I have to admit that anytime I see the words Romanian and gypsy together I'm irresistibly attracted. Part of that stems from being a descendant of the other outcasts of Romanian society — Jews — and the other part is that the music taps into some wellspring of untapped emotion inside of me.
Okay maybe this is the one place that sentimental romanticism rules for me, as I hold on to some fake image of fierce independence and the indomitable will to survive that has been perpetuated about gypsies by so many millions of bad movies and stereotypes. But how can anyone listen to that music and not feel stirred? The violin plays an extended note overtop a raspy voice that hoarsely proclaims a string of passionate words, while underneath the cimbalom is playing patterns of notes that only slightly falls short of the vocals for intensity.
An almost infinitesimal pause is followed by an explosion of sound as the strange mixture of brass, woodwind, strings and percussion takes flight. While the songs themselves could be about anything, within each one you can hear the echoes of the gypsies long migration that started in Northern India and as far west as Ireland. With the opening of the world and the always-present hostility of Europe towards gypsies and everyday reality they crossed the ocean in their quest for peace.
I've never heard why the original migration from India began. After all, elements of the tribe continue to live there following the ways of their ancestors. But leave they did and as they traveled they left behind communities in every territory they crossed through.
If possible, these communities were even more isolationist then the Jewish ones existing alongside of them. Like the Jews, they discovered that refusing to mix with society was responsible for the generations of myths concerning their behavior, as humankind's fear of the unknown is always fertile breeding ground for hatred and rumor.
In spite of the animosity that existed toward them in Eastern and Western Europe, and the attempts of Hitler's Nazi party to exterminate them as part of their campaign for racial purity, their communities continued to survive and make glorious music. Even under the iron rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, party secretary of the Communist Party and leader, the music flourished internationally and at home.
One of the leading lights of gypsy music in Romania at this time was cimbalom, or ţambal, player Toni Iordache. He was born in 1942 just outside Bucharest and at the age of four had already begun learning to play the instrument of his choice. A few years later his family moved into Bucharest where his neighbors numbered some of the biggest names of gypsy music in post World War Two Europe.
To most of us, these names probably mean nothing at all. Thankfully Asphalt Tango Records in Germany has been given permission to dig into the archives of Romanian state radio and has unearthed tapes of many of these greats and been releasing these recordings under the name Sounds From A Bygone Age. Volume #4 gathers close to an hour of old recordings of Toni Iordache playing with a wide variety of his contemporaries and gives us ample opportunity to hear his incredible versatility.
The most simplistic way to describe a cimbalom is to think of a grand piano with its lid taken off and cut down in size to a large almost perfect square. Then picture this being played by striking the various strings with cloth headed mallets. When struck it sounds like a cross between a piano and a tightly strung stringed instrument being played by hitting the strings with your finger instead of plucking them.
At its most basic it can be used as a tuneful percussion instrument, hammering out a melody at the same time as it maintains the beat. However, in the hands of an expert like Iordache it turns into something far more sophisticated; it can become the lead instrument, akin to a piano or violin. In that role, it can lend support to a vocalist, be the central force in an ensemble, or be used for solo performances.
On Sounds From A Bygone Age: Volume 4 we hear Toni performing in all those capacities. The first thing you notice about him is his speed; supposedly, he was able to play at an amazing speed of 25 beats per second without ever miss-hitting a single note. The second thing that stands out about his playing is his amazing ability for nuance and subtlety.
It's one thing to be able to play with blazing speed, and that's no minor thing, but it's another thing all together to be able to play so well that you are credited with changing the way the instrument is played. On some of the more delicate pieces on the CD, his playing never overstates or overwhelms, as he softly coaxes sound from the gently massaged strings of his cimbalom. His dexterity and control are such that it feels like he could convince the strings to cry with joy one second and sing laments the next.
Since Iordache was in such demand as a player during his life time the f14 tracks on this CD feature some of the best and brightest of the Romanian gypsy music community. This is especially true of the vocalists who make appearances on the CD. Romica Puceannu is the most often featured on the disk and his duets with the cimbalom are things of beauty and passion.
Toni Iordache died in 1988, from complications due to diabetes. Two hours after having his leg amputated in surgery he died in the recovery room. His health hadn't been helped by having to spend a year in jail for possession of foreign currency. When he was released from prison, it was obvious that he would not have much time before he was lost to the world.
In preparation for that eventuality he taught his son and his grandson his arrangements and his techniques. Today if you were to go to Bucharest, you could find his son and grandson playing the music of their elder and keeping the heritage of Toni Iordache alive.
Toni Iordache played gypsy music that resonated with the passion and intensity that we identify as the hallmarks of the genre. We may all have our own reasons for appreciating gypsy music, but there can be no disagreement when it comes to the superlative playing of Mr. Iordache.