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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

After 20 years, the kings of Balkan brass Fanfare Ciocârlia still reign supreme

Romani gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocărlia have proved unlikely global stars, playing to audiences in more than 80 countries over a 20 year journey. But it all began with a chance encounter.
Fanfare Ciocârlia have released increasingly diverse albums in the past 20 years. Photo by Arne Reinhardt
Fanfare Ciocârlia have released increasingly diverse albums in the past 20 years. Photo by Arne Reinhardt

It could be the start of a bad joke: 20 years ago, a German guy walks into a remote Romanian village and asks to hear the local brass band. He was expecting nothing more than “a good laugh”.

Within a few minutes his life, and the lives of the 12 gypsy musicians who gathered to amuse him, would be changed forever.

Passing through the tiny northeastern village of Zece Prajini in 1996, Henry Ernst was knocked out by the wall of wailing sounds that met his ears.

“I thought I would be there maybe an hour or two,” says Ernst. “I stayed for three months.”

He was transfixed by the dexterity of the ragtag, multi-generational band of village players who, between performing traditional folk songs at local weddings, scraped a living working in the fields. The ensemble didn’t even have a name.

This makeshift audition kick-started a chain of events that would keep these most unlikely of musical stars on the road for two decades.

It all started when the 48-year-old German, who was travelling to Romania in search of new sounds, received a fortuitous tip-off from a farmer in a neighbouring village. “I wasn’t looking for something special,” says Ernst, who manages the band to this day. “I was never a fan of brass music. I expected nothing.

“It was like nothing I’d ever heard before – a wall of sound, such speed, I couldn’t believe it was real – this was brass music which sounded more like techno or rock.

“I was totally blown away. Very soon I knew I had to bring these musicians to more people.”

A sound engineer by trade, Ernst sold all his worldly possessions to finance a fanciful, 14-date tour by the newly dubbed Fanfare Ciocârlia across Germany and France. Neither the musicians nor Ernst had any idea that public demand would keep the “kings of Balkan brass” on the road ever since.

On Sunday, the ensemble perform in the UAE for the first time, at NYUAD’s The Arts Center.

It is the latest stop on a 20th-anniversary world tour that they are prophetically calling Onward to Mars!.

“The village was a poor place and the musicians earned money with little community festivities such as baptisms and weddings. They didn’t consider themselves as musicians, just as a kind of service,” says Ernst.

“When they saw me so interested in their music, they thought I was from out of space, a crazy man – when I told them I would take them on tour in Germany, it was a like a trip to Mars.”

Based on musical traditions passed down from generation to generation, the ages of the band members span close to four decades – from 32 to 69. Most remarkably, of the 12 musicians who originally left their homes to tour in 1997, 10 are still going strong. But it is unlikely the group will be celebrating another landmark 20 years from now.

“I’m pretty sure the band will end in 10 years or so,” says Ernst. “They grew up, everybody, together in that village, like a family. They have an understanding that there’s no reason to fight.”

As well as performing more than 2,000 concerts, Fanfare Ciocârlia have released a series of increasingly diverse albums. Originally building a reputation with a repertoire of high-octane, traditional Romani and Romanian folk dances, years on the road have resulted in more exotic styles and influences.

Now, set highlights are often the ensemble’s dramatic reinterpretations of familiar tunes, such as John Barry’s James Bond theme and the Duke Ellington classic Caravan, performed entirely on the band’s strict brass and percussion instrumentation. These schizophrenic arrangements happen organically by ear – none of the players read sheet music.

Perhaps the band’s best known cover is of Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild, the rock anthem immortalised in the counterculture classic film Easy Rider. Fanfare’s version was commissioned to appear in Sacha Baron Cohen’s film Borat.

“The band had never heard the original,” says Ernst. “I played it to them and within one hour they’d picked it up – and within three hours we’d finished our own version.”

Fanfare Ciocârlia perform at East Plaza, The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi, on Sunday at 8pm. Tickets are free. Register online at www.nyuad-artscenter.org

rgarratt@thenational.ae