Monday, October 16, 2023

Old Timers on Fiddle: Maramureș

Goreu Canaloș on fiddle, Tărșolț, Oaș, Romania.

When I began playing fiddle (as in not classical violin) Richard Nixon was the President of the USA. America was going through one of its periodic "folk revivals." There had been several by then: the Great 1950s Beatnik Folk Scare, then a period in the 1960s where cleancut trios and quartets with three guitars and a banjo sang arranged "folksongs" in harmony, then came the Dylan-does-Woody-Guthrie Protest  Song era. In the 1970s Bluegrass music broke into AM radio with "Dueling Banjos" - the theme song to the film "Deliverance". I had an old Harmony acoustic guitar that my parents got for me when I was recovering from an illnesss. Of course, I wanted an electric guitar, but my parents were smarter than that.  As a result I wound up playing a lot of old time blues, Appalachian and southern string band music, most learned from reissues of old 78 RPM recordings made in the 1920s, and friends of mine who drove down to West Virginia and North Carolina to tape record and learn from people like Tommy Jarrell and Melvin Wine. I never made the trip down south (although I did drive  to Canada recording fiddler Cameron Chisholm in Cape Breton in 1975) and by the time I could, a lot of the old timers had passed away. 

Chris March, Chops McCoy, and me on fiddle, 1975.

To us New York kids, North Carolina and West Virginia were the last pockets where the old "archaic" fiddle traditions still hung on. (I was entirely wrong about that. Time and age have granted me a lot of enlightenment as to what I am entirely wrong about.) I felt like I had missed out on some golden age of folk music because I had never made it down to the Appalachians a half century before I was born. When I moved to Hungary in the 1980s, I had the same sense: I wanted to get into the boondocks before their fiddle traditions evaporated into a dust of decaying folklorists' tapes. I finally got to roam around Transylvania in 1988. Since then I have made an astounding realization: this music is not disappearing. It isn't always apparent, but it hasn't disappeared.

Ceterașul Dumitru Covaci

This should explain why I am hooked on the Maramureș region of Romania. I know of almost no other region in the world where folk fiddling is as essential to the local cultural identity as in Northern Romania. Transylvanian music is still a proud badge of local identity, whether providing the background music to a wedding or thrilling the crowds in a bar before a football (i.e.: soccer) game. Tradition is strong in Transylvania.

 Ieud, August 15th, Virgin Mary Day.

Spoiler alert: If you didn't already know, I play Jewish music. Traditional, kind of like the stuff you probably call "klezmer." And due to the fates of history, there aren't a lot of people alive today who can play this sort of music. Maramures was once home to a large, rural Jewish population. Unlike Jews who lived in the "Pale of Settlement" in Russia and Poland, the Jews of Maramureș - like the Romanian, Zipser German, and Rusyn peasants who flocked to these mountains in the 1700s - had rights granted to them directly by the Hapsburg Treasury, and were able to own and farm their own land, an anomaly among Jewish settlements in Europe. As such they created a Yiddish world much closer to the culture of their neighbors, which lasted in some pockets even after the Holocaust. Today, however, most of the Jews of Maramureș are gone. A large part of their surviving descendants form the bulk of what we know as the Satmar Hasidim in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Antwerp Belgium. The community in the town of Sighet is now down to 22 members.

Jewish and Rusyn musicans, Bogdan, Maramureș 1909 

Like their neigbors, Maramureș Jews were avid fiddlers - the ceteraș is an essential figure in the life of Maramures, and even after the Jews had been eradicated during the Holocaust their presence and musical traditions continued to have an echo effect on their neighbors. (The villagers, mind you, did not take part in the eradicating. That was the work of the Hungarian Army.) When I began recording music in the 1990s, older fiddlers - particularly in the Iza Valley - still played a repetoire of Jewish fiddle tunes. They did not necessarily remember the details or context in which the tunes were played - most had heard them as teenagers while playing as pickup musicians for Jewish fiddlers playing outside their home communities. (Gheorghe Covaci "Cioata" from Vadu Izei remembered playing with the Shloimovich family band from Rozavlea "They used to pay us with cake!") These were tunes that were remembered mainly because they were interesting musically, since most Maramures tunes are connected to either a ritual function or to an aspect of social dance. For the aging fiddlers I met these Jewish tunes were simply "cool tunes my father played for listening." 

