammed Discs label Maskarada (Masquerade) sees them putting their own indelible stamp to some of those "folk" compositions with breathtaking results.
Those of you who have heard Taraf previously will know they are justifiably famous for being a band that's guaranteed to play with total abandonment. That doesn't mean they play at full speed all of the time, although on occasion it can seem that way. What it does mean is they always surrender them selves to the music completely. There's no way you think that they can wring another iota of passion out of their instruments if they tried.
However, Maskarada sees them transcend all previous performances that I've heard and obtain levels of excellence in music and passion I didn't think possible. On the liner notes, what they've done is referred to as "re-gyspyfied" the music. While that might be technically correct, I think also does Taraf de Haidouks a disservice. This is a reclamation project on par with what's being done by indigenous peoples all over the world in reclaiming what has been stolen from them over the years.
When Taraf De Haidouks plays Bela Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances the wonder is how anybody missed out on not seeing them as the music of the Roma in the first place. (Romania and Roma have nothing in common by the way, as the words come from two separate language groups: Romanian is a Romance language derived from Latin, while it is believed the Roma language is derived from Hindi or Sanskrit. That the Roma ended up in Romania is just one of those weird jokes that the world plays on us periodically.) Of course, that's the point, these pieces weren't played like this before, – they were kept proper and civilized to appeal intellectually to its audience. In other words diametrically apposed to the way they should be played.
When Taraf De Haidouks gets their hands on them they reinvent them as they should have sounded all along. Instead of pretty folk dances that you'd see at some multicultural festival where everyone is clean and in bright costumes, they are played by people who have until recently lived a hand to mouth existence.
They know about real pain and real joy. When they dance, it is to elevate their spirits and leave their cares behind. Underneath the exuberance, there is the breath of sorrow that is their constant companion, but they are going to do their best to escape it, even if it is only for the moment. Let the music slow, just temporarily, and you can hear pain echoing in the sound of the clarinet or the loneliness of a violin.
On one of their songs on the disc, "Suita Maskarada", "Masquerade Suite", the mournful tin whistle that plays through the opening is perhaps the most revealing instrument of the whole recording. It's hard not to hear it and not think of the trials that the Roma people have undergone in the last century alone.
So, if there is a little swagger to the sound of the violins when they attack the Romanian Dance half of Bartok's "Ostinato & Romanian Dance" on the opening track of the disc, can you blame them? After more then a hundred years the masquerade is finally over and they are getting to pull the off the masks that have been disguising their music.
Some of the music will sound different from what you've come to expect from a Taraf De Haidouks recording. That's not surprising as it was written in a style different from what they normally play. But that doesn't stop them from making these songs sound as much their own as the music they have written themselves. Maskarada is a wild, tempestuous, musical ride that will leave you breathless by the end; pretty much normal for Taraf De Haidouks.
(Originally posted September 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.