Bands of Gypsies, Assisting Us in Achieving Harmony in the Face of Collapse
Fanfare Ciocărlia's lead vocalists (and trumpet players) Rădulescu Lazăr and Costică "Cimai" Trifan, as well as the late Ioan Ivancea

Bands of Gypsies, Assisting Us in Achieving Harmony in the Face of Collapse

By being seeds of music, can bands of Gypsies help bring harmony and light to the world, particularly in what appears to be the coming years of darkness? [part 4/6]

Back before I'd discovered Fanfare Ciocărlia and was (almost contently) listening to nothing but Taraf de Haïdouks, Kočani Orkestar, and their Band of Gypsies combo act, I spent some time doing a bit of research on them all (if bouncing around the Internet counts as research) and came across a Romanian event called the Balkanik Festival which the Band of Gypsies was headlining the following month. As the festival's website stated, "Both bands will join their instruments and forces in a never-before-heard repertoire". I took that to mean an upcoming Band of Gypsies 3 album and tour, and although I was rather intrigued about such a possibility there was of course no way I was going to fly all the way to Europe to catch a sneak peek (I'll catch them in Australia if they return here).

But on top of that it was also stated that the Band of Gypsies' new music was "meant to demolish all prejudice, walls between people, countries, ethnicities and continents." That I couldn't help but roll my eyes at a bit, what with it essentially being the musical equivalent of the rather flaky lament of "I understand it now – all we have to do is love one another!" As if that weren't enough, having discovered Fanfare Ciocărlia a few months later I was quite surprised to find out that the Band of Gypsies weren't the only band of Gypsies associated with bringing peace and harmony to the world.

Turns out that not only was the European Union awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, but that the day after the EU received its award Fanfare Ciocărlia played the Nobel Peace Prize concert as the invited musical representatives of Eastern Europe. (I'd embed the audio clip of the performance, or provide a link to it, but all I could find was a dual audio-video feed. And since FF2F doesn't embed or even link to video feeds that means you'll have to seek it out yourself if interested.) As stated on the EU's website, "In 2012 the EU received the Nobel Peace Prize for advancing the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe." It also points out that "When awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said its decision was based on the stabilising role the EU has played in transforming most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace." Which is, to a certain degree, rather misleading.

I can't necessarily vouch for many of the Nobel Peace Prize recipients (I tend to prefer those awarded the "Alternate Nobel Prize" – the Right Livelihood Award), but I can at least say that they've got an impeccable taste in music

To explain why this is I'll address a question posed by Fanfare Ciocărlia's late patriarch, Ioan Ivancea, conveyed by Garth Cartwright in his book Princes Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians:

Ivancea: On tour I was watching a programme about the Third World, countries much poorer than Romania, and it gets me thinking why this fucking Bush and – what's that asshole's name?
Unidentified person: Blair?
Ivancea: Da. Blair. Bush and Blair, why are they invading Iraq and creating terror rather than helping the world's poor?

While it's arguable whether those such as "Bush and Blair" really care about the world's poor as much as they care about good optics, it shouldn't be arguable that not only were "Bush and Blair" invading Iraq in order to secure its crude in those precursor years to peaking oil supplies, but as William George Clark explains in his excellent book Petrodollar Warfare: Oil, Iraq and the Future of the Dollar, they were also doing so in order to stop Saddam Hussein from selling Iraq's oil in euros and thus threatening the free ride the United States enjoys thanks to its status as the bearer of the world's reserve currency.

In regards to the current situation in Europe, what it's now beginning to face due to peaking domestic and worldwide energy supplies (along with climate change and other resource shortages) is certainly not the blooming of democracy. As Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed explains in his latest book, Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence (which I reviewed a month ago),

[I]t is difficult to avoid the conclusion as we near 2045, the European and American projects will face escalating internal challenges to their international territorial integrity, increasing the risk of systemic state-failure.

On top of that is the rather uncomfortable fact that although democracy (which the EU was lauded for advancing via its Nobel Peace Prize) isn't strictly dependent on fossil fuels, our 21st century iterations of it certainly are. Put a bit differently, although Rome enjoyed a democracy long before the introduction of fossil fuels, this was democracy for the privileged few who had ample spare time for comfortable debate thanks to the "freedoms" that the harnessed energy of slaves allowed for, all of which was effectively a much smaller-scaled version of the "freedoms" that a much larger set of privileged are presently able to enjoy thanks to the harnessed energy of fossil fuels. Although the underlying implications of fossil fuels aren't generally recognized, what they've allowed for are such things as industrial agriculture, something that in itself has meant that no longer are many of us required to spend our time working in the fields to cultivate our sustenance, and so can instead spend endless hours with inconsequential political banter and/or playing video games (or possibly even playing political-bantering video games if such things exist – "Congratulations! You've fired everybody, you win!").

