With the fan base they’ve built up over the past two decades, the members of the Romanian group Taraf de Haïdouks could have gone on reworking past successes forever like a Roma Rolling Stones. If they were looking for a new direction then they might have decided to turn electric, or else follow the positive response to the Shantel vs. Haïdouks version of “Carolina” by mingling with remixers. Instead they have done something unprecedented in their repertoire. They’ve recorded an album on which classical composers wrote more than half of the songs.
The idea behind Maškaradă goes like this. “There are composers who have been directly inspired by folk music. Look at the Hungarian Béla Bartók who roamed the Eastern European countryside making field recordings and afterwards composed things like ‘Five Slovak Folksongs for Male Chorus’ and ‘Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs for Piano’. This was folk music transformed. It was played by orchestras in concert halls. People dressed up nicely and did not dance when they listened to it. The style of playing was not the style known to the people on the original field recordings. What if we took that folk style, which is also our style, and used it on these classical transformations? If Bartók’s ‘Romanian Folk Dances’ is a series of folk tunes wearing the mask of a classical composer, then let’s take this masked music and put our own mask, the Taraf de Haïdouks mask, on top of it. We’ll call it Maškaradă, a masquerade.”
The risk they’re taking with this album says something about the group’s popularity. Classical music, as we’re often reminded, is not supposed to be a sound commercial proposition. A disc like this one, which is likely to alienate many classical devotees with its shrill acid bite, is the sort of risk that suits a band with a built-in audience. An audience that will see the Taraf de Haïdouks name on something and say, “Yes, I love these men with their fiddles and horsehairs and whatnot, let’s see what they’re doing now. Bartók? Well, all right. I’ll give it a shot.”
The experiment is mostly a success, with a few dull spots. Occasionally the orchestrations flatten down the yawp that is part of the band’s character. The prize for subduing them most effectively goes to Albert Ketèlbey, a British composer from the early 1900s who liked to write travelogue mood pieces with exotica titles such as “By the Blue Hawaiian Waters”, “In the Mystic Land of Egypt”, “In a Chinese Temple Garden”, and so on. Taraf de Haïdouks have chosen “In a Persian Market”, the source of a playful camel-rhythm motif that sometimes crops up on movie soundtracks. This is very light popular classical music with soothing, sentimental passages from the violins. If you searched around for a tune that epitomised the opposite of everything that Taraf de Haïdouks usually is, then this cosy “Persian Market” would be the type of sound you’d end up with. They pull it off, but it wasn’t worth trying on in the first place.
They have better luck with the other composers. The Romanian-themed pieces from Bartók were an obvious choice for a Romanian group. The danger here was that they would override the composer completely, knowing that they have lived this music more thoroughly then he did, but Bartok has remained recognizably Bartok, if faster than he originally intended to be. In “Ostinato with Romanian Dance,” they begin with a deep, ferocious thunderhead of thumping, like a jackhammer, before they fly quickly upwards into the dance. It’s a dramatic transition. The other Bartók track, “Romanian Folk Dances”, suggests the work of a more recent composer who would also have been at home on Maškaradă, Michael Nyman, whose music sometimes shows the effects of the field work he did in Romania in 1965. The tartness of “Romanian Folk Dances” is similar to that of the scores Nyman wrote for Peter Greenaway. Its saw-tip fiddles could have come from A Zed and Two Noughts
Their rendering of Aram Khachaturian’s “Lezghinka” is sharp and “Waltz from Masquerade” comes out with a tickly slither but one of the high points of the album is Isaac Albéniz’s “Asturias”, which has been intelligently reorchestrated to fit the whole group. Initially this piece, extracted from Albéniz’s “Suite Española, Op. 47”, was composed for a piano, and since then it’s been adapted for solo guitar, but the Maškaradă version moves from speed-fiddles duets into a collaboration that involves everybody, cimbalom, accordion, and all. This “Asturias” combines a feeling of classical depth and intensity with the wildness of folk. They don’t just cover the work; they give it a wholly new buzz.
That buzz permeates the album. Usually we hear these composers through a conservatory-trained polish but Taraf de Haïdouks introduce their own atmosphere of instability, turning the sound rough, surfaced, jagged, and hectic. A skidding violin in Manuel de Falla’s “Danza Ritual del Fuego” makes the piece seem to tilt on one end so that everything slides around like a rubber ball in a bath. There’s an unease here that you don’t hear in a more formal rendition.
Their brashness also means you don’t get the same subtleties that a demure interpretation can give you. There’s a spooky quiet part in Bartók’s “Dances” that gets lost on Maškaradă. It’s not an unbearable loss, but it’s there.
The disc is more than a novelty exercise. The composers put through the Taraf treatment emerge changed, as they were intended to, but the reverse happens as well. The Roma musicians are working in a way that is new to them, not the usual darting, daring knots of sound, but something differently intricate, heavier, and more measured. We get not only a new Albéniz and Bartók but also a new Taraf de Haïdouks. What effect it will have on them in the future is impossible to guess. Maybe none. Six of the tracks on Maškaradă come from the band themselves and five of them are business as usual. Still, the album might introduce new people to the idea that this Roma music can go beyond folk songs, remixes, and indie hybrids, that it can be infinitely diverse and ambitious. Instead of saying, “I’ll borrow this foreign folk music and hammer it into a symphony or a soundtrack,” people who have heard Maškaradă might say, “We can start a close collaboration of my trained notation coupled with their speed and squeak.” Possibilities beckon and the future turns somersaults.