Brass on ass

Martin Longley could barely scribble fast enough to track this prime Balkan gypsy posse.

Fanfare Ciocărlia
Birmingham Town Hall
March 20th

First, absolutely inexplicably, the rows of seats were still fixed for this rollicking Romanian gypsy brass gig. The stalls of the Town Hall are multi-purpose, and can be cleared of seats, with drinks-vending tables situated to the rear, turning the space into a club zone. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.

Even though Fanfare Ciocărlia tend to play at racing speed, and with deeply involved time signatures, some attempt at dancing is usually likely, even if feet and bodies are inhumanly misplaced. So, this large ensemble had to work much harder to produce their desired atmosphere, not helped by the oddly sparse attendance and the very prompt 8pm start. No sooner had the audience arrived (and some still hadn’t), than they were plunged into an immediately hyperactive musical frenzy.

These Romanians, from the village of Zece Prăjini, play every note as if someone’s getting married, and has been partying all day. It takes a while to acclimatise, so fortunately there was an interval, in the name of re-grouping.

Fanfare is the term used to designate a brass band, and Ciocărlia means ‘skylark’. The band have existed in this touring form for nearly two decades. The repertoire included two or three oft-heard classics from the Balkan region, but also a clutch of re-designed numbers from the spheres of jazz and popular music: Caravan, Summertime, Born To Be Wild and the 007 theme, although not much like any way that we’ve heard them previously, and also inserted within other tunes.

The general structure involves a back line of low-plunged traditional tenor and baritone horns, huffing out basslines with remarkable nimbleness, and then a pair of percussionists, working with a very minimalist set-up. The contribution of a tiny ringing cymbal that rested atop a big harness-slung bass drum was quite crucial. Out front, the trumpets made coordinated flourishes, and the chief soloing horn was an alto saxophone, striated with reverb, way beyond the already spacious natural sound of the hall. This fared surprisingly well, as nothing could halt or impair the rapid percussive attack of the involved soloing constructions, always seeking to perch on a higher and higher rafter.

In the end, the Romanians took a rather flat beginning, herding their lost audience towards the front rows, goading them into standing, then even coaxing a few females up onstage for a brass-worshipping dance. The second set took off into another dimension, populated by some of the best songs, and featuring the most riveting solos. There was one tune that employed a dual lead vocal technique, but many more that swapped the vocal roles around, from frontman to sideline helpers.

Then, for the encore, the band paraded around the hall, and out into the foyer, with not one tune but three or four, offering up a substantial long goodbye, including that evocative theme from Emir Kusturica’s Time Of The Gypsies movie, the traditional Ederlezi. This wasn’t exactly their natural habitat, but the Romanians managed to invade, colonise and convert into a designated party zone.