Emir Kusutrica's 1995 film Underground opens in a frenzy. A horse-drawn wagon hurtles through the streets of Belgrade with a Gypsy brass band chasing behind it, blowing their instruments at a breakneck pace as a gangster aboard the wagon fires a pistol at them. The gangster is Petar Popara Crni, who has just joined the Communist Party in protest of the impending Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia. The Gypsy brass band will follow him throughout the three-hour film (cut down by two hours from its original release), providing an ongoing soundtrack and commentary for his wild misadventures.
The band you see on the screen is not Fanfare Ciocarlia ("Just actors," the band's representation sadly told me), but the music is theirs. Repeatedly during the film, these actors mime playing a rendition of "Kalashnikow" recorded by Fanfare Ciocarlia. In a film as famous for its hyperkinetic style as for its controversial take on the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, this propulsive wedding song provides the tempo for almost every scene. The results feel like a home movie of an endless party in which one of the guests has gone mad with liquor and has begun to attack his best friends. Additionally, the camera operator has likewise gone mad and decided to play the film back at twice its usual speed. Horns blare, violence erupts and a city burns three times in Underground, all with terrifying alacrity.
While "Kalashnikow" does not appear on Fanfare Ciocarlia's newest album Baro Biao <World Wide Wedding>, fans of Underground's frenetic soundtrack will not be disappointed. The 18 tracks on this CD present a dizzying, virtuoso display of a style of music that is on the fast track to extinction in east Romania, the band's home. A mixture of Gypsy melodies and military marches, the music remains alarmingly fast, the volume startlingly loud, seeming to posses enough muscle to meet any challenge. Unfortunately, this sort of large-band brass ensemble is growing scarce as younger musicians form smaller, more portable groups. The sounds Fanfare Ciocarlia produce require real labor, as they must drag their heavy instruments from place to place, where they hoist the heavy brass into the air and force sounds out of them with powerful blasts of air. One grows exhausted just listening to it, imagining the effort required to produce these sounds, and it is no surprise that new players for this style of music are rare. This is a thrilling, robust music, and even when nobody is left to play it, the echoes produced by Fanfare Ciocarlia will linger in the air, still bouncing off the walls, a memory of an astonishing party that has ended. - Max Sparber
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