Onwards to Mars, or Onwards to the (Ten) Fields?

No, we're not going to Mars, but perhaps the (wedding) music of Fanfare Ciocărlia can help us make our way back to a marriage with the fields [part 3/6]

When I finally made the first steps to end my abstention after more than ten years in the "musical wilderness" – where I of course overheard music on many occasions but didn't actually own any myself nor even so much as turn on a radio – there really wasn't any doubt as to which was the only group of musicians I'd heard in the past that I had any interest in listening to again: Taraf de Haïdouks. And in particular, their (2001) album Band of Gypsies.

The album isn't a play on Jimi Hendrix's ensemble but reflects the fact that Taraf de Haïdouks are in fact a bunch of Gypsies, from the Romanian village of Clejani. Consisting of several violins, accordions, cimbalom, double drum, upright bass, flute and clarinet, what made Band of Gypsies a bit different from Taraf de Haïdouks' other (excellent) albums was that three of the fourteen songs – three standout songs – had an additional brass accompaniment. As I belatedly found out upon re-listening to the album in 2016, this brass portion was not performed by Taraf de Haïdouks members but rather by a group of guest musicians, that being the Macedonian brass band Kočani Orkestar (from the town of Kočani), also a band of Gypsies and hence the album's title.

Abhorring the "music scene" and not quite willing to venture out from my "safe space", I spent three or so months in mid-2016 listening to nothing but that single album until I happened to find out that a Band of Gypsies 2 album had been released during my abstention (2011), one in which Kočani Orkestar play the album's entirety. I of course instantly snatched it up, and as I prefer the music I listen to to be rather overwhelming I wasn't disappointed.

After two months or so of then listening to nothing but Band of Gypsies 1 and 2 I was finally willing to venture out a bit further, and after finding three of Kočani Orkestar's albums to be rather good (and a few others, well, not so good), it was upon hearing their album Neat Veliov i Kočani Orkestar (Veliov being the lead trumpet player) that I was so blown away that I couldn't help but get the impression that all that American brass I'd heard over the years was little more than a confidence scheme (and that brass without a Turkish marching band percussion could never be adequate again). Getting the impression from the latter album that there was something rather extraordinary to this... Balkan Brass?... Gypsy Brass?... I finally decided to venture out even further to see if there was possibly something lurking out there waiting – needing – to be discovered. My search (yes, on YouTube) was more miss than hit, until, and therefore pretty much directly following my ten-plus years of musical abstinence, I somehow managed to go straight to hitting the mother lode.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. WTF is THIS?

Fanfare Ciocărlia – Caravan

This, as I found out, was what happened to be yet another Gypsy band from Romania, this one by the name of Fanfare Ciocărlia, and they were apparently covering – no, owning – what I later found out to be a song by Duke Ellington. Not sure if these guys were just a one-hit wonder I listened to the album the song was from (their fourth), resulting in me hastily purchasing said album later that day, quickly followed by their third, then their second, and then after also purchasing their first album by the end of the week I could then say with confidence that I understood what it was like to be a (sleep deprived) pig in shit.

If you've never heard Fanfare Ciocărlia before then perhaps you shouldn't, because once you do there's a good chance that brass music – possibly even music itself – won't ever be able to sound the same again. Never mind that their ability to play their trumpets, horns, tubas, clarinets and percussion with such speed – yet deft precision – will make your jaw drop in complete disbelief at the seeming impossibility of it all, but the amount of joy and humour that explodes from their music – a veritable wall of sound – is so uncanny that it could very well be the elixir to cure Guy McPherson and his gang of nihilists. Not to describe Fanfare Ciocărlia's music too much just yet (I'll get to that later, with some samples), but how music can sound like this without being hokey or contrived or coming off like silly circus music is a wonder in itself.

To make a long story short, the members of Fanfare Ciocărlia all (except for one) hail from such a remote village in Romania's north-eastern province of Moldova that until recently it didn't even appear on any map, requiring those going to and fro by the train that didn't stop at the village to either jump on or off as it slowed down going around a bend. Several Gypsy families lived in the area for centuries, and in 1864 when slavery was outlawed the Gypsy serfs, freed from their feudal conditions, approached the Boyar for some land to farm and live upon. Being a kind man the Boyar did in fact give them ten fields down in the valley from which they could make their living, their village thus becoming known as Zece Prajini, which translates to Ten Fields.

Being hardworking peasant farmers they developed strong lung capacity but also hands that were inevitably too calloused for the intricacy required by the more traditional Gypsy instruments (such as violins), forcing them to gravitate towards the more amenable brass instruments. As the decades went by Zece Prajini became known amongst locals as the place to find the finest musicians, its farmers thus able to supplement their income as hired musicians by both Roma (Gypsies) and Romanians to play at their weddings, baptisms and other festivities – Gypsy weddings that could last for days and Romanian weddings where you'd better know the traditional songs as well as the latest hits, or else.

