From the Gutter of The Lounge Lizards’ Confidence Schmuzic to Fanfare Ciocărlia and the Peak of Music [part 5/6]

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on March 27th, 2017

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The sounds of the Romanian countryside, unleashed by Fanfare Ciocărlia for twenty years and counting (photo © Arne Reinhardt)

As put by Ioan Ivancea, the late patriarch of the Romanian Gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocărlia,

Our ancestors were serfs for the local Boyar from Dagița [a neighbouring village] and were living on the steeps of the surrounding mountains. This was such a harsh experience, people struggled to carry water and firewood to the camp, so one day the tribe elder approached the Boyar and asked for a space in the valley. The Boyar was a good man and gifted them ten fields in the valley to live. Zece Prajini's name translates as Ten Fields. Since then all the families have farmed and played music. And always will.

Unless…

Unless the young generation of Gypsies turn to shit… The new music, it's bullshit.

As isn't particularly surprising in this culturally-diminished globalized world of ours, it turns out that to a certain degree the young generation of Gypsies have in fact been "turning to shit". While the members of Fanfare Ciocărlia (and Taraf de Haïdouks) have stuck to their traditional forms of music, the same unfortunately can't be said for Gypsy musicians at large, particularly the younger ones. While a new generation of brass musicians is unfortunately not emerging in Zece Prajini (a grandson of Ioan Ivancea's does however play clarinet on two tracks of Fanfare Ciocărlia's most recent album, to go along with three of Ioan's sons that remain in the band from day one), what's generally happened with the young generation of Gypsies is a turning away from their rich musical traditions for the pop sort of rubbish that many of us non-Romanians/non-Gypsies are familiar with in our own ways, and which in this particular case is known as "Gypsy Pop Music" or "Manele" in Romanian.

As Fanfare Ciocărlia's percussionist Nicolae Ionița pointed out more than ten years ago to a young Gypsy musician who played Manele, "It's shits like you that are killing off the traditional Gypsy music." Rather unsurprisingly, Ionița was told in return that "If I only make a copy of the old way, of Taraf, of Fanfare, I wouldn't go anywhere. I have to take the music forward." Without much surprise again, this Gypsy Pop Music has not only continued to progress "forward" in the ensuing ten years since the cited conversation, but has ventured out so far as to now even resemble "pure dadaism" as I've been told.

Although I've only heard a bit of this music (which was god-awful), it doesn't take too much of an imagination to associate said music with the equivalent commercial schlock our non-Romanian airwaves (and/or streaming services) get inundated with. But while it's easy to pick out the commercial and superficial "bullshit", it's sometimes not quite as easy to avoid getting duped by the more insidious and sophisticated bullshit – that being the bullshit of what I like to call the "talentocracy".

While I expect to expound on the definition of "talentocracy" at some later date, suffice to say that it's essentially the logical conclusion of a meritocracy within a Ponzionomic system, which essentially boils down to a grandiose serving of "art of the confidence schemers, by the confidence schemers, for the confidence schemers." And there is no person I am familiar with that better exemplifies the talentocracy and its confidence scheming than New York City's John Lurie – actor, painter, and former saxophonist and founder of the brass-ish band The Lounge Lizards. As Wikipedia describes the rather schmoozey name of Lurie's band,

The group's name was borrowed from American slang. A lounge lizard is typically depicted as a well-dressed man who frequents the establishments in which the rich gather with the intention of seducing a wealthy woman with his flattery and deceptive charm.


As per The New Yorker: "From 1984 to 1989, everyone in downtown New York wanted to be John Lurie [second from right]. Or sleep with him. Or punch him in the face."

Although he currently restricts himself to painting (for various reasons that don't need mentioning), what Lurie is probably most revered for is his music, to go along with a fair amount of movie acting and a hosting gig with the six-episode cable television show Fishing with John.

There's no doubt that Lurie and his former bandmates were extremely technically talented, and I did admittedly somewhat enjoy a few of their songs (particularly the first song off their first album). That being said, I also can't refrain from pointing out that a majority of their music – although extremely "creative" – often had me struggling with whether I actually liked it, or with whether I was forcing myself to try to like it because I should be liking it, be it due to its "originality" or what have you.

While The Lounge Lizards' music got labelled in a myriad of ways – punk-jazz, jazz-punk, avant-garde jazz, experimental rock, no wave, etc. – one of its more notable labels was "fake jazz", a label hastily uttered by Lurie himself and which he regretted saying due to the insinuations made afterwards by "lazy journalists". Although I'm not familiar with how the "fake jazz" utterance was misconstrued and only know that The Lounge Lizards donned thrift-store suits to satirize the iconography of jazz, I do however think that the "fake jazz" label tips us off to the possibility that the music of Lurie and The Lounge Lizards might deservedly be called fake music.


(photo by Jason Taellious)

Perhaps "fake music" is a bit off, much like how calling the money that banks create out of thin air "fake money" wouldn't be entirely correct since said money can very well be used to purchase goods with. So while "ponzionomic money" would probably fit the mold better, so too might "ponzionomic music". That's still a bit too off, but if we combine the words "confidence scheme", "schmooze", and "music", we get what I think is the much more apropos label of "confidence schmuzic" (which, granted, is probably little more than a sophisticated version of Ivancea's "bullshit" epithet).

