FIVE-MAN LA CARAVANE PASSE, led by multi-instrumentalist, multi-linguist Toma Feterman, returns with Nomadic Spirit, their sixth album, a dizzily euphoric, Babylonian  mix of Balkan Gypsy, flamenco, hip-hop, gnawa and Oriental excursions.

As with the previous albums, a burlesque mood pervades these eleven very different songs. Toma Feterman sings in Parigot French with a liberal dose of English and some Spanish and Serbo-Croatian thrown in for good measure.  This time round there is a bit less Balkan banging, a bit more Orientalism as the party-caravan continues its journey south by south-east, in search of musical inspiration, kicks and dough; covering the Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East, and then hitting Africa, blending eastern exotica with a dose of self irony. 

The album distills four years of touring around the world, gathering impressions and sound hunting – picking up various folk instruments along the way (bağlamas, tzouras, conches and traditional flutes). Crossing borders and entangling languages and rhythms, La Caravane Passe now more then ever embody the “nomadic spirit”.

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Toma Feterman, who cuts a droll figure with his Django Reinhardt-style pencil mustache and fanciful headgear, is frontman and driving force behind La Caravane Passe, which derives its name from the ancient Oriental adage, Les chiens aboient et la caravane passé: Dogs bark – the caravan moves on. Right from the get-go the band’s aesthetic had an Eastern tinge.

Feterman  is of Polish, Rumanian and Jewish Russian extraction and has, you could say,  the East in his blood. He is a  self taught multi-instrumentalist, who sings as well as plays guitar, banjo,  trumpet – and lately the saz, or bağlama. 

Before launching Caravane Passe, he dabbled in punk rock and French chansons in equal measure.

“The tradition of French lyrics is really a punk tradition,” Feterman told me soon after the launch of his new LP. “I mean the old French singers who are monuments of French music – like Jean Sablon or Jacque Brel. The lyrics are kind of anarchist lyrics. In the nineties it was really trendy to have a French chanson band with punk. For instance, Pigalle, Les Garçons Bouchers, Les Négresses Vertes, Mano Negra. In a sense in French music, punk paved the way for World Music.”

“Through friends and friends of friends of friends,” says Feterman, upon being asked how La Caravane Passe came together in 2001. To be specific, in the beginning there  was Olivier “Llugs” Llugany, whose specialty was the fiscorn, a traditional bass horn from Catalonia that sounds like a Balkan tuba. Then came ex-rugby player Pat Gigon on drums, Cyril “Zinzin” Moret on saxophone and Ben Body, a man with North African roots, on bass.

Right from the start a kind of no-holds-barred circus atmosphere prevailed at Caravane Passe’s concerts, in which Gypsy music played an important role.

“At the concerts of La Caravane Passe, we say that ‘with us, people can become Gypsies for a day’,” Feterman announced.

Around 2001 – before Shantel and the Balkan hype really hit – there were few acts in France that played Gypsy music and the music of Eastern Europe. Bratsch and Les Yeux Noires were the two notable exceptions. At the time Gypsy music was performed for a mainly sit-down audience. It was a cultured, slightly highbrow affair, so people were happy to finally be able to let their hair down and get up and dance to a music that was celebratory and ritualistic – the kind of thing you might find at a raucous Gypsy wedding.

“People were very happy in the beginning because it was a free moment, where you didn’t have to know how to dance and you could just be an idiot,” says Feterman. “And then a lot of bands started to spring up. And maybe it was all too much; too many Gypsy parties, Balkan parties. I think it was a phenomenon all over Europe. And so we decided to go our own way and create our own atmosphere.”

Between 2001 and 2003 the band played mainly in the Parisian underground, often in the form of the Gypsy rock cabaret called “Le Vrai Faux Mariage“, in which the musicians would dress up and give a kind of circus performance. In 2004 the band released their self-produced debut album “Go to Plèchti!”, a decisive moment.

Veliko Plèchti was an imaginary Balkan land of Feterman’s imagination, much like Tintin’s Syldavia. It was less a geographical entity than a state of mind – similar to Shantel’s Bucovina Club nights – where people of diverse background could dance like fools to music that knew no borders, mixing and matching folklore according to one’s whim.

The seed for Plèchti had been planted already in Feterman’s teens, when on the streets of Paris Feterman met a blue-haired Serbian punk who introduced Feterman to Yugoslav folk music – andrakija: the rich Serbian plum brandy that is the social lubricant of south Slavs. The two would down shots of schnapps and listen to Yugo folk, which reminded Feterman of the music of his grandparents. 

Later the Serb moved to Yugoslavia and introduced Feterman to a Serbian girl, who would ultimately become Feterman’s wife. The Serb ex-punk also organized a Yugoslav tour for Caravane Passe, with dates in big and not so big west Balkan cities.

“I like to play where it is not too much complicated,” says Feterman when asked where in the Balkans he prefers to play. “Zagreb was cool, Belgrade was cool, Niš…I like the small cities in Serbia and Croatia…It was a little bit more complicated in Bosnia. Not because of the people, but because of the atmosphere. It was a few years after the war and I didn’t like to play amidst ruins for people who were a little bit sad.” 

“Complicated” is how Feterman describes anything that doesn’t jibe with La Caravane Passe’s ideology of borderless fun-time music and dance, be it Balkan nationalisms or the right wing attitudes of the National Front. If he doesn’t like something politically, Feterman says “it’s complicated”, and leaves it at that.

It’s a funny thing, though, because La Caravane  Passe and Feterman’s career trajectory has been anything but simple and straight forward. And it keeps on getting more and more complicated as the caravan moves on.

The latest album, “Nomadic Spirit”  is a veritable kaleidoscope of urban and folk styles, with guests  including Moroccan star Mehdi Nassouli, as well as Balkans-meets-Sergio Leone four-piece Aalma Dili and French singer Paloma Pradal.

“For this new album I wanted to have something very organic – kind of an organic sound,” says Feterman. “I built the songs around  instruments that we brought back from our international tour. We played a lot in the Middle East, in Turkey, in Lebanon and in countries like that.  I bought instruments in those countries – Saz – bağlama – a lot of different kinds of flutes.”

Also belonging to Feterman’s inclination for outernational music was his collaboration with the late Rachid Taha, with whom Feterman co-produced his last, posthumously released album, “Je Suis Africain” in 2019,a couple months after Taha’s death.

Feterman first got to know Taha in 2009 when he called out of the blue, asking Feterman to listen to a demo of his. The song was “Perdu ta Langue” and Taha went on to record it with Feterman.

Feterman would then  help Taha record his last album, “Je Suis Africain.”

Feterman recalls they were drinking in a bar one night when Taha “embarked on a long speech, in which he said, ‘You know, Toma, I am an African. In Algeria, we are a crossroad between all the Africas, , south, north, east, west…” I went home and wrote what he said and improvised some lyrics. I came up with the title of the album: ‘Je Suis African’.” 

Taha  died in September 2018, two months before the release of “Je Suis Africain”, one week before his 60th birthday.

“I have lot of things to tell about Rachid,” says Feterman, “but it would take a whole book…Well, he’s gone now, and I miss him already.”