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Istanbul has long been considered as being the gateway between East and West, a two-way portal for the exchange of goods, peoples and cultures. Once at the crossroads of Roman influence and home to many diverse ethnic traditions, when that great empire shrank, certain cultures grew to dominance, others were displaced, migrated or dispersed. Among these dispersed peoples, we find European Jews and other tribes which can be loosely grouped as Roma or Gypsy, often leading itinerant lives, fiercely independent and fiercely protective of their historic origins and culture.
Whereas Western European music, strictly governed by the Church of Rome (and of course Constantinople up until the incursion of Islam), developed along well-defined and well-documented lines, the diverse musical culture of the Eastern fringes retained many links with older traditions, so that to modern-day Western ears this music sounds at the same time exotic as well as strangely familiar.
Different dialects of a shared language
Find a range of Eastern European Bands at Hop Till You Drop
Just as the classical Latin of Biblical times has evolved into the similar yet distinct modern ‘Romance’ languages found in Western Europe, so it is with the development of musical culture. Eastern European music sounds different because it developed in different regions and within different cultures, yet taken as a whole it shares certain fundamental features which make it recognisable and accessible to Western listeners.
The instruments nowadays played in a typical Gypsy or Jewish Klezmer ensemble are instantly recognisable – it is the idiom of the musical genre and style that is distinctive. Accordion, clarinet, violin, guitar, double-bass and piano frequently appear, much as they do in the popular and folk traditions of the West. Perhaps the only ‘alien’ sound unique to the culture is that of the cembalon, a hammer-dulcimer forerunner of the piano.
Sad songs of solitude, delirious dances of delight
As with the music of other displaced peoples the world over (Afro-American Blues, Portuguese ‘Fado’ etc), Gypsy music reflects a deep-rooted melancholy which characterises much of the repertoire – songs of yearning for home, searching for something lost, a quest for identity. However, this definitive mood is regularly interrupted by bursts of fantastically joyous, fast and frenetic celebration music, as exciting and uplifting (and danceable) as any to be found around the globe.
As in certain other traditions where music is learnt aurally, passed on from player to player without reference to a standard written version, individuality in performance is a defining element in Roma and Gypsy music, with a strong emphasis on variation and improvisation, making each rendition to a significant extent unique, as in Western jazz.
Versatile musicians adapt their performance style to suit the event
Gypsy and Klezmer bands will readily switch from playing attractive, atmospheric background music as accompaniment to a formal meal or drinks reception, to an engaging, interactive performance of more up-tempo music for dancing later on.
At many events, a compact ensemble will perform background music for the earlier part of proceedings, sometimes playing their instruments acoustically, and then augment with further musicians (often including drums) and amplify their sound to achieve a full-on dance-band impact. Naturally, this highly-adaptable arrangement is ideal for a whole range of different social events.
The development of Eastern European music in some ways parallels that of the West, in other aspects has diverged over the intervening centuries. Whereas Western art music fairly rapidly became a literate culture, evolving, progressing and changing in a highly visible way, music in the East continued as a predominantly aural tradition and so developed along different, more organic lines. Shared instrumentation and regular dance-forms bring the cultures closer, but the instantly recognisable idiomatic and stylistic differences give Eastern European music its attractive, exotic quality and appeal.
Evocative and nostalgic to listen to, irresistible and effervescent to dance to, a Gypsy band will present a flexible, adaptable performance well-suited to entertain guests at almost any social event, from weddings and private parties to corporate functions and public festivities.