Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jewish Music from Maramures: Ionu lui Grigore Covaci

I love trolling youtube for interesting videos of traditional music posted by people from all over the world. Some of the stuff posted there are documents of traditions that have totally bypassed official or commercial distribution, stuff that used to be unavailable to anybody except the intrepid field ethnomusicologist with a tape recorder. I just found a couple of youtube videos of the great Maramures fiddler Ion lui Grigore Covaci, also known locally as “Paganini” who lives in the village of Saliste in the northern Romanian region of Maramures.
Ionu is about 75 years old now, and is mainly known as one of the best fiddlers of the devilishly tricky Maramures style of fiddle. Ion also comes from a long dynasty of musicians of Gypsy origin (he would never use the term “Rom” to describe his background) from the town of Viseu, and during his youth he heard local Maramures Jewish music played by his own family as well as by members of the Shloimovitch family band in nearby Rozavlea - not the particularly famed dwarf Jewish theater and band of the related Ovitch family. I've written about them and the Shloimovich band on this blog, and during that trip I had the pleasure of going on a crazed road trip with Ion to Hoteni to visit Ion Pop, the leading personality in traditional Maramures music today and a musician who works with Ionu quite a lot. Ion Pop included a set of Maramures Jewish tunes on a Cd produced by the excellent Ethnophonie label in Romania and available via the equally excellent Passion Music in Britian. I have also visited with Ion quite a lot over the years, and he is quite the character, as you can see in these videos. In this first one, he seems to be on some kind of television cavalcade of Romanian traditional musicians, and is asked to play a set of the Jewish tunes he heard as a youth.In the second video, Ionu starts out by playing the classical peasant doina, the story of a shepherd who loses his sheep, which has become something of a set piece among Maramures fiddlers. He also seems totally nonplussed by having his fiddle go completely out of tune on live TV, something that most musicians would never live down. The Jewish part begins at around two minutes into the clip - there is a part where Ionu imitates the sound of the Yiddish speaking badkhen or Marsalinka directing the wedding in between tunes.Ion never actually played with the Shloiovich band, but neighboring fiddlers from Ieud and Dragomiresti did. I spent days hanging with them mainly to get a sense not only of the repertoire used in the region, but also the style in which Jewish musicians preferred to perform it. The typical Maramures accompanying instrument since the first world war has been a retuned guitar known as the zongura, and today it is used as background for almost all Maramures music. Most of the older generation of Maramures professional musicians specified that Jewish musicians never used the guitar, preferring all string bands, so what we are hearing is a modern recreation of the repertoire, without any obsessive attempt to present a historical model.Here is another clip made with Ionu outside of his home in Saliste in which you get a sense of what a complete entertainer he is - he loves swinging his fiddle above his head. He's a professional village primas... this is how you make a living. On this final video, Ionu begins the set of Jewish tunes about 1:30 into the clip. These are all tunes we use in my band – we recorded them during the sessions for our last CD Traktorist, but the set proved too long to fit on the CD and so it sits on my shelf waiting for me to release another CD in the future.


Jack Falk said...

Great stuff! Thanks for posting these videos.

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