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World Music

Gypsy Ensembles Offer an Eclectic Alternative

March 02, 2001|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

March has plenty of traditional holiday-centered music events--from Mardi Gras and Carnival to St. Patrick's Day. But this year's most unusual programs revolve around the appearances of two entertaining Gypsy ensembles.

Tonight at L.A.'s Conga Room and Saturday at El Camino College's Marsee Auditorium, the wildly spontaneous Romanian group Taraf de Haidouks offers its eclectic collection of Eastern European music. And on March 10 at Royce Hall, Turkey's Burhan Ocal & the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble bring a program based on the Gypsy minstrel music of the Middle East and North Africa.

The Haidouks have been internationally successful, with numerous recordings over the past decade or so, including an effort with the Kronos Quartet. But they remain a kind of free-floating ensemble from the village of Clejani, near Bucharest--a working band of varying musicians and instrumentation whose members still toil regularly at weddings and local events. At any given tour stop, they can often be found after the regular presentation, continuing to play outside the hall, in the green room, in the lobby, sometimes selling bootleg cassettes of their CDs.

They are, in short, firmly in touch with their roots, mixing high-spirited traditional music with individual virtuosic efforts and sheer, crowd-pleasing entertainment. Fiddler Nicolae Neascu often offers a stunt in which he ties a string of horsehair to his violin, sliding his finger across it to produce eerie sounds.

The success of Taraf de Haidouks, says the group's Belgian manager, Michel Winter, reflects the cross-cultural manner in which Gypsy music has blended into many societies. "You can feel the Turkish influence from the time the Gypsies arrived from there four centuries ago," he says. "The one thing that unites all Gypsy music is the free way they integrate traditional and local folk music . . . always improvising melody, lyrics, always adapting the music for new generations."

* Taraf de Haidouks tonight at the Conga Room, 5364 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., 8 p.m. $17 and $35. (323) 938-1696. Also Saturday at Marsee Auditorium, El Camino College, Torrance, 8 p.m. $24 and $21 for adults, $10 for children. (310) 329-5345.

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More Gypsy, but Structured: Burhan Ocal's Istanbul Oriental Ensemble approaches Gypsy music from a different stylistic standpoint, and with a more smoothly structured organizational approach. Ocal is a well-trained, versatile artist, a virtuoso percussionist who usually features a spectacular darbuka drum solo in his performances as well as a singer and dancer. In addition to his work with the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble, he frequently performs with jazz artist Joe Zawinul, with a variety of classical ensembles and--like the Haidouks--with the Kronos Quartet.

A popular figure in Istanbul, the dapper Ocal is the only non-Gypsy member of his six-man ensemble.

"I come from Kirklareli, a town that is about 100 miles from Istanbul, a center of Gypsy activity," he says. "I heard their music all the time when I was growing up--in the cinema and in the theater --and I told my father when I was 6 that I wanted to be a musician and play that kind of music. He wasn't very happy when I told him about the instruments I wanted, including the drums, but he understood when I told him how much I loved the music. The Gypsy musicians are all geniuses, no matter where they come from or what their local influences are."

The program Ocal brings to Southern California embraces traditional Turkish music as well as Gypsy pieces, including classical and Gypsy sounds from the Ottoman courts of the 16th century.

* Burhan Ocal & the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble, next Friday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine, 8 p.m. $25-$29. (949) 854-4646. Also March 10 at Royce Hall, UCLA, 8 p.m. $25. (310) 825- 2101.

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Catchy Tunes From Cairo: It's not Gypsy music, but Egyptian shaabi also comes from a kind of folk source, in this case the streets of Cairo, combining street slang and social commentary with catchy melodies over a blend of surging Middle Eastern rhythms and cutting-edge dance grooves.

Hakim, one of the most popular Egyptian shaabi stars, makes a rare Los Angeles appearance Saturday at the Hollywood Park Casino with a 16-piece ensemble. His first North American visit in more than two years is in support of his current album, "Yaho!," which has sold more than 1 million copies in the Middle East. Hakim, like Amr Diab, has worked to translate the powerful street vibe of shaabi into a musical product that retains its hardscrabble roots in an intoxicating, foot-tapping world-pop package.

* Hakim, Saturday at the Hollywood Park Casino, 3883 W. Century Blvd., Inglewood, 9 p.m. $45.

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