The krs Ensemble,
Transylvanian Village Music
from Gypsy, Hungarian and
Romanian Traditions

(Rounder, 1999)

The tale that is told is that the Gypsies were once military people, probably military musicians, who trekked from India across Asia Minor and into Eastern Europe. They went as far west as England and Ireland. This amazing journey is evidenced in their caravan lifestyles and the fact that even Gypsies from places like Spain and Hungary can understand some of the language of Gypsies from as far away as Iran or Pakistan. From such ancient and absorptive beginnings came the music we feel we know to be Gypsy music today.

The krs Ensemble, with Sandor Fodor and Agi Szaloki, provides not merely authentic renditions of Gypsy music, but Hungarian and Romanian music as well. (Regionally, it's sometimes called "Transylvanian village music.") And the krs, with their mentor, Sandor Fodor (or "Neti" as he is affectionately called), perform an invaluable ethnomusicological and historical service as well.

The story begins with World War II and the oppression and terror of the Nazis. Transylvania, or Erdely as it is called, was somewhat isolated politically during the post-World War II years. Traditional folk music flourished and was collected avidly by Neti, a practice which continued with the other members of the krs. This did not occur without its difficulties, especially in a time when the political climate viewed such things as dangerous and anti-establishment. After all, it was music which fired up the spirit -- and that could lead to rebellion. It was music that saluted regional individuality -- and that could be interpreted by some as class consciousness and non-egalitarian thinking.

Today, with the crumbling of the Soviet empire, the formerly well-preserved folk traditions of the region are tending to fade. Fortunately, Neti has become the grand old man of Transylvanian folk music and can render the old tunes authentically before a microphone. His comrades, including young Agi Szaloki, a winsome young lass depicted smiling on the CD's cover, join him in performing and preserving this rich musical heritage.

If you don't know much about the Gypsies except what you've seen depicted in movies, you may have been misled. For one thing, they employ deception for the most part with a purpose -- to keep themselves isolated from the upsetting influences of the non-Gypsies, who are viewed as greedy landowners who do not share possessions and who suspect the Gypsies of all kinds of evil.

The King of the Gypsies is no king at all, but a dandy who can put on airs, spread goodwill and convince the residents of towns near Gypsy camps that they are peace-loving, non-troublesome Gyspies with money to burn in the town. He will speak for his people in a grandiloquent manner and make them think he is the leader of the troupe. Meanwhile, the real leader is unknown to the non-Gypsyies and their authorities. And that's how they want it!

But some of the stereotypes are true, especially the love of music and a penchant for musical prowess among them. A single dance can last up to an hour. Musicians, including the author of the liner notes, can wind up treating cut, sore and swollen hands with cold packs from the workout. It brings to mind Ringo Starr's weary cry, "I've got blisters on my fingers!"

Many people know little of Hungarian rhapsodies beyond their fervid interpretations by Franz Liszt. That is what this music will remind you of. But while Liszt has made dynamic and memorable compositions of the old folk tunes, there is a refinement typical of classical music, while there is a rough and tumble quality to the real stuff -- more like what you'd hear in a barn or around a roaring fire. That's what you'll hear on this recording.

The six performers of the krs and the three soloists who accompany them are mostly violinists, with double bass, cimbalom and voice for additional instrumentation. The sounds are trebley and there is much unison playing, and the pumping double bass provides a simple and harmonic bottom to it all.

Listeners familiar with the traditional musics of Western Europe will hear differences in these sounds from Eastern Europe, where the influences of the Middle East are evident. Turks overran this land time and again. The sounds of Islam, from the wailing muezzin's call to prayer to the engaging rhythm of catechitical recitation of verses from the Koran once insinuated themselves into the less modal, more familiar sounding harmonies of the indigenous peasant's music.

The effect is rapid, soulful music that cranks and grinds and whirls and dips. Much of it is dance music, so fast and furious a pace can be found in most of the tunes on this CD. When the music is slow, the crying of the human voice can be heard rendered as only it can be by the violin.

So sit back, crank up the volume, sip some Egri Bikaver and imagine a whole pig roasted over a fire spread all over with onions, red hot pepper flakes and rosemary. Imagine men and women twirling well past midnight in a forest clearing. The sun will rise, the old grandmas will have the breakfast frying on a pan and the entire caravan will stretch and yawn before beginning a new day with a celebration that could last a week. Get to your feet, stomp them down and shout "Hey!"

[ by John D. Cross ]

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