Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Negreni 2012. A Whole Bunch of Gabors!

It has been a couple of years since I was able to make it to Transylvania for the annual Negreni Fair (known in Hungarian as Fekete tó vásar.) Unlike most similar events in East Europe, this peasant fair has not become a quaint festival of folklore performances and nationalistic speeches and film crews parading their celebrities around. Negreni is the real thing. A muddy riverside field in a small village that becomes – on the second weekend in October every year, rain or shine – a sprawling market, selling everything from antiques to embroidered cloths to used shoes to sixty gallon cauldrons to sheepskin hats to and Chinese pink plastic hair bows. If you travel a lot around Transylvania  Negreni’s annual Fair is a time to meet up with people. It seems that everybody is there. Thousands of peasant, city folk, visitors, curious folks from Bucharest and Budapest descend on this nondescript village every fall to buy, sell, and just say hello to each other. (I have covered Negreni in other posts as well.)
Traian Ardelean and Dorel Kordoban, Negreni, 2008
This year was a bit sad for those of us who love this region’s wild, vibrant folk fiddle tradition: the vioara cu goarna music that is played in the villages around Negreni and Bihor county. The fair was one of the annual gathering places for the makers and fiddlers of this unique “trumpet fiddle” (actually a homemade resonator violin with a horn to amplify the sound.) But this year saw the passing of two of the local masters. Dorel Kordoban, master fiddle maker and musician from the village of Lazuri passed away last spring. And then the elder Gypsy fiddler Traian Ardelean was murdered in nearby Alesd in the summer. I did get a chance to meet with Mircea Roastas, but his health is not good and he wasn’t able to spend much time at the fair. I would not worry about the tradition dying out, though.Although there were less local fiddlers at Negreni this year, I found one, Gutu from the village of Balnaca, at one of the beer tents, and he was in fine form.
Fiddler from Balnaca
I have heard a lot from people who ask “What about that big Gypsy festival in Transylvania?”Well, if you want Gypsies, you can find them at Negreni. A lot of them. But it is not q Gypsy festival as much as a homecoming where different families, clans, and tribes touch base with each other year after year. Some refer to themselves as Roma, some do not. Some keep to a strong sense of Gypsy moral code and law, some less so. Appearances can be deceiving.
Metalsmith Gypsy
You can be sitting next to a family of Gaboresti Roma who proudly wear the broad cowboy hats, handlebar moustaches, the women in flamboyant skirts, that one anthropologist called “a hyper-gypsy sense of dress” and then find a blonde guy in a smart business suit chatting with them in Romani about a shipment of plastic shoes arriving at the airport from Istanbul.

Young Gabors in pin stripes
The Fair attracts a lot of Gaboresti - the clan known as "Gabor Gypsies." Why? They are descended from somebody originally named Gabor. Most of the family names are "Gabor." Don;t let it worry you. They know which clan is related to whom, and who they will marry, even though you can often wind up with people named "Mrs. Gabriella Gabor Gabor Gabor." Gabors are mostly Seventh Day Adventists: they don’t drink (much – beer doesn’t count) and they work in retail and market selling. They are active in Adventist church organizations and educate their children in Gabor run schools. A lot of them are, in fact, blonde.

Gabor gypsy girl.
That may reflect that the orginal extended families that congealed into the Gaboresti “nation” came from southern Transylvania in the area where Saxon German settlers have lived since the thirteenth century. There is an almost Germanic sense of “ordnung muss sein” about them. That lifestyle has led a lot of Romanians to contend that “Gabors are not Gypsies” because they are clean, hard working, all the things that define the negative stereotype of “Gypsy” in East Europe. This being Central Transylvania (on the road between Oradea and Cluj) you get not only the Gabor Gypsies, but any number of Kalderash clans who affect the Gabor style (big hats mean high prestige) but without the Gabor’s businesslike moral demeanor. But big hats and pin striped pants do not a Gabor make. If you want to live in a huge tin roofed palace, you need to do business like a Gabor. And that means a social network that the Gabors have built up through links of kin, religion, and pure hard work. There are areas of the market that seem to have been populated by differing groups of peasant and Gypsies.
Rudari: wood carvers 
The Rudari – wood carving families who do not speak Romani among themselves – set up tents and busily set about custom carving the whatever wooden implements of Transylvanian peasant life that you can’t buy at the Metro in Cluj: buckets for sheep cheese, milking stools, pig killing troughs. Hungarian Peasants from the village of Szék colonize a road on the northern edge of the Fair. They are also conservative in their dress: the costume acts as an advertisement for their presence and their business of selling folk crafts to (mostly Hungarian) customers. Across the river, women from the nearby Kalotaszeg region monopolize the antiques fair. Honestly, after decades of working with Roma and various groups of Gypsies all over east Europe, these people do not seem the least bit exotic to me anymore. Yes, I have learned to speak their language, after a fashion. I have traveled with some of these families, played music with them, toured abroad with some, gotten to know them as people, and one of the reasons I have rarely written about Gypsies is that they seem... just so normal to me.
The Valley of Cauldrons
Not exotic at all. Once you get to know the inside working of any group of people, what is exotic about it? Talking about family? Business? Travel? Marriage prospects? A lot of my better friends are convinced that I am an American Gypsy: my nickname in one village is "Bob o Amerikano" but I always start by telling them that I am not Gypsy. But once you say this in Romani language, well… you just passed the boundary between what defines a Gypsy and a non-Gypsy (gajo). So I fall back on my time honored proverb: Me som rom mashkar e romenge, taj me avav gajo mashkar e gajenge. I’m a Gypsy when I am with Gypsies… and a Gajo when among Gajos. [For more amazing photos of Negreni and Romanian Roma in general, visit Fumie Suzuki's facebook pages here and also here.]