When the Ottoman Empire invaded Eastern Europe they brought more than just their armies with them. Even today evidence of their occupation can still be found. Muslim communities in Serbia are only the most obvious reminder of their one time rule as traces of their cultural influence can still also be seen in other, more subtle forms, including musical influences. The invading Turkish armies were accompanied by military brass bands, a type of music previously unknown in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. In spite of the general antipathy towards all things Muslim in the region, for some reason this one particular aspect of the culture became part of the region’s musical makeup and today the Guca Trumpet Festival in Serbia is one of the biggest brass festivals in the world.
In the north-eastern region of Romania in a small isolated Romany village, Zece Prajini, population around 80, the tradition of the brass band has continued unchecked since the days of the Ottoman Empire even as it died out across the rest of country. From these humble beginnings the village band, Fanfare Ciocarlia, (translated as Lark’s Song) has stormed onto stages and movie screens around the world. (They are the brass band playing Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” in the move Borat) They have won countless world music awards for their amazing amalgamation of Romany and brass band music. Their fast and furious approach leaves one breathless and reeling, but they’re more than just loud and brassy. They have the innate musical intelligence to be able to adapt their playing to almost any style and genre of music.
This versatility is on full display on the new release from German label Asphalt Tango, Devil’s Tale, a collaboration with Canadian guitarist Adrian Raso. In the past Raso has released albums of music ranging from Gypsy Swing to rockabilly and collaborated with everybody from Sheila E. to Lee Rocker of the Stray Cats, but as far as I know this is the first time he has sat down to record, or play even, with a brass band.
While I was very familiar Fanfare’s previous work, I’d never heard anything by Raso before this disc. However, I did have some understanding of the style of music he plays. For while he’s apparently an incredibly versatile performer, he appears to lean towards the more sophisticated Latin and Gypsy Swing influenced styles of jazz guitar work. Knowing how intricate and subtle those types of music can be, and also knowing how Fanfare’s preferred approach was anything but either of those, I wondered how the heck their two seemingly widely divergent performance styles could meld successfully.
Which just goes to show how much I had underestimated Fanfare Ciocarlia’s musical ability and their capability to adapt. All it takes is hearing the first notes of the disc’s opening track to realize the band has entered into this partnership whole heartedly. Sure all their familiar energy is present, but now they have channeled it into musical nuance instead of blasting us out of our seats. For not only have they found common ground with Raso, but they have moved further afield musically than I would have thought possible.
“Urn St.Tavern”, the disc’s opening track, is a wonderful example of how this union of styles resulted in something completely unexpected. I’m not exactly sure how to describe it, except that it would fit into the sound track of any number of Robert Rodriguez’s more macabre movies. There’s a slightly eerie overtone to Raso’s guitar work which sends shivers up your spine while Fanfare’s horns provide an ominous backdrop against which any sort of weird and creepy activity could take place. Who knows what the patrons of “Urn St.Tavern” get up to when dark comes creeping in over the mountains? Nothing any stranger would want to experience on their own, that much is for sure. (Obviously I wasn’t the only one who made this connection as can be seen on the amazing video for the song)
As the disc progresses the jaw dropping work of both members of the collaborative team continues. The fourth track, “C’est La Vie” is a wonderful example of French/Romany swing music. Not only do Fanfare play with the relaxed assurance required to make this song bop and move with ease and grace, it’s also a chance to hear what makes Raso such a special guitar player. Not only do his fingers fly over the fret board on his leads he manages to impart a kind of emotional joie de vivre into his playing. It’s fast, loose and as full of life as the streets of the Left Bank of Paris where some new excitement is always lurking around the next corner.
The solo exchanges between the guitar and clarinet on this song resonate with not only the sounds of Paris, but Eastern Europe as well. You can hear the echoes of both Romany music and its close relative Klezmar come through as the clarinet swings its plaintive sound in cheerful defiance against the oppressive background that gave birth to both types of music. Simply listening to them perform lifts the heart and the spirit, and makes you appreciate how much music can lift you out of the muck and mire of a hard life.
It’s only fitting the final song on the disc is named “Django” in honour of the great Django Reinhardt, basically the inventor of the jazz style now called Gypsy Swing. However, the song’s title can have a double meaning as the word Django translates from the Romany as “I awake”. While Raso’s guitar playing on this song harkens back to Reinhardt’s style of jazz, the counterpoint provided by the brass is like a wake up call. While they’re playing many of the same motifs Raso plays on his guitar, they put an extra punch into them which makes them leap out of your speakers. While some times jazz guitar can fade into the background if you don’t pay careful attention, Fanfare’s horns keep you awake and aware all the time. Whether they are providing the bass underpinning to the guitar leads with tubas and baritones, or snapping out leads on trumpets, they make sure our feet are always awake and moving to the music.
At first sight it would appear a brass band from a remote village in North Eastern Romania would have little in common with a guitar player from a small city in South Western Ontario, Canada. However, Adrian Raso from Guelph Ontario and Fanfare Ciocarlia from Zece Prajini have proven with their release, Devil’s Tale, music knows no geographic, or any other, types of boundaries. Music is a universal language might sound like a cliche, but in the case of these two musical forces, not only was it literally true as neither spoke the other’s tongue, but artistically as well. Each listened and heard what the other had to say and then responded in kind with results that are as spectacular as they are fun. On their own both Fanfare Ciocarlia and Adrian Raso are musicians to be reckoned with, together they are musical synergy of perfect storm proportions. Stand in the whirlwind and be swept off your feet by the result – you’ll feel like you’re finally awake.
Devil’s Tale is available on CD and for download, here.