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Music Review: Oana Catalina Chitu – Bucharest Tango

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Like in many European cities between the world wars in the first part of the twentieth century, Bucharest had a thriving night club and restaurant scene where patrons would be entertained with the latest fashions in music. While Berlin in the thirties featured the ribald and decadent cabarets as described by Christopher Isherwood in his collection of short stories that formed the basis for the movie Cabaret, and Paris was the home to the avant-garde both in the visual arts and music, Bucharest's night spots were featuring performances of music whose origins lay outside the metropolitan areas, and maybe even outside of the country itself.

Where the tango originated is unclear, but along with other forms of music not native to Eastern Europe, it came to Bucharest courtesy of the Roma, or gypsy, population that settled there. One of my favourite stories surrounding the tango is that during the retreat of the Ottoman Empire from Spain both Jews and gypsies were forced to go into hiding in order to elude the Inquisition. In Catalonia it's known that they sought shelter together among the caves that dotted the mountains of the region. It's easy to imagine that the two people listened to each other's music and when the skirling wildness of the gypsy fiddle met the more sedate and doleful sounds of Klexmar the tango was conceived.

It's always amazed me how anybody could have ever thought of Communism as being liberal in any shape or form, as they were always so intent on curtailing what they called "decadent and immoral". One of the first casualties of this prudishness in Romania following WW II was official discouragement of the Bucharest Tangos. As a result not only were the facilities where the music was played closed down, but the musicians were forced to leave the country in order to seek work, and Bucharest began a slow decline which eventually resulted in the dimming of its lights.
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All of which makes it that much more remarkable that now, seventy years later the music from this period is experiencing a revival. As a child growing up in rural Romania Oana Catalina Chitu (pronounced Kitsu) heard her father singing these songs, and later would have the opportunity to listen to old 78 rpm records her family had preserved of the music. Her musical studies began at a young age, and over the years have included everything from contemporary jazz to opera.

In the year 2000 she formed the Balkan band Romenca, which was the first step towards carving a career out of playing regional gypsy music. In 2007 she created a musical and theatrical performance called Bucharest Tango which was initially staged in Berlin. Now, Asphalt Tango Records of Germany will be releasing the CD Bucharest Tango, on September 26th 2008, a collection of tango songs from that period between the wars, mixed in with a few classic songs by a famous Romanian singer from the same era, Maria Tanase, who was known as Romania's Edith Piaf.

For those of you who have some familiarity with tango music, what you'll hear on this recording will take you somewhat by surprise. It's not what you've come to expect from hearing it in the past, and it's definitely not what you'd come to expect if you've only heard it via Hollywood or any of the new ballroom dance programs on television. The Bucharest Tango, while retaining the original familiar rhythm, has picked up an emotional context that has less to do with the sensuality we're accustomed to, and more to do with sadness and melancholy.

It's hard to describe the changes without being able to give examples, but imagine that the sound has been filled out and extended so that each phrase is comprised of more notes played at a slower tempo. Instead of a seduction played out under the warm, star filled night sky of Spain, the music brings to mind looking out the window of a room lit by fire light at a rain spattered cobble stoned street, with windblown gas lighting creating twisting and dancing shadows. There is a darkness and a melancholy that at first seems at odds to what you've come to expect from tango music, but as you adjust to the new atmosphere, you appreciate it for the way in which it reflects the lives of the people who are playing it.

The lyrics (sung in Romanian but translations into English are provided) aren't what you'd call upbeat either as they range from the opening track's ("Pe Bolta Cano Apare Luna" – "When The Moon Rises") assertion that a life without lies would be horrible because how could love exist without lies, to the cheery "Marie Si Marioara" – "Mary, Sweet Mary", where the narrator requests that Mary grab a stake and kill him as he's been lying sick for three days. Needless to say they're not too many people who are going to be planning a seduction around one of these numbers.

Singing lyrics like that would present a challenge to any singer in order to prevent them from becoming the worst sort of melodramatic drivel. Not being able to understand Romanian, the only way I have of judging Oana Catalina Chitu's performance is by the quality of her voice, and the manner in which she delivers the songs. In what I think is a wise decision she has opted for taking a subdued approach. Instead of pulling out all the stops and allowing her voice to soar all over the place she stays within the lower register most of the time and allows the emotion that's naturally inherent in the music to shine through.

She has a lovely rich and dark voice that allows one to luxuriate in the textures of what she's singing, without ever feeling that you're being swamped by an emotional overload. Like an opera or jazz singer she uses her voice not as a means of giving the lyrics intellectual meaning but as an instrument that adds another layer of emotional meaning to what her accompanying musicians are creating. I can honestly say that I've never heard sadness and melancholy sound as beautiful as I did while listening to Oana Catalina Chitu singing the thirteen tracks on Bucharest Tango.

For those of you familiar with Eastern European, or many styles of Gypsy music, the sound of the instruments that accompanies Ms. Chitu won't surprise you as they include what you'd expect from this type of ensemble; their version of the hammered dulcimer, the cymbalon, accordion, violin, guitar, bass, and percussion. Hearing these instruments playing tangos might take a little getting used to, but as is the case with the overall sound, once your ears have adjusted, it sounds fine.

Bucharest Tango featuring Oana Catalina Chitu is a collection of tangos like you've never heard tango played before. Rid yourself of any preconceptions as to what you think the music ought to sound like and it won't be long before Oana's wonderful voice and the powerful music of her band will have you completely captivated and under their spell. It's often been claimed that the tango has magic powers and this disc confirms that belief.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.