Lăutărie Then and Now: Inside Romania's Romani Musical Heritage Photo: Țagoi family private archive

Lăutărie Then and Now: Inside Romania's Romani Musical Heritage

January 30, 202116-18 minutes read

Written by:

Shaun Williams

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In the past thirty years, the Romanian-Romani music genre known as muzica lăutarească has journeyed from impoverished villages to some of the world’s greatest concert halls, and back again. What was this music that took the world by storm and where has it gone?

Like many Americans of my generation, I was introduced to Romanian traditional music by CDs marketed in the 90s and 2000s under the questionable categories of “World Music”, “Balkan Music”, and “Gypsy Folk”. At the time, groups like Taraf de Haïdouks, Fanfare Ciocârlia, and Mahala Raï Banda were topping the World Music charts, touring worldwide to sold-out concert halls, and even appearing in Hollywood films1. But the Balkan craze began to wane following the deaths of several key members of Taraf de Haïdouks, and by 2016 it was all but a memory.

Party in Clejani, 2017. Photo: Shimona Carvalho
Party in Clejani, 2017. Photo: Shimona Carvalho

Starting in the early 1990s with the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist regime, Romanian Romani professional musicians began heading West in search of greater economic opportunities. Some, like țambal (cimbalom) virtuosos Nicolae Feraru and Giani Lincan or accordionist Aurel Budișteanu, emigrated permanently to the U.S. and Western Europe. Others went abroad and honed their chops playing other genres, like accordion prodigy Ionică Minune (Ionică the Miracle), who spent over a decade in France playing jazz and jazz manouche. Still others began a tradition of musical migrant labor, busking in the streets and concert venues of affluent cities like Paris, London, and Brussels, where they crafted stage performances with a repertoire that would have normally only been found at weddings or baptisms back home in Romania. They are lăutari, Romani musicians who for generations have performed a genre known as muzica lăutarească: an amalgamation of influences attesting to Romania’s centuries-long struggle to carve out a national identity in the shadows of Eastern and Western empires. Its eastern scales echo the Arabic maqamat (a remnant of the subjugation of Wallachia and Moldova to Ottoman rule), its virtuosic European-style parlour pieces and hore naționale bear witness to the Western aspirations of the 19th century independence movement, and its pastoral melodies and circle dances hearken back to pre-Christian times, however obscured by modern flair and adrenaline-infused virtuosity. As such, one would be at a loss to define the genre in terms of musical style, making it far simpler to define in terms of its practitioners: muzica lăutarească is music played by lăutari.

The practice of non-Romani scholars and writers representing Roma culture without including the voices of Romani people began long before the founding of the Gypsy Lore Society in 1888. As a non-Romani person, I believe it is important for any representation of lăutar culture to be rooted in the words and beliefs of lăutari. This article is based on conversations with four lăutari from different backgrounds and generations2 whose experiences provide a more complete picture of where this music has been and where it is going.

Țagoi Marin “Țagoi” Sandu (b. 1950) is a vocalist and accordionist from the town of Clejani in southern Romania. He was part of the initial lineup of Taraf de Haïdouks together with his father Nicolae “Culae” Neacșu. Țagoi has performed with numerous other ensembles in recent years, including Nea Vasile și Taraful de la Mârșa and Bahto Delo Delo. He and his wife Marcela have four sons and three daughters, all of whom received a musical education in the home.

Țagoi Marian Mirea (b. 1958) is a violinist and bassist, a fourth-generation lăutar and son of the celebrated conductor Constantin Mirea. A native of Bucharest, he is classically trained and has been a member of numerous ensembles including the Romanian Folklore Ensemble “Ciocîrlia”, The National Radio Orchestra of Romania, Orchestra Gheorghe Zamfir, and Ștefan Bucur Ensemble, and has recorded with lăutari legends such as Gabi Luncă, Ion Onoriu, Toni Iordache, Marcel Budală, and Vasile Pandelescu.

