Before we begin, a few disclaimers are necessary. Firstly, I’ll be using the term Roma rather Gypsy throughout this review, as Gypsy is often seen as a pejorative term for the Roma people (even though Faith I Branko include it in the title of their album). Secondly, having a little bit of Roma in my blood, I am incredibly biased to the incredibly varied music that they make. With that out of the way, let’s just get on with it…
The story behind Faith I Branko’s Gypsy Lover is almost as beautiful as the music that they make. A collaboration between Serbian “gypsy violin maestro” Branko and English circus performer and accordionist Faith, this debut was born from the developing friendship between these two performers, in which, without a shared language, their music became their method of communication. As their friendship deepened and their musical simpatico intensified, so did their feelings for each other. Sadly, after months on end of playing and composing, Faith returned home to her separate life of touring and performing with the traditional English circus troupe Giffords Circus. But fate played its part: when Faith eventually returned to Serbia, she reconnected with Branko and, despite the problems that life tends to throw up, they eventually married.
Gypsy Lover tells the story of their meeting and their marriage, and how their love for each other helped them overcome every obstacle. If the music was rock rather than Roma, you’d probably call it a concept album, but such a word doesn’t do justice to the essential truth of their story and the perseverance they showed that finally delivered them happiness.
As for the music itself: well, wild is probably the closest word that sums it up.
Gypsy Lover has at its heart the swing-jazz style of Roma music, the style that is probably most familiar to Western listeners: think violin and acoustic guitar, stand-up bass and accordion, an up-tempo pace that borders on the frenetic, and a distinct lack of vocals for the majority of the songs. It is joyous, passionate, boisterous, fiery and spirited. Opening track ‘Bumbar’ sets the scene, Branko’s lively and scratchy violin something that Paganini would have been proud of, Faith’s nimble accordion accompaniment providing a beautiful bedrock, especially so considering that these are the only two instruments featured. ‘Fa Di Do’ messes with this format nicely, adding a drumkit and a fat horn section into the mix, so that the track ends up feeling like a hybrid of their style and that of traditional Roma brass bands that can be found all over the Balkans. ‘Sister’ (one of the few vocal tracks) tells in witty fashion the story of Faith’s friend Jannah, who crossed the ocean to attend their wedding, and is set to the same kind of breakneck accompaniment as ‘Fa Di Do.’
And so on it goes, each track more intense than the next, apart from the few obligatory tortured torch songs, all of which will break your heart and make you cry. ‘Valjevo’ is perhaps the most moving of these – it tells the story, both musically and vocally, of the troubles they faced prior to the wedding, and is as wrenching as anything I’ve heard and yet paradoxically contains a burning coal of hope. If you have a place in your heart for Roma music, then Gypsy Lover is a must. It even includes an oh-so-fashionable remix as its final track, giving the album the kind-of cross-cultural atmosphere reminiscent of other Roma-inspired bands making waves in the Western world.