To think then that music can "demolish all prejudice, walls between people, countries, ethnicities and continents" is akin to adding insult to injury. Because the unfortunate fact is that peace isn't so much a state of mind or a state of shaking your booty so much as it's about access to resources and not having to fight over them. And it just so happens that there's never been anything in the history of humanity that could provide such a bounty for so many, and allow for so much "peace", as fossil fuels. (However, that "peace" can be quickly rescinded if you're inconveniently living on top of the deserts where "our" fossil fuels need liberating from.)

In other words, yes, a free kegger (fossil fuels are the closest we'll ever get to "free energy") can certainly bring people together for the time being and "advance the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights", but once those taps start to go dry the festive moods can turn sour and scapegoats can start to be sought after (no matter how good the musicians are), particularly if the underlying problems aren't understood and – supposing they even can be – dealt with. As it so happens, the spigots are starting to go dry (or rather, are peaking), violence/terrorism is on the rise, and very little understanding exists in regards to what's going on.

That all being the case, what's required of us – as simply a starting point – is to come to grips with the realities of peak oil, declining EROI levels and the fact that there won't be a replacement for fossil fuels, which in toto requires us to accept the onset of the collapse of industrial civilization. Coming to grips with all this often implies having to go through the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – something that Fanfare Ciocărlia can in fact assist us with. Or at least, its hijacked Twitter feed can:


"Collapse of industrial civilization? Who are you kidding? This is paradise!"


"Hold on a second. First communism collapsed, and now you say that the entirety of industrial civilization is going to collapse as well? That makes me so angry I could blow my top!"


"Okay, okay. How about we trade a bottle of wine – Fanfare Ciocărlia wine! – for a barrel of oil? Two bottles? A case? Please?"


Reality starts to sink in for a few initial members of Fanfare Ciocărlia...

...eventually spreading to the entire fanfare.


"Okay, fine. So it's back to the prajini and playing music for local weddings again. We can live with that. Sayonara!"

Attempts at humour aside, the collapse of industrial civilization by no means implies a ho-hum return "back to the prajini and playing music for local weddings again". Nonetheless, what some musicians (such as Fanfare Ciocărlia) can perhaps do is help us understand the celebratory nature of traditional forms of music, something that most of Western civilization generally isn't familiar with.

Because what Fanfare Ciocărlia's home-village of Zece Prajini (which translates to "Ten Fields") managed to maintain all the way up to the end of the 20th century, and against all the odds, was not only a people (tenuously) rooted in the land, but a people who also simultaneously participated in the cultural passage of a community's musical traditions from one generation down to the next. Case in point, Ioan Ivancea was found playing his father's clarinet at the age of five and began to learn from his elders forthwith, Costică Trifan began learning the trumpet from his grandfather at the age of six or seven, to go along with the fact that many members of Fanfare Ciocărlia had played together as a brass gang since childhood, often disappearing after school into the hills around Zece Prajini where they would try to emulate the sounds they heard their fathers and uncles playing in their yards and at various festivities.

So while we have in-situ seed-saving whereby seeds are kept alive by actively replanting them year after year – a process that keeps the seeds continually relevant by maintaining their contact with the changing conditions of the soil and the climate at large – what Zece Prajini may very well have accomplished is the equivalent of in-situ music-saving, a situation in which cultural music traditions were kept alive via passage from one generation to the next, all the while remaining relevant ("modern", if you will) thanks to a not-too-excessive exposure to the outside world.

Ioan Ivancea, passing on the "Ancient Secrets of Gypsy Brass" (and woodwind) to the next generations of Gypsy musicians? (photo © Arne Reinhardt)

However, like what has occurred to many Eastern European countries, cities, towns and villages after the fall of communism, Zece Prajini and its inhabitants became exposed to the greater world to a much larger degree that before, and by no means just musically. This can be a problem, as pointed out by Helena Norberg-Hodge in her book Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World, in which she conveys what happened to the people of Ladakh and their music traditions once they were progressively opened up to the outside world.