While the term "confidence schmuzic" is limited to the musical field and so doesn't encapsulate the bullshit of Lurie's painting, the following description Lurie gave of a fellow painter of his can be used to sum up the analogous approach pretty well:

Perry's technique was so much better than mine, but I was always telling him, "Just try to put in a bit of weirdness." He's trying so hard not to be seen as crazy, his paintings look like the work of a skilled accountant.

And as Perry then retorted,

John saw a beautiful nude I'd painted and said, "Put a squiggle of red in there, and you'll make a million bucks."

Lurie was no doubt being somewhat facetious, but the underlying motivation and mechanics behind the whole thing was nonetheless quite evident: the entire edifice they work amongst is a grandiose confidence scheme – bullshit – necessarily propped up by well-placed individuals in the monetary confidence schemes who possess deep enough pockets to pay exorbitant amounts of money for artistic confidence schemes. Each side thus cynically takes advantage of the other's vanity and greed, in effect giving faux validity to themselves by propping up each other's respective facades. For Lurie and other artists who have the gift of being able to sell ice to Eskimos (the highest amount I've noticed a painting of Lurie's fetching was actually "only" $55,000), New York City is of course the world's greatest "art centre" to locate oneself in thanks to it being the heart of our monetary Ponzi system, implying a plethora of bankers and their acolytes with gobs of money sloshing around who need artists to give them "cultural" validity in the attempt of justifying their vapid lives.

One might of course excuse (read: be an apologist for) Lurie's various forms of art by calling it absurdist, but although he probably fits the mold of your run-of-the-mill narcissist, it might be more accurate to give him the somewhat contradictory label of being an ambitious nihilist since there isn't actually any point to his absurdism.


"My Name is Skinny, I am a Horse" by John Lurie

One way that Lurie's nihilism can be understood is via The Yak, one of the two Lounge Lizards' songs that include (spoken) vocals and in which Lurie talks about a farmer who accidentally kills himself with a rake. The unfortunate farmer thus leaves behind his wife, who is in turn claimed – along with the farm – by the raving and feverish yak on the hill. (You can read the complete lyrics to the song here.) Again, one can be an apologist for such patter by calling it absurdist, but regardless, while Lurie certainly wasn't being classicist by mocking farmers or farming, what he essentially was mocking with his thinly-veiled narcissism, nihilism, or whatever you want to call it, was life itself.

It's in these encompassing contexts that I think the "too cacophonous, too demanding, too ethereal, too… a hundred things" music of The Lounge Lizards (as described by Lurie's brother Evan, the band's piano player and organist) can be quite fairly summed up as being confidence schmuzic. And just as those suckling off the teats of our Ponzionomic system – as well as those pandering to said sucklers – either understand the mechanics behind their various confidence schemes or blindly go along with them because "that's the way things are" and "everybody else is doing it", I wouldn't be surprised if many, if not most, of those who claim(ed) to like The Lounge Lizards' music were under a similar spell of "liking" the music due to the weight and panache it carried in their chosen clique(s). That's of course not to say that nobody liked The Lounge Lizards' music. Just like there are psychopaths well-placed in the pecking order of our Ponzionomic system who very much like the accrued benefits they get to enjoy, I'm sure there are plenty of masochists who similarly like(d) the music of The Lounge Lizards.

In effect, although it would be a stretch to say that I went on my ten-plus-year musical abstention due to the confidence schmuzic of John Lurie and The Lounge Lizards, I can however say with certainty that if what music was all about was New Yorkers like said musicians, then I don't think I'd ever bother listening to music again.

Fortunately I did end my hiatus, because not only was I able to extricate myself from the gutter of music, but because I somehow also managed to find myself smack up against what may very well be, in a variety of ways, the peak of music.


The late Maria and Ioan Ivancea, husband and wife for 42 years: Not only do some farmers keep alive our agricultural seeds, but some of them even keep alive the seeds of the most wonderful music we're likely ever to hear – while making sure to reserve the bullshit for the fields, not our ears (photo © Arne Reinhardt)

Although I'm not the best judge of this, when it comes to raw instrumental talent it's possible that Fanfare Ciocărlia and The Lounge Lizards are each other's equal. That being said, while the members of Fanfare Ciocărlia aren't merely raw talent, what does differentiate them from the latter is that by starting off as the loose-knit wedding band for their village and surrounding area – playing the music people wanted to dance to while celebrating life – they are the antithesis of a confidence scheme.

