Fanfare Ciocarlia
Fanfare Ciocarlia

In Moldavia, Romania’s north-eastern region, time moves slowly and history weighs heavily. Farmers work their fields with scythes and pitchforks and transport produce by horse and cart. Despite the fascist regime’s atrocities against long-settled Jewish and Roma communities during the second world war, Romania today is still home to Europe’s largest Roma population. And from the tiny and remote Moldavian village of Zece Prajini arose Fanfare Ciocarlia, a Roma brass band who have won an international audience.

Brass, I’m told, is something the men here have always played. The village’s musicians worked weddings and funerals, their performances complimenting meagre wages earned from farming or factory work. Under communism, Fanfare Ciocarlia were known locally as a good brass band but had no larger profile: back then none of Fanfare’s members had even visited the capital Bucharest, a few hundred miles to the south.

Then in 1996 Henry Ernst, a German sound engineer, visited the village. Hearing them play their battered trumpets, tubas and clarinets with remarkable joy and inventiveness made Ernst determined to take Fanfare to Germany for a handful of concerts.

Some 1,500 performances later, and with nine albums to their credit, several of which have topped the European World Music Charts, Fanfare Ciocarlia are now stars on the world music circuit. They have toured internationally with music-theatre pieces Gypsy Queens & Kings and Balkan Brass Battle — in the latter the Romanians teamed up with a Serbian orchestra — and were the subjects of a vigorous 2002 documentary called Brass on Fire.

Fanfare play plenty of songs rooted in Romanian folklore but also know disco and pop hits, movie and TV themes. And, being brass players, they are capable of reinventing jazz standards: Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” becomes a joyous gypsy romp.

Fanfare Ciocarlia in July 2013
The band at the UK’s Womad festival in July 2013

The band’s speed, wit, party spirit and sheer joy at making music are their trump cards: they play across the range of venues around the world, as often as world music festivals. Brass bands often have a sense of mirth about them and Fanfare’s lightning pace, the way they shout encouragement at one another and casually toss off solos all adds to the atmosphere.

This exuberance encouraged Sacha Baron Cohen to commission the band for the soundtrack of his Kazakhstan-set comedy Borat, while Basement Jaxx, the British dance music duo, have sampled Fanfare’s ebullient recordings. And remixes of Fanfare recordings by German techno DJs have created a new genre: Balkan Beats.

How did they develop their unique sound? Band members shrug at this question, simply noting that they learnt from their fathers. Ernst suggests that Ottoman army marching bands introduced brass to the region centuries ago and Zece Prajini’s isolation allowed for a unique sound to ferment. The band’s speed and wit, he believes, came from playing Romanian weddings.

“A wedding party would last all night, so you had to be entertaining and know any song requested. If not, being gypsies, they might have been beaten.”

Fanfare’s original leader, Ioan Ivancea, died in 2006. Yet the band’s work ethic, along with astute German management, has kept them moving forward. Their most recent album The Devil’s Tale (2014), paired Fanfare with Canadian guitarist Adrian Raso to create atmospheric, jazz-tinged music quite different from their hectic brass rush.

“If I just let the band play the same songs all the time they would,” admits Ernst. “So when Adrian Raso got in contact — and he’s influenced by Django Reinhardt and rock and blues guitarists, very different to Fanfare — it sounded like a challenge the band needed.”

I first visited Zece Prajini in 2003 while researching a book on Balkan gypsy music. Geese crowded the streets; most families were subsistence farmers. Returning last summer, I spoke to Oprica Ivancea, the eldest son of the late Ioan Ivancea and now the band’s spokesman. It is obvious how Fanfare Ciocarlia’s success is transforming this community: new houses and cars are evident, and the band have built the village both a church and a school. Ivancea proudly pointed out the developments.

“Remember,” he said, “the last time you were here the only working phone was in the village bar and mobile phones had no coverage? Well, now our phones work. And we finally have internet!”

There were other changes, though. “Listen,” he said, “do you hear how quiet Zece Prajini has become? So many people have left here to look for work in the west. Many now work as cheap labour on farms or in factories because there are no jobs in Romania. We know we are not welcome. It is like the Mexicans in the US: we do the dirty work that no one else wants to do and still you hate us.”

Ivancea spoke with quiet fury. “Being a gypsy is a hundreds-of-years-old stigma. We become the target for all that is wrong with this world. Many of our people are very good people. Of course, like anyone, we have bad people too. But for some reason only the bad examples are talked about. Even as a band this sometimes hurts us.”

He paused and the silence of Zece Prajini settled over us. Then he said, “We do our best to promote our culture. Tell the British people to come and see us. It will be hot!”

Fanfare Ciocarlia tour the UK, March 17-21.

Photographs: Arne Reinhart; Getty Images

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