Under a starless night sky, the musicians are gathering. For the past six hours, they’ve been playing at a party in this small Gypsy, or Roma, village in the Moldavia region of Romania. But now, with solemn expressions on their sweaty faces, the 12 men have one more, important task to fulfill: to pay tribute to a 60-year-old fellow villager who earlier in the day took his last breath.
At exactly midnight, they enter the large front yard of a traditionally built dwelling of clay. They take their positions between some bent fruit trees and a wood fire heating a big kettle of cabbage. Tubas on the right, baritone horns in the middle, trumpets and clarinet on the left. Firmly filling their lungs with air, the men known as Fanfare Ciocărlia—having performed in more than 60 countries on five continents and enjoying a worldwide reputation for being the fastest and wildest Gypsy brass band around—begin playing a farewell march to their neighbor.
Searching for the roots of Roma music in a nation on Europe’s edge has led me to this melancholy yard. Fifteen years ago, I followed my Romanian girlfriend to this country and since then have shared many joys as well as a loss or two, so I’m somewhat familiar with Romanian mourning habits: I spill some drops of the homemade wine, which the relatives of the deceased had passed around, then raise my glass in acknowledgment of their grief.
But my spontaneous libation isn’t repeated by anyone else, I notice. I feel as if I’ve entered a parallel life, its sound track playing right in front of me. It becomes obvious to me: This is a different Romania, not the same country I have visited more than a dozen times in the past decade. Welcome to the world of the Roma.
The village of Zece Prăjini is one of a kind—and not just because of the many excellent musicians among its 400-some inhabitants. It is said to be the only Romanian village with a 100 percent Roma population; the church, built a decade ago entirely with donations by members of Fanfare Ciocărlia, claims to be the only Roma Eastern Orthodox church in the world.
Next to the church, Costel Cantea has a bar. He generously serves a sweet vişinată de casa to visitors he happens to like. As he fills my glass a second time with this high-proof, house-made sour cherry liquor, he notices me looking for an ashtray. “Pancreas,” Costel says, mispronouncing my name, “please, just throw it on the floor. Dirt makes a bar look lively. You can’t have fun in a clean bar. Or what do you think, Pancreas?”
Romania has the largest population of Roma in eastern Europe, estimated unofficially by the European Commission at 1.85 million. Here, as elsewhere in Europe and the U.S., Roma are often viewed unfavorably. While enjoying a beer in a second village bar, I catch a TV news report about 400 Roma who are about to be deported from Italy to Romania.
The reality of this Roma village contrasts markedly with what the news anchors report about the miserable conditions in which the Roma live in Italy, France, and other western European countries. In Zece Prăjini, earlier in the day, a woman picking apples from a tree had offered me a handful of them when I passed her yard. “Have some more,” she said, after I remarked that they tasted very sweet and juicy.
Zece Prăjini, meaning “ten acres,” has been breathing music for over a century—quite literally, because unlike any other Roma community, the inhabitants play brass instruments, with the odd woodwind or percussion instrument thrown in. Despite its small population, Zece Prăjini counts four brass bands: Ciocărlia, Ciucar, Shavale, and Zece Prăjini—with all shades of rivalry between them.
“Look at my hands,” says Lazăr Rădulescu, a trumpet player and senior member of Fanfare Ciocărlia. “They’re way too big and coarse to play something as delicate as a violin. We play brass.” That’s been the tradition since the 1860s, when slavery was abolished and each Roma family here was awarded ten acres by a landlord.
Rădulescu, in his 60s, remembers his childhood as being full of brass music, and he’s confident that the future will be no different. “Lots of our kids play instruments, too. They’re eager, but also they see what prosperity it has brought us.”
The youngest generation of lăutari, or musicians, differs from the older ones in one main aspect: They are taught at music schools in the nearby city of Roman, and they are able to read music. So how did you learn it? I asked several older musicians. Their answers were always the same: “With the ears, from my father and grandfather.”
