Backstage with Fanfare Ciocărlia

This interview with trumpet player Costica "Cimai" Trifan of Fanfare Ciocărlia, a Gypsy brass band from Romania, originally appeared on the Stern Grove Festival website as part of a series of artist interviews.

How far back do Fanfare Ciocărlia's musical traditions go?

The origins of brass music of the Balkans and Romania go back to the 14th century. At this time, the Ottoman Empire occupied large parts of this area. The occupation was accompanied by the deployment of huge army divisions, which included large army orchestras. Wind instruments played a central role in these orchestras: trombones, shawm [a double-reed instrument, predecessor to the oboe], and horns were loud instruments with which the music of the occupiers was carried to distant fields. These orchestras usually marched in front of the army into battle, to proclaim the certainty of victory of the opponents' attackers with a loud martial music, and thus instill fear and terror.

However, the real boom of these instruments starts in Romania at the end of the 19th Century. At that time in Germany, Austria, and Hungary, brass bands were in great fashion and even a kind of popular movement. Local folk music, operettas, and marches were performed on Sundays in parks and were indispensable to festivities in cities and villages. Almost every village and every fire department has its own brass band. The minorities of Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians in Romania followed the musical culture and fashion from the "mother countries" and soon they had their own brass bands.

Today, all villages' festivities of all those minorities living in Romania are celebrated by those orchestras. This musical fashion was soon acquired by the Romanian population, too. Brass music has been celebrated for 100 years since in Zece Prăjini [Fanfare Ciocărlia's hometown] and was the most important source of income and identity for its inhabitants. The musical tradition has been handed over from generation to generation.

How has the influence of other musical styles affected the band's Romani roots?

Romani roots have always been a melting pot of all cultures. We live scattered all over the world. We mix and interpret the culture of the country where we live with the musical traditions of our people. This is the phenomenon which is generally known under the brand of "Gypsy music."  Musical and cultural influences play a big role for us and are a guarantee that our style again and again "reinvents" itself. The roots will be preserved—but they sound again and again in a new way. This is perhaps also the reason why our musical style is alive and not dead.

Romani music often utilizes a variety of instruments, including strings and accordions. Why does Fanfare Ciocărlia focus specifically on brass?

The region where we live was a very poor area. The people lived mainly from farming the barren land, life was hard, and hunger was a famous guest. The people toiled day after day on the field and their hands looked accordingly. Heavy hands with calluses hardly lent themselves to music on fiddles or accordions. Brass music was different. Here you needed strong lungs and no delicate fingers. That was perfect for rural residents and was a hit in the region. Therefore, the focus on brass.

What does a typical Fanfare Ciocărlia rehearsal look like?

A typical rehearsal starts with a tasty local brandy. Then we go step by step through our repertoire, perfect a few things here and there, and sometimes we change a few solos. If a musician comes up with an idea for a new title, he whistles the melody and together we develop the piece further. The gentlemen at the tubas work on the bass- and rhythm-line, the trumpets search for the perfect riffs, and the percussionists for the right groove. All in all, with pure and well-organized teamwork, we are far away from the typical brass band hierarchy of having a bandleader and boss and some slaves… We all grew up together and we have known each other since childhood. Each one of us has his own valuable talent, and together, we are the complete puzzle!

"Fanfare Ciocărlia" translates as "Lark’s Song." What is the significance of the lark to the band and Romani culture?

There is a saying among Gypsy musicians for a talented musician: “he plays like a nightingale.” Well, we have written this expression to our flag from the beginning and named ourselves Fanfare Ciocărlia. Self-consciousness can never hurt!

Copyright Stern Grove Festival Association, 2013