Sunday, September 23, 2007

TARAF DE HAIDOUKS - Maskarada (Crammed Discs)

Johnny Depp’s favourite gypsy band is back with an album featuring reinterpretations of classical pieces. Only intermittently does it remind us of why they are considered one of roots music’s most thrilling acts. It’s been a while since we’ve had an album of new material from the Romanian wedding and funeral band who took the world (including Hollywood) by storm with their vibrant brand of Balkan folk-dance music. Part of the explanation might be a certain amount of internal discord that is rumoured to have beset the rotating mix of singers, fiddlers and accordionists that make up the ensemble. Added to that must be the painstaking academic approach taken on the classical half of this CD, the musicians having learnt and arranged pieces by ear that were composed by the likes of Béla Bartók, Isaac Albeniz and Aram Khachaturian. At times all of that effort pays off — Bartók’s Ostinato is interpreted in a vigorous, dramatic manner for the opener, and it’s fiddles, accordions and cimbaloms a go-go on the next tune, Khachaturian’s Lezghinka. But thereafter, proceedings are a mite too formal as the band falls between cautious attempts at maintaining the structure of the arrangements and the need to remove some of the complexity of pieces that — while themselves being influenced by Eastern European folk idioms — come close to becoming museum pieces with this studied approach. A rather mannered interpretation of Ketèlby’s In a Persian Market is particularly heavy-going, and it’s a relief when that track makes way for the first self-penned track of the collection, De Cind Ma Aflat Multimea, which contains a return to a more relaxed, spontaneous air helped by an all-too-rare vocal performance from the gutsy Ilie Iorga. The band are back on ever more familiar territory as the album progresses to a rousing climax, with twirling violins, madcap accordion and thrilling cimbalom runs from guest Stela Dumitru 'Virginica' offering exhilarating glimpses of what Taraf de Haidouks at their best are capable of producing. All in all, though, this brave attempt at the re-gyspsification of classical music has to go down as a (very) qualified semi-success.

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