Sunday, May 29, 2011

Maramures: Fiddles, Song, and Food for the Dead

In the summer of 2001 I had made plans to travel back to New York with Fumie to work a few months (probably as ignoble temp Christmas warehouse help) as I had the year before. It’s the expat version of Romanian migrant labor, only it requires a US passport and knowledge of Windows Excel. But the attacks on September 11, 2001, changed all that. After a few weeks of overdosing on news (Anthrax! Sleeper cells! Weapons of Mass Destruction!) and faced with several months of no work and no gigs while stuck in Budapest, I decided it would be best to get as far away from the news as possible. We decided to go back to Ieud, one of Maramures’ most isolated and traditional villages, and spend a month hanging with the late Gheorghe Ioannei Covaci, who at that time was the oldest living Maramures fiddler, and one of the few still alive who had actively played for Jewish dances before the second world war. On the second day my crank-operated wind-up survival shortwave radio died and after that we had no news at all. The local peasants all wanted to know what we thought of the terror attacks (Razboie! Boom! Boom!) but were genuinely nonplussed about the anthrax attacks. After all, in a village where everybody lives with sheep and cows anthrax was anything but an exotic weapon. While there we met the amazing Nitsa, who offered to rent us a room in her home. I spent the days fiddling with Georghe Ioannei while Fumie learned Romanian from Nitsa and temporarily became the village mortuary photographer, snapping portraits of people to be used on their grave markers.Today, the Greek-Catholic cemetery in Ieud is Fumie’s most enduring gallery presence. It is hard to forget a Japanese woman living in your village and everybody asked about Fumie… and Nitsa announced to her friends “I taught Fumie to speak Romanian!” by pointing to objects and shouting out their names. She also taught Fumie to make stuffed cabbage and mamaliga, skills every Japanese housewife should master. We’ve been back to Ieud a few times since then, including one visit with Canadian singer songwriter Geoff Berner (“The Whiskey Rabbi”) and his band (fiddling Dione Davies and drumming Dwayne Adams) Geoff eventually incorporated a lot of Maramures energy in his re-imagined take on Klezmer music which culminated in his most recent release “Victory Party” (which was recorded in Montreal last year and included Klezmer major leaguers Mike Winograd, Benjy Fox-Rosen, Josh Dolgin, and Brigitte Dajczer as well as myself on vioara cu goarne and insane screaming.)Geoff also used an image of Nitsa on the cover of his 2007 CD The Wedding Dance of the Widow Bride and last year asked me to deliver a few copies. She was delighted. Nitsa housed us in her huge wooden house up the street a bit, and she used to wake the band up in the morning by standing over the bed with a bottle of 110 proof horinca and booming "Goooooddd Moooorning! IT'S HORINCA TIME!" She has become something of a legend out there in western Canada.She was also delighted to grab Eleonore and dress her up in proper Maramures costume, and when I asked her if she would sing for us she demurred just long enough to fill a bottle of horinca brandy and then… she sang like an angel.Nitsa is often sought out by Romanian folklorists because of her vast knowledge of Maramures folklore, especially the singing of colinda (Christmas carols) and ritual music. In Ieud the religious traditions are more conservatively guarded than in other villages, and special regard is given to the presence of the dead in daily village life. When we arrived we found Nitsa with some neighbors making a prodigious batch of sarmale (stuffed cabbage.) When asked who it was for, she answered “For the dead!”The next day they would take it to the pauper’s cemetery in Sighet to be blessed by a priest and distributed to the poor. Ieud attracted the attention of American ethnographer Gail Kligman in the 1980s, a time when it was especially difficult to work as a field anthropologist in Ceausescu’s harsh communist era. Her monograph "The Wedding of the Dead" describes how the Ieudeni resisted the collectivization of the communist era by withdrawing into a maze of traditional custom and ritual, including the tradition that any young person who dies unmarried will be symbolically “wed” at their funeral. American ethnomusicologist and fiddler Maimon Miller also worked in Ieud in the 1970s at the time