Click Here For The Video
At the heart of Romania’s Gypsy culture is music. From the big cimballom bands of Wallachia in the south to the fiddle-based string trios of Transylvania, the Roma of Romania have helped put their country on the international music map. And though many are familiar with big-name bands like Taraf de Haïdouks and the traditional lautari musicians of their hometown of Clejani, there’s a host of other local Roma musical styles just waiting to be rediscovered. The latest of these is the ursari tradition, the music used by Roma to train their famous dancing bears, which has gotten a recent makeover at the hands of a group of producers and traditional musicians calling themselves the Shukar Collective.
Rooted in tradition and aided by technology, ursari is working its way into the pop market, eking out a folkloric niche in dance clubs around the world. Take away the bear, add a world-renowned producer, a few DJs and musicians, and what you get is a cohesive cultural expression that spans past and present. The vision behind Shukar Collective belongs to producer Dan Handrabur (Frontline Assembly, Mere Mortals) who put together the 15 tracks on their debut, Urban Gypsy (Riverboat/World Music Network).
“I’ve lived in Romania since 1999 and I’ve heard my share of Roma music,” explains Handrabur, “[and]for the past 10 years in the Romanian music industry there have been countless attempts at bringing traditional Roma music to the masses, however, all of them resulted in a silly brand of turbo-folk music, hated by the dancing crowd as well as purists. I decided to reveal the more aggressive and soulful quality of Roma music.”
Shukar Collective’s three Roma members—Napoleon, Tamango and Clasic—bring authenticity and tradition to the table. “This awful practice of bear taming involved taking the bear’s claws and teeth out,” explains Handrabur. “These singers’ grandparents were the last generation of Romanian Romas to dance with bears. Our boys only keep the musical tradition alive.”
But Shukar takes a giant bear-step away from the traditional sound of spoons and wooden barrels by teaming up with half a dozen non-Roma musicians, composers and producers in what Handrabur calls a “social integration experiment.”
He pooled talents like Cristian Stanciu, founder of Yama Studios and member of internationally acclaimed Natural Soft Killers Romanian double-bass master Vlaicu Golcea composer Mitos Micleusanu Lucian Stan, one of the founding fathers of Romania’s underground club scene and composer/filmmaker Marius Matesan. It was an undertaking he admits took months to coordinate, but was well worth it. The vision is simply to successfully mix ursari music with contemporary electronic sounds that could have a lasting appeal to both communities.
For the urban members of this outfit, it’s been an honor to work with veteran musicians like Napoleon and Tamango. Legends of ursari music, these two vocalists are seasoned performers, weathered by harsh village life in post-Ceaucescau Romania. Ironically, it’s their hard-won struggles that give their music its reassuring quality, a wisdom of sorts, the stuff no doubt, Gypsy stories are made of. Both live in small villages with their families and daily activities include riding a horse-drawn carriage in search of scrap metal to collect and sell.
The hardship of the Roma is undeniably present throughout Urban Gypsy. Napoleon, the younger of the two singers at age 38, appeared as special guest on Taraf De Hadouks’ 1998 Dumbala Dumba and brings a confrontational yet welcoming sound to Shukar. He sings with an intensity and philippic tempo (“Malademna”)