The late Brothers Nicolae and Viktor Covaci from Dragomirești in 2015.

If you have heard recordings of dance music from Maramureș, it is easily identifiable: the fiddle is backed by a four string guitar tuned to an open A chord and a small bass drum. The guitar - called zongora - which, oddly, means "piano" in Hungarian - has been around since at least the 1920s, when Bela Bartok made recordings in the Iza valley. There used to be an older style, however, that used a three string viola kontra fiddle like the one used in central Transylvania, and a bass. Around 1964 the Petreus Brothers, a fiddle and guitar dueo, recorded an album for Electrecord, the Romanian State label. The State culture authorities declared that from then on all Maramures music had to be played on fiddle and guitar to be broadcast on TV or radio, effectively killing the older style of music and the repetiore that went with it, including the Jewish tunes. During the Ceaucescu era only a few ethnomusicologists had access to tape recorders and little of this style of music survives, although a recording made by Ghizella Sulițeanu and Anca Ghircescu in 1971 featured the fiddler of Borșa, Gheorghe "Stingaci" Covaci and his band playing several sets of the Jewish repetoire in the older style.

Ion Pop is one of the hardest working musicians in Maramureș. He is the leader of the Iza folk music ensemble, and as he says "I'm a peasant from Monday to Friday, and a musician on weekends." Ion, in fact plays a large role in the continuation of Maramureș traditions. He consciously strives to make the old village aesthetic marketable, playing for village weddings as well as appearing on television and at festivals. 

Ion Pop with Fumie, just off to work!

Romania loves its folk music, but just like the United States has Contemporary Country and Western, Romania has Musică Populară - at any time there are about seven round the clock TV video channels playing professionally produced "folk" music videos featuring idealized peasants and trained dancers and musicians lip synching while choreographed stepping around the haystacks. Ion doesn't do musică populară. Among his talents, he single handedly revived the use of the three string kontra viola in Maramureș music. Once, when I asked him who was left in Maramureș who still played music in the old style, Ion answered "You and me, Bob. We are all that's left." 

Jake on stage with Ion Pop in Breb, summer 2023

Luckily, we aren't all that's left. Zoe Aqua from Denver, Colorado has been living in Transylvania for thae last few years actively learning from the surviving village musicians, and has even synthesized what she has been learning into her own compositions in traditional style on her CD "In Vald Arayn" (dowload it from bandcamp!) Jake Shulman-Ment has been a fixture of the New York klezmer scene since he was a wee child. He has traveled around Maramures with me as well as spending a year living in Bukovina while working with the Lautar orchestra of the city of Botoșani. His CD A Redele on Oriente Records in Berlin is one of my favorites. He is also one of the reknowned Brothers Nazaroff.  Vasile Rus, from Vadu Izei, also consciously preserves a repetoire of Jewish melodies, and was instrumental in teaching the style to Zoe Aqua, who subsequently, taught some of this music at a workshop last summer at KlezKanada.

Nicolae and Viktor
We were lucky to meet these musicians when we did. Sadly, most of them are no longer alive. Jake and I leanred  a lot from Nicolae Covaci in Dragomirești, who passed away around 2019. His brother Viktor could play the Jewish repetoire when playing duet with his older brother, but unless I prompted him he couldn't remember more than two or three of the melodies, since he had been born after the era when Jewish musicians were in the area. This summer I dropped in on Viktor only to find his wife dressed in black - he had passed away in late July, two weeks before my visit. I miss him. Viktor was one of the last old style fiddlers in the region. He was a great guy to hang with, gentle and always the little brother, even into his 70s. Two years ago we filmed him while working with Argentinian film makers  Paloma Schachmann and Leandro Koch on their indie documentary The Klezmer Project "Adentro Mio Estoy Bailando" This weekend Fumie and I are going to Vienna to meet them at the Viennale film festival for the Austrian premier of the film. I wish Viktor could be with us. 
Bonus: At 1:10 into the trailer, Fumie is dancing with Maria, the wife of fiddler Dumitru Covaci.