when Gheorghe Ionnei was more active.Gheorghe’s brother Nicolae Covaci, however, is still alive and fiddling two villages over in Dragomiresti, though. At ninety years of age he was actually playing better than I have ever heard him. Both Jake Shulman-Ment and myself have learned Maramures Jewish music from Nicolae over the years. As they say in Maramures, you don’t learn fiddle…. You steal it.Like so many folk traditions, the fiddle style is not directly taught, but learned by generations of younger fiddlers immersing themselves in it. I have sat in a bar in the nearby village of Botiza, which is known for its fiddlers, and watched as a series of peasant men passed my fiddle from hand to hand around to play tunes. And over the years we have stolen quite a lot, so it is proper when visiting a musician to bring a bag of gifts (coffee, chocolate, fiddle strings) and pay the musician for his trouble.Remember folks – when you visit a Gypsy musician (as opposed to peasant musicians) these guys live off of tips for playing, not for “sharing” their wonderful music for you, so if you do visit cough up a hundred lei for the fiddler and bring his wife a kilo of coffee, at least. Not that Nicolae is feeble at his age, though. When I arrived he said he had been to Israel four years ago. Why I asked? To work on a farm. Now, a lot of Romanians go abroad for work, but usually to western EU countries – Israelis used to hire a lot of Romanian peasants for agricultural labor after the Intifada made imported foreign labor necessary in Israel. Think about this. Who the hell would have hired him? A tiny 86 year old toothless Romanian Gypsy musician? What were they thinking? But work he did, and he made enough money to fix up his house and buy a watch. Nicolae is probably the last of the oldest style fiddlers of Maramures – comparable to an old time fiddler in the USA as opposed to a modern Bluegrass fiddler. Most Maramures fiddlers today are influenced by recordings and videos of other famous musicians like the Petreus Brothers and the late Gheorghe Covaci of Vadu Izei. Nicolae still plays in a less ornamented, highly rythymic style unchanged from the recordings he made in the 1970s when he and his brother were recorded on a Radio France Ocora label LP of Maramures folk music. There, the two fiddles played against a single guitar, strummed to produce a drone without any of the distinctive chord changes that usually distinguish Maramures songs. And that means one thing: when the ethnomusicologists arrive, there is no need to hire (and pay) extra band members. Just have your wife play!And whenever the wife plays, you don’t hear any chord changes. The guitar here is called a zongora (which is the Hungarian word for piano, oddly enough) tuned to a re-entrant open 'A' chord. This was probably the same guitar used on the Ocora recordings, and it was held together by some stiff wire to counter the fact that the home made wire strings had easily pulled the neck off of the body years ago. Check out the high action of the strings - about an inch above the neck.No matter, because it basically morphed into a percussion instrument. The tail bridge was also a bit of masterful jerry rigging. And the funny thing is it absolutely worked. The old time Maramures fiddlers also liked to cut as much of their violin bridge out as possible, to increase the volume of the instrument.Nowadays they tend to simply switch to playing the $150 electric violins manufactured at the insidious Hora instrument factory in Reghin. Nicolae - for those of us interested in the Jewish and other multiethnic traditions of Transylvania – is like a Rosetta stone of folk music, a unique yet modest musician bridging the lore of the past with the practice of the present. Ninety years old and still kicking strong. Sa traiste, Domnu’ Nicolae!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Asa bea' oamenii buni: How the Good Folk Drink

Some people think “European Vacation” and dream of the canals of Venice, the boulevards of Paris, the coffee shops of Amsterdam. I however, dream about Maramures. This northern region of Romania, remote and mountainous, preserves a Europe most of us can only wonder about, a slice of history preserved in vague memories from our grandparents, cloudy ideas about the “old country” and the accounts of ethnographers plainly surprised that anyone in modern Europe still lives in log houses, uses horse wagons, and wears home spun folk costumes in the 21st century.

