Band of brigands

May 9, 2001 at 12:00 am

Imagine an elderly European salt-of-the-earth man with a mischievous grin begin to dance a dance that’s been danced for hundreds of years — sometimes slow, sometimes in a race, but always covering the spectrum of emotions from birth to marriage to death. Imagine that, and you’ll take the first steps into the atmosphere created by the Romanian Gypsy sounds of Taraf de Haïdouks. Although members may wander in and out, Taraf de Haïdouks is a force that will not wander away. Musical heroes, the group continually rescues tradition so that the rest of the world can listen and remember. And thanks to Nonesuch, you can now hear the best of the best with the label’s collection of Taraf de Haïdouks recordings spanning over 10 years and four albums, giving this compilation an incredible variety of gypsy sounds all in one place.

If instruments could talk, these are the songs they would say. “Dragoste de la Clejani” is a journey told by quick, staccato accordions with violins leading the way, all instruments changing direction in sync as intense vocals beg for attention. There’s no need for an English translation. Reading the lyrics only confirms what you already knew by internationally understood intonations and magnified sentiments.

If Raymond Scott had been born in revolutionary Romania, his music would sound something like the strange spinning-spiral-tango of “Rustem,” with its Whirling Dervish violin and accordion, large and small cymbalums close behind. Or the schizophrenic flute in “Brîu,” speeding itself into an impossible frenzy. The members of Taraf de Haïdouks don’t limit themselves to playing their instruments the way they were made to be played. They can play them straight and as sound effects. Or as in “Hora din Caval” (The Shepherd’s Circle Dance), the violin is far from classically played. Instead, the bow is moved against the strings as a sound metaphor, the violin continually reaching for something, always on the move, agitated but hopeful in the search.

These are the songs of centuries that speak of love, blood, death and sweat. They will never go out of style and will always be kept alive as long as Romanian Gypsy musicians wander the earth.

Anita Schmaltz writes about the arts for MT. Send comments to [email protected].