ȚagoiAurel Ioniță (b. 1967) is a violinist, composer, bandleader and founder of the lăutar-Balkan-Romani folk-pop band Mahala Raï Banda. Raised in a family of lăutari from Clejani, he began his career in Bucharest with the experimental folk band Rom Bengale and went on to work as an arranger for Fanfare Ciocârlia and Kočani Orkestar before founding Mahala Raï Banda in 2004. He has toured worldwide and performed with international acts including Esma Redžepova, Šaban Bajaramović, Balkan Beat Box, Shantel, Goran Bregović, Mariah Carey, and Scorpions.


Stelian Frunză (b. 1983) is a 5th-generation lăutar from Buzău specializing in the keyboard and accordion. He holds a BA and MA in Sociology from the University of Bucharest and is currently a student in the faculty of Social Work. He splits his time between musical performance and working as a Child Protection Specialist in Bucharest.

Tagoi and grandson. Photo: Shaun Williams
Tagoi and grandson. Photo: Shaun Williams

What is muzica lăutărească?

Aurel Ioniță: Muzica lăutarească is a style of music played exclusively by Gypsies3, music played by feeling, by ear, without notation, often with a social message. It’s a music that draws from folklore, but is played from the heart, with more pathos, more passion. […] It always had an element that was more underground. There were many songs that you wouldn’t play for Gadje4, for Romanians. But over time, these mahala5 songs became part of the popular repertoire as well. [Before the 1970s], it used to be considered a kind of subculture, not music that you would hear on TV or on the radio.
Marian Mirea: To be a lăutar is to know how to play to any emotion. You have to know how to enter the listener’s soul, to play him a drinking song, something classical, then something more light, or even popular music. A lăutar today has to know how to play many styles of music, so it’s quite difficult.
Stelian Frunză: It’s a style of music that calms you down when you need it, it’s melancholic when you’re a bit upset, or more upbeat when you’re feeling alert and want to dance. For me, muzica lăutărească is music that is passed down from generation to generation within Roma lăutar families; it’s the Roma community that preserves this music.
There’s a difference between muzician (classically-trained musician) and lăutar – the muzician plays what’s on the sheet music exactly as it’s written, and doesn’t improvise. But if you ask a lăutar to play the same melody, he won’t feel good unless he’s modified it somehow, added an improvisation or a trill somewhere. They say muzicians play according to written notes and lăutari play according to banknotes!

Do you have to be from a (Romani) lăutar family to be a lăutar? Can anyone become a lăutar?

Stelian Frunză: We might say that Gadje can also be lăutari, but 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. I don’t want to discriminate against the ethnic Romanian majority and say they can’t play this music, but it’s just not the same when they do.
Țagoi: It’s possible [for a Gadjo] to learn to play muzica lăutărească, but he won’t have the ear to be a lăutar. If your family are brickmakers, you’ll learn that trade. But my family were lăutari; we don’t know anything but music, that’s what we had in the house.
Marian Mirea: It used to be that if you weren’t from a lăutar family, you weren’t accepted among lăutari. Gadje, Romanians, were not taken seriously unless they could prove that they had some connection to the music. But I don’t agree with that; I think everyone has the right to practice this trade. If I see that you’ve devoted yourself to this music, I accept you. Lăutărie [the lăutar profession] is like an exclusive guild—it’s hard to get into, and you have to take an “exam”, to prove yourself. And that exam might last for years. There are plenty of Romanians who are lăutari: [pan flutist] Gheorghe Zamfir, [violinist] Benone Damian, [accordionist] Virgil Iancu, [taragot player] Ion Milu.
Aurel Ioniță: Nowadays there are many Gadje that are very good lăutari. For example, [accordionist] Paul Stîngă, [flute player] Cezar Cazanoi and [țimbalist] Anatol Cazanoi, or [violinist] Sile de la Cernică.

Lăutărie under communism: the “golden epoch”

March of the Roma
“The time for liberation has come / and today the Roma have gathered / under the holy flag of salvation / to which they shall always be bound” -- "March of the Roma" composed by Romani musician Nicolae Lenghescu-Cley, published in "Glasul Romilor" (Voice of the Roma) 14th ed. (1940).

