German by birth but Romanian at heart, world-traveler Henry Ernst was in Canada making a new record with Fanfare Ciocărlia when we reached him by phone. The big Gypsy brass band, renowned for lacing high-octane traditional dances with winking Western influences, performs outdoors at Duke Gardens on September 23.
Ernst first became a record producer, band manager, and record label proprietor—Asphalt Tango is now an authoritative Balkan and Eastern European music label—for the sole purpose of bringing Fanfare Ciocărlia’s music to the world, stewarding them from playing weddings in their remote Romanian village to touring the globe, winning a BBC Radio 3 World Music Award, and getting sampled by Basement Jaxx. None of it would have happened if not for a passing conversation between a Romanian farmer and an itinerant German music lover. We learned more about the serendipitous story from Ernst, who also offered some reassuring words for any non-dancers out there.
The Thread: Can you tell us about the record you’re working on in Canada?
Henry Ernst: We have been recording ten tracks for a Canadian guitarist called Adrian Raso who invited the band to play on his new record. It’s probably between jazz manouche, Gypsy swing, and Mediterranean music; very nice stuff. He simply contacted us saying he was a huge fan of the band, and wanted to ask if the band could imagine joining a studio recording. We have been listening to his material and the band enjoys the music. So it goes very simply, very quick. We arranged his original compositions into a Fanfare Ciocărlia style.
Would you mind telling the story again of how you discovered Fanfare Ciocărlia?
I have been traveling in Romania for more than 20 years. On one of my travels, I had been very near to the village [where they lived]. I was talking to a farmer, buying gasoline, and it came up that I liked the music of Romania very much. He told me, “Hey man, go straight ahead and there’s a tiny village called Zece Prăjini, where Gypsies live who play brass music.” This was totally new to me, so I say, “Yes, cool,” and go there to have a listen. I was supposed to be there for one hour, but when I heard the music, they simply blew me away. So I stayed three months and the idea came up to present this music in other countries, in my native country of Germany. This was back in 1997.
What was it about this music that you thought needed to be shared with the world?
I had been invited by the senior musician of the band to his house. He gave me a beer, and within five minutes, a young musician and a very old musician came up and they just started playing. It had such power, such humor—it was totally unique, you know? They play traditional dances from the region, cover versions from some pop music, traditional music from other countries like Bulgaria and Serbia—you can’t hear this music anywhere except in their village. It is very isolated and they perform their music in their own way.
Has that changed now that they’ve been touring the world for 15 years?
Of course, because of touring and doing projects with musicians from other countries. They got more open and added small parts of different styles like rock and jazz. But the roots and the philosophy behind their music are still based on their background.
What drew you to Romania in the first place?
I grew up in East Germany and Romania was one of the countries we were permitted to travel in. I fell in love with this country because it has a very nice countryside with very nice people. I have been everywhere in the world, but I would say Romania is the place I wish I had been born.
Were you already a record producer and manager when you first encountered the band?
No, I had been a sound engineer but had nothing to do with the music business. When the idea came up, I sold everything just to get the cash flow. I started reading music magazines and newspapers to get addresses of clubs and contacted people describing their music, convincing them to book this band. Later on, let’s say, I learned the stuff I needed.
Did it take any persuasion to get them to form this touring band?
Not at all. When I told them the idea to travel on the road, they really enjoyed it and said they couldn’t believe it; it sounded too strange to them. In fact, we had to do the first tour before they realized it was true and we can continue in that way.
Because at first, they were basically a wedding and party band in their village right?
Yes, they played in the village and neighborhood villages, but they never played on the road or abroad, so it was a very local music.
Can you tell us a bit about the regional history of their music?
The main styles are from the Romanian tradition—dances like the Hora and Sîrba, which is a very fast dance for couples. But they also play Batuta which is based on the northeastern region near to Russia—the Moldavian Republic, which are usually very fast tunes and dances. But all combined with ballads, chansons—it’s called doina in Romanian, which means very sad, slow songs.
Fanfare Ciocărlia is obviously a tremendous dance band, but what about as a listening experience for people who don’t like to dance?
Our experience is that everybody will start dancing, even people who say “No, no, I can’t dance; I don’t want to dance.” [Laughs] This is music which is very infectious, you know? You listen to this and you can’t stop from tapping your feet and then starting dancing.