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The Boston Phoenix Roads to Roma

The Gypsy Caravan

By Banning Eyre

APRIL 5, 1999:  In 1991 an eight-person juggernaut of fiddlers, singers, accordionists, pipers, and percussionists emerged from the village of Clejani in Romania and into the world-music arena. Homegrown as a country wedding, Taraf de Haïdouks -- which translates to "band of brigands" -- brought rock-and-roll attitude to bear on their own brand of traditional Gypsy music.

The group, who join five other Gypsy ensembles from around the world on "The Gypsy Caravan: A Celebration of Roma Music and Dance" tour that comes to Sanders Theatre this weekend, continue in that vein on their new Taraf de Haïdouks Nonesuch album. Gypsies are sensitive about being stereotyped as thieves and lowlifes, but the bold "band of brigands" embrace the myth of the Gypsy bandit by kicking off the album with a track that dramatizes the boasts of a horse thief. The playing here and throughout this album is strong coffee, from the breakneck flute turns of "The Peasant's Belt" to the leather-shoe-on-wood-floor percussion of "The Bear-Leader's Circle Dance." Elsewhere, Taraf de Haïdouks chronicle the fall of the Soviet-backed dictator Ceausescu ("Ballad of a Dictator") and sing of romantic yearnings, bliss, and heartbreak. What links the disparate themes is a sense of defiance in the face of tragedy -- the thistle-like essence of Gypsy culture, which has always used beauty as a means of survival.

Baudelaire once called the Gypsies the "prophetic tribe with glowing eyes." But the proper name for the people known as Gypsies is the Roma. For more than 1000 years the Roma have carried their music and a motherlode of musicianship on a journey across continents from their original home in Rajasthan in Northern India. They've been uprooted, jailed, and slaughtered in Europe for centuries; they have no homeland or political structures; and their language has nearly disappeared in many enclaves. And yet, Roma music has survived in many guises: as wedding music in the Balkans, as restaurant entertainment in Hungary, and, most famously, as masterful flamenco, the national music of Spain.

For a broader look at contemporary Roma musical groups, try the new The Gypsy Road: A Migration from India to Spain (Alula), a compilation of recent recordings that features five of the six groups on the Gypsy Caravan tour. Kalyi Jag, a mostly vocal group from Hungary, became the first non-restaurant Roma group to record in Hungary after the end of the Soviet era. The track here bristles with rural rowdiness and tricky rhythms, but it has a hook you come away humming, a rarity in this gnarly music. The exuberant wedding fare of the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble belies a tortured history. Soviet Communism in countries like Yunakov's native Bulgaria did provide protection for the Roma, who had been fair game for wholesale killing prior to the Second World War. But it did little to advance them as a people. Yunakov was the star saxophonist in Bulgaria's most successful wedding band, Ivo Papasov's, yet that didn't prevent him from being harassed, fined, and even jailed for playing Roma songs. No surprise that Yunakov bases his group in New York these days.

Musafir, the most ethnically diverse outfit on The Gypsy Road (and in the Gypsy Caravan tour), take Roma music back to its Indian roots under the direction of Rajasthani percussionist Hameed Khan. This young, Paris-based group bring the music full circle by drawing from many religious and national traditions along the Romany trail from India to central Europe. Russia's Kolpakov Trio, in contrast, offer a more genteel take on Roma tradition. Leader Sacha Kolpakov sings with passion and the sort of melismas you'd expect from a Gypsy crier. The Russian feeling of his foursquare guitar playing shows the Gypsy genius for donning the mantle of local culture while remaining fundamentally Roma.

The Gypsy Road also features guitarist Gerardo Núñez, one of the most exciting flamenco artists to emerge in recent years. His blistering track is a good argument in favor of hunting down his recent full-length Calima (Alula). For an even more in-depth excursion into the Roma musical tradition, there's L'Épopée Tzigane: Road of the Gypsies (Network), a two-CD set that sweeps from India though Central Asia, North Africa, and Europe telling the Gypsy story over the course of 32 tracks of sensational music, along with pictures and text chronicling the long and often difficult journey that has molded the music of artists like Núñez and bands like Taraf de Haïdouks.

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