February 22, 2014
Romano Drom’s performance at Roulette on February 22nd, part of the World Music Institute’s World to Brooklyn series, was remarkable not only for the group’s virtuosic playing, but also for the casual atmosphere the organizers were able to create. In introducing the band, W.M.I. artistic director Karen Sander described the goal of the World to Brooklyn series as bringing in artists from around the world for performances that have the feel of a dance party in those artists’ native land. This show certainly met that goal. Romano Drom’s set began as a more conventional concert, with the audience mainly listening. As the evening progressed, however, the audience grew more spirited and the band’s playing shifted, easily, naturally, to accommodate the dancing crowd. That the band was excellent from beginning to end speaks to the talents of its members, as well as their high level of showmanship.
Romano Drom—the name translates to “Gypsy Road”—is among Hungary’s top gypsy bands, and the evening itself was given over to Roma culture, with a slideshow of photographs of daily life among the Roma and a dance lesson offered before the band’s set. The evening began with a cocktail hour, with Hungarian wine and brandy on offer at the bar—not a bad way to get your audience dancing. The band’s performance was followed by a DJ spinning music from the region until the night’s end.
Romano Drom’s set began with three band members on stage, singer/guitarists Antal Kovács and József Balogh and drummer Máté Antal Kovács. The trio began a slow song, Antal Kovács the lone singer, his voice rich with emotion, backed by tambourine and a mounting, ever more textured sound from the drums. After this intro, drummer Kovács took up a jug—it looked like a one-handled Grecian urn, but made of pressed tin—and began a duet with the singer, whose vocalized percussion, somewhere between scatting and beat-boxing, only emphasized the voice-like character of the sounds coming from the jug. The two continued in 2/4 time, the tempo slowly picked up, until it reached a frenzied pace, and percussionist Krisztián Kovács stepped onstage and began to dance. The crowd applauded, János Egri walked out to play bass, the band launched into its third song, and the show was underway.
The music of Romano Drom features lyrics in the Oláh Gypsy language. The two singers’ voices reach for the upper bounds of the tenor, or dwell on a rich, resonant lower tone, at all times aiming for a gritty, emotive quality. Musically, the band lists such influences as Catalan rumba and Arabic, Balkan, and pop rhythms. Two features that stood out to me, popping up again and again throughout the band’s set, were the stolid two-note bass lines—a driving back and forth from tonic to lower dominant—and a particular drum beat, the kick drum falling on beats one and three in a four-beat measure, a syncopated snare falling on the upbeat of three, and another snare squarely on four, a beat I associate with reggaeton and know mainly from hearing it everywhere I go in Sunset Park.
Most of the songs in the band’s set were in a minor key, which, paired with the two nylon string guitars, gave the music a particularly Spanish flavor. Many songs started with a slow introduction, with the drummer adding texture and the singer embellishing the melody with coloratura, before bass and drums would lock into a rhythm and the song would properly begin. The seventh song played that night started this way, moving from the slow emotive introduction to a minor verse at a powerful mid-tempo, the drummer driving the song forward with that staggered beat. As the tempo picked up, the band suddenly modulated to a major key, the drummer shifted to a straight four-on-the-floor dance beat, and suddenly the band was playing a 12 bar blues, complete with seventh chords, and sounding like Appalachian folk.
These two means of modulation—a slow acceleration in tempo; a sudden shift from minor to major key—were the band’s hallmark. Besides this, there were the singers’ tight two-part harmonies and the subtle shift effected through slightly different drum beats. As the evening progressed, the band took a cue from the energized audience and grew freer in its playing, adding guitar solos and long percussion breaks.
After finishing an 18-song set, the band came back for an encore, starting out again with a slow, expressive solo vocal and moving into a quick and ever accelerating 2/4 rhythm—think “The Hora”—that gave way to a breakdown in half-time. By this point the audience was fully engaged: there were older couples dancing next to me, twenty-somethings commanded the middle of the floor, two toddlers wobbled gleefully just in front of the stage. The song ended and Antal Kovács, the band leader, bid the audience bravo, each member took a bow, the lights came up and the crowd filed out—some headed home, others waited for the DJ to keep the dance party going.