Peasant tunes from the old Land of Hârlău
Context, instruments, players
Hârlău is a town from the Romanian province of Moldavia. It now lies at the border between the counties of Iași and Botoșani. Around it, there are several villages, on each side of the border, that share the same customs, dances and music. For some centuries, until 1832, it gave name to a region of Moldavia – The Land of Hârlău. Some parts of today’s counties of Iași and Botoșani were in its componence.
When I first met Neculai Florea, almost ten years ago, in my search for old countryside instruments, I did not expect that a whole world will unfold, especially knowing that this world was supposedly long gone. I must admit, there was some truth in the benevolent voices that apparently wanted to spare me from being disappointed: most of the lăutari who played fiddle and cobza in the villages of Romania were either dead or have changed their relation with music, by means of religious conversion. That was also the case with the Moldavian commune of Deleni, once a very important folk art center, well known for its dancers, musicians, stone carvers, ceramic pot makers. Other remote places already lost their old-school cobzari and fiddlers a few decades ago. One should not understand that there are no countryside musicians left in the two historical provinces of Romania. There still are a great many of them, but the ones I was searching for - fiddle and cobza players – were most of the times referred to as being merely shadows of the past. And they are, in the sense that the Golden Age of string instruments that once made Romanian countryside music famous has already been replaced by the Silicon Age of keyboards and drum machines. Not a singular thing, as we can witness this phenomenon elsewhere as well – in the Balkans,Turkey, Azerbaidjan...
Back to my encounter with Florea, I openly manifested from the very beginning my interest in learning more about the cobza, an instrument that I already played in various contexts. Apart from what I already learnt as a self-taught cobzar, I was willing to deepen my ability to play using the old ways - what I use to call the peasant styles. I already knew by heart some of the folk tunes made popular by the ”Datina” Ensemble from Botoșani – a great music group that played from late 1970s until early 2000s old peasant music from Botoșani County with great energy and talent. Lead by the late Constantin Lupu, a great violin player, a folk music collector with an academic background who studied for years the musical styles of countryside fiddlers, the Ensemble was – and still remains – a landmark for the musicians in that region. In their music, the rhythmical playing of the late Constantin Negel was by far the most energetic playing of the cobza that I have ever witnessed. And I was willing to learn that kind of music in its natural milieu.
Neculai Florea grew up as a singer – and there was a time when he made a living from being invited as an artist to various weddings. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, even in the 1980s, the countryside weddings still lasted from Friday ‘till Wednesday, making a musician’s life a bit tense, to say the least. Florea also played the accordion – the one he still has was bought in 1977, around the date of the earthquake that shook Romania. He was also a dancer in the ”Corăgheasca” Ensemble from Deleni, a group that made an impressive appearance in a 1975 documentay film directed by Ion Filip. The dancers were accompanied by the commune’s musicians, mostly coming from the Roma lăutari community. Their repertoire consisted of the traditional sârbe, hore, bătute – mostly dancing tunes that were spread also in the neighbouring county of Botoșani. Musicians used to exchange songs, to ”steal” from one another and the fact that the commune of Deleni, now in the Iași County, was once part of Botoșani also helped for the music to circulate. Their style of playing was energetic, very rhythmical and maybe a bit ”brutal” for some sensitive ears.
Another very important thing about this folk-art melting pot that was Deleni at that time is that, until 1960s, some of the region’s cobzas were built there, by simple means, with very few tools. Compared to the factory–made instruments, the peasants cobzas appear to be frail, uneven and having a very different ”voice”. But here resides the beauty of those instruments – in their hand-made textured feel, in their simple form and in their unmistakable sound. Constantin Negel played such a countryside-made cobza (built in the county of Botoșani, though), Nică Corban from Deleni played one, Neculai Florea’s father played one.
The Romanian cobza is the most common accompaniment instrument in the Romanian folk music of the last centuries. Being mostly played by Roma lăutari and by semi-professional Romanian peasant musicians, this folk lute was used almost exclusively in Romania’s historical provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia. There are some mentions about cobza being brought to Transsylvania by itinerant lăutari from the neighbouring Moldavia. A ”turkish” group of Muslim Roma musicians from Dobrudja have also played it, as a photograph from 1930s attests and it has also been audio recorded being played by a Csango Hungarian from the Moldavian village of Luizi-Călugăra, in the 1950s and 1960s. Although it was meant to be used for accompaniment, cobza was and still is used also as a solo instrument. In the peasant world, Constantin Negel was well known for playing tunes on it. Lesser-known players from the Moldavian villages, such as the late Dumitru Onițescu or Nicolae Cazacu also played songs on the cobza, sometimes throwing an ear to their Wallachian educated counterparts. From the cultivated world of folk ensemble cobza players, one could easily mention the names of Ion Zlotea, Marin Cotoanță, Grigore Kiazim, Ion Șerban, Ion Strîmbeanu – people who greatly refined the instrument, expanded its limits and its technical possibilities and all of them great soloists.