Maramures is all that, a starkly conservative culture that survived the communist era by withdrawing into a domestic fortress of folk ritual and custom, rendered virtually impenetrable to outsiders by a lucky combo of wretchedly bad roads, a thick dialect, a tradition of class and economy based on barter rather than cash, and the inability of visitors to live for months on end on nothing but corn meal mush mamaliga and sheep cheese. But change has definitely come to Maramures. Since Romania entered the EU in 2007, Romanians have gone abroad in droves to work in agriculture and construction in countries like Italy, Spain and France. The local mountaineers – Morosani in the local dialect – have an international reputation as hard workers, earned by farming the poor soils of the Carpathians where it takes double the work to produce half the potatoes of any other region. The money they sent home is evident in the building of new homes and the sprouting of new small businesses in villages that used to have nothing but a bar and a general store (usually in the same location.)Add to that the growth of a well developed agro tourism industry and one can feel the sea change in the local culture. Maramures is heart-stoppingly picturesque, and and until recently only the most adventurous tourist would cross the mountain passes to visit, but about a decade ago the region became a magnet for French eco-tourists and one transplanted Frenchman, Bernhard Houlihat (now the director of the Institute Francaise in Cluj) began working locally with village mayors and peasants to set up a network of local homes that could accommodate the flood of tourists.The results are an open secret to informed tourists: where else can you stay and be fed for about EU 25 a day? Agrotourism pensions have sprouted everywhere in Marsamures. For a culture that, until very recently, lived on almost no cash the sight of tourists is welcome indeed. We stayed at the home of a fiddler I had met previously in the village of Poenile Izei named Ion Ilieş, well known as a musician by the name of Ion de la Cruce.For no extra charge, Ion also gets dressed up in his local folk costume, calls over a neighbor to play the zungora (the local version of a cross tuned guitar) and presents an after dinner fiddle party with his wife singing and pouring out copious shots of the local home brew. Thinking of making fun of the funny little hats? Don't. The "clop" is a symbol of Maramures male identity, and until about a decade ago it was still everyday wear for huge, beefy, easily antagonized truck drivers and lumberjacks. No, you do not make fun of the funny hats around here. Ion’s house has been set up with spotlessly clean guest rooms and modern bathrooms, and his wife cooks local Maramures food from the produce of Ion’s own farm and animals.Now, I have been on a pretty stern diet for the last half year, but there was no way I was going to refuse my host’s meals. No. I did not eat the cute bunnies. I wanted to - cuteness always tastes good - but my hosts had other things in mind. Pancakes. Donuts. Fried bread. All the things I have avoided for the last half year. And you know what? Carbohydrates taste really, really good. After a half year of nibbling on the occasional Wasa rye cracker I got to wake up to this.Home made clatita (thin pancakes) served with home made plum jam. Everything was served with fried bread, called placinta, which was like a Hungarian langos but less greasy and filled with a light cheese, green onion and dill mixture (just to add to the confusion, in Hungarian the pancakes would be called palacsinta.)Later there would be dinner of ciorba de perisoare (sour soup with meatballs) and the ever present mamaliga. Mamaliga is one of my favorite foods, often described a “polenta” but in fact much more robust and filling. My father grew up eating this during the depression in the USA, when my Moldavian born Grandmother had to feed four kids while my Grandfather was ill and unable to work. We called it "Jewish cement."The Romanian version here is usually layered with cheese and fried bacon bits, it is something I dreamed about and will probably obsess about while I go back on my weight loss regimen, but I am glad I got to slake my hunger on a bowl nevertheless. But wait! There is oh so much more! Homemade donuts! Yes!Called pancovi in Maramures, gogoaşa in most of Romania, these were just what the diet doctor did not order. You could split one open and fill it with a spoonful of jam or just eat them plain, cramming them into my mouth as fast as my greedy hands could manage. For months I had been dreaming about donuts, waiting for a visit to Cluj, Transylvania’s