Joe Mabel > Travel writing > Letters from Romania 2001-2002 > Music for Marble Palaces, Dark Churches, and Open Manholes

Music for Marble Palaces, Dark Churches, and Open Manholes

1 Apr 2002

Wednesday night I went to hear Taraful Haiducilor dîn Clejani, or, as they are known internationally, the "Taraf de Haiduks", which means roughly Gang of Thieves, or Troupe of Bandits, or something along those lines. They had been recommended to me by Seattle friend Josh Randall and also get a mention in the Rough Guide to Romania.

They are from Clejani (that terminal 'i' is essentially silent), the number one town for (traditional gypsy musicians) in Romania, and the Haidouks are the number one band in Clejani. I'm told in Clejani you can hire a run-of-the-mill band to play for as little as US$15. That was the price for a single reasonably good ticket to see the Haidouks here in Bucharest.

As it turns out, I'd seen a bunch of these guys before. At least half a dozen of them were among the Romanian musicians I wrote about who were the highlight of the SOS Racismo festival in Barcelona I went to in '96. That nameless group in Barcelona may have been entirely from among the Taraful Haiducilor - certainly all the most memorable performers from the Barcelona show were here on Wednesday - except my remarks from that time suggest that some of the minor performers there lacked stage presence, which could not be said of any of the current Haidouks, so either the minor members' stage presence has improved in 6 years, or being almost on home turf matters, or some were different people.

The concert took place at the Sala Palatului, a stone's throw from my apartment. OK, a long stone's throw: if you can throw a stone that far, you should try out for the Major Leagues. The Sala is physically attached to the National Gallery, the former Royal Palace, hence the name. It's pretty big - they used to use it for Communist Party plenaries - and relatively bare. The kind of place that British political parties hold their conventions. There were way too many video cameras, including a wildly swinging robot boom and an annoying stationary camera right between me and center stage; fortunately, the musicians were physically all over the place and there was nothing particularly special about center stage. Also, for the benefit of all these cameras, almost as much light was being flooded onto the audience as onto the stage. Not an ideal concert setting, but OK. At least the acoustics were good.

Judging by this performance, the Haidouks effectively consist of three nearly disjoint groups of musicians, although the configurations are not quite stable: occasionally someone from one group sits in with another, and they did one piece at the end all together, but that last no more makes them a "group" in the conventional sense than a bunch of American folksingers who all gather up to sing "This Land is Your Land" together as the last number of the night.

The first contingent, who were heavy on the brass, including a tuba (not a sousaphone), started the show by marching down the aisle to an uptempo Balkan march. When they reached the mikes, a violin, an accordian and a saxophone gained a lot more prominence. They also featured a female vocalist, the only woman performer of the night. The second group was without woodwinds, but included a timbalum (for those who don't know this instrument, it's like a slightly discordant hammered dulcimer on the scale of a piano), and substituted some sort of dumbek for the previous contingent's big bass drum. Finally came the old men (and a few merely middle-aged), mostly violins and accordians, plus one thing sort of like a transverse pennywhistle, with occasional participation from the same dumbek and timbalum, plus another instrument more in the hammered dulcimer size range, tuned in the same jangly tuning as a timbalum, worn rather like a glockenspiel. This last contingent were the ones I remembered from Barcelona, and they were the best of an all-around good lot.

Really good really fun music, often very playful, occasionally even the "competitive solos" thing, lots of flashy fiddling (overhead, behind the back, running one loose strand of resined string over the violin strings to make an eerie, scratchy, but still on-pitch sound: the violin equivalent of Jimi Hendrix show-off pyrotechnics, backed by that same high level of actual musicianship. You would definitely want these guys as the band at your wedding.

This weekend we had our first reasonably sunny wekend in a while. (They tell me the good weather should now stay.) I took full advantage of it, wandering extensively.

One of the weirdest hazards of this city is open manholes. You'll be walking down a sidewalk and there it is: a wide open hole in the ground, no protection around it, a sheer 20 meter drop. They must occasionally lose someone this way. I have no idea how this comes about; maybe some kid wasn't sufficiently challenged by building up a hubcap collection.

