Europe, at least since the 19th century, has had a love-hate relationship with its Gypsy (or Roma, as they call themselves) population. Many intellectuals have romanticized them, celebrating their wild energy, their passionate resistance to bourgeois lifeways, the purity of their exoticism, their defiance of state regulation. Meanwhile, the Roma have been reviled by modern European states as well as by the general population. The Nazis, it is often forgotten, exterminated half a million Gypsies. Communist rule in Eastern Europe, while not exactly benign, at least shielded the Roma from popular racism for over forty years. But since the fall of Europe’s Stalinist regimes, virulent popular anti-Gypsy sentiment has again been unleashed. Racially motivated attacks against the Roma have risen dramatically in recent years, as have the expulsion of Gypsies from public housing and even municipalities. The Roma also face the worst unemployment conditions in Europe. In Bulgaria and Romania, for instance, Roma unemployment runs as high as 80 to 90 percent. Romania, home to the Gypsy music group Taraf de Haïdouks, has two million gypsies, hundreds of whom have been killed in mob violence since the fall of Communist dictator Ceausescu.
The West’s history of simultaneous romanticization and persecution needs to be kept in mind when we approach a recording like Taraf de Haïdouks, especially when it has been widely hailed for its wild energy and its rural purity. As benevolent consumers of World Music, we will be predisposed to appreciate and idealize the music’s raw intensity and driving virtuosity, and to ignore the harsh and brutal conditions out of which it emerges.
Taraf de Haïdouks is a group of a dozen musicians from the village of Clejani. The group was put together, really, by a couple of Belgian gypsy music enthusiasts, Stepháne Karo and Michel Winter, who visited the village in 1990 after hearing some of the village’s musicians on an Ocora recording put out in 1988. Karo and Winter assembled a touring and recording group from the village’s 50 musicians, and the resulting Taraf de Haïdouks has been a great success on Western Europe’s World Music scene since the early 1990s. The group has toured extensively, appearing in the famed movie Latcho Drom, and released three CD’s on the Crammed Discs label. The US Nonesuch release, Taraf de Haïdouks, is culled from those three earlier European releases.
The songs on Taraf de Haïdouks feature various ensembles, ranging from one to five musicians, and represent a wide variety of musics. The picture that emerges is not of cultural “purity” but rather of admixture and cross-fertilization. There are the more “European” sounding numbers like “Dumbala dumba,” sweetly sung by Viorica Rudareasa (the only woman—alas!—who appears on the album), with graceful accompaniment from accordion and cimbalom (a kind of hammer dulcimer). No hard, rough edges here. “Turceasca” (Turkish Song), obviously, has an “Eastern” feel, and features speedy, inspired accordion, double bass, cimbalom and violin soloing and ensemble playing. And the album also possesses its share of hardscrabble roughness. Most noteworthy is “Balada Conducatorolui” (Ballad of the Dictator), spotlighting the group’s oldest member, Nicolae Neacsu on violin and vocals. Neacsu performs some amazing tricks on the violin, making it sound at times as if he were bowing the strings with sandpaper, and then producing sweetly melancholy riffs. His voice is as roughly supple as his violin playing.
All in all, Taraf de Haïdouks is a great introduction to a group that produces music of great variety, inspired musicianship, and amazing intensity. Although this is, of course, all “staged” with the help of Belgian producers, as you listen, you really do feel as if you are hearing music just as it would be played, on ritual occasions, back in the Romanian village. And when they’re not touring, of course, the artists of Taraf de Haïdouks are, indeed, back in the village, playing for weddings and other occasions. And as I listen to this music of great beauty and passion, I try to remember that the conditions out of which it emerges are not to be idealized, that it represents an overcoming or transcendence of harsh realities, rather than the representation of pastoral beauty or romantic marginality.