Experimental feature

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Experimental feature

Cambridge now plays host to another music festival besides its celebrated summer folk gathering. The Heart of the World, launched last year, uses venues across the town and has attracted some big bookings this year including Hugh Masekela and this headline act, the Romanian Gypsy supremos Taraf De Haidouks.

Warming up the rather cavernous Corn Exchange, though, was the London-based 40 Thieves Orkestar. This collective of musicians garnered some positive attention at last year’s London Jazz Festival and is exploring Gypsy music – with a twist.

Their sound is driven by sampled beats operated by founder and band motivator Aidan Love, who mixes the backing tracks from a laptop that he plays like an instrument. Against that concoction violin, oud, and clarinet spin a wonderful mix of eastern sounding tunes and Klezmer and Gypsy-influenced melodies. The twist came with Love blowing down a melodica and throwing out some dub reggae, even ska-like, rhythms, which made for a seductive, highly catchy, danceable sound. It was so charming that an audience appeared as if from nowhere, migrating from the bar at the back to the front of the stage and building the perfect party atmosphere for the main artists.

Taraf De Haidouks have a formidable reputation. Besides being Hollywood star Johnny Depp’s favourite band – they appeared alongside Depp in The Man Who Cried and the actor features in a recent documentary on the group – the Haidouks sound is deeply rooted in its culture. With a name that means “honourable outlaws”, the band play the “taraf” music that is typical of lowland Romania, which combines free improvisation and multi- instrumental arrangements on fiddles, accordion instruments, cimbalom and bass – often aggressively plucked – and which is played at vital social functions of village life: weddings, parties and other celebrations.

Hailing from Clejani, south of Bucharest, they made their first recordings in the late 1980s. More recently, following a string of successful foreign performances, festival appearances and tours, their sound has been polished – some arguing that it has cost them something of their authenticity – but in spite of being a first-class recording and touring group it still consists of Gypsy musicians who play for a purpose: to make its audience dance.

Their latest project, Maskarada, roadtested live here is, however, slightly different. For that record, the band has taken the work of celebrated classical composers such as Bartok, De Falla and Khachaturian, all of them influenced in the early 20th century by folk music, and reverse engineered their scores back to the gypsy roots. So we have the classical themes without an orchestra and infused with a deeper rougher sound that suits more a beery festival than a velvet-seated concert hall.
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