It's not often we get to see a show like this: a selection of musical groups brought together to demonstrate the transcontinental migration of the styles of Rroma music, from India to the Iberian peninsula. The musical migration took thousands of years and, along the way, influenced many cultures, so today elements of Rroma music can be heard from Asia to Europe. The original idea for this musical pilgrimage was that of Tony Gatlif, a French film-maker who has chronicled the gypsies in three fine films, the first of which LATCHO DROM, showcased the musicians we saw in Berkeley on Saturday night.
Opening the show was the most colourful troupe: Musafir from Rajasthan. Though the globe is shrinking we still view this as an exotic place, the Northwest Frontier desert of the British Raj where fakirs walk on broken glass and snake charmers work their strange musical magic. In fact, the first thing you noticed when Musafir sat down was that the flutist was playing two instruments simultaneously -- one to set up a drone. The leader of the group, Hameed Khan on tabla, made the handclaps of the vocalists almost superfluous. Since the indian gypsies are Hindu and not Muslim, women are allowed to participate (Khan, a Muslim, makes a point of including all races in his musical endeavours). The woman singer who joined the group on stage was most spectacular in her finery. Only her eyes were visible, but you could tell by her movements that she was lithe and as tuned-in as her four cohorts. She left the stage to reappear dancing. As she whirled, those in the know waited for the impressive barrel rolls that mark this kind of dance -- they weren't disappointed. The dancer also bent over backwards, picking up two rings with her eyes: an odd demonstration of her flexibility.
After an all-too-brief twenty minutes, they got the hook as three Russians with guitars wandered on stage right and took chairs. Frankly I was so moved by Musafir that I couldn't forgive the Russians for interrupting them and was not taken with their music. The three guitarists of the Kolpakov Trio all playing at once made a muddy sound and I thought of the spare elegance of Django Reinhardt and wondered why they didn't find a solo guitarist for the show. After one of them put down his guitar to dance the music improved, but the dancing was strictly of the out-of-shape-guy-having-fun type as he kicked up his heels and slapped his ankles. A solo on 7-stringed guitar by the leader Sacha Kolpakov was the highlight of the set until Kolpakov got up to join the boot-slapping dance too and, while he gets credit for being limber at his age, it was not impressive.
The arrival of Taraf de Haidouks pushed things up a notch, and the musical highlight of the evening began slowly with a heart-rending version of the "Ballad of Nicolae Ceaucescu" that you'll remember from the movie. 80-year-old Nicolas Neaçsu slowly shredded the strings of his violin by unraveling them to make an eerie screeching sound. Accompanied by spooky hammer dulcimer and upright bass, Neaçsu's song was more of a staccato complaint. Even without understanding the words, the song was extrememly moving.
Taraf de Haidouks consists of an extended family from the Romanian town of Clejani. Their name means "Gang of Brigands" and they had a roguish charm in their purple double-breasted suits and fedoras. After the opening ballad, two new violinists came on with another accordion player, while the dulcimer player switched to a larger "concert grand" version of his instrument. As they vamped on a song that sounded like Ellington's "Caravan," each member soloed in turn. This was a stunning demonstration of their virtuosity. The dulcimer player hammed it up with some "Bela Lugiosi" riffs, the bassist played double notes, the violinists traded licks faster and faster and higher and higher until one was plucking the strings behind the bridge. One of the accordionists made his instrument sound like it was gasping for breath, reflecting the gob-smacked astonishment of the audience. The tempo didn't drop as they pumped out some fast-paced dance music. The most the audience could do was get up and give them a standing ovarion. So the curtain dropped on the first half.
The second half began off-kilter with a Bulgarian wedding band that featured a rock drummer and synthesizer player, neither of whom added anything to the music. Yuri Yanakov leads this motley group, and they played what seemed like contemporary Bulgarian wedding music. Yanakov's sax playing was good and the woman clarinetist who doubled on trumpet was also an exceptional player, but the audience was distracted by the singer, who walked on in a shimmering pink wrap that made her look like a radio-active sno-cone. Far from being traditional Bulgarian dress, it seemed like her fantasy from a Disney rendering of an Ottoman harem.
The best-known group of the evening was the Hungarian gypsy ensemble Kalyi Jag, who have several CDs in print. Beautifully attired in their embroidered finery, they delivered a solid set, though the boot-slapping dance seemed redundant at this point. They had a jug-player who added some amusing mouth percussion as counterpoint, but when the other percussionists started on their own mouths things got quite silly. I guess Carl Stalling goes down big in Budapest. And when the Berkeley crowd joined in clapping (not quite on the one), it was embarrassing. But fortunately the crowd soon lost the momentum and quieted down.
Not being a flamenco fan I was quite ready to go home at this point, but waited while Antonio El Pipa and his Flamenco Ensemble filed on and sat down. With one very spare and elegant guitar and hand-claps they transformed the evening. Though El Pipa seemed quite full of himself, he is one of the most remarkable dancers ever to strut the Zellerbach boards (Dance Theatre of Harlem notwithstanding). Not since the Ballet National de Guinee -- in my memory -- has anyone taken such a grasp on the audience. While an elderly dame in black shrieked a vocal complaint in a rich husky voice that seemed like she had damaged her larynx from years of this, El Pipa strutted and stamped. Finally he wrapped his long silk scarf around her waist and led her off. Then two elegant ladies came forward and showed their stuff. A far cry from the Gypsy Kings, this was the real deal: the choreography was precise and clean. The dance was erotically charged and the percussive counterpoint of clapping and choppy guitar riffs was riveting. From the intense emotional outpouring of flamenco you always get the impression they are telling you that their feelings are deeper than yours could ever be, but it was enough to just let it wash over you.
Afterwards Taraf de Haidouks appeared on the steps outside Zellerbach and played a couple more impromptu numbers for the lucky few who hadn't gone home yet. A fitting end to a wonderful evening.