In Romania, the most famous and the most gifted musicians live in two towns. In Clejani, just south-west of Bucharest, the violonists, cymbalists, double bass players and other accordion players notably formed the extraordinary Taraf de Haïdouks. In Zece Prajini, north-east of the capital in Moldavia, you can find the greatest density of wind players per square meter, including the brass players of the famous Fanfare Ciocarlia. It is in these two lost villages, in the dust, the mud or the ice, according to the season, that you find the crème de la crème, the kings of the schmekers*, the instrumentalists who are half-genius, half-rascal, capable of stirring up a wedding party with a single solo launched at supersonic speed.
Knowing this, how do you find THE great Gypsy group, a sort of Balkan equivalent of the Memphis Horns with the rhythm section from Muscle Shoals, these two being the gold standard of soul music, combining power and finesse, groove and virtuosity ? It’s easy, just bring together the musicians from Clejani and of Zece Prajini! This is the magic equation, the stroke of genius, which guarantees you an orchestra – a taraf – which is hot as coals and led by the violonist Ionica Aurel. And to add salt to this mixture, invite guest singers such Sorin Constantin, Jony Iliev and Dan Armeanca, the king of the manea, forerunner of what was to become the manele, the Romanian pop of the 21st century.
The Mahala Raï Banda, supergroup of Roma pop. Appearing at first straightforward, combining the musicians from Clejani and Zece Prajini nevertheless proved to be a lot more complex. A good ensemble is not put together as easily as a martingale in bingo. There is first of all a history of encounters and of never-ending balls spent in Bucharest’s wedding bands. According to the tastes and the budget of the future spouses, Roma or gadjés, according to the affinities and the complementarity of the musicians, the lautari reach the big city and form and dissolve tarafs with a variable geometry capable of playing everything : traditional Romanian music, the Gypsy repertoire of the last century, manele or vertiginous adaptations of Abba or Madonna.
The story of Mahala Raï Banda begins at the end of the nineties with Aurel Ionita forming the group Rom Bengale in Bucharest. Their success had hardly begun-when this ensemble of young musicians was plagued and divided by addiction problems. Aurel Ionita then created the initial line-up of the Mahala Rai Banda – a name inspired by the Gypsy suburbs of the big Romanian cities – which released a CD on Crammed Discs in 2004. Extensive international tours follow while their compositions, such as ” Kibori ” or ” Iest sexy “, are henceforth counted among the classics of Balkan parties from Melbourne to Berlin via Bucharest. Nevertheless, in the opinion of its mentor, the Mahala Rai Banda was still lacking a final formation, a change of regime, in order to at last achieve what Aurel Ionita calls ” a real blast of brass “. Regular meetings with the producer tandem of Asphalt Tango, strengthened by their rewarding experience with many other renowned artists, helped Mahala Rai Banda to attain its dream of brass players in delirium and of unstoppable rhythms.
Aurel Ionita’s group mixes Romanian musical traditions, oriental pop, Catalan rumba, reggae and even manele, the Roma pop with ambiguous commercial success: the hit parades and Romanian media have never welcomed Gypsy singers straight away, but the latter, using and abusing the synth are the gravediggers of the traditional Roma musicians, the lautari. Keeping the spirit of an orchestra playing exclusively live, Mahala Raï Banda, with the tremendous ” Ghetto Blasters “, has released a disc where the pure pleasure of playing and partying overflows. May your nights be long, very long indeed !
Thierry Sartoretti (music editor, Vibrations, ” Le Bal des Tziganes “) rogues