There are 20 tracks on this compilation; there are no pauses between them. The album is crammed. It’s a packed smorgasbord. Six of the tracks are short bits of atmospheric noise — scraps of dialogue, 21 seconds of voices and bicycles recorded in a village marketplace, a man playing the spoons on a beer bottle, and so on — all of it sampled (I assume) from the movie to which this is the soundtrack. This film hasn’t been released in Australia yet, so I haven’t seen it, but the website tells me that it is a “feature documentary [which] celebrates the luscious music of top international Gypsy performers and interweaves stirring real life tales of their home life and social background… the film takes place on location in Spain, Macedonia, Romania, and India, as well as in Europe and in the USA during the Gypsy Caravan concert tour.”
Most of the people who have reviewed the film enjoy it. “At the beginning of the tour, the notion that the musicians of Maharaja could back the flamenco dancers, or that the Macedonian ensemble could play with the Romanians seems far-fetched. By the end, they’re all jamming happily,” wrote Ty Burr in the Boston Globe. The rest criticise the editing. “[C]onfuses us as to who’s who, and would have been better if aimed in fewer directions,” wrote Donald Levit in Reeltalk.
If the editing is anything like the soundtrack, then I think I know what Levit means when he says that the film is aimed in too many directions. The compilers of Gypsy Caravan have decided not to run the music thematically. Flamenco is not always next to flamenco and Romanian fiddles are not always next to Romanian fiddles. Instead, everything darts and splashes, swerving from one genre to another as if the album is a car and someone else is twisting the wheel. We jump from the sound of Fanfare Ciocarlia brassing along at speed to the much slower sound of guitars from the Antonio el Pipa Flamenco Company, and then to a shrill twiddle, melismatic chanting, and tabla from the Indian group Maharajah. It’s easy to imagine that the compilers sat around beforehand saying to one another, “Now, the way to keep their attention and reward them for picking our album — the way to make it more exciting — is to have every successive piece of music sound as different as possible.”
They do all of this with the help of only four bands and a single soloist, the Macedonian Roma diva Esma Redžepova, who sings the Romani anthem “Djelem Djelem” with despairing brio. Well enough regarded in Macedonia to have been nominated for the Nobel peace prize, she’s released a swathe of albums and appeared on the soundtrack to Borat. There’s another Borat band on here too: Fanfare Ciocarlia, the fastest massed horns in all Romania. They perform good live versions of “Nicoleta”, “Hora Cu Strigaturii”, and “Asfalt Tango”. Their compatriots Taraf de Haïdouks take care of three more tracks: “Carolina” (not live but borrowed from their 2001 album Band of Gypsies), the tart “Mugur Mugurel”, and “Jasmina Dromoro”.
I thought at first that Maharajah were a new group. So they are, but only under this name. Until recently they were the Musafir Gypsies of Rajasthan, or Musafir for short. The members of Maharajah come from several different castes and two different religions, Hindu and Muslim. Together they play the saarangi, pungi, kartaal, dholak, and harmonium. They sing, they dance in drag, they perform magic tricks — not that you can see the last two on this album, but they do them regardless. On Gypsy Caravan they reach a high point with “Desert Night Journey”, a piece of music improvised “under a full moon in the Thar desert.”
The Antonio el Pipa Flamenco Company comes from Andalucia, as so many excellent flamenco groups do. In this compilation they sound like a group that would put on a convincing stage show. That is disappointing. At the heart of flamenco lies the intimacy of a juerga, the passion of a close gathering, and we get only a whiff of it here, on “Te Necesito”. This is a recording of the group matriarch Juana la del Pipa singing with the congregation of her church, everyone shouting and clapping, a religious, pounding mass flamenco performance. “Te Necesito” is one of the highlights of the album.
Gypsy Caravan is hopping with surprises, but the patchwork speed of the disc means that we don’t get time to absorb them. “Jasmina Dromoro” seems to be coming along ordinarily enough in a metallic run of cymbalom when the instrument winds itself up like a roller coaster approaching the top of a slope, then starts speeding down in a rhythm that becomes steadily more identifiable until it bursts apart in a familiar knot of notes, a riff on Paganini’s “24 Caprices” with a jazz bass background. There’s more Haïdouks bass on one of the interludes, “Smoking Bass”, the bass being played by Vlad Viorel in “a backstage alley.” The eerie Rajasthani pungi flute coupled with the formal, trotting measure of “Desert Night Journey” seems a million miles away from the 1960s clip of a teenage Redžepova pouring the crème-pop of her voice all around “Romano Horo”.
Gypsy Caravan is a picaresque that makes more sense as a soundtrack album than it would as an independent compilation in its own right. Were it not an adjunct to a documentary recording of a tour, you’d wonder why they were wringing so much out of so few musicians (the idea of a single flamenco group somehow being able to represent ‘flamenco’ is dodgy to start with), and what purpose the snippets of background colour were supposed to serve. As it is, you have a collection of good-to-excellent musicians performing a collection of mainly very good songs. I can only guess at how well it complements the film.