In football terminology it was very much a gig of two halves. The first set, which lasted an hour and a quarter, was comprised of songs from former Yugoslavia whose subject matter was often on the lugubrious side. But the much shorter second set consisted of fast-paced dance music that had most of the audience up and jiving.
Bandleader Katarina Gadjanski – born in a village in Serbia – explained that with Gypsy Fever she wanted to help to heal her dissolved homeland: through songs that had previously been shared throughout the region, the selection this evening coming from Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia. Katarina’s in fact the only member of the six-piece collective born in former Yugoslavia, but they produced a very authentic sound.
Before Gypsy Fever took to the stage about fifty members of the Colliers Wood Choir performed two songs, sung impressively in Serbian, and they accompanied the group for a further five numbers. A couple of these – a little slow and turgid – didn’t go down very well with the audience, and perhaps this section of the show could be tightened up in future performances. Katarina explained the theme of each song, using a word to in her native tongue to describe the darkness in many of them: it translated as ‘black bile.’
Most of the tunes were very old: hundreds of years in some cases, with several bearing strong traces of the Ottoman Empire. There was one song about ageing, and another about unrequited love, with a boy and a girl staring at each other longingly across a wide river; one dealt with young girls forced into arranged marriages and another with a dying pasha who bequeaths the ladies of his harem to his servants and promptly expires, followed by his wife.
Katarina and her co-vocalist clearly enjoyed performing and made a charming pair, smiling openly and making sinuous movements with their arms in time to the music. The instrumentation – with its core of electric bass, percussion, and sensitively played acoustic string-instruments – complemented the vocals well, texture being added with harmonium, whistle, recorder and bassoon.
There was a very long intermission and the chairs were cleared away to create a sizeable dancing area. I wondered if this was a mistake: many people seemed to have drifted away but on the band’s return, the floor quickly filled up with people dancing in a multitude of styles. Some went for traditional former-Yugoslavian steps and others in tipsy dad-dancing mode, but everyone was clearly having a ball.
In this set trumpter Alex Paton (from Southampton, incidentally) and the tight rhythm section really drove the songs along. Before the break the players had been seated, but now most of them were on their feet, with Katarina and her vocal partner dancing themselves. There were nine songs in this set – substantially fewer than the first – but such was the pace of the second half you understood why it had to be shorter. All these numbers were gleefully received, but it was the song most often played at gypsy weddings that really went down a storm, the audience singing eagerly along. The final piece started slowly, but Katarina promised that ‘The faster you dance, the faster we play.’ Things quickly accelerated, bringing the show to a fitting climax.
There was much applause at the end but an encore seemed superfluous: both the audience and the band themselves looked happy as could be.
Gypsy Fever’s concert on May 8 2016 was part of the ongoing programme of musical events at the Forge Camden Town. More details of this band’s dates and their forthcoming album are available at their website, by clicking on either of the images above.