That the musicians of Zece Prajini were able to build a reputation for themselves can partially be chalked up to the fact that they are descendants of – and are themselves – Gypsy musicians, musicians that have often been revered over the centuries as the finest musicians available – be it as entertainers for their fellow common folk or for the upper crusts. Their musical range was made possible by soaking up the musical traditions of the hosts they lived amongst during their travels, all of which enabled them to entertain their hosts in return (albeit with their added Gypsy flair). In the meantime they also made sure to pass on those collected musical traditions – and thus training – down from one generation to the next. As described by Fanfare Ciocărlia's manager, Henry Ernst,

[T]hat’s why Fanfare [Ciocărlia] was highly esteemed among wedding organizers. You give them a song – they have never heard the song before – and after an hour – they hear the song five times, the sixth time they begin to whistle the tune, the tenth time they know how it works harmonically, and the twentieth time they are making their own arrangement out of it. And by the thirtieth time you've got a song where you think, wow, they've been playing this song their whole lives. That's the way it goes. That, is Gypsy culture. Soak it up like a sponge, react very quickly, of course with their own improvised touch, which makes a real impression on the listener. So we say, musical culture created by the Gypsies is always a service industry. They offer up a huge treasure which is highly esteemed.

But while Fanfare Ciocărlia doesn't fit the dumbed-down stereotype of Gypsies roaming around in caravans and tents (their community of settled Gypsies in Zece Prajini actually continues to farm – for their own needs – to this very day), they have nonetheless inadvertently taken the notion of travelling Gypsy musicianship to the extreme, earning the moniker of "the hardest working band in the blow biz" thanks to the 2,000+ shows they've performed across the world in their twenty years together.

But seeing how we're now entering the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era, the time is coming when never again will the world be able to see such beautiful music and "natural" talent criss-cross the globe with such ease the way Fanfare Ciocărlia has, for the simple fact that never again will there be the oil, nor the energy in general, for so many people to travel the globe so expediently and willy-nilly.

In other words, while the physics and geology behind the end of the oil age means that never again will there be the opportunity for a group of musicians to so readily criss-cross the globe, since Fanfare Ciocărlia is a group of musicians that not only inherited a wide variety of musical styles that their forefathers picked up along their travels, but also one that uniquely soaked up even more during their travels in airplanes rather than caravans, Fanfare Ciocărlia may therefore not only be something that comes around once a decade, once a century, or even once a millennium, but are something that can only happen once an oil age. By somewhat showing the world to the world with the utmost ability, quality and beauty, the combination of all the aforementioned factors may very well qualify Fanfare Ciocărlia for being thought of as the peak of music.


Touring like this will no longer be possible in the near (nearish?) future, and never will be again (image courtesy of Asphalt Tango Records)

If there's one thing though that might invalidate Fanfare Ciocărlia as qualifying for the notion of peak music, that'd be that they don't actually write too much of the music they play. Because while they do compose many of their horas and sirbas (traditional Romanian dances), much of what they play is either covers/interpretations, or music that has been written for them. But on closer inspection, is that really such a bad thing? Or more specifically, isn't that exactly the problem with confidence schmuzic in the first place, and isn't the revered notion of "originality" exactly where much of the ridiculous cooler-than-thou aspect of the music scene comes from?

Having said that, it's nonetheless almost as if Fanfare Ciocărlia has turned originality on its head. Because while not being "originals" in the oh-so-risqué avant-garde sense, they've instead added their own unique developed-in-their-corner-of-the-world-flavour to various forms of music – the same way a vegetable seed will develop unique characteristics by adapting itself to the soil and climate conditions of a particular locale – while (necessarily?) being far away from, and ignored by, the "great art centres" of the world (which in their specific case particularly meant Bucharest).

How's that for art?

To think then, as that young Gypsy musician was quoted earlier, that Fanfare Ciocărlia and Taraf de Haïdouks are but a "copy of the old way" is completely missing the point, understood like this: If you think your mother/father/wife/husband is the greatest cook in the world, are you all of a sudden going to think any less of them (and their food) upon finding out that they learned (and likely adapted) their recipes from their mother or father? And can you really say that – in the opposite sense of "taking the music forward" – Fanfare Ciocărlia are stuck in the past when not only can they pull something like this off, but when it can be fairly stated that they now own a song such as this one?

Unfortunately most of the world's places have long lost their traditional forms of music to assist them in celebrating life (although wedding bands have been making a recent resurgence in the Balkans after a decades-long dearth), and in their place instead have downtown centres overwhelmingly loaded with the live music of confidence schmuzicians that instead celebrate hedonism and narcissism (if not nihilism) while parading their "originality".

With that in mind, and since the world will eventually lose Fanfare Ciocărlia to Zece Prajini and the rest of Moldova – be it due to the unavailability of cheap fossil fuels to move them around or due to the fanfare's retirement (Ernst said last year that he doesn't see them going beyond another ten years, which may very well be all that a world economy ravaged by peaking fossil fuel supplies and/or diminishing EROEI levels will allow for anyhow) – then I'd suggest that while at the peak of civilization one doesn't miss out on their chance to see what may very well be the peak of music.

For those interested you can see their tour schedule on their website or on their Facebook page, or, and as I've done, you can sign up with either Bands in Town or Song Kick to be notified if they plan on visiting your area.

In the meantime, while I'd unsurprisingly say there's no point bothering with New York City's Lounge Lizards, I would say that the rewards can be rather fruitful if you decide to go Out to Lounge with Fanfare Ciocărlia instead.

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