The music of northern Moldavia in Romania is some of the most beautiful and distinctive in the country. Dance melodies predominate here and the influences are varied; Jewish, Romanian, Gypsy, and Ukrainian traditions all play a role. On this CD we have focused predominantly on those melodies exhibiting the strongest Jewish influences.
The musicians on this recording are from the area of Botosani. The villages and towns nearby were all rich with Jewish culture before World War II. There is written as well as verbal evidence attesting to Jewish musicians in this region as early as the 16th century. It is interesting to note that in a document signed by Prince Yon Nicolae Mavrocordat in 1745 it was understood that the Jews in Botosani were considered citizens, a status that Jews did not have in any other European city at that time. Jews worked in several different professions, but regarding music making only Gypsies and Jews became professional musicians. While there is a rich non-Jewish repertoire in the region we focused on the Jewish music because we felt that the utter destruction of this once thriving community through such tragic circumstances, and the survival of some of it's musical traditions through the efforts of one man, Constantin Lupu, warranted concentrating on this to the exclusion of other excellent music. We also felt that for such reasons it was important to get the highest quality recording so we brought the musicians to a professional studio rather than record in the field.
All the regions of Romania have distinctive sounds but the music of Northern Moldavia is a revelation. While there is great beauty in the asynchronous sounds of Transylvania, the wild sounds of Oas and the rich textured melodies of Muntinia, these styles are not appealing to everyone. With the music of Northern Moldavia however, anyone with an appreciation for traditional music should love this. It is music that lifts your soul; it is gem like in the fascination that it exerts. It has a style that recalls to mind Bartok's reflection that folk music sometimes achieves the power of composition equal to Beethoven or Mozart.
I first heard the music of this region while staying in Bucharest, on an old tape recording from the Peasant Museum done by Romania's preeminent ethnomusicologist, Speranta Radulescu. It was so different and the performances so fine that I was amazed. It had elements that sounded medieval one moment and very modern the next. When I heard distinctly Jewish elements as well I realized that I had to visit the region soon and try to record there before it was too late. I bought a train ticket to the other end of the country that same evening. I called my partner and told her we would take our winter vacation on the snowy borders of the country.
Since it was one of the coldest days of winter we hoped to get a sleeping car. No luck. We were in a car with no heat most of the long journey and twenty hours later with no sleep we dropped off the train like two frozen blocks of ice. Some coffee and Romanian plum brandy brought us back to life and we launched our search for the great violin player, Constantin Lupu.
Botosani's historical center was fabulously ornate with its remnants of late-Nineteenth century Beaux Arts architecture, but fifty years of brutal Communist city planning had scarred the outskirts with identical block houses. Lupu received us cordially at the Cultural Center.
His is a complex personality, both urbane and reserved, yet an intensity and enthusiasm burned in his eyes. It would be many days, however, before enough trust could develop between us for him to tell how and from whom he came to learn such a fabulous and extensive repertoire of folk melodies.
He recounted how as a young man he spent all his free time on musical expeditions to the neighboring villages, absorbing the rich folk melodies ignored and even disdained by the local Communist officials, who only wanted to standardize the musicians into officially approved folklore groups, all playing similar melodies.
Lupu is unusual in that combined with his deep love and study of local musicians he is a classically trained violin player who has tremendous technique and control of his instrument. He eventually published two books of transcriptions from this field research and formed his own group. His lifelong partnership was with Constantin Negel, a Gypsy lute player of extraordinary ability, who is as sweet in his nature as his playing is fierce. Mr. Negel passed away shortly after this recording was made and, as one of the very last traditional lute players left in Moldavia, is an irreplaceable loss to the music of this region.
We ended up making a few trips to Botosani over that winter because we felt that this region was so important that we wanted to document not just Lupu but to find the source musicians he had learned from twenty years earlier. We encouraged him to search his memory for the names of the villages and performers he first heard this wonderful music from. I wish I could say we met with success but unfortunately from a list of twenty musicians in as many villages hardly any still lived, and those that were alive had often not played in so many years that they had lost their abilities. In Lupu's youth there were still a few Jewish performers from whom he learned some of the crucial melodies you hear on this album, so we went especially to neighboring Saveni and Dorohoi, which were famous Jewish centers, in search of them; alas they had all passed on.
A lot of time and resources were spent in this fruitless searching over the barren winter landscape of Moldavia. We slogged through knee-high mud, rode on ox carts, and slid down perilous ice-covered hills into smokey village huts, where the change from the icy cold to the heat indoors would fog my camera and jam my recording equipment. Invariably each potential informant would greet us with typical Romanian hospitality. A hand rough as cordwood from a lifetime of outdoor labor would be extended in friendship and a place made for us by the stone stove that was the centerpiece of so many homes. Tables would be brought out and tsuica, the ubiquitous plum brandy, and some food would be set before us. We could not ask for better company or more satisfying memories.
In the end we did find some of Lupu's original sources, the most important being a ninety year old gypsy fiddler named Ion Roman (CD forthcoming from Lost Trails) from whom Lupu had learned many melodies, and who had himself learned directly from two locally famous Jewish musicians that lived in his village and perished during the War. Lupu had not seen Roman in many years and it was fascinating to watch them swap stories and to hear Roman jokingly, but with great respect, call him "professor". Then they would play together the authentic music of the region as only they knew how. In the end we were privileged to be able to record these few remaining masters of a preciously beautiful folklore before it disappears entirely back into the snow covered forests of northern Moldavia from where it had first come ages ago.
New York, 2005