Lăutari had enjoyed a newfound prominence in the interwar period, with virtuoso soloists such as Grigoraș Dinicu, Fănică Luca, and Zavaidoc representing Romania on stages throughout Western Europe. The image of muzica lăutărească as central to Romanian culture was further solidified by the work of ethnic Romanian performers like Maria Tănase, Ioana Radu, and Gică Petrescu, who collaborated with lăutari throughout their careers6. A movement for Romani emancipation (and further assimilation) began in Bucharest in 1933, led by successful Romani businessmen and musicians7, and for a brief period before the war, the Roma minority and its language (through newspapers such as Glasul Romilor) became slightly more visible8.

After the war, the Romani political organizations of the interwar period were disbanded, and the new Soviet-aligned communist government effectively omitted the Roma minority from its vision of Romania, ignoring their very existence9. Roma, including lăutari, were expected to assimilate into the working class, and explicit public expressions of Romani identity were sparse. Two rare exceptions were the Electrecord EPs entitled “Muzică populară țigănească” (Gypsy folk music) published in 1959 and 1963 that featured songs in the Romani language (Rromanes) by lăutari Fănică Vișan and Dona Dumitru Siminică10.

Nicolae Ceaușescu’s 24-year reign (1965-1989), referred to in state propaganda at the time as the “Golden Epoch” (Epoca de Aur), brought lăutari ever further into the limelight, while at the same time obscuring their Romani identity.

Aurel Ioniță: On New Year’s Eve, everyone would turn on their TVs to listen to muzica lăutărească played by Gabi Luncă and Ion Onoriu, Romica Puceanu with the Gore Brothers, Dona Siminică, and Fărâmiță Lambru. They were all Gypsies! But there was no policy for supporting the Gypsy language or culture like in Yugoslavia or Bulgaria where they were selling records in Roma language. In Romania there was a different policy [toward Roma] but there was still a need for this [Romani] culture because there were many Gypsies, so they needed to show a bit of Gypsy music. But look, they had to sing in Romanian so that it would be accepted by the majority. In the communist period Gypsies didn’t exist; there were only “Germans, Hungarians, and other nationalities” – that’s what Ceaușescu said.

Ceaușescu’s policies artificially ended unemployment by forcing every citizen over the age of 18 to have a salaried job. This also essentially outlawed traditional lăutărie, since lăutari performed at weddings and baptisms as self-employed freelancers and typically did not report their income or pay taxes.

Marian Mirea: Most lăutari had no other job, so when this order came that everyone needed to be employed […] the wedding musicians went and got hired at various plants and factories to have a job and benefits.
Țagoi: In Ceaușescu’s time, if you didn’t want to get a job, they’d throw you in jail. I worked in Bucharest at a warehouse for clothing materials, leather and such. It was hard work, lifting these huge rolls and putting them on shelves. Of course my boss knew I was a lăutar when she hired me. There were lots of us [lăutari] employed in jobs like that. Whenever I had to play for a wedding on a Monday, I’d come to work in the morning at eight and tell my boss, and she’d mark me as present for the day and let me leave. “Go around through the back and jump the fence, Sandu!” she’d say.

Beginning in the 1960s and intensifying after 1976 with the inception of the “Cântarea României” (Song to Romania) national festival, orchestras performing folk music (muzica populară) played an important role in the creation and maintenance of Romanian national identity. Every locality was encouraged to participate, and in many cases local lăutari formed the core of these “amateur” ensembles.

Marian Mirea: Under communism, most of the musicians in folk orchestras were lăutari, so [ethnic] Romanians were in the minority. I’ve seen cases where a Romanian would come with a flute or harmonica or something and the lăutari would say “Hey Gadjo, what are you doing here? What do you know how to play?” The lăutari were playing weddings all week and could really tear it up on their instruments, and the Romanians just couldn’t compete; they were employed during the week at factories and didn’t have other opportunities to play. Eventually the lăutari would accept them because, well, they had to. That was the policy. It was easier for a Romanian to get into these Gypsy-dominated musical ensembles than for a Gypsy to get into a Romanian-dominated ensemble like a symphony orchestra or pop orchestra.

