The star of the band was undoubtedly violinist Nicolae Neacsu. A born showman, he had a permanent twinkle in his eye and was chasing the ladies until the very end, at the age of 78 in 2002. Performing since the age of five, he had invented a bizarre method of tugging a bow string attached to the lowest string of the violin, creating a scratchy sound that’s been much imitated since. In the film, Gypsy Caravan: When the Road Bends, documenting a 2002 Taraf tour of the US, he said: “Fate made it my destiny to feel good in my old age.” Yet this tour of America was to be his last and he died shortly after returning to Clejani. His funeral, captured on film, contains scenes of Taraf playing all night outside Neacsu’s window where his body lies in an open-casket. As his protégé, violinist Caliu plays, a relative shouts: “Wake up and tell him you’re a better violinist than he is!”Fanfare Ciocarlia, who formed around 1996, are perhaps the only band to come close to the fame of Taraf. From the village of Zece Prajini in the Moldavian region of eastern Romania, their sound is brash brass played at a thumping speed. They have been hailed as “the fastest blowers on earth” by their record label. Musical influences include Turkish and Balkan flavours, Bollywood and the West – they even have their own take on “Born to be Wild”. So their music is an earful of oompah-oompah marching songs on trumpet, saxophone and horns.“Some of us,” band member Nicolae Ionita says, “were obliged to play by our parents and grandparents while some of us had to fight for our own instruments. But we all learned the music by listening to it.”
Romania has thousands of talented Gypsy groups. Bucharest-based Mahala Raï Banda represent a fusion of the fanfare and taraf traditions. Their members include ex-army brass players and two grandsons of late Taraf violinist Neacsu. There have also been Clejani offshoots, bands such as Taraf din Clejani and Clejani Express that have tried to cash in on the success of Taraf de Haïdouks. Similarly, Fanfara Shavale come from the same village as Ciocarlia.