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July 4-11, 2007

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'Gypsy Caravan'

Road warriors: The members of Fanfare Ciocarlia take their act on the road.

Do As the Romany

'Gypsy Caravan' follows the fortunes of five remarkable bands

By Richard von Busack

Try imagining American pop music without the influence of Africa. It's just that hard to imagine what European music would sound like without what the Romany gave to it, in everything from lullabies to Liszt. Popularly called Gypsies, the Romany brought the sounds of Asia to Europe during their 1,000-year journey. Gypsy Caravan by Jasmine Dellal is a world-music documentary par excellence, done in the best Les Blank manner. The emphasis on the musicians' home lives, families and culture matches the exhilarating onstage performances.

Dellal and her colleagues (including Albert Maysles) shoot five bands as they travel together on a six-week tour across North America, fluidly flashing back to the performers' offstage lives. Renowned musicians in their own lands, the bands have certain slight artistic tensions as they travel by bus. As Romany, says one musician, they have "rhythm, language and feeling" in common. The singer Juana la del Pipa describes Romany music in Spanish as possessing "duende," something like charisma: hear it, she says and "tengo frio," you get a chill. Despite shared heritage, the musicians don't jam with each other easily at first; Gypsy Caravan notes that they can all most easily play with the band Maharaja, satin-costumed Rajasthanis who play the most ancient music of the Romany.

Dellal demonstrates the vastness of the musical world of the Romany. The Balkan brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia sounds a little like the Delhi wedding orchestra in the titles at Monsoon Wedding, possible evidence of Indian roots. But the musicians here note that they also were influenced by the Turkish martial music that fanfare bands were made to perform for the occupying Ottoman soldiers. When the incredible fusion band Taraf de Haidouks (Band of Brigands) performs, some of its tunes sound like the Hot Club of Bucharest. Gypsy Caravan ought to whip up more popularity for vocalist Esma Redzepova, the Macedonian daughter of a crippled shoe-shine man. Called, without fear of contradiction, the Queen of the Gypsies, Esma is a regal, full-size woman who declares herself the mother of more than 40 adopted children.

Representing the other end of Europe, Esma's fellow caravaner is Juana la del Pipa of Andalusia, a rugged, throbbing-voiced flamenco singer. Tia Juana is candid about how drugs almost wrecked her family. Perhaps most fascinating is the elderly Romanian countryman Nicolae Neascu of Taraf de Haidouks, the kind of person even Johnny Depp (interviewed here) reveres. This white-hot 80-year-old fiddler demonstrates the art of playing a violin with one hair of a bow.

Naturally, Dellal's film will be compared with Tony Gatlif's Lacho Drom. That film followed the Romany from the Asia to the Atlantic, showing us how the vocal ornamentation of Indian singing became the arabesques of flamenco. Gypsy Caravan is even more pleasurable; we feel we get to know the performers and began to search for their faces in a crowd as they spill out into an auditorium or a motel room. Gypsy Caravan did something that's hard to do today: It not only exposes unheard ethnic music, but it also opens up the world of Romany musicians who are especially (and justly) nervous of outsiders. The Romany here are everything the world thinks they aren't: hard-working and home-loving.

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