A Belgian man changed folk music forever – but you’ve probably never heard of him
17:06 20 December 2016
Stephane Karo took a Romanian Gypsy band on tour and became a titan of European culture, with a claim to being the continent’s greatest musical mind
Last month, a 56-year-old Belgian man was laid to rest in a Brussels cemetery. A group of mourners looked on while six Romanian Gypsy musicians played fiddles, accordions and a cymbalom (a stringed instrument the player hits with hooks) as the coffin entered the earth.
There was no media presence or large crowds to mark the burial, nothing beyond the musicians and the large, framed portraits of the deceased held aloft to suggest the ceremony marked the passing of anyone exceptional.
Yet Stephane Karo was a giant of European culture, a man whose energy and vision changed the landscape of folk and world and classical music, not least with the discovery of Taraf De Haidouks, the Romanian band who burst forth as soon as the Berlin Wall fell and would go on to enchant audiences worldwide with their Gypsy musical magic.
Taraf De Haidouks (Band Of Outlaws – Taraf is an Arabic word for musical ensemble that has, since time out of mind, existed in the Romanian language; Haidouks are the outlaws who one plagued Romania’s countryside and now enjoy a status akin to Robin Hood in that Balkan nation; the “de” reflects that Karo was a French speaking Belgian) enjoy a showbiz rags to riches story like few others.
From obscurity and rural poverty in Romania to playing Carnegie Hall in New York City and Johnny Depp’s private parties in Los Angeles, the Taraf became the toast of the cognoscenti. Their musical finesse was such that Yehudi Menuhin and The Kronos Quartet embraced the band while DJs sampled/remixed their tracks and all kinds of audiences rushed to see this most dynamic and entertaining of ensembles.
From autumn 1989 to autumn 2016 it was Karo who gathered, promoted, produced, managed and oversaw the Taraf, his faith in their collective genius creating a market for Balkan Gypsy music that had never previously existed.
Stephane Karo spent his twenties drumming in Brussels bands, managing club nights and immersing himself in all things musical. In 1988 he became enchanted by a CD Romanie - Musique Des Tsiganes De Valachia (released by the Radio France label Ocora) which featured a Swiss ethnomusicologist’s recordings of a traditional village Gypsy string ensemble from Wallachia, south west Romania. Listening over and over again to this album that sounded like nothing he had ever heard before, Karo became determined to seek out these mysterious Gypsy musicians.
He travelled to Romania in late 1989 and found that the Ceausescu regime had banned maps, so paranoid was the dictator of foreigners. Food was rationed and there were almost no amenities for tourists so Karo wandered across Walachia, drifting from village to village in search of Gypsy musicians.
Finally he was directed towards the impoverished hamlet of Clejani. Here he stood in the snow miming playing a violin and quickly found himself embraced by musicians.
Until the 1860s the Gypsies had been held as virtual slaves in Romania and Clejani was where a caste of musicians had lived for centuries. Fathers taught sons and these musicians played for the aristocrats and at local weddings and festivals. Clejani, Karo realised, was home to dozens of remarkable musicians, from teenagers to ancient, toothless men who remembered performing in Bucharest when it was referred to as “the Paris of the East” in the 1930s.
Karo stayed for several weeks, savouring the music, returning to Belgium having promised the musicians he would try and get them to Brussels. Yet under Ceausescu this seemed impossible, the dictator would never let Gypsies travel abroad as representatives of Romania.
When the regime crashed in December 1989 Karo immediately returned, assembled eleven musicians he named Taraf de Haidouks and brought the band to Belgium, signing them to Crammed Discs (a label he had previously worked with).
Their live concerts wowed audiences – the Taraf were not only virtuoso string players but witty, irreverent, innovative and experienced entertainers – and their 1991 debut album Musiques de Tziganes de Roumanie (produced by Karo and the gifted sound engineer Vincent Kenis) received international acclaim. So much so the French director Tony Gatlif cast the Taraf in his 1994 film Latcho Drom (Romany for “the long road”) where he choreographed Clejani’s musicians and villagers ala a Busby Berkeley musical. Gatlif would follow Latcho Drom with Gadjo Dilo (Romany for “Crazy Stranger”), a feature film starring Romain Duris as a young French man who wanders into Romania looking for Gypsy music (and finds it – alongside love and carnage). Gadjo Dilo was closely based on Karo’s life – he had married the daughter of the Taraf’s accordion player.
British director Sally Potter cast the Taraf in her 2000 film The Man Who Cried and it was here they encountered Johnny Depp. When the Hollywood star requested an audience with the Taraf the band had no idea who he was and Karo had to coax them into meeting Depp. This proved fortuitous as Depp became so enamoured with the band he championed them in interviews and booked them to play his private parties. All of which only increased their audience (and lead to gangsters back in Romania preying on the band – now far wealthier than most citizens in that impoverished nation).
Karo’s passion for Gypsy music and culture saw him discover, manage and co-produce Macedonian brass band Kocani Orkestar and Romanian party outfit Mahala Rai Banda. He lived his life very much as his Gypsy musicians did, chain smoking cigarettes and drinking heavily, loving the passion and chaos Europe’s most marginalised minority embraced. If the years 1990 – 2003 were gilded with success after success, Karo found the last twelve years far more difficult. His hard times began when the musical core of Taraf De Haidouks died one after the other of old age while he fell out with both Kocani Orkestar and Mahala Rai Banda.
The split with Kocani came after the Macedonians had completed a joint European tour with Taraf De Haidouks. Karo returned to his Brussels home with the tour’s takings, which were stolen. Unable to pay Kocani the brass band split, while Mahala Rai Banda left Karo for German management. He then fell out with his business partner, Michel Winter, the two old friends refusing to speak to one another for years.
Karo’s vision had created an audience for Balkan music and, around 2005, DJs and rock bands began adding elements of it to their sound. This annoyed Karo who felt the Taraf were being marginalised in place of faux Gypsy bands and DJs. I met Stephane several times – once taking photographer Tim Hetherington to Clejani - and the last time we spoke he was despondent.
Standing well over six feet tall, Karo was a giant of a man and a gigantic champion of Gypsy music.
Garth Cartwright is a London based journalist and author of several books, including Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians