"The Romanian Edith Piaf"
It was quite simple the way I discovered the name of Maria Tănase and her music. Making a research about Romanian folk music on the Internet, after some names I was given by people in Păuliş, I stumbled upon an article about this singer, in which she was called the Romanian Edith Piaf. Even though the sentence looked as the typical cliché, it inmediatly caught my attention, so I started to look for some of her music. It was that simple, and now I am surprised that I didn't herd anything about her before. After some time asking people about Romanian music, all of a sudden it appears an artist that not only is really good but encompasses the folclore of Romania in a very personal way. Reading a bit more, it was clear that she is recognize as one of the greatest singers of traditional-folk music in Romania, a person that was able to take the rich yet different and widely spred popular Romanian music in a way of her own. She died in 1963, but still her music is so present nowadays: lot of her interpretations on popular music are now standards that different musicians (not only traditional or popular ones) take as a model for their performances.
Melding the emerging cosmopolitanism of Bucharest with the rural world
Maria Tănase is very interesting not only because of her talent but as the symbol of a vanished world which echoes we recibe today: the Bucharest of the thirties, between the First and the Second World War in the XX Century. Accordingly, she is an unique mixture of the emerging culture of the capital, with its Western-like cafés and restaurants, and the one coming from the countryside, that still represents a huge part of Romania. She is considered a Folk and Popular singer, but is far from being restraint to these. In fact, what can make her more appealing to a Westerner listener is the very special blend of Oriental and Western sounds that you percieve in its music, of cabaret and deep tradition, gypsy's fiddlers, klezmer flutes and even a very particular assimilation of the Tango, all together to recreate a genuine atmosphere.
Born in 1913, in the outskirts of Bucharest, it is said that her first contact with singing was through the workers at her parent's enterprise - a horticultural nursury. These were mostly women that came from all the parts of the country, bringing their folk songs with them. She frequently has alluded to this fact as the reason of her characteristical performance, full of vitality and humour, straigh and spontanous. Her musical formation is indeed non-formal, said to be the product of an extraordinarious sensibility and intuition; but this is only part of the story, as she soon became in touch with a group of intellectuals that were essential for her developing.
There are chronicled some singing performances since 1921, when she was at school, but her formal presentation is in 1934 (being 20 years old), when she joins the Theatrical Tănase Company in a spectacle called Cărăbuş-Expres, under the nickname of Mary Atanasiu. It is through the director of this company, Constantin Tănase, that she meets some of the Bucharest-based intellectuals of the time, of which there are two that shines with a special light: Harry Brauner and Constantin Brăiloiu. Harry Brauner is the brother of the avant-garde painter Viktor Braun, and, the same as most of these artists and thinkers, a jewish. From the late twenties, he had made field work gathering traditional elements of rural Romania, in accordance to the increase of Folklore Studies in Europe. One of the particular interests of Harry Braun was music, having collected a wide range of songs all through the country; so that, it's easy to understand that he inmediatly hinted the quality of Tănase's voice, becoming a mentor and a guide in her deepening into Romanian musical folclore. For his part, Constantin Brăiloiu is considered one of the first ethnomusicologists in Europe, founder in 1928 of a folklore archive soon recognized as the largest of the country, where Maria Tănase could find lot of material for her work. The intelectual ambient in Bucharest composed a humus that for sure nurtured the work of Maria Tănase, making her reaching the universal scope we can appreciate today. This particular atmosphere was very damage during the World War II, with the ascense of the fascism and almost disappearence of the jewish culture in Romania, and dispersed during the Communist Regime (not only lot of intellectuals left Romania but some musicians as well, and others fell in a long silence).
Going back to Maria Tănase's career, in 1936 she started to record songs for Lifa and Columbia, in Vienna and Bucharest. In February 1938 she made her debut at a radio station, shortly after recording some songs for the Romanian Musical Society, a highlight that was followed, next year, with her inclusion in the Romanian delegation that represented the country at the New York's World Exhibition, along with personalities as Constantin Brancuşi or George Enescu. By then, Maria Tănase sung regularly at the theaters and at some well known restaurants of the capital. Even though she achieved a great success in New York, where she received some offers to stay, she returned to Bucharest.
Under the dictatorship of Antonescu
The political inestability of the period also reached her, and by October 1940, the Garda de Fier, the fascist party whose activity was by then supported by the Government, emitted a ban on Maria Tănase music, so that singing and recording was forbidden to her, and some of her recordings destroyed. They alleged that her music desvirtued the Romanian folclore, but the actual reason was her friendship with jewish people as the mentioned Harry Brauner or others as the filmmaker Sandu Eliad or the journalist Ştefan Roll. It's not easy to find information about this period, apart from an anecdoque that is meant to describe Tănase's independence against the Regime: when she again was able to sing in public, being invited to give a concert for the Ministry of Proganda, she argued as a condition to participate that her jewish friends were not to be sent to concentration camps, and also defied the censors by publicly thanking his help to Harry Brauner. This, as well as Constantin Brăiloiu, did have a difficult relationship with Romania; he found lot of difficulties under Antonescu's fascist regime in the 40s (because of his condition of jew) and then with the Communism (having supported the critical faction of Pătrăşcanu was sent to jail for 12 years), while Constantin Brăiloiu got exiled in Switzerland in 1943 because of political convictions, where he would continue his work till his dead in 1958. Just a sample of the quite often difficult relationship between the Romanian State and its intellectuals.
Also during this time, in the spring of 1942, she made a long tour through Turkey, with such a great success that the Turkish President gave her the honorary citizenship, and was offered an employment at the Ethnographical Institute in Instanbul. After this, along with George Enescu, organized some spectacles for the Romanian soldiers in the front, and in the Christmas of 1943, she sung at the festivities of the Royal Cavalry Regiment, with the presence of the Kings of Romania and the Government.
After World War Second: Maturity and Recognizement
The period after the war, until her death in 1963, would bring recognition from the State and the consolidation of her popularity. She struggles to keep from oblivion some of the traditional songs of regions as Golj, Maramureş or Moldova, with her characteristical interpretation. The chronology is as follows: in 1951 she accepts to work at the folk song department of the Musical School nr.1 of Bucharest; by 1955, she is awarded with the State Prize, and 1957 comes with a medal for her activity, the State Award and the recognition as Honoured Artist. In 1962 she starts leading The Gorj Folk Music Band in Târgu Jiu, but quite soon she is detected cancer, giving her last concert on 19th June, 1963 in Hunedoara. Only three days later she would die at home. Her last words before finishing the last performance can be found everywhere when speaking about the artist: "Brothers, I can't go on anymore. I have got lung cancer and I will die soon. From now on, you will never see me again".
At first, I though she had got more involved in folclore under the Communist Regime, in opposition to the mixed character of her music during the inter-war period (she even recorded a jazz album, destroyed by the Garda de Fier), until I realized that lot of the recordings I was listening to were from the 50s. Looking for some more information about it, I found out the possibility that the Communist Regime tried to show the music of Maria Tănase being more uniform than it actually is. It is something quite reasonable attending to some other examples and to the fact that her music shows quite much more "impurities" that other renamed folk music I have listen to.
Discography in CD
There are available some editions in cd of her work, starting from three volumes in Electrecord that comprises alltogether around 60 songs. Quite recently, the German label Oriente Musik released three albums, one being a general compilation under the name of "Ciuleandra", another one of her work between wars, "Magic Bird (The Early Years 1936-1939)" and a third one comprising some of her best known songs along with some she recorded in French, "Malediction d'Amour". Also, there are some general compilations of her work, from a "Greatest Hits" edited in 1994 by Electrecord to a double cd named "The Best of Maria Tănase", in Soft Records.
Here is a selection of songs that can be representative of her style, from traditional genres to more mixed ones.
- Cine iubeşte şi lasa ("He who loves and leaves"). A love song from Transylvania that was also recorded in French under the title of "La malediction d'amour". It is presented as one of her most famous songs from the pre-war times. It can be noted the influence of the chanson.
- Ciuleandra. A popular dance from Oltenia, in which the rythm increases along the song to make the dancers do so. The lyrics are in accordance to this, being instructions to the dancers. There is clearly an oriental flavour in the melody and the way of singing. It was the first song of her that really touched me, encouraging me to listen more.
- Marie şi Marioara ("Mary, sweet Mary"). A song from the Arges region, representative of the "muzica lautareasca", played by fiddlers (mostly associated to gypsies) in the 30s. Performed with exhuberance and humour, whose charm is intact.
- Lume, lume (World, oh world). Clasified as a drinking song, a plain reflection about the transience of life, a typical theme of the Doina, yet here there is a taste, again, of the chanson. Maria Tănase makes the usual clichès sound deep and moving.
- Cantec de leagan (Llulaby). An old song from Maramureş, representative of the Doina, a genre that represents a melancolic mood, a bittersweet appreciation of life.
The legacy of Maria Tănase
It can be found in artists not so obiously linked to her music. In fact, I found the spirit of the singer to be maintaned more by artists not directly related to folklore. One example is the British heterodox fiddler Nigel Kennedy, who, in the album "East Meets East" (2003), with the Polish band "Kroke", includes a song titled "Tribute to Maria Tănase".
The Bălănescu Quartet devotes an entire album to the artist, explicitly named "Maria T" (2005). This project recovers the original voice of Maria Tănase to be accompanied with new strings arrangement. The band developed a serie of concerts that included video and photo projection alongside with the music. For its part, the Romanian singer Sanda Weigl, who developed her career in East Germany and now in United States, performs traditional songs under Maria Tănase's guidance in her album "Gypsy killer" (2002).
Contemporary Romanian jazz played its own tribute with, as far as I know, two albums. Mircea Tiberian's "Lumina" (2003), with the voice of Maria Raducanu, who sometimes approaches the songs to the Fado; and Teodora Enache's "Rădăcini / Shorashim - Back to my Roots" (2007), one of my favourites, an album that achieves a natural mix of jazz and folk.
On a non-musical field, the 2009 Nobel Prize Herta Müller, born in Romania though German speaker, has said about Maria Tănase's music: "Somebody asked me today what it was that I have learnt from the avant-garde and I answered I learned a lot more from folk songs. When I first heard Maria Tănase she sounded incredible to me, it was for the first time that I really felt what folklore meant. Romanian folk music is connected to existence in a very meaningful way."
This work has its foundation in the writings of Maria Rosca (author of two books about Maria Tănase), Tiberiu Aiexandru (who wrote the texts that comes along with a recopilation in three volumes of the songs of the artist), and, very specially, Griet Friedrich, a German journalist specialized in Balkan music, whose articles were really useful for its rigour and knowledge.
Tiberiu Alexandru: http://www.passiondiscs.co.uk/romanian01/romanian_page_03.htm
Songs on streaming: http://virtualromania.org/music/maria/