Artist Profiles: Mahala Rai Banda

Mahala Rai Banda

Mahala Rai Banda is an “all stars” Gypsy (Roma) band that includes players from the rural villages and Bucharest ghettos, and combines virtuoso violin playing, spectacular solos by master cymbalom players and powered by a funky rhythm section.

Mahala is the common name gypsies use to designate the areas where they form the majority of the population, and which sometimes develop into small towns. Some call them Gypsy ghettos.

Rai is a word of Arab origin borrowed by the Roma populations that traveled through Persia then Egypt and whose migration ended in Romania in the plain of Walachia. These generations of Gypsy musicians (lautari) are considered to be a sort of aristocracy among gypsies and the term rai designates someone whose authority or know-how is recognized by all. Mahala Rai Banda literally means Noble Band from the Ghetto.

The band has two foundations, a family core close to that of Taraf de Haidouks, and retired soldiers originally from Moldavia. The first are the sons of the generation that left the little village of Clejane to settle down in the ghettos on the outskirts of Bucharest, grandsons of the late Neacsu. They are between 20 and 25 years old, who have grown up playing music, and having avoided the pitfalls of drugs and gangs, make a living by playing at Romanians? weddings. Living on the outskirts of a city they have been doused in modern culture which gives their otherwise traditional repertoire a pop twist.

The second, Gypsy as well, but from Moldavia (near the Ukraine), have been in the army all their lives, enrolled at the age of 14, the only way their parents could guarantee them a decent education. Even though in Communist times technically everybody was a comrade, an equal, in reality things were quite different. A darker tone of skin, due most likely to a Gypsy heritage, was enough for a quick association to be made, sending these youngsters into the seemingly futureless musical ranks. There, they learned to play a codified folklore of songs and dances with in-depth classes of musical theory. At the height of Ceaucescu’s reign, there were 30,000 musicians in the Romanian army, playing at public functions and official governmental events. Now retired, and on a small pension, they were discovered playing in a German restaurant in Bucharest.

Banda designates an orchestra composed of various instruments (violin, trumpet, saxophone, cymbalom, percussion instruments, and accordions) that belongs to no particular genre. It is neither a fanfare nor a folk band, but can be either according to circumstance. Traditional music from the countryside meets the radically modernist style of Gypsy music from Bucharest, Middle-Eastern ornamentation, modern rhythms and the more complex rhythms from the Balkans, and harmonies from the Banat of Moldavia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania and Turkey.

Through its music, Mahala Rai Banda combines the oral culture of the Gypsy lautari musicians and the rigor of the military fanfares in which the older members of the group originally played.

2009 Line -up:

Ionita Aurel – violin / vocals
Ionita Florinel – accordion
Cantea Georgel – tuba
Bosnea Aurel – baritone horn
Trifan Andrei – tenor horn
Zahanagiu Marian – trombone
Cantea Cristinel – trumpet
Oprica Viorel – trumpet
Mihai Cristinel – saxophone
Dinu Marian – drums
Mihai Enache – darbuka

Discography

* Mahala Rai Banda (Crammed, 2004)
* Suburban Bucharest (Trikont, 2005)
* Ghetto Blasters (Asphalt Tango Records, 2009)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. He was also the executive producer of the first Latino feature film made in North Carolina titled “Los sueños de Angélica.”.

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