A Belgian man changed folk music forever – but you’ve probably never heard of him

PUBLISHED: 17:06 20 December 2016 | UPDATED: 17:47 20 December 2016

Taraf De Haidouks became one of the most unlikely world music success stories thanks to the vision and energy of Stephane Karo

Taraf De Haidouks became one of the most unlikely world music success stories thanks to the vision and energy of Stephane Karo

Archant

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

Taraf De Haidouks became one of the most unlikely world music success stories thanks to the vision and energy of Stephane KaroTaraf De Haidouks became one of the most unlikely world music success stories thanks to the vision and energy of Stephane Karo

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.

Stephane KaroStephane Karo

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

Support The New European's vital role as a voice for the 48%

The New European is proud of its journalism and we hope you are proud of it too. We believe our voice is important - both in representing the pro-EU perspective and also to help rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

  • Become a Friend of The New European for a contribution of £48. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish).
  • Become a Patron of The New European for a contribution of £480. You or your company will be mentioned in the newspaper each week (should you wish) and you and a guest will be invited to join the editor at a special lunch in London this June to discuss the anniversary of Brexit.


Supporter Options



Latest articles

We will keep marching for the UK’s future in the EU

Why Saturday’s protest needs to be a display of unity for all our sakes

Just how reliant is our economy on workers born overseas?

It is not just construction, technology and retail that relies heavily on overseas workers. Brexit could impact industries across the economy.

Never has the truth about Brexit been more needed

George Osborne is not the only big newspaper appointment to make waves. Our editor-at-large Alastair Campbell explains why he’s joined The New European

Nicola Sturgeon on Scottish independence: If not now, when?

Theresa May is right that now is not the time for a referendum on Scottish independence. But if she disagrees with our timeframe, she must set out her own alternative

London attacks: how do you protect people from terrorism through urban design?

Westminster attack raises spectre of new ‘rings of steel’ to boost security in urban centres

Alastair Campbell joins The New European as editor-at-large

The New European has announced that Alastair Campbell is joining its editorial board as Editor-at-Large.

Bonnie Greer: With Brexit we have turned our back on the world – and our values

Not everyone who voted leave is a racist or a xenophobe but the campaign and its aftermath has attracted some dubious supporters

Brexit timeline: What happens next once Article 50 is triggered?

When Article 50 is triggered on March 29 there is a two-year deadline for Britain and the EU to complete the hugely complex negotiations

Downing Street tussles with Brussels over £50bn divorce bill as PM names date for Article 50

Article 50: The Government and Brussels have squared up after the PM signalled a date to trigger the formal process to quit the EU

Tory MP’s Hard Brexit warning

Tory MP issues a warning to party colleagues of the dangers of Hard Brexit, as he launches a new initiative to build bridges with Europe

Don’t send Ireland back to division

A family story of the close family bonds between Ireland and the UK, and what Brexit might mean for Ireland.

Dear Mr Gove, we appreciate how our values could be deeply irritating to you

For the avoidance of doubt, Michael, we hold you in contempt.

Indy Ref 2 is coming: the UK is no longer fit for purpose

Scottish nationalist Hardeep Singh Kohli is feeling confident about the prospect of independence for his beloved country

Jack Monroe on trolls, mental breakdown and that libel victory over Katie Hopkins

EXCLUSIVE: A libel victory over Katie Hopkins, a suicide attempt and the hope that we might all finally learn to be a little kinder to one another online

No green Brexit: why the implications look sinister for wildlife

The sinister implications of Brexit for wildlife have rather gone under the radar thus far. But it is likely that we will all see the impact soon enough

How spa culture is taking over Europe (and the 5 best places to join in)

There are few ways to relax that are more European than a trip to a spa. But there are also few things more fraught with potential embarrassment. Here, we provide a guide to the etiquette expected

Why we need a second Brexit vote: First law of politics is people can change their minds

People can, and regularly do, change their minds. The public should be given that option once the Brexit deal is done.

Higher education reforms and Brexit have become inextricably linked

The Brexit Bill is not the only one to have suffered a rough ride in the Lords in recent months.

Trending

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter