Balkan music through American eyes and ears

4. 11. 2023 | Rubriky: Articles

[Petr Dorůžka, Praha] Shaun Williams started to explore East European music as a humanitarian volunteer in Ukraine 15 years ago. Currently he is working on Roma music in his doctoral thesis, and as an accordionist he formed an ensemble with Romanian singer Corina Sîrghi. The full name of their group is Corina Sîrghi și Taraful Jean Americanu.

Williams was aware that his American origin could confuse listeners or even create a barrier, so he appears in the group under the nickname Jean Americanu, which he got from his Romanian bandmates. A unique figure is the cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) player of the group, Marian Șerban. When Romani music was discovered by Western audiences after the fall of communism, he moved to Italy, where he participated in dozens of important projects. He played with the group Aquaragia Drom and with the Neapolitan saxophonist Daniel Sepe, accompanied the English rocker Elvis Costello on an Italian tour and contributed to a soundtrack by the film composer Ennio Morricone. In the following interview, first Corina and then Shaun talk about their musical lives.

Corina, what kind of music you were growing up with?

I grew up listening to the radio and the traditional music of the Dobrogea region where I was born. No one in my family sang and there was no passion for music around me. But I sing. I don’t know how it happened.

In many East European countries, the folk music tradition was corrupted as a propaganda tool, Soviet type mega ensembles were created and the young generation hated them. How was the situation in Romania? And how did you fall in love with the Taraf music?

Young people still associate the traditional music with the music of that period and I don’t know if we are ever going to move past it. I don’t think there is a big interest in it, somehow the folk music still goes on, but I dislike it, it’s kitch. I don’t know how I managed to navigate all that ugly music and make it to the taraf music, I really don’t have an answer to that. It was my luck.

How did you start your band? What was the initial setup?

Shaun and I started the band and it all happened very quickly. We meet on the internet, we sang a few songs and that was it. We grew like a bread.

How easy was it to convince Marian Șerban to join the band? He must be very busy and sought-after musician?

Actually it was very easy. He trusted and supported us every step of the way. And he became like a father to us.

What are your plans for the new album with the Taraf?

The new album is also our first album and I am not sure how it’s going to sound. We are going to add some new stuff, of course, and maybe one or two original compositions.

When you were working with Shaun from the beginning, was there any barrier between him and local musicians because he is Gadjo and foreigner? How did he break the ice? What was the moment when he was accepted?

Meeting Shaun was the second beautiful thing that happened to me, the first was my dog. I’ve learned and I am still learning a lot from him. Although he didn’t grow up here, he is more knowledgeable than me when it comes to this kind of music and he is respected for it.

And also, in your case, because probably you are not of Romani origin, did you have to deal with any prejudices?

Maybe I will be judged for this, but I think music is for everyone. I am not trying to sing like a Roma person, I sing like me.


Shaun, after your time in Ukraine, when and how did you decide to settle in Romania?

When I went to Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2008, I already had the idea to someday study ethnomusicology, and my experience in Ukraine helped me to make that decision. When I finished my service in 2012, I began my doctoral studies at the department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University.

How did you start your band? What was the initial setup?

The band started quite unexpectedly. I was in my first year of field research in Bucharest and had organized some jam sessions with lăutari in the city. Corina must have seen a video from one of these events and wrote to me on Facebook asking if I’d like to try playing accompaniment on some traditional songs. We started out performing on the street as a duo when she had a break from her job at a coffee shop, and soon people were asking to hire us for weddings and parties. We performed for a few months as a duo, then invited cimbalom player Marian Șerban to join us, and after another year we added the violin and contrabass.

You studied art history in Germany, how important was it for your East European explorations?

My time abroad as a young student in Germany was important to my development as a person, but not necessarily as a musician, though the first time I saw a Balkan or Klezmer band it was on the streets of Berlin.

Your great-grand mother comes from south Transylvania, did her musical/cultural memories somehow influence your grandmother or you?

I never met my great-grandmother, who emigrated from Sebeș, Transylvania to Ohio, USA in 1920. But I grew up with frequent visits to my grandmother’s house where there were decorations in German and depictions of Transylvanian shepherds on the walls. Nobody ever talked about Transylvania though, and I assumed my ancestors were from Germany. It was only in 2007, when I made my first trip to Romania to study the cimbalom, that my grandmother told me “Oh you know my mother fled from Romania. Why on earth would you want to go there?”

How easy was it to convince Marian Șerban to join the band? And also to join Volekh? He must be a very busy and sought-after musician..

We were lucky to meet Marian in 2017 when he had just moved back to Bucharest after nearly 30 years in Italy, when he wasn’t yet in a lot of bands. My cimbalom teacher and mentor, Nicolae Feraru, suggested we talk to his nephew Marian because he was looking for people to play with, and we’ve since become great friends. When I formed Volekh Quartet in 2019, I immediately thought of Marian because he’s a very versatile musician with years of experience playing Yiddish theatre music in Italy.

How is Volekh Quartet doing? This band looks like a supergroup of busy people (Mihai Balabaș, a multi-instrumentalist who plays with numerous international groups), Benjy Fox-Rosen (bassist and composer as well as conductor of the Vienna Stadttempel Choir), Marian Șerban (a master of the cimbalom, including collaborations with Ennio Morricone, Ute Lemper and Elvis Costello) and Shaun Williams. So probably live performances are rare? Do you have a next gig planned?

Volekh Quartet was a victim of the pandemic; we premiered our live score for the 1925 silent film “Manasse” at the Europalia 2019 festival in Brussels, and then a few months later the artistic world was shut down and all of our performances were cancelled. Now we’re starting to gain some momentum again, with a performance at TIFF Cluj [TIFF Transilvania International Film Festival] in June and another at TIFF Oradea scheduled for October 1st 2023.

What are your plans for the new album with the Taraf?

Our album plans were also affected by the pandemic, but we’re hoping to finally hit the studio in winter 2023-24, with a release in the spring.

Do you find the Taraf tradition also elsewhere in Balkans? Illiterate self taught musicians playing for the aristocracy?

I take issue with this depiction of lăutari; many have studied at music colleges and conservatories, and the understanding of music theory is at a very high level, regardless of the fact that it’s still mostly an oral tradition. But yes, the phenomenon of Romani musical families persists throughout the Balkans and also in Ukraine and Moldova, where there were often mixed Romani-Jewish musical families.

In you said: “Part of my research is to promote this music, to have a higher status. People watch this music like on Etno TV, somehow the fiddle is seen (wrongly) as kitsch music for grandparents, and it’s a shame that it’s not appreciated.” That is the same what Ross Daly said one generation ago. As a foreigner, he helped the Greeks to re-evaluate their own folk music, can you see any parallels in your role?

I don’t want to inflate my role or my potential influence. I’d say that I only hope I’m able to give back at least as much as I take from this music that has so greatly enriched my life.

Does your position as a foreigner, Americanu, allow you to see the local culture more valuable, contrary to the view shared by locals, who often see it as something inferior, and who are fascinated by American culture instead?

I don’t think so; most people who listen to our music assume that I’m a (Romani) lăutar, since the name is a play on the common culture of nicknames in muzica lăutărească and manele (ie. Marian Mexicanu, Jean de la Craiova, etc).

The role of “outsiders” discovering local music is much wider. Joe Boyd and Muzsikas, Michel Winter, Stephane Karo and Taraf de Haidouks. Also, Gadjos do musicology studies, while gypsies play the music. In European classical music the artists and academics come from the same pool, in Balkans it is different. Any simple explanation?

There are plenty of Romani musicians in the classical, jazz, and pop music worlds, as well as Romani anthropologists, sociologists, and ethnomusicologists. I’m wary of my role as a “Gadjo” outsider who came to Eastern Europe to study the Other, but that is a reality of the imperialistic roots of Anthropology/Ethnomusicology that I’m still grappling with; I hope that what I am doing is not exploitative but rather beneficial to the communities and artists with whom I collaborate.

Your priority concept of your band is a serious performing ensemble for festivals and concerts, not a wedding band pleasing the guests at any cost. But, what about a “selective” wedding band? What if Johnny Depp would ask you to play at his wedding, would you decline?

The reality is that the majority of our performances are private (weddings, baptisms, parties), and we enjoy playing for such events. The difference is that at weddings we don’t get to perform the dark, melancholy repertoire that (in my opinion) makes muzica lăutărească so special.

Dark songs? You mean the doina laments?

I mean a much larger pallete of genres. People typically only want party music at their wedding– that is, sîrbas, horas, manele, drinking songs/table songs. But that excludes whole genres of traditional rural and urban folklore whose traditional listening contexts have disappeared: cântece de jale (sorrowful songs), cântece de blestem (curse songs), cântece de ocna (jail songs), cântece de șmecheri (gangster songs), to name a few. “Lume, lume”, “Cine iubește și lasă” (curse song), and “Lasă mă, nevastă-n casă” recorded by Maria Tănase and many of the epic songs and cântece de jale recorded by Taraful din Clejani (later Taraf de Haidouks) and falsetto crooners like Dona Dumitru Siminica fall into this category of songs without a place in modern society.

In Romania, you have the lăutari tradition and also manele. While lautari is the authentic, virtuoso style, manele represents the pop side, with cheap keyboards? But also the great singers Gabi Luncă and Romica Puceanu are considered as manele. Maybe you can correct me if I am wrong?

First of all, I don’t think it makes sense to frame this question in terms of “authenticity” or “virtuosity”; manele and lăutărească can be authentic and inauthentic, with varying degrees of virtuosity. Some might say that our band is inauthentic because I’m an American and didn’t grow up with this music.

The “manea” rhythm (Çiftetelli in Greek and Turkish) is a part of the shared musical heritage of the post-Ottoman space. In Romanian music, this kind of improvisational dance music (traditionally danced exclusively by women) was performed by lăutari and constituted only a small part of the wedding repertoire. The great singers of the “Golden Age” of muzica lăutărească all had a few manele in their repertoires, but it wasn’t until the 1980s-90s that this dance became a genre of its own, influenced greatly by the arrival of the synthesizer and melodies from other Balkan countries (but also Israel and the Levant). Nowadays there is pop lăutăreasca (see Viorica and Ionița de la Clejani) as well as pop manele, but the manele genre has provided particularly fertile ground for fusion— most of what is called “manele” today is actually closer to reggaeton, trap, and R&B than it is to the traditional Çiftetelli. It’s also important to note that the majority of manele performers come from a lăutar background and were well versed in this virtuosic tradition before migrating to the pop-manele world which generally provides greater opportunities for fame and fortune.

Stelian Frunză said: I can’t consider a Gadjo to be a lăutar because they don’t play with the same “fire”, as we say, that makes the audience jump out of their seats. So, how did you break the ice? What was the moment when you were accepted?

I don’t agree with Stelian here. There are a few (Romanian) Gadje who have been accepted as lăutari and are great performers. I don’t know if I’ll ever play with that degree of virtuosity, but making the audience feel something is not all about virtuosic playing.

Your blog, beyondkarpaty is a wonderful source of information, will there be a book?

Haha, my blog has been woefully neglected for years, but I’m glad it can still serve as a resource. There will be a book, but it’ll be my doctoral dissertation on Romani music and activism in Romania.

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