Taraf de Haidouks Maskarada
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Taraf de Haidouks
Maskarada
Crammed Disks (www.crammed.be)

Whenever a musical artist (or artists) decide to record a 'classical' record, audience reactions vary. Is the motivation to appear more serious, as if western classical music anoints the artist with a kind of covered 'legitimacy'? As music critic Alex Ross has stated about classical music, the very name 'classical' implies to many that the music is dusty and dry, or that people do not compose 'classical' music anymore. Recording classical music is, then, a bit of a risk for the non-classical artist, who could be perceived as some hubris-filled Dr. Frankenstein seeking to revive the moldering remains of white-wigged composers. And that's where the Taraf de Haidouks shatter these preconceptions to pieces.

Maskarada is a concept album, where the Taraf de Haidouks turn their attention to composed classical works. The liner notes highlight the fact that no one in the Taraf reads sheet music: these are musicians who have relied on learning by ear, a main component of instruction in the gypsy musical tradition. To learn the pieces by Bartok, de Falla, Khachaturian, Ketelbey, Albeniz, and Kosma that grace Maskarada, the Taraf brought in musical coaches to move them through the material. Once learned through arduous practice, the group then allowed themselves to improvise on the musical pieces.

What is unique about Maskarada is that many of the composers chosen for inclusion on the album were inspired by folk melodies. For example, Bela Bartok was regarded as a 'nationalistic' composer because of his use of gypsy music in his work. In the early twentieth century, when composers were being pressed to sound modern - often a codeword for dissonant or difficult - folk-based work was first welcomed as exotic, but later met with disdain for being too quaint and not modern enough (especially compared with the dissonant work of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School). Maskarada allows for the Taraf de Haidouks to look backwards at history, re-interpreting classic pieces with the technique and feeling of the people who originally inspired the compositions.

The whole project works beautifully. This is art-house music without conceits, structures now infused with sensitivity and appropriate flights of wildness. Several pieces sound as if they could have come from an avant-garde cabaret. Bartok's "Ostinato & Romanian Dance" and Khachaturian's "Waltz from Masquerade" become magical gypsy circuses. At other times, the classical works sound as if they are gypsy music re-thought by Ennio Morricone. "In A Persian Market," for instance, has a beautiful melody accompanied, at times, by whistling: an Arabian fantasy in wild-west Romania?

One of the truly great surprises of Maskarada has to be the band's interpretation of de Falla and Albeniz, whose Spanish pieces sound fantastic in the Taraf's hands. The easily-recognizable "Danza Ritual del Fuego" by de Falla receives punctuation from the cymbalum. The listener has to really take in how the Taraf coax the lush textures of an orchestra from their gypsy ensemble: this is mark of incredible musicianship! Furthermore, interspersed with the classical pieces and rounding out the CD are original pieces by Taraf de Haidouks. Composers themselves, they provide commentary on the 'sourcing' of material they use; are these art pieces to be 'borrowed' by western art music in the future? The "Suita Maskarada" moves from a plaintive beginning, to whirling abandon at its conclusion. The Taraf de Haidouks remain themselves.

Or do they? The group has clearly grown on this recording and, aside from rising to the task of tackling classical music, the usually all-male Taraf also feature Stela Dumitru, a female cymbalum player and vocalist, on several tracks. The band shows us the rough beauty behind the concert hall, and the collision between imagining the exotic and experiencing reality. I find listening to Maskarada addictive, more so than other Taraf de Haidouks albums: the idea, the scope of influences, and the beauty of the group's music are perfectly focused. - Lee Blackstone

CD available from cdRoots

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"Ostinato & Romanian Dance"

 

CD available from cdRoots

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