capital city, to get my hands on a Gogoasa Infuriata (“The Angry Donut”) at the city’s signature donut stand, only to find that my beloved Cluj donut has disappeared. Either gone out of business or going into some kind of franchise hell, I considered myself lucky to jump on a donut feast in Maramures rather than pin all my hopes on the now lost fried dough of the lowlands. Of course, all this eating can create a thirst. In Maramures, this is easily solved by drinking horinca – which astute readers will know from the URL of this very same blog. Horinca, the nectar of the Gods, or at least of their Romanian speaking lumberjacks and shepherds is thrice distilled fruit brandy. Ţuica is single distilled, palinka is brandy that has gone through the still twice, but horinca cashes in well over the 100 proof mark and is usually so clear and pure that it is more like fruit vodka than brandy. Which means less of a hangover to worry about, a good thing since the Morosani here drink quite a lot of the stuff on a very regular basis, poured fresh into the ubiquitous plastic Coca Cola bottles from two gallon plastic jugs.Most homes make their own from their own fruit trees, although by EU laws they are supposed to have it distilled for them in a village EU designated still. I had promised Fumie a bottle of horinca (with strict instruction by her not to accept any inferior twice distilled palinka) and had let it slip my mind until we were actually on the road out of Maramures. I asked Jake to stop in the village of Sacel, where there is a weekly market, and walked around looking for a suitable underground moonshine contact. Walking up to a big Maramures peasant guy selling axes and other lumberjack tools, I asked if he know where we could get any horinca. “Yes. From me.” Five minutes later his wife was pouring 110 proof goodness out of a blue plastic vat into one liter cola bottles.So if you haven’t made any summer plans for travel, consider Maramures. Heading into Maramures is best done by car, but there are now a lot more village bus services that can get you from the main town of Sighet Marmatei and into the countryside on a regular schedule. Just about every village offers “cazare” (accommodation) in both official guest houses as well as in regular village family homes. Certain web sites such as can make reservations for you, but I actually just called Ion from the outdated website that started the rural tourism business, and got his information right here.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Back in Maramu'

Early May. The best time of the year to be tooling about Romania with my friends Jake and Elenore. It has been about five years since I visited some of the older fiddlers here, and it is good to know some of them, at least, are still with us. "It sometimes seems that the viability of traditional music is proportionate to the amount of potholes on the road it takes to reach that music. That certainly is the case in Romania. We have been jolting our merry way across Maramures and the Szekely country over the last few days, and travelling on the back country roads is more akin to dancing that driving. Distances that seem small on the road map become long drives as one weaves between potholes and washouts and gets stuck behind horse wagons. Every evening around 7 pm the real traffic jam starts: goats and cows clog the roads on their way back to their barns in the village from the upper pastures. But if you don;t mind the slow pace of travel, and don't crack your axle in a fit of pothole jumping impatience, you can be rewarded with some of the greatest music you will ever hear. “Maramures covered with flowers... mai dorule mai...

Now that Romania is an EU member nation, so many Romanians have gone abroad to find work in Italy, Spain and France that some villages have been transformed beyond recognition by the cash sent back home from abroad. The Oas region, once one of the poorest zones in Transylvania, is now a riot of sprawling palaces, including one famously kitsch palace with ornate marble sculpture befitting a renaissance prince or a minor New Jersey mafia don.Even in staunchly traditional Maramures, the old massive wooden houses are slowly being replaced by stone houses and suburban palace fantasies now dot the hillsides. I asked one farmer how much it would cost to buy one of the old wooden houses, and he said “I don't know. We all want new stone houses now. Only foreigners come here and want to buy a wooden house these days. You know... those that have old want the new, andthose that have the new, want the old. We are still on the road, and internet access is spotty, so more to come in a few days.