According to my computer, it’s 1682 miles from Bristol to Clejani, the village in Romania where Taraf de Haidouks – the world’s most famous Gypsy string band – come from. Is that a long way or not? It’s almost exactly twice the mileage from Lands End to John O’Groats, and therefore maybe not such a big leap at all, at least in terms of physical distance. But taken as a jump from one world to another, the relatively meagre mileage represents a hell of a journey, not just in space but in time, too: from the 21st century to something much earlier, to antiquity even, if one considers where Taraf de Haidouks’ music – a mix of Balkan and Turkish dance styles – comes from Taraf de Haidouks live at Union Chapel Violin Solo.
Even if one disregards the cliches and the Daily Mail myths about our new European cousins, factoring in horse and cart v motor cars, registering as one should the post-war history of Eastern Europe and the Soviet era’s Stalinist dominance over ethnic diversity, and noting the perhaps carefully cultivated sense – at least as regards the creation and then the selling of the loose collective of rural musicians who were named as Taraf de Haidouks by Swiss and Belgian ethno-musicologists, and popularised through the Crammed Discs record label – of the Roma as Europe’s ‘other’, and Gypsy music as our own continent’s version of the blues, you still can’t account for how very different this music and culture is.
If you want to know more, I can recommend the book ‘Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey’ by Isabel Fonseca, which I found enormously helpful in explaining where the gypsies of Europe came from (India, originally), and in detailing the kinds of lives they live and the very real suffering and discrimination they have endured, and continue to endure. It’s also a very old story, and one with great relevance to the UK. In Norwich last week, I came by chance upon an inscription on a wall by the new Castle shopping mall which noted that during excavation for the building the remains of a body had been found which after DNA testing was revealed to have been that of a ‘Romani’ from the 11th century: the earliest example ever found here, evidently.
But whatever the exact derivation of the music, and the uncertain meeting-point between folk-art and world music-showbiz that characterises their uproarious shows, Taraf de Haidouks seen live are an experience you will remember forever. They’ve played St George’s once before, in late 2008, when they launched our landmark Migrations series, and it was awesome. Arriving later than expected, with the Crypt bar already jam-packed for the sold-out show, the band sat down at a long table for their pre-gig meal surrounded by eager onlookers, like some weird version of Leonardo’s Last Supper. Food attended to, and following an extended fag-break outside the box office door, the band took to the stage looking relatively sedate, even nonchalant, as people who’ve modelled for Yamamoto have a right to. After all, they’ve entranced Johnny Depp (Taraful Haiducilor & Johnny Depp), impressed Yehudi Menuhin and the Kronos Quartet, and played most of the world’s larger halls. Then slowly, incrementally, bit by glorious bit, Taraf de Haidouks gradually unwound, getting looser and wilder by the minute until, by the second half, they were totally in the zone, on fire, call it whatever you like. This was where, as David Harrington of Kronos told me after he’d recently recorded with them, “the roisin flies: that place where the bow meets the string and a world of action follows.”
That previous Bristol performance also marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship, where Taraf de Haidouks from Clejani met Rachael James from Bristol, who invited them back to play at her wedding at Radford Mill farm in 2009, and later visited the musicians in their home town. A small exhibition of photographs of Taraf de Haidouks by Rachael – who is also working with Roma people in Bristol – and by Sophia Schorr-Kon, should be displayed in the Crypt’s Doric Room, to coincide with the concert.