I say goodbye to Moldavia and follow a route that crosses the Carpathian Mountains at Cheile Bicazului, a spectacular, 3.7-mile stretch of road through a startlingly narrow pass, flanked with walls of rock stretching 1,148 feet up to the sky. Halfway through, in a spot where the canyon offers a bit more air and is suddenly wide enough for more than just a two-lane road, souvenir sellers display their wares, some of which are worth the money: fine fabrics, wooden toys, decorated pottery. Dozens of plastic Dracula tchotchkes make it clear I’ve reached the region of Transylvania.
But I am going to meet God, not a vampire. With a worn-out violin held loosely in one of his hands, he arrives right between the welcoming glasses of strong horincă, plum brandy, and the chunks of meat with salad and potatoes that compose my dinner in the village of Ceuaş, or Szászcsávás, as they call it in Hungarian, the dominant language in parts of Transylvania.
The mustachioed, stern-looking Dumnezeu (God) has brought three of his disciples. Together they make up the Szászcsávás Band, a string ensemble that plays old-style Hungarian and Romanian Gypsy music: a frantic rhythm with up to four melody lines, weaving complex lyrical patterns. “At age four I held my first violin,” says Dumnezeu, the nickname that star violin player Ștefan Iambor goes by. He formed his first ensemble at 13.
“Your violin looks pretty old and maltreated,” I tell him, but he tells me it is only two years old. “It was custom-made for me in Bucharest,” he says. Due to the intense way he plays, his instruments don’t grow old with him. “Music is an essential element of our identity in this region. Far away from Western influences, we were able to preserve the traditional, Hungarian-style Roma music. Even in Hungary you won’t find anyone playing this kind of music anymore.”
I follow the music to the other side of the Prahova Valley, through the Carpathian crescent separating Transylvania and the historic region of Walachia. In the far south, near the Bulgarian border, I reach the village of Clejani. The landscape has flattened out here, with cornfields reaching as far as the eye can see.
Clejani is the birthplace of the band that gave me my first taste of Roma music: Taraf de Haïdouks. More than ten years ago, I experienced the group performing live in a packed venue in Amsterdam. They were impressive on stage as well as off; after the show ended, they played on and didn’t hesitate to ask the audience for some extra money. I was sold, for good.
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The musicians making up the Taraf de Haïdouks ensemble happen to return home from a concert in Switzerland during my first day in the village. One by one, they get out of various taxis, dressed in shiny black suits, designer sunglasses hiding their eyes, some with black hats atop their shiny black hair. They seem the odd ones out, here in this dusty village. In fact, they hold this place together. For many in Clejani, the group’s international fame is their main source of pride.
The current star of Taraf de Haïdouks is Caliu, a violin player with talents one could describe as either divine or diabolic. In the evening some of the best Clejani musicians show off their skills in a long concert on the porch of a house that is still under construction, like so many in this rapidly developing country. The music the Roma play in this village, epitomizing a very Romanian musical style, is characterized by the use of the accordion and the cimbalom, a hammer dulcimer, played here at incredible speeds.
During a break, I sit down next to the ensemble’s singer, the nationally famous Vasile Dinu. While he wipes the sweat from his forehead with a white handkerchief, he has to endure perhaps the stupidest question ever posed to him: “What are your lyrics about?” I ask. The old man frowns and says, “Despre dragoste—About love.” What else could one possibly sing about, his tone implies. As we’re chatting, some Roma women serve sarmale, spiced minced meat wrapped in cabbage. “We’ve been rolling them for two days,” one of the ladies playfully complains.
Clejani is close to the capital city of Bucharest, where, on the next evening, I decide to visit Club Fabrica, a trendy underground bar in the heart of the old city. While DJ Vasile (real name: Lucian Stan) pumps his 21st-century dance beats into the cramped club, my thoughts go back to the master violinists in Clejani and Ceuaş, and the brass players in Zece Prăjini. Those last guys definitely generate more beats per minute than this DJ can pull off, I realize.
Suddenly, the sound of a violin comes out of nowhere. To his mix of pumping bass and trancelike electronica, DJ Vasile has added a sample of what seems to be a sweet Roma melody. Two parallel universes sharing the same heartbeat collide into one.
This feature, written by Pancras Dijk, was adapted from a story that originally appeared in the Dutch edition of Traveler magazine, where Dijk is a senior writer. The adapted piece ran in the February/March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler. Photographer Bogdan Croitoru is based in Bucharest.