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!