The Rough Guide to the Music of the Romanian Gypsies starts badly. Taraf de Haïdouks is a wonderful band, but their last release, Maskarada, was not their best, and the song Dan Rosenberg has chosen from it makes the group’s large size sound like a liability. On its parent album it doesn’t seem so bad. Here, set among nimbler songs from other bands, it’s at a disadvantage. Next to Romica Puceanu’s “Spune, Maiculita Spune” it sounds inexpressive. Next to Fanfare Ciocarlia’s “Alili” it seems slow. My guess is that Rosenberg, wanting variety, went looking for a track that didn’t sound like any of the others. If I’m right then this is an idea that I like. The execution of that idea in this instance, however? No.
The album picks up after that. He’s put together a good mix of relatively well-known and lesser-known acts, Ciocarlia and the Haïdouks on one hand, Ionel Tudorache and Florea Cioaca on the other. Cioaca’s “Mierlita Cind E Bolnava” is a fiercely beautiful piece of fiddling, both sweet and harsh, as if the fiddle had to slog a path through years of trackless hardship before it reached this degree of beauty. This is what the Haïdouks song might have been: something that comes and goes as quickly as haiku, grabbing your heart with absolute economy, leaving you in a startled daze, wondering how they did it. This is where Romanian Roma music’s emotional power lies, in this mixture of the maudlin with the sublime.
Toni Iordache is outstanding on “Cantec Si Breaza Ca La Fantanele”, something that will come as no surprise to anyone who has heard the Asphalt-Tango disc from which the track has been borrowed. The other instruments trot in the background while he manoeuvres his cimbalom through an intricacy of musical lacework. On “Hora Rudarenilor” a tide of strings swarms behind Marcel Budala’s accordion like clouds of wiggling sperm.
Solo singers appear. Romica Puceanu shows off her rich dolour, Gabi Lunca her bouyance. Dona Dumitru Siminica flutters through “La Salul Cel Negru” with the loveliness of a vocal androgyne, which becomes even more confusing when you see a picture of him and realise that he looked like the headwaiter of an unsuccessful restaurant. Cornelia Catanga sounds more calculating than the rest — good voice but a touch of the Vegas showroom balladeer.
Fanfare Ciocarlia turns up a second time along with the singer Dan Armeanca in “Kan Marau La”, a lush blare of a song with lyrics that Rosenberg calls “crude”.
“In Romania, as in many parts of Eastern Europe, the lyrics of Roma music commonly deal with the hardships of daily life or are crude (at times vulgar) chronicles of lost love. ‘Kan Marau La’ falls into the latter category.”
Reading this, I wondered how much ideological distance there is between Roma ex-love songs and the bitches ‘n’ hos school of rap. In another part of the notes Rosenberg described the popular singer Nicolae Gutsa on the front cover of one of his albums posing with a leather jacket and a gun, so maybe not much. The album is called Bag Dusmanii-n Portbagaj, or I Put my Enemies in the Trunk. In his one track on Romanian Gypsies, Gutsa shows off a sentimental voice with a nice wriggle of vibrato. It’s easier to imagine him staring at his enemies in sorrow than it is to picture him putting them in trunks.
Rosenberg’s Rough Guide to the Music of the Hungarian Gypsies picked a springy tone in the first song and explored it in different permutations after that. Romanian Gypsies moves restlessly from one idea to the next, as if it has a dozen itches and wants to scratch each one in turn. It’s a grab bag: fiddlers, cimbalom players, remixes, singers. Quality buckshot that, unlike the recent Rough Guide to the Music of Mali, is likely to leave you loving one or two musicians in particular, but maybe not the genre in full.