Most music that reaches us from the Balkans is emotionally of a piece with the area's tragic history. But Gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia proves on Baro Biao, World Wide Wedding that Romanian music also can be deliriously celebratory. Well equipped to make momentous music for equally momentous occasions, the twelve-piece ensemble consists entirely of blaring brass and reeds, along with a bass drum and percussionist clamoring to be heard above the tubas, baritone horns, tenor horns, trumpets, clarinets, and saxophones. No fiddles, accordions, tinkling bells, or guitars mitigate the mighty blast of this ethnic Moldavian troupe from northeastern Romania that never plays at less than full tilt or hurricanelike volume. The brass band lineup has been handed down from Turkish martial bands, and with pure military fortitude, Fanfare Ciocarlia often will play for 30 hours straight in an unstoppable juggernaut style.
The liner note photos show the band lined up outside in a large open area, presumably to let the audience spread out or, perhaps, to take cover; it's hard to imagine acoustic music this loud being unleashed indoors without a demolition permit. Such raucousness is tailor-made for marking special occasions like weddings, since the sheer weight of sound announces a separation from life's routines and the arrival of a big event.
Just as strikingly, instead of simply playing melody and accompaniment with their horns, the ensemble uses its brass and reeds to fill every cranny of its arrangements. Tubas and baritone horns puff at different tempos to create a polyrhythmic pistonlike underpinning that all but relegates the drums to ornamental status. A trumpeter or reed man might float cool dollops of Eastern-inflected jazz on top, as heard in the exhilarating "Asfalt Tango" which opens the disc, or a Turkish-influenced lead vocal might occasionally clear some room for itself.
In less hectic moments, the instrumental free-flight on hand resembles klezmer and its Yiddish folk cousins, but in songs like the cartoonesque "Sîrba de la Lasi," where percolating layers of bellowing horns are one-upped by clarinets trilling at the speed of hummingbird wings, the off-kilter use of conventional instruments is almost as unusual as the Burmese sandaya reinvention of the piano or the shocking Indonesian genre, lagu sayur, which populates a gamelan framework with Western orchestral instruments and Hawaiian guitar (heard to stunning effect on Smithsonian Folkways' recently issued Music of Indonesia 3: Music from the Outskirts of Jakarta).
Sadly the traditional Gypsy brass bands of the Balkans are giving way to cheaper-to-hire electric ensembles that also satisfy a taste for Western-oriented music. But with its mix of musics from American pop to Bollywood film soundtracks, Fanfare Ciocarlia stakes a claim for the traditional as endlessly elastic.
Check out this week's featured ad for Bars & Clubs