I can still remember the first time I heard a recording of Lotte Lenya singing. It was the original cast recording of the first English production of the Kurt Weill/Bertol Brecht play The Threepenny Opera. While the rest of the cast sang their material with the glossy voices you expect in American musical theatre, Lenya’s voice was as coarse as rough sand paper and a wonderful relief from the parade of characterless voices which had proceeded it. Brecht and Weill’s biting piece of social commentary had been turned into a pretty piece of musical theatre with Lenya’s performance being the only tie to its roots in the political theatre of Germany in the 1920s and ’30s.
Brecht hadn’t been interested in creating pieces of escapist entertainment, and strove to rid performances of the sentimental attachment the audiences made to the characters in a play. His theory of “alienation” was to constantly remind the audience they were watching actors on stage performing in a play so their intellect wouldn’t be clouded by forming any sort of emotional attachment to the characters. He wanted performers with real and gritty singing voices; people who weren’t your typical matinee idols playing the romantic hero to the young ingenue. While there was far more to his alienation technique than his preference in actors, it’s something to keep in mind when listening to Gypsy In A Tree, the new CD from Sanda Weigl (she is referred to by her first name only) on the Brooklyn NY Barbes Records label.
While Sanda was born in Romania, her family moved to East Berlin in the early 1960s. As a child she loved to watch the gypsy street musicians in her home of Bucharest and quickly learned to sing the songs she heard them performing. She even became a child star on Romanian State television. In Berlin, her aunt, Helene Weigel, who was not only Brecht’s widow but had taken over the running of his company The Berliner Ensemble, took Sanda under her wing and introduced her to Brecht and Weill’s style of musical theatre. From there she graduated to being the member of a rock band and also winning the Dresden International Song Festival when she was 17 with her rendition of a traditional Roma (Gypsy) tune “Recruit”. In 1968, when the Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to put down the reform movement, she joined an underground student group to protest the invasion and East Germany’s oppressive rule and was subsequently arrested, sentenced to three years of hard labour, and then exiled as an enemy of the state to West Berlin.
In West Berlin, Sanda returned to the theatre and her first love, the music of the Roma she had heard as a child. She began performing again with a band made up of musicians from the Tom Waits (music and lyrics) and William S Burroughs (book) musical The Black Rider which was originally staged in Germany. Encouraged by Black Rider’s director, Robert Wilson, she and her husband emigrated to New York City to allow her to further her singing career. Since her arrival in New York City she has continued to perform and released her first disc in 2002, Gypsy Killer. Now, nine years latter, she has finally released her follow up. Ten of the eleven tracks on Gypsy In A Tree are traditional Roma songs which Sanda has adapted and arranged with the help of pianist Anthony Coleman and her current band, avant-garde jazz musicians Shoko Nagai (accordion, piano and Farfisa organ) Stomu Takeishi (bass) and Satoshi Takeishi (percussion).
While Sanda sings in Romanian (the booklet accompanying the CD provides copies of each song’s lyrics in Romanian, English and German) the music builds off the traditional melodies to reflect the many cultures and countries both Sanda and the Roma have been influenced by and travelled through. So while the opening song on the disc, “Intr-o Ai La Poarta Mea” (One Day In Front Of My Fence) sounds like it could have been lifted directly from the stages of Brecht and Weill’s 1920s Germany, the very next song, “Un Tigan Avea O Casa” (A Gypsy Had A House) shows definite signs of modern jazz influences.
However, no matter what musical style has been incorporated, Sanda’s vocals are so mesmerizing they are the listeners primary focus. She has a range that would be the envy of any musical theatre performer and an expressiveness that conveys meaning even though we might not understand the words she’s singing. Reading the English translations of the songs alone doesn’t convey the depth of feeling behind the lyrics, and Sanda is able to imbue each of the songs with what is necessary to convey the layers beneath the surface.
Take the song “Jandarmul” (Gendarme – Romanian Gypsy word for a member of the cavalry) where a horseman refuses to give a young Roma girl a lift as she trudges along barefoot in a muddy road. On the page it sounds like she merely wishes him misfortune when she asks, “Oh Lord, dear Lord, make the rains so heavy/ That all the land is flooded/The horse stumbles in the mud/And the roads are no more”. Somehow, Sanda is able to express through the soldier’s attitude towards the young girl the disdain the majority of Romanian society has for the Roma, and the fatalism this has bred in response. It’s as if the young girl is saying, “fine if the world is going to make it so hard to walk and not offer any assistance, it might as well do away with roads altogether.” Yet, there’s also an air of defiance, as she also seems to be saying, no matter what the world does to us we will continue on our journey.
In some ways the songs on this disc are the blues songs of the Roma. For a great many of them reflect the pain of the Roma along the lines of “Adu Calu’ Sa Ma Duc” (Bring My Horse It’s Time To Go) which features an exchange of farewells between lovers who are being forced to part because of circumstances. “Bring my horse it’s time to go/ I must leave this place/Where luck wants no part of me/If luck were with me/I wouldn’t be punished thus/Torn away from you/My heart is always weeping”. Much like blues musicians sing about misfortunes and bad times in an attempt to take some of the sting out of a people’s bad experiences, Sanda does the same with her material.
While those lyrics are potentially maudlin, listening to the sound of her voice as she sings them, you experience something similar to what you feel when listening to a great blues singer sing about her man doing her wrong. It’s not just about this one incident, nor is it about feeling sorry for yourself, these songs are a way of making sure you don’t brood about the bad things in life by proclaiming them to the sky and not letting them rule you.
In the early part of the 20th century when Romanians would hire Roma musicians to play for family events like weddings and other celebrations, they were forced to keep out of sight of the guests to the extreme of having to sit in trees if they were performing outside. Gypsy In A Tree takes its title from that reprehensible practice, but while the songs on the disc might have lyrics which talk about the hardships the Roma have faced, and continue to face this day, Sanda’s performance make them more than just laments. With an obvious empathy for the material and the people who created it, Sanda is able to convey the strength of spirit of a people who have not only survived this treatment for centuries, but have managed to create a strong and vibrant culture along the way.
While it may seem like an odd combination, a Romanian vocalist accompanied by three Japanese musicians, performing traditional Roma material, their approach has been the perfect combination of respect and experimentation to bring the songs to life. Of course, the combination of great songs, great musicians, and a spectacular vocalist is usually a winner, and that’s the case here.