In the village of Clejani in Giurgiu county, the situation was a bit different. With such a large community of talented local lăutari, there was not enough room for everyone on stage, so a selection had to be made to form the official “Taraful din Clejani”. Renowned lăutar violinist Ion Albeșteanu was hired to lead the band, and helped shape the supergroup that would later become Taraf de Haïdouks.

Țagoi: There were 27 of us in the taraf, Taraful din Clejani. Of course there were other lăutari in town, but we were the 27 best. There were 5-6 violins, 3 or 4 țambal players, 3 or 4 accordions, a contrabass, a cobză. […] When we had rehearsals, we all got special notes from the mayor’s office that we’d take to our jobs so they’d give us paid time off.
In ’87, [folklorist] Speranța Rădulescu took me with my accordion, [singer] Cacurică, [țimbalist] Petrică, [singer] Ion Boșorogu (Manole), [violinist] Neacșu, and [flautist] Fluirici to Bucharest for a recording session with a Frenchman. I remember it was cold in the hotel. We didn’t know how to talk with the Frenchman, so we used hand signals. When Speranța asked us what we wanted, I said “we don’t want to die fools. If this record comes out good, ask him to send us to play there [in France]. She talked with him “bla bla bla” and he said “OK”. We didn’t know what OK meant, but he was saying “OK, OK, OK”. And Speranța told us the answer was yes, if the record came out good.
Then in 1990, right after the revolution, [Belgian music producer] Stéphane [Karo] had heard the recording we’d made and he came looking for us. “Where’s Neacșu, Neacșu, Neacșu?” It was winter and there was a lot of snow. He came to our house and Dad [Nicolae Neacșu] was here in this room with me and Manole. When [Karo] heard us playing live for the first time, he said “Ouh là là, ouh là là… want to make a taraf?” So we went with him to Belgium to make a disc, and he called us “Taraf de Haiduc”.

The rest, as they say, was history. By 2001, Taraf de Haïdouks had released four commercial albums with the Belgian-based World Music label Crammed Discs and was touring worldwide. Țagoi had left the band 1992 following a dispute with Karo, but his father Nicolae Neacșu stayed on as the face of the band, appearing (together with Țagoi and his son Marinel) in the 1993 Toni Gatlif pseudo-documentary Latcho Drom.

In 1998, the new Berlin-based talent agency Asphalt Tango Production joined the scene with their own “discovery” from rural Romania – brass band Fanfare Ciocârlia from the Moldavian village of Zece Prăjini, releasing three hit albums in just four years. Both agencies were scouting for new talent among lăutari at a time when Romania was undergoing a tumultuous post-revolution period of economic turmoil and rampant corruption. Aurel Ioniță, then a young violinist growing up in a Bucharest mahala, was picked up by Asphalt Tango for a tour with his band Rom Bengale (“Rogue Roma”) in 1998.

Rom Bengale. Photo: Helmut Neumann (Asphalt Tango Records)
Rom Bengale. Photo: Helmut Neumann (Asphalt Tango Records)

Muzica lăutărească as World Music: from “Gypsy” to “Balkan”

Ștefan Bucur
“Orchestra Ștefan Bucur, ca. 1993 (Marian Mirea on contrabass). Photo: Marian Mirea
Aurel Ioniță: There were seven of us, all from families that had moved from Clejani to Bucharest. I was the singer, and I played the violin and bass guitar. My first cousins Vivi, Marinel [both sons of Țagoi], and Florin were also in the band. It was a kind of jazz-rock; we were at the beginning of this oriental music thing in Romania. It was a bit aggressive, you know? We were young and a bit crazy, a bit jumpy. […] I listened to Dan Armeanca a lot, and Laço Tayfa from Turkey, but I was also really into James Brown; you can see his influence everywhere in pop music. We were on tour for two years, but in the end it didn’t work. The mirage of the Western World was very great for us, and the guys got into all kinds of stupid stuff, drugs and things. After we decided to end the project, I was invited to do arrangements for the Fanfare Ciocârlia album “Iag Bari”. Then Stéphane Karo hired me to do arrangements for a Kočani Orkestar album with Crammed Discs. And after I’d done these two discs, I found myself on the outside again. I saw that the guy who just does the arrangements ends up out of work, and I decided to start my own band with my own ideas. I put together a demo at a studio and sent it to Asphalt Tango and Crammed Discs. The first manager to come see me in Bucharest was Stephane, so we made a deal, we came up with a name and in 2004 we released the first Mahala Raï Banda album and presented it at WOMEX [World Music Expo]. It was a kind of “face lift” of these two villages, Clejani and Zece Prăjini – a fusion of the taraf and fanfară.

