Mahala Raï Banda: Ghetto Blasters

Photo: Joan Tomas

The mating of shamelessness and noise is one of the keys to this Balkan music's charm.

Mahala Raï Banda

Ghetto Blasters

Label: Asphalt Tango
US Release Date: 2009-12-08
UK Release Date: 2009-10-05

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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.