The cultural centralization that occurs through the media is also contributing to a growing insecurity as well as passivity. Traditionally, there was lots of dancing, singing, and theater. People of all ages joined in. In a group sitting around the fire, even toddlers would dance, with the help of older siblings or friends. Everyone knew how to sing, to act, to play music. Now that the radio has come to Ladakh, you do not need to sing your own songs or tell your own stories. You can sit and listen to the best singer, the best storyteller. But the result is that people become inhibited and self-conscious. You are no longer comparing yourself to neighbors and friends, who are real people – some better than you at singing, but perhaps less good at dancing – and you are never as good as the stars on the radio. Community ties are also broken when people sit passively listening to the very best rather than making music or dancing together.

Yes, Fanfare Ciocărlia could very well count as "the stars on the radio", although they most certainly haven't abandoned the traditional Romanian music they grew up with, nor have they abandoned their traditional Gypsy flair in the slightest. Moreover, the fact of the matter is that if Fanfare Ciocărlia hadn't gone off sharing their talents to the world (talents which were no longer in demand in their homeland) then not only would their music have withered away as countless other forms have as well, but their village of Zece Prajini would likely have been devoured by the insatiable maw of industrialism and turned into yet another (proverbial) parking lot. As put by Maria Ivancea, Ioan's wife, "Where would we be without Henry [Ernst]? Without him this village would be dead." (Henry Ernst being the German who "discovered" the musicians in 1996 and who has been Fanfare Ciocărlia's manager ever since, as described in part 3.)

But although the village of Zece Prajini may not be dead, its finely cultivated music may in fact be dying.

Before I get to that though (in part 5), I've done some searching, and while it's been nice to find various musicians around the world trying to play the music of Fanfare Ciocărlia – in places like Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles, Berlin, Switzerland, and more – not only does it generally lack Fanfare Ciocărlia's "very special gypsy touch, i.e. more warmth, more colour, and more shine" as Ioan Ivancea described the fanfare, but while at best being alright (and certainly not as fast nor as tight as Fanfare Ciocărlia), at worst it can sound like silly circus music or, at the other extreme, academic.

It's certainly not my intention though to discourage people from trying to play the music of Fanfare Ciocărlia (or whomever else), but having not had the cultural incubation that Zece Prajini provided its inhabitants, said music can't help but inherently lack that "in the blood" sort of "magic" that the members of Fanfare Ciocărlia enjoy thanks to the binding ties of their community and their upbringing. (And by "community" I mean community in its nitty-gritty sense of having to suffer those you live amongst, not its modern substitution for the word "club".)

Nonetheless, perhaps we can call those musicians playing the music of Fanfare Ciocărlia the attempt of finding said music some fertile ground in foreign lands in which new roots can be established, a situation in which music emerges not directly from a people's culture and its contact with the soil, but one in which it is making the attempt to adapt itself to conditions it's not "acclimatized" to. In other words, yes, the imitators may sound a bit... contrived... but what about the children of those musicians? And their children's children?

Again, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that a peaceful and equitable (re)localization of our cultures is not going to be an automatic result of the collapse of industrial civilization. With resource shortages having only just started to kick in, and whose effects are so far only being felt in the peripheries (unless you want to count the centres that are only just starting to receive an influx of fleeing migrants, vainly searching for a safe haven from the triaged peripheries), with very little realization currently existing as to what's going on there's not much indication that things are going to get any better before they get a whole lot worse.

Nonetheless, we should certainly do what we can  manage to (re)localize our cultures in all the ways we can, of which should include not simply the preservation of locally adapted seeds and livestock, building methods, decentralized power systems, local currencies, and so forth. Because as important as those things are, man does not live from sustainability alone. In other words, with Fanfare Ciocărlia being the equivalent of the masterly cultivated heirloom seeds facing the threat of extinction, rather than simply stocking up our preps with iPhones or vinyls or whatever it be in order to retain some recorded music, an even better idea would be if through all the emerging commotion our villages could somehow manage to cultivate their prajini and sow the seeds of Fanfare Ciocărlia and other forms of traditional and folk music (such as Taraf de Haïdouks). Because if we managed to do so, then it would certainly be possible that our post-collapse world could truly become a beautiful place.

And so, by being seeds of music, that's how bands of Gypsies can help bring harmony and light to the world, particularly in what appears to be the coming years of darkness.

(photo courtesy of Asphalt Tango Records)

A former filmmaker, now jawboning on the collapse of industrial civili­s­a­tion and the renewal of culture. .