The “Gypsy music” craze grew, fuelled by the runaway success of Taraf de Haïdouks and the work of filmmaker Emir Kusturica and bandleader Goran Bregović (both non-Romani millionaires). Meanwhile, lăutari accustomed to presenting their music as Romanian folklore were forced to adapt to a changing market.

Marian Mirea: In the early 90s I was touring Europe with Gheorghe Zamfir’s orchestra playing Romanian folk music, and this band [Taraf de Haïdouks] came representing Gypsy music. Both of our groups were playing muzica lăutărească from Romania. But the trend at the time in all of Europe was to highlight Gypsy music. I was fine with that, but I didn’t like when they told us to change the name of our orchestra from “folk” to “Gypsy” and to wear Gypsy-style shirts on stage.

It wasn’t long before more non-Romani artists like Balkan Beat Box (Israel), DJ Shantel (Germany) and Beirut (USA) appeared with a newly hybridized, remixed form of Romani music (minus the Romani musicians) and the more appropriation-friendly term “Balkan” came to the fore.

Aurel Ioniță: When we started out in 2004, and until about 2010, we were presented as “Gypsy music from the East”. After 2010, they called it “Balkan music”. And look what happened: the Gadjos that were playing rock music started adding a trumpet line here or there and poof! Balkan music. It’s the globalization of Balkan music. They didn’t call it Gypsy music anymore. Why? Because it wasn’t in their interest to put Gypsy culture at the forefront. […] Today, thanks to this same globalization, I’d say there is no more World Music, there’s only World Pop.

New horizons: a lăutar comeback in Romania?

With Taraf de Haïdouks gone and bands like Fanfare Ciocârlia and Mahala Raï Banda touring less and performing more often in Romania (years before the COVID-19 pandemic), it appears the lăutar’s stint in World Music may have come to an end. Meanwhile in Romania, lăutari remain ever-present at weddings, baptisms, tourist restaurants, and television programs on the Etno and Taraf channels. Most have turned to YouTube and Facebook to promote their music and find wedding gigs, while the younger generation has largely ditched the violin and țambal for the electronic accordion and synth keyboard, performing far more manele (plural form of manea, a genre of Turkish-influenced Romani ethno-pop) than the sîrbă and horă rhythms preferred by the older generation.

Aurel Ioniță: It’s just like what happened with muzica lăutărească sung by Maria Tănase versus Romica Puceanu.. There’s a form for radio and TV and a more underground expression. That’s what’s happening now with manele. There’s an expression for radio and TV and an expression for weddings and private parties. In the 60s and 70s they transformed lăutărească into something more gadjikanes [non-Romani] and now with the manea, so that it won’t be viewed as a manea, there’s trap-manele, “trapanele”. But why? Because it sells to the youth, both Gadjos and Gypsies; it’s a big market.
Abroad you’ll never make a living with an electronic beat and a backing track; that’s why I don’t do that kind of thing. Abroad they want me to be exotic, crazy, original, authentic. But here in Romania, the producers tell you not to sing in Romani because it won’t sell. It’s strange. You have to force yourself to be like everyone else, because otherwise nobody will hire you. It’s a totally different vision.

At the same time, the stigma characterizing lăutărească as “grandpa music” in Romania seems to have faded in recent years, with artists like Nea Vasile și Taraful de la Mârșa, Șamanul mut, Taraful de la Vărbilău, and Taraf de Caliu (featuring former members of Taraf de Haïdouks) performing at Bucharest nightclubs packed with college students and young urban professionals.