I don't think that I've really mentioned that Bucharest, even after the destruction wrought by Ceausescu, is peppered with small, reasonably interesting Romanian Orthodox churches. Some are truly marvels; almost all are at least worth a look. Typically, they have extensive wall paintings, often in fresco, dozens of icons (many worked in metal), fascinating altarpieces (does one call them "altarpieces" in the Orthodox world? After all, the altar is behind it, not in front. [I think the right word is "iconostasis"]), floors covered by dozens of Oriental carpets, typically one or two old ceramic furnaces, a bit of incense, but even more than that, nearly every one of them has an absolutely fascinating quality of light (and few of them use any artificial lighting in the daytime). Especially interesting can be the way that the windows in the main dome provide just barely adequate illumination to see the dome's own (usually elaborate) frescoes. I've wandered into about 30 churches by now, and almost every one has been a treat.

I also don't think that I mentioned that the Centru Civic is not a complete monolith. It's a bit porous. Although B-dul Unirii (formerly the "Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism" or some such) is uninterrupted uniformity, even one block off of the boulevard some older buildings remain, including the lovely Antim monastery. The quality of some of these buildings leaves you to imagine what else was lost in the construction of the monster. There are also a few reasonably nice little parks that probably used to be reasonably nice little neighborhoods. 'Nuff said.

This week I finally visited the Palace of Parliament, the second largest building in the world (after the Pentagon) and Bucharest's leading tourist attraction. (Hey, Barcelona's leading tourist attraction is supposedly the museum of its soccer team, the famous Barça. And Seattle's is the Space Needle.) I can now report that on the inside it is the same Bourbon Stalinist monstrosity as on the outside. They tell me that it is constructed entirely of materials from within Romania. It is a wonder that any marble is left over in the entire country.

One of the few real touches of class in the building derives from the fact that the Roman Empire left behind some magnificent mosaic floors in Constanta, one of which is replicated in the main formal entrance hall. Other than that, there are some of the largest, dullest chandeliers I have ever seen, some actually good carved wood doors, and a few nice touches which run entirely against the taste of the late unlamented dictator: for example, one of the larger reception halls has been fitted out with several dozen large works by contemporary Romanian artists, probably none of which would have been acceptable under the old regime.

One room of the palace was recently used by Costa-Gavras as a stand-in for the Vatican. They got to keep the imitation Michalangelos worked into the niches.

The imposing balcony looking down the length of the Boulevard has, in fact, hosted such royalty as Michael Jackson.

Oh, and if you have too much money, many of the rooms can be rented (for conferences and parties, not to stay in). On the day I toured the building, the right wing irridentist România Mare (Romania Mare, Greater Romania) party was holding a conference there, and there was also a conference on dual-use (i.e. military/civilian) imports and exports. There is also one hell of a big ballroom, with a glass ceiling, but a little bit too much superstructure over the ceiling for my tastes.

(Speaking of Romania Mare, who are themselves just within the pale, there are two downright fascist grouplets here, Noua Dreapta [New Right] and Garda de Fier [Iron Guard, named after the WWII-era Romanian fascists]. They stick their posters all over the place and hold nearly weekly rallies and marches at which they draw between one and two hundred people. They are not strong enough to elect anyone to any office, but their stew of ultra-nationalism, homophobia, and anti-liberty masking itself as anti-communism certainly pulls the right wing parties farther right.)

Later that day, wandering in Parc Carol I, I saw one of the weirdest improvised sports I have ever witnessed: five-a-side soccer on roller blades, played on a marble plaza in between the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and that of Gheorghe-Dej, with goals not quite at the ends of the plaza (so you could go behind the goal, like in ice hockey), and with one of the out-of-bounds lines marked by a marble staircase (mercifully going up, not down). They had kneepads, but not much other protection: no mouthguards. I wouldn't think falling down on marble was any fun at all, but the play was pretty aggressive, although not ice-hockey aggressive. At least there were no open manholes.


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Originally written: April 1, 2002
Last modified: November 9, 2003

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