[10 December 2009]
Mahala Raï Banda, according to at least one version of its biography, was founded by a man who plays the violin, an idea that will come as a surprise to anyone who listens to this album. Ghetto Blasters is awash with brass: brass and singing, brass and accordion, brass and brass, brass and cymbalom, and some fiddling in there, yes, but you’re not asked to pay all that much attention to it, because of the brass and the singing and the brass, and when string and bow meets a tuba, the tuba wins.
As all versions of the biography go on to emphasize, the band is a combined effort. Musicians from two areas have come together. Their specialties have mated. One of those areas is Zece Prajini, a village where, in communist Romania, the sons were sent into the army to fight, get an education, and learn regimental trumpets. This village is the home and origin of Fanfare Ciocârlia. Zece Prajini is close to the Romanian border in the north-east. The other village, away in the south, is the home of Taraf de Haïdouks, a group known for fiddle rather than brass. Both Fanfare and the Haïdouks sit under the heading of ‘Balkan music’, but the sound is not utterly the same. One is blaring—puttering, blowing, a brisk oom-pa, more pa than oom, not the plumper Germanic sound but a pa! pa! pa!—while the other is slithery with zing, a fierce bee.
Both sides play with Balkan bravura, the energy that has seen bands like this gain some international popularity over the past couple of years. It’s a sound that came out of festivals and weddings, celebrations, times when people wanted to dance. Extrapolating that across the rest of the world—well, why not? Subtlety and modesty, away with them, away. The mating of shamelessness and noise is one of the keys to this music’s charm. Expertise is another. You come away from these albums with the idea that no one gets into these bands unless they are an expert. Bring in the trumpets. Bring in the speed and the Robin Hood accuracy. Each parp goes precisely where it’s supposed to. No shyness! Glory!
As usual it’s all men. Women from this part of the musical world never seem to do anything but sing. Are they lacking limbs or something? Get those women some fiddles.
So Mahala Raï Banda is an amalgamation. It doesn’t seem redundant to point out that if you like Fanfare Ciocârlia and its brother bands then you’ll probably like this too, because it’s a similar thing done equally well. In fact it’s done vividly well. The album hits its listeners with energy and doesn’t stop to take a breath until half-way through, at “Balada”, when the singer decides that he’s going to spend a short while quivering at the world in a passionate, yearning you-have-stepped-on-my-toe way that sounds like such a naked appeal for sympathy or cake that I can’t listen to it without feeling embarrassed. After that the instruments kick back into gear and we’re off again. If the musicians were writing this music instead of playing it then the whole work would be IN CAPS and also UNDERLINED.
The listener is there to be overwhelmed and driven to their feet—excited and dizzied. The musicians don’t coax, they conquer. If you resist, they push back harder. It’s very bold, very exact. The brass, in spite of its dominance—I have probably over-emphasised the brass, actually—is willing to share. The cymbalom dulcimer on “Hora Din Mahala” was especially welcome. The cymbalom is one of those instruments that often lurks in the background and it’s good to have it wheeled out into the spotlight, even just for a little bit. Ghetto Blasters is so bright, it’s something like the Nietzschean idea of will manifested in music: the will that throws itself onward into joy, a dancing star.