As the 20th century progressed atrocities such as communism (which collectivized Zece Prajini's farm land) and the Ceaușescu regime reared their ugly heads, although the men of Zece Prajini now also supplemented their subsistence farming with work at the local steel mill. It was here that Ioan Ivancea, who was to become the patriarch of what came to be known as Fanfare Ciocărlia, led the factory brass band who provided the service of being the ad hoc group of musicians on call for festivities of all sorts.

With the collapse of communism in 1989 came the return of Zece Prajini's collectivized land but also the closure of the steel mill, resulting in not only the villagers being out of their factory jobs but also in a declining demand for their musicianship since the out-of-work people in the area could generally no longer afford musicians that "extravagant" weddings called for. Making things even worse was the introduction of cheap (by all meanings of the word) DJs and keyboard samplers who increasingly took whatever meagre jobs for weddings and other festivities remained. Ivancea and his friends had little other recourse but to eke out a living with their farming.

The musicianship of Zece Prajini continued to fall into disarray until a fortuitous day in 1996 when a 26-year-old German trained in sound engineering, making his way through Romania, was tipped off by a local farmer about a village of talented musicians. The German, Henry Ernst, found his way to the village that didn't exist on any map, and upon pulling into a house looking for directions found himself at the home of Ioan Ivancea. Within minutes the village's inhabitants – all 400 of them, including 80 musicians – were out front to see the blue-eyed, long-blond-haired German, who upon hearing that he was searching for brass music ended up performing such a brass blast for him that he ended up staying not just a few hours but three months.

Determined to bring their unique sound to Germany Ernst convinced the musicians that such a thing was possible, even though he had no experience whatsoever with managing a band or organizing a tour. He returned to Germany and sold everything he had in order to raise the necessary funds, then returned to Zece Prajini to get the required visas and passports (of which none of them had, seeing how they weren't used to being even a few kilometres away from their village). Stunned that the crazy German was back and not kidding about it all, a dozen musicians were assembled and the name Fanfare Ciocărlia was forged – fanfare being a French term for brass band that had passed into Romanian, and ciocărlia being Romanian for a lark's song.

Fanfare Ciocărlia may not be going to Mars, but they certainly do belt out the greatest sounds this side of the universe since... well, if you believe in those things since the sound of the Big Bang (circa 1997, photographer unknown)

The band played ten shows over fourty nights, and although the music was a resounding success and everybody got paid, Ernst was left with wonderful memories but massive debts. It was an amazing run, but the show was over.

A couple of months later Ernst got a phone call from a radio station that wanted Fanfare Ciocărlia for a world music festival, but Ernst had no choice but to say that they were no longer available since there was no money left to pay for transportation, hotels, visas, food, etc. He was asked how much it would cost, and so out of courtesy put together some numbers. To his disbelief they accepted, and that very day Ernst and a friend created Asphalt Tango to promote the band. And as they say, the rest is history.

That history includes the unfortunate fact that in October of 2006, and after criss-crossing the globe several times over, Fanfare Ciocărlia's patriarch Ioan Ivancea passed away at home, clutching his cherished clarinet. Ivancea apparently wasn't your run-of-the-mill musician, and I'm not merely referring to some kind of extraordinary musical talent but the fact that he was also a farmer. And by "farmer" I don't mean to imply a multi-million dollar musician who got featured in glossy metrosexual magazines where he could rant on about his adherence to the latest faddish diet and about his garden tucked away in his multi-million dollar estate that allowed him to "get away from it all". No, Ivancea worked an actual farm where he grew maize, potatoes, beetroot, wheat, and more, to go along with "a cow, a horse, five sheep, lots of chickens and turkeys". When touring with Fanfare Ciocărlia he hired men to work his fields.

Nor was Ivancea someone to let international notoriety get to his head (pun intended), as explained by a passage in the chapter on Fanfare Ciocărlia in Garth Cartwright's 2005 book Princes Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians (where I've gleaned a fair amount of information about Fanfare Ciocărlia from, although an entire book could [should!] be written about these guys):

Henry offers a wan smile and suggests we visit Șulo, the tenor horn player. Șulo's from one of the village's poorest families and to make up for this he's proved adept at spending money: his house was Zece Prajini's first to have a bathroom and indoor toilet, something which had the whole village gawping and raised Ioan's ire: who needs a sit-down indoor toilet when you've squatted outside your whole life?

(Having read the preceding, Dr. Pooper [of The Dr. Pooper papers] asks me to relay the message that "a man who knows where to shit is a man after my heart", and that while he's now a huge fan of Ioan's he's not so sure about that Șulo fellow [the guy holding the single vinyl in part 1].)

