Soul of the Mahala is an album of Romani music rendered so accurately and cleanly that it’s like a textbook illustration showing young musicians where notes should be placed. The album opens with a clarinet that seems to crook its index finger at you and wink—Come in!—and as this clarinet wriggles and quickens and leads you into the main body of the song you can hear each separate note putting its foot down with absolute firmness and style. Other instruments join in. The clarinet flies on top of the mix, a drum sits at the bottom, and the rest slide through the middle. Then the clarinet falls away and the drum takes the floor with a smart twitch of the hips. Each tat of its rat-tat-tat could have been chipped from the flanks of granite mountains. The whole piece is beautifully shaped.
Rumen Shopov is the star of the show. His son Angel is easier to spot because he performs extended violin solos, but the notes make it clear that Rumen brought everybody together and did most of the arranging. He’s involved with the Voice of Roma, a North American organisation that “educates the public about the music, culture, and current plight of the Roma, and provides increased … opportunities for Roma … in Europe”. Voice Of Roma produced this album, and they should be selling it on their website once the Shop page gets rid of its “Under Construction” label.
The notes take care to point out that Roma are not the thievish creatures of legend but human beings like everyone else, and this atmosphere of respectability extends to the music as well. That is the album’s weakness. Clean-cut square-jawed Soul Of The Mahala has set itself up against albums from other musicians who’ll use any trick in the book to get your attention—and they’re not respectable and tidy, they’re sharp and smart and gleeful. When the Serbian Roma band Kal throws a wah-wah guitar and a fiddle under a growling singer, their unorthodox inventiveness seems to grin at you from the speakers. The way Taraf de Haïdouks slur their bows and shriek is not elegant, but it’s better than elegant; it’s invigorating, and once you’ve heard it you don’t want to do without it. Over westwards in Spain, the gitano flamenco singers are yelling like devils and sluicing out the gutters in their brains. Those gutters are on fire, and you’d better watch out.
Soul of the Mahala eschews all of this in favour of instrumental precision. The Shopovs’ mahala is the most well-behaved and law-abiding mahala imaginable. In this neighbourhood, people look both ways before they cross the street and no one leaves dishes piled in the sink without feeling a nagging urge to wash them. Bulgarian folk music (the Shopovs come from southern Bulgaria) was put into the care of state ensembles during the Communist era and I think that what we’re hearing is a holdover from those days of Soviet-approved orchestration. Hey, don’t knock it. You liked Voix de Bulgare, didn’t you?
It was some time before I could appreciate the album on its own terms, but once I’d hooked into the clarity of its groove then I started to like it. The violin fantasias from Angel are a mistake—they sound glossy and dated—but he makes up for it with some snappy tambura numbers. He comes up trumps in “Gurmensko Horo”, a super-fast dance in which the accuracy of the musicians pays off. Doumbeks and tamburas ricochet back and forth at such competitive speeds that you keep expecting one of the musicians to throw his instrument down, shouting, “All right, I give up: you win!” and hand over ten bucks. The tambura is one of the world’s many variations on the lute, and listening to “Gurmensko Horo” is like watching a group of men play musical chicken at a Renfair.
There are other pleasures in here as well—the call-and-response of the instruments during “Melody For Folk Orchestra”, the jittering lament in “Astardja Man Mo Srtse”, and the nice, nutty quality of Slavei Madjirov’s clarinet. Soul of the Mahala sits between the conservatory and the ghetto. It’s music from the wrong side of the tracks played with technical proficiency and respect. The result is edifying without being electrifying. It’s not likely to get a newcomer racing off to the shop to find more Romani music in the way that other, less dutiful recordings might, but there’s a vein of plainer enjoyment here for anyone willing to do a bit of mining.