Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil. The Led Zeppelin shark incident. Music is always better when there is a legend to go with it, and better still when that legend is in fact true. The (true) legend about Taraf de Haïdouks concerns a village of musicians – Clejani, in the south of Romania. Clejani is a village of lăutari, a traditional Romani musician class, and the villagers have passed their skills down from generation to generation for years, decades, maybe even centuries.
Taraf de Haïdouks was formed when Belgian promoter Stephane Karo travelled to Romania in the late 1980s in search of a group of musicians he had discovered on an obscure recording made by ethnomusicologists. Karo assembled a group of a dozen lăutari, signed them to the fusion label Crammed Discs and gave them their name, which means ‘Band of Outlaws’. It’s ironic that a group so steeped in tradition is technically a manufactured band, but this is simply a consequence of a cadre of musicians being transplanted from the Balkan Romani music economy to the more compartmentalised music industry of Western Europe.
Their ninth album, Of Lovers, Gamblers and Parachute Skirts – its title sounding as though it could be taken from one of the colourful, gypsy music-steeped films of Emir Kusturica – responds deliberately to the idea of tradition. It’s 25 years since Karo first put the band together, and since then the line-up has gradually changed. Older mainstays of the band, such as legendary violinist Nicolae Neacsu and, most recently, singer Ilie Iorga have passed away, and the children and grandchildren of the elder statesmen have joined.
The resulting sound is a retrospective that goes back to the roots of the Taraf. Their 2007 album Maskarada explored the relationship between gypsy music and classical music, while 2011’s Band of Gypsies 2 was a collaboration with Macedonian brass band Kočani Orkestar. But this is an album that harks back to the sounds that made Taraf de Haïdouks an instant phenomenon in the early 1990s.
Two instruments form the heart and soul of the music. Firstly, violins: sometimes they are played at an unbelievable pace, sometimes bows are scraped creakingly across strings. The other key instrument is the cimbalom, a kind of hammered dulcimer: imagine someone lifting the lid of a grand piano and playing the exposed strings with hammers. It gives the music its inimitable bounce and its pizzicato energy. Meanwhile, accordions, clarinets, and numerous guest vocalists add character.
There are dances and laments here, lightning fast instrumental pieces and soulful songs, but the things common to each of the 14 tracks is the virtuosity on display. Whether it’s interplaying violin and flute, as in Dance Suite a la Clejani, or the cimbalom showcase No Snow, No Rain, the musicianship is always outstanding. What’s more, there is no sense of intricate arrangement or rehearsal – improvisation is a longstanding lăutari tradition, and it’s no doubt going on here.
While there is much to enjoy in the slower, more emotional tracks, it’s lightning fast playing that Taraf de Haïdouks are best known for, and it’s the faster paced pieces that are the highlights here. The Moldavian Shepherds’ Dance is one such track, a frantic piece that likely to elicit an involuntary intake of breath from the listener as it comes to its end. Closing accordion piece Marius’ Lament finds a balance between virtuosity and soul and rounds off the album beautifully.
Few could have predicted that a band of unknown musicians from rural Romania would become such an important name in world music. Many doubted that the band could maintain their reputation following the deaths of several key members. But Of Lovers, Gamblers and Parachute Skirts proves that the legend of Clejani is an enduring one.