Stelian Frunză: In the last ten years of playing at private events, I’ve seen a big accent on muzica lăutărească. Most people [in Buzău region] prefer muzica lăutărească over manele. And for Roma, this genre is tradition, you can’t have a wedding without muzica lăutărească! I don’t think this music will ever disappear; even 200 years from now, no matter what new technologies or instruments appear in the future, I think this music will still be here.

  1. See Latcho Drom (1993), The Man Who Cried (2000), Borat (2006) (soundtrack), and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020) (soundtrack). ↩︎
  2. One might ask why no women were interviewed for this article. Firstly, lăutărie has historically excluded women, though there have been some very famous female lăutar vocalists, and a few notable female instrumentalists. In preparation for this article, I reached out to lăutari with whom I have collaborated in recent years and with whom I had the necessary rapport to conduct open and insightful interviews. That said, an ethnography of womens’ experiences in lăutărie is long overdue. ↩︎
  3. The term “Gypsy” is used here as a translation of the Romanian “țigan”. Both terms are considered derogatory when used by non-Roma, and are used in this article only in direct quotes. ↩︎
  4. Gadjo [pl. Gadje]: Romani language word for non-Roma. ↩︎
  5. Mahala: a marginal, working-class quarter of the city, often with a large Roma population. ↩︎
  6. The question of whether these beloved performers represented an appropriation or whitewashing of Romani culture is a matter for a different article. ↩︎
  7. For example, Grigoraș Dinicu, composer of virtuosic lăutar showpieces such as “Hora Staccato” and “Hora mărțișorului”, was elected honorary president of the General Union of Roma in Romania in 1933 (Achim 155). ↩︎
  8. See also: Negoi, Valentin and Necula, Ciprian. “The Roma Movement in Romania.” RomArchive, 2018 ↩︎
  9. No specific policy toward Roma was made public by the communist regime, and Roma were excluded from the official list of national minorities (See Achim 190). ↩︎
  10. EPC 146 (1959) and EPC 382 (1963) ↩︎

    Further Reading:

  1. Achim, Viorel. 2004. The Roma in Romanian History. Budapest & New York: Central European University Press.
  2. Beissinger, Margaret H., Speranța Rădulescu, and Anca Giurchescu. 2016. Manele in Romania: Cultural Expression and Social Meaning in Balkan Popular Music, Europea: Ethnomusicologies and Modernities. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
  3. Cosma, Viorel. 1996. Lăutari de ieri și de azi, second edition. Bucharest: Du Style.
  4. Haliliuc, Alina. 2015. “Manele Music and the Discourse of Balkanism in Romania.” Communication, Culture & Critique 8(2):290-308.
  5. Negoi, Valentin and Necula, Ciprian. “The Roma Movement in Romania.” RomArchive, 2018
  6. Rostas, Iulius. 2009. “The Romani Movement in Romania: Institutionalization and (De)Mobilization.” In Romani Politics in Contemporary Europe, edited by Nando Sigona and Nidhi Trehan, 159-185. Palgrave Macmillan UK.
  7. Silverman, Carol. 2007. “Trafficking in the Exotic with ‘Gypsy’ Music: Balkan Roma, Cosmopolitanism, and ‘World Music’ Festivals” in Balkan Popular Culture and the Ottoman Ecumene: Music, Image, and Regional Political Discourse, edited by Donna A. Buchanan, 335-364. Toronto: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
  8. Szeman, Ioana. 2009. “‘Gypsy Music’ and Deejays: Orientalism, Balkanism, and Romani Musicians.” TDR/The Drama Review 53(2): 98-116.
*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.
About the Author

Shaun Williams

Ohio born, Bucharest based ethnographer, musician, and filmmaker. He is currently preparing a doctoral dissertation in Ethnomusicology focused on Romani rights and traditional music in post-socialist Romania. Since 2017, he performs with the multi-ethnic lăutarească band Taraful Jean Americanu and leads the klezmer ensemble Volekh Quartet.

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