At the age of 77, violinist, singer and storyteller Nicolae Neac_u is a living encyclopedia of Romany and Romanian folklore. He is also one of the leaders of the Romanian Gypsy band called Taraf de Haidouks. The pair of albums the "Haidouks" have recorded for the Belgian label Crammed Discs have brought Neac_u and his band international fame. This unexpected interest in his music came just in time. Seven years ago Neac_u was living alone in a one-room turf house in the village of Clejani. Having long since put his fiddle aside, he watched the spring thaw and waited to die.
That same spring Stéphane Karo, a Hungarian musician living in Brussels, and Michael Winter, an Israeli of Hungarian origin, visited a CD rental shop in Brussels, looking for material for their own group, which mainly played classical Arabic music. As Winter recalls: "We found a CD by a Gypsy group from Romania - ballads. Since Stéphane was going away on vacation, he wanted to try and find people who still played this kind of music. It was the last year of Ceau_escu's dictatorship, and an atmosphere of paranoia prevailed in Romania. When he told people he wanted to go to a Romany village, they warned him that it was too dangerous. But he kept on till he got his way."
Karo arrived in Clejani and met Neac_u, who was surprised that anyone from Belgium could be interested in his music. Karo recorded Neac_u and some younger musicians on his walkman. "It was a poor recording," says Winter, "but you could sense how crazy this music was. We wanted to go back and make a real recording, but then the revolution began."
In 1990, when the political climate had cooled down, Karo and Winter traveled to Clejani and discovered 200 professional musicians there, all of them Romanies. They listened to music in the village all summer, and then decided to organize a European tour for their new friends. They chose the name Taraf de Haidouks (a haidouk is the legendary, Robin Hood-like hero of Romanian folklore, a wanderer who defeats the powerful lords by using his wits; and taraf is a Turkish word designating a group of musicians). "Romanian social life is full of celebrations, weddings, christenings, funerals," Winter says. "There has to be a band playing at all of them, and the size of the band depends on how rich the person giving the celebration is. Usually it's four or five people, but in our case 200 wanted to go on tour!" Winter and Karo chose the six best musicians, including Neac_u and Ion Manole, a singer capable of unique throat modulations. Under pressure from the village, the ensemble swelled to eleven members, the youngest of whom was 13-year-old cimbalom player Marinel Sandu. Taraf de Haidouks' first tour led to the signing of a contract with Crammed Discs, who released their first album, entitled Musique des Tziganes de Roumanie, in 1991. The album climbed to the top of the European world music charts, and the group astonished audiences at the WOMAD festival in Montreaux, as well as at other festivals, concert halls and music clubs all over Europe.
The Haidouks really are irresistible. In the dance numbers, the rhythm is propelled by two accordions and anchored down by a slapped bass that rocks like some kind of Arabic rockabilly mutation, while the fiddles and cimbalom (a large hammer dulcimer used in Central and Eastern Europe) go through dizzying flights of fancy. And in the ballads, the vocal pyrotechnics of Ion Manole and the melancholy violins seem to transport listeners to a Gypsy camp, where tears glisten like stars in the flickering light of the campfires.
"Audiences like this blend of old and new," says Winter. "The older musicians perform more ballads, while the younger ones play at 300 kilometers an hour and are open to various other styles, including Bulgarian, Yugoslavian and Turkish influences. The older ones are more traditionalist, but the like the music the younger ones play. They are pleased to see traditional music evolving, and they love the way their children are changing it."
Romany music has played a significant role in the development of a wide range of ethnic sounds. "Without Romanies the musical history of our planet would be completely different," Zakir Hussain, a master of the Indian tabla, has proclaimed. Hussain is a star international musician who has played in a number of jazz and world-beat formations, as well as performing the classical music of his native India. He compares Romanies to bees who fly all over the planet and then mix together the "pollen" they have gathered from its musical "flowers", irregardless of anything besides musical perfection.
"In Indian classical music, the rhythms and fingering techniques are fairly complicated," Hussain relates. "If you look at southern Russia and Afghanistan, or at instruments like the Lebanese dumbak or the Nubian tar, you find similar rhythms and fingering techniques. It was the Romanies who carried this knowledge from India on their journeys westward."
"People always say that the Romanies have no culture, that they steal our songs, but in Romania they know that if it wasn't for the Romanies their folk music would not have survived. Under Ceau_escu's dictatorship the old songs were forbidden. Ballads about kings could have been interpreted as criticism of the government, so Romanians stopped playing folk music. Leaving aside the academic folklore produced for Romanian state radio, only the Romanies were left to revive the old ballads. The intellectuals left the country, but the Romanies couldn't escape and, thanks to the fact that they didn't stop singing, this part of Romanian culture was preserved."
Yet being a living vessel of culture is no guarantee of safety, as any Zulu or Native American could tell you. This is why Hanna Gorjaczkowska of Crammed Discs, the Haidouks' record label, has taken steps which she hopes will bring the Romanies of Clejani a certain amount of security.
"Crammed Discs is producing a documentary about Taraf, Jr., about the young musicians of Clejani and their history. Since most Romany children do not go to school due to racism, their entire history and religion is contained in songs," Gorjaczkowska says, adding that the company feels a certain amount of responsibility towards Clejani as a result of the unexpected success of the older musicians.
"The parents were on tour seven months in a row, so the kids ran wild. They drank wine and turned into hooligans. Stéphane and Michael felt guilty about this, so they told the villagers: 'You can't let the children just loaf around. Teach them to play and we'll organize a tour for them.' An explosion of activity followed, the children all started playing day and night. They formed a group, and their European tour was incredible, a totally unique experience. It was the first time these kids had been to the West. Since I myself moved from Poland when I was fourteen, I know what a shock that must have been. We recorded it all, and hope that it will be captured in a film."
"Technology is a problem, too," adds Winter. "People today want pop. Romanies are using synthesizers, and so just two people can form a group. The synthesizer plays the bass, accordion and cimbalom parts, and the other member usually sings and plays the violin. This kind of thing is happening quite often now, and so part of our work is to convince Romanies to go on playing their own music, and to keep the beauty of the traditional instruments alive. Taraf de Haidouks is proof that Romany music has a future. If it gets lost for one or two generations, an academic situation will arise, something like in the case of klezmer, where the tradition is being revived using old texts. But you can never recover that lost moment again."

Marta Bergman
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