Ioan Ivancea, his cow... and his shitter in the background? (photo © Arne Reinhardt)

It was with all that in mind that upon then hearing what I deemed to be the somewhat lacklustre post-Ioan Ivancea album Balkan Brass Battle (which I'll elaborate on in part 6) that I got the impression that Fanfare Ciocărlia had unfortunately lost their "magic" following their patriarch's passing. Making things even worse was my discovery that their latest album (released just a few months earlier) was titled Onwards to Mars!, which if you read my not-exactly-scientific post from three weeks back you'll know I think that this colonization of Mars thing is a crock of Dr. Pooper. Giving the album a quick skim-through I somehow got the impression (thanks to my prejudices against the Red Planet?) that Fanfare Ciocărlia was now putting out pop-like commercial schlock like many other Balkan brass bands I'd come across during my initial search (I won't name any names), and was feeling thoroughly disappointed that I'd missed out on Fanfare Ciocărlia's heyday.

While a Turkish friend and I chatted about how many bands lose it after the demise of their leader and should have disbanded rather than dragging things on, I did nonetheless find it hard to comprehend how one member could exert that much "magic" upon eleven others. So out of deference to their outstanding first four albums I eventually acquiesced and purchased Onwards to Mars!, subsequently giving it a few courtesy listens.

"Okay, I suppose it's not exactly horrible."

A couple of more listens.

"In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's not too bad."

A couple of more listens.

"Actually, I'd almost even say it's as good as their first four."

A couple of more listens and, as I soon thereafter stated in a super-secret text to my aforementioned friend via the Edward Snowden-endorsed app Signal (as opposed to Facebook's Whatsapp),

"What kind of crack was I smoking? Onwards to Mars! is frikin' amazing!!"

If I had to guess I'd say that Ioan Ivancea isn't quite on Mars but is nonetheless quite happily enjoying Onwards to Mars! (photo of Ioan Ivancea © Arne Reinhardt and adapted with permission of Asphalt Tango Records)

Yes, Onwards to Mars! does indeed at times have a dance music element to it that had been off-putting during my initial scan-through, but, and as I sheepishly realized, that does not equate to commercial schlock in the slightest. In fact, those first four albums of Fanfare Ciocărlia's which I found astounding all have that "dance element" to them as well, which should be of little surprise thanks to the unshameful facts that Fanfare Ciocărlia did after all hone their chops as a wedding band and that their music was, and is, associated with celebration. (Celebratory music, that is, that might result in you catching yourself with a "hey wait a second, my hips aren't supposed to be able to do that!" – unless your mother happens to be Colombian, then perhaps they actually are.)

In terms of associating Fanfare Ciocărlia with the colonization of Mars, well, that turned out to be a mix-up of mine, since upon later seeing one of the accompanying paintings inside Onwards to Mars! I noticed that you don't see a bunch of techno buildings on the Red Planet but rather a nice looking little village, much like the beautiful pictures of Zece Prajini that I've seen.

So while I subsequently got the impression that the title of Onwards to Mars! was a play on how much they tour around as Gypsy musicians, upon later coming across the back cover of their first album I discovered I wasn't too far off the mark. As it stated tongue-in-cheek some 20 years ago:

We used to play at weddings in Zece Prajini and all over Moldova. We've played in Germany and France and Belgium. Next year we're going to play America and Bulgaria and in a couple of years we'll be playing on Mars – just you wait!

As far as I now understand it, "Mars" is essentially Fanfare Ciocărlia's way of saying that they intend on sharing their music with anybody who wants to listen (and dance). Moreover, as I then read Ernst describing his first meeting with them all,

When they saw me so interested in their music, they thought I was from out of space, a crazy man – when I told them I would take them on tour in Germany, it was a like a trip to Mars.
The moral of the story? Don't judge an album by its planet

So no. Fanfare Ciocărlia hasn't lost its musical charm in the slightest, and nor are its members a bunch of techno-infatuated dupes under the spell of charlatans like Elon Musk – many of them still live in the same village of Zece Prajini (Ten Fields) where they grew up, some even continuing to grow crops and raise animals.

As I presume most if not all readers of this blog know, we're not going to be colonizing Mars. At best there's going to be a significant drop in the human population in the coming decades, and it most likely won't be by choice. Nonetheless, I'd still say there's much worthwhile that can be gleaned from Fanfare Ciocărlia, because while we certainly won't be going onwards to Mars, we most certainly will be going, in one way or another...

Onwards to the prajini!

The nineteen (and counting) members of Fanfare Ciocărlia (photo © Arne Reinhardt)

p.s. As an example of our rather sad state of affairs (and possibly indicative of the way in which many people actually think we're going to Mars), I've seen the above photo used by two online publications and both times the horse and other animals were (inexcusably) cropped out of the picture (see here and here). Art for art's sake? Music for music's sake? I think not.

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