Taraf de Haidouks
It might seem strange to think of a band of Romanian village musicians as a manufactured band like 'N Sync. But while there's nothing fake about their sound, it's true that prior to their first tour in Western Europe, the ensemble of Taraf de Haïdouks didn't exist as such.
The story begins in the tiny village of Clejani, southwest a place populated by the Lautari, a caste of Roma (Gypsy) musicians. Like most villages, it had its musicians who played for weddings and celebrations. They simply performed, with no thought of playing outside a tight, small region. All that changed when two musicologists from Belgium, Michael Winter and Stéphane Karo, who'd stumbled across village music while researching in Brussels, arrived. They were amazed at the poverty they saw many of the residents lived in turf houses but entranced by the music, and made rough cassette recordings of some of the players. They returned a year later, following the revolution that toppled Nicolai Ceau?escu, spending an entire summer in Clejani, recording and listening to the instrumentalists and singers all 200 of them in such a small place before organizing a European tour. Forced to choose, they originally selected half a dozen musicians, but, pressured by villagers, eventually settled on 11, ranging in age from a 13 year-old cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) player to musicians and singers in their late 70s. Karo and Winter named the group Taraf de Haïdouks Band of Brigands. The tour a surprising success led to a deal with Beligan label Crammed discs, and their debut, 1991's Musique des Tziganes de Roumanie, topped the European World Music chart.
Their sound, anchored by accordions and double bass, with fiddles and cimbaloms in dizzyingly fast improvisations, was based around tunes ancient and modern which underwent hairpin changes at incredible speed. The songs, featuring singer Ion Manole, featured the Romanian vocal technique of constricted-throat singing (a little akin to Bulgarian singing). Everything they did was virtuosic, and filled with the history of Roma music. Listening to them, you could pick out the influences of the Roma's journey, from India through the Middle East to the Balkans. It was the first time Western Europeans had heard this Romanian village sound, and many were captivated. The band appeared with the legendary Yehudi Menuhin, and with Swiss pop star Stephan Eicher, before being featured in the film about Roma people, Latcho Drom. They recorded their sophomore disc, Honourable Brigands, Magic Horses and Evil Eye in Romania in 1994 (expanding their membership, which now numbers 13) before hitting the road even more extensively and becoming the subject of a documentary film (eventually released in 1998).
But it wasn't until 1998 that they returned to the studio, to make Dumbala Dumba, bringing in a number of guests like Valachi Gypsy Rosioru, Romanian diva Viorica Rudareasa, and Usari (bear trainer) Napoleon. The new disc brought them fans like the Kronos Quartet and movie star Johnny Depp (who reportedly flew them to Los Angeles for a party at his night club and paid them $10,000, after they appeared with him in the film The Man Who Cried.)
2001's live Band of Gypsies became their second proper international release, sticking to their hardcore village sound, while bringing in other musicians, including the Koçani Orkestar from Macedonia. But it was the last record from the band in a while. Leader Nicolai Neaucescu died a few years later, and the group, which remains unknown in its homeland, in spite of being renowned on international stages, has remained dormant. Chris Nickson