Following the social changes that appeared in Romania after 1989, the cobza became less used in both the folkloric ensembles and – especially - the traditional taraf. The last great generation of city and countryside musicians who played extensively this instrument, the ones who were born around the 1920s, was slowly disappearing. When I met Neculai Florea (born in 1942), he told me he was rediscovering his father’s instrument. As a young singer and accordion player, Florea did not pay too much attention to the old lute. His interest came slowly - some VHS recordings from 1990s show him playing solo on the cobza, but it was more than a decade after that when he seriously got back to the instrument.
Still, Florea had been all his life surrounded by lăutari. He played with his father, he played with his neighbours – with Tofănel, with Costache Pintilie, with the sons of the great fiddler Mihai Cogeasca. Being also a dancer helped him memorise the old tunes. He collected songs from various musicians – he took a few from Elena Găină, a renowned singer from Deleni, who used the style of dârlâit – using her voice without words, in a sort of humming, but with consonants and vowels. He collected songs that traditionally had no words and created his own texts; others were used as he listened to them as a child. What stroke him one day was the fact that most of the cobza and fiddle players were dead or dying. The few that remained converted to neoprotestantism, quit drinking and public playing. That was the moment when Florea decided that it was his duty to play the cobza. He began to love it and when he met Neculai Amarandei, a fiddler who lives in a village from Botoșani, something changed – they both felt the need to work together on a repertoire that could be publicly presented.
Neculai Amarandei had some part of his life split between his regular work as a miner and his love for music. Coming from a family of lăutari he grew up learning to play the violin, but he also loved the accordion and cobza. After moving to Botoșani County, he became aquainted and worked with Constantin Lupu, the leader of ”Datina” Ensemble, whom he still mentions with admiration. Now a fiddler with lots of experience, as his father was, Neculai Amarandei has a very important role in the group he conducts. He takes care of the harmony and pays attention to the overall feel of the music they make. The presence of Amarandei is of great importance to the older Florea, as it facilitated the deepening of learning the cobza, for the latter. Amarandei is always aiming for the best – both in their individual performances and also as a group. Never fully satisfied, he searches for an equilibrium between their talents and their age.
In these recordings one can easily recognize the sound of the wooden shepherd's pipe, played by the younger Valentin Bălășanu (b. 1964). Living the neighbouring Botoșani County as well, he plays lots of the region’s songs, in various contexts. His life as a worker in the vineyards makes room for music – he plays the regular wooden flute, called fluier, trișcă, but also end-blown flute and the very simple tilincă – a tube with no finger holes. He learns song on the fly, as this series of recordings attests it.
The recordings from this cd have been made in 2019, 2022 and 2023. Between 2019 and 2022, my meetings with the musicians were rather scarce, due to the pandemic that left its marks on so many people.
The list of tracks consists mostly of traditional dances, such as hore, sârbe, bătute, but there are also songs that have derived from various ballroom music pieces of the 19th century, as it is the case with Șotișa, a dance of German influence. It is generally accepted that the folk music from the region of Moldavia has been influenced to a certain extent by Central European, Jewish and Slavic music. There are also satyrical songs (19 and 23), with texts that talk about searching for love elsewhere, in the neighbouring homes or about laziness of the younger generation.
Some of the songs from this cd were learnt by the players from the older generation of musicians in the area, while others were taken from ”Datina” Ensemble’s repertoire (Bătrâneasca de la Albești, Doina ciobanului, Sârba de la Victoria, Mărgineanca). Although today’s traditional dancing tunes may be accompanied by text, in the past, they were instrumental, as their role was to support the dances. Sometimes, they could be as well be sung by folk bards - like the peasant singer Elena Găină, from which Florea took several songs, such as Țâca din Deleni, Sârba din Deleni (still, the text here is an adaptation of Angela Moldovan’s Sârba mărunțică, a 1960s folk hit that she took as well from Elena Găină, who used no words, but the aforementioned style of dârlâit).
On Sârba cu năframădin Deleni, I was asked to play the cobza, so that Florea could concentrate on the text he was singing. There were three takes – I preserved the one where the text is complete, although the voice is slightly in the background.
With more or less variations in playing, the interpreters preserve in their songs the flavour and the musical style of the traditional rural taraf – the folk music band. While recording them, I used a simple ortf microphone configuration, in order to capture with the most accuracy the vivid character of the performance that took place at Florea’s house from Deleni, in a small room of 3x4 m.