Gypsy Queens: Flammes du Coeur
"Gypsy Music" as a term encompasses songs and dances from every country the Roma (Gypsies) have inhabited, and there is still relatively little documentation of their music compared to the plethora of recordings in other genres. As a result, most of us are dependent on the choices presented in the various compilations that have come out. Gypsy Queens is an interesting collection of six female Rom vocalists. It presents a good range of styles, both national and artistic.
Some of the choices in this collection were inevitable; there can be no compilation of Rom divas without Esma Redzepova, who was the first to gain international fame. She can certainly still blow the house down, and she rolls her r's with incredible zest. While her rendition of the chestnut "Djelem Djelem" is overblown, she is incomparable when she sings a song straight out.
It is a pleasant surprise to hear the refined tone and subtle phrasing of the two Romanians, Gabi Lunca and Romica Puceanu. Their interpretations of traditional Romanian and Gypsy songs are a treat, although "Omul Bun N-are Noroc" sounds like swing filtered through some bad LSD. For a real descent into hallucinatory madness, listen to this track while staring at the publicity photo of Puceanu in what looks like fox-trimmed Reynold's Wrap. Then again, Romanian music can be pretty trippy in general.
The androgenous Dzansever came in from Istanbul, where she now resides, to record a few numbers for this compilation. This performance, while not her strongest, is certainly very commanding, musically satisfying, and the most redolent of Ottoman influence. Word is that she has now been subsumed by the pop scene in Turkey, so this taste of her former style makes one want to search out her previous recordings.
The youngest, and certainly the most pop sounding of the group is Mitsou, the lead singer of the group Ando Drom. She has a childish-sounding chest voice that just goes straight up, without changing registration. This can be powerful, but it has its limitations. In "Rien dans les Poches" the most arranged track, she is accompanied by the non-Gypsy ensemble, Bratsch. Her tone does not blend with their sweet voices and homogeneous sound, making for a track that never quite hangs together. But the woman has pipes, and when she abandons the posturing that clutters much of her singing, she is very, very good.
There is a pleasing range of vocal textures here; the harsh sound of La Macinita is a contrast to Dzansever's node-free clarity and the restrained, elegant delivery of Lunca. The quirky contralto of Puceanu contrast well with Mitsou's kittenish timbre. The accompaniment is all quite wonderful and one cannot fault any of the ensemble playing; it is classic stuff.
The Rom woman has up until recently had a strictly defined life within her community. She may be encouraged to express herself musically when she is a girl, but as soon as she is married, it is assumed that she will be a wife and mother. As a result there are not a large number of female singers that have achieved any degree of recognition, much less representation.
Perhaps that is why this two CD compilation is entirely devoted to only six singers, two from Romania, two from Macedonia, one from Hungary and one from Spain. But are these really the only jewels in the Roma's diadem? Surely there are other possible singers to choose from, particularly from the flamenco community, where there is a long tradition of female vocalists, and many stars. As good as the gravel-throated La Macinita might be, it would have been refreshing to have a pure voice like Lole Montoya's to contrast it with, and to show another possible interpretation. (Just take out that weird Romanian swing tune, and there would be room for it.) Maybe the concept of the title "Gypsy Queens" kept the producers from presenting some of the less well known singers out there. Then again, a collection like this will hopefully spur people on to search out more of this music, and the more demand there is, the greater the chance other Rom women will have to be heard. - Michal Shapiro
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