Europalia: Milan W. and the Tulnic Ensemble of Avram Iancu

Europalia: Milan W. and the Tulnic Ensemble of Avram Iancu

August 26, 2019

Written by:

Dragoș Rusu

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Between May 7th and 17th, 2019 The Attic has staged an art residency in the village of Avram Iancu, located at the foothills of the Găina Summit, part of the Apuseni Mountains in the Alba Iulia county in Transylvania.

Commissioned by the Europalia 2019 Festival and in collaboration with of the Romanian Cultural Institute, the project focuses on creating a music ensemble made of tulnicărese (tulnic women players) and Belgian musician and electronic music producer Milan Warmoeskerken.

After a series of recordings and days of working together, following this art residency which lasted almost ten days, the ensemble will give several concerts which will be organized in Bruxelles and Leuven: a group of tulnic players from the village of Avram Iancu and Milan W. will be the performers.

For a better and in depth understanding of this particular project, here are some interviews with all the members of the group. Read the first part of our incursion into the fascinating world of tulnic, HERE.
Milan Warmoeskerken on top of the mountain
Milan Warmoeskerken on top of the mountain

Milan Warmoeskerken

Milan Warmoeskerken comes from Antwerp, Belgium. He has been making electronic music ever since he knows it; he has studied jazz music on the guitar since he was a child.

Throughout the past few years, Milan released several electronic music albums on imprints such as Jj funhouse (label founded by Joke Leonare & Jozefien Gruyaert), BAKK and Ekster, as well as a handful of self-released cassettes.

We are by the river in the back of the cultural center, and the weather is sunny. “Life seems to somehow follow certain traditions here”, he says.

“This project really is a challenge for me, from a creative point of view. And communication is difficult as well, since the tulnic players don’t speak any English. The instrument is very rudimentary; you can only play a handful of notes on it, and the tulnic players are not professional musicians, so it really is a challenge to make things work, to make it all come together, so we can communicate and make music at the same time. During these ten days we recorded all sorts of things, both traditional songs and music exercises. Each player has her own style of playing, and when they all play together, that’s different as well. They can play drones, or melodies, but somehow, I have to come up with a music over which they can play, to make sense of it all. It’s a challenge, but the sound is really good.”

“It’s a good thing that there are people of different ages in the ensemble. It’s good for the group’s dynamic, the young girls - Mihaela and Ramona - they’re very fresh and they can play well, but (on the other hand) there are the older ladies, Maria and Lenuța, who can play traditional music pieces very well.”

Later on, on top of Mount Găina, we continue our interview with Milan. The statue of Avram Iancu lies behind us.

“I started playing the guitar since I was twelve. I took this thing seriously; at one point I decided that it would be a good idea to study music. I took a few guitar lessons, and when I was 14, I went to a school that focused a lot on jazz. I went to the conservatory for 4 years. I studied jazz music on the guitar. When I was sixteen, I started listening to electronic music. I found out about bands like Kraftwerk, I started fooling around with synthesizers. Somehow, the fact that I was studying jazz made me hate the guitar, so I started playing synthesizers and make my own music. This way I feel most creative.”

“I’ve listened to jazz for a long time. I think I didn’t like my teachers that much either, because they were conservative. So, in a way, I was against Conservatory jazz, and I started making experimental things, as a sort of protest. Then I started studying classical music. I started writing music. This is what I still do today.”

”It took me a long time to have my music published. It was only in 2014 that I released my first record, with which I was happy. I still study guitar and I still compose. I sang in many bands; five or six. For a while, I played on a weekly basis. We had rehearsals and a management agency, and everything was very stressful. So, I decided that the best thing for me to do would be to stay at home and make music on my own. We used to play a sort of surf rock, it was fun, but it was not my goal to be part of a band. So, I preferred to be myself, to make my own music, not as part of a band, or for someone else.”

“Eric Dolphy’s personality is so strong, when he plays. You can’t compare him to anyone else. When you hear Eric Dolphy playing the bass clarinet, or the flute, you know it’s him. At a time, when everyone listened only to hard bop, or beat bop, Eric Dolphy tried to find his own, very personal style, which - at the same time - was very melodic. I like Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane (she seems to be even more profound than her husband).”

“I don’t see myself as being part of any stage, like a club scene, or dance music. There is so much electronic music these days, and somehow, it’s all overwhelming. People get to a point when they don’t think any more how to push their own limits forward. I like a lot of things that are part of the scene, but I also like to explore, to move forward, to discover new things. I try to dissolve my ego and to do what I want to do. I don’t want to worry about finding my place in an industry. I’d like to make music and nothing else and to make a living out of it, but at the same time I don’t want to put any kind of pressure on me.”

Maria Coroiu

Maria Coroiu in front of her house
Maria Coroiu in front of her house
One of the evenings we spent in the Apuseni Mountains, we paid a visit to Mrs. Maria, at her home. She is the ”rock star” of the group of tulnic players. She lives in a modest house in the village of Avram Iancu.

We sat at a table in the front room of the house. She has no TV set, just a radio. She spends her time a few weeks here, then a few weeks in Alba Iulia, with her children.

Maria has been playing tulnic since she was ten years old. She was born in 1937. “Older girls had tulnic instruments. This is how I was born, with such instrument. People would take the cattle up into the mountains and they would play the tulnic. So, my parents made me a tulnic, a smaller one, like that. I started playing it, little by little. As I grew up, my parents bought me longer and longer tulnic instruments, until I got a tulnic that was two and a half meters long. I’ve been playing it for 60 years now. It didn’t take me too long before I could play it, because, when you are little, you learn right away. You should know, we didn’t learn any music notes. We learned how to play.”

Mrs. Maria had a teacher, Elena Pogan (June 20th, 1925 – December 13th, 2010), a very important Romanian tulnic player.

“She taught me a lot of things about the tulnic. How to hold it, how to play tones. I played a lot of shows with Elena. Then, she died and I started playing with a man, Mihai Duma. He played...there wasn’t a woman in the village who could play like that lad. He would play the tulnic when he was out with the cattle; he played the tulnic, as well as the torogotă (Turkish pipe). He was great. I went in a lot of places with Mihai as well, we even played in other countries: Zagreb, Ohrid, Serbia, Switzerland, and another country, which I don’t remember. Austria, yes. And throughout the country, as part of an ensemble from Alba Iulia.”

“If you like music and you have an ear for music, you can learn to play the tulnic instrument in a few months; if you practice daily.”

“I would sing a song, Elena would keep the tone, then she would sing a song, and I would keep the tone. And then we both played. The same song, but we would sing it in such a way that one tulnic would be heard. I did not play louder and she did not play softer, it was the same tulnic, the same sound. I recently played with Lenuța - part of the tulnic ensemble - at a recent celebration, and we got first prize (…). We can play these songs clearer than the young girls, you probably noticed this.”

Mihai Duma was the only moț in the Apuseni Mountains who could play the tulnic. He received awards at several competitions in Romania and in other Balkan states, as Mrs. Maria tells us, as she treats us with some țuică and syrup, with which she makes an alcoholic drink named vișinată, kind of a nice liquor.

“A lot of women played the tulnic tremendously well, but not one like this man, Mihai Duma, with whom I played for 40 years. There are a lot of women here who play the tulnic, but the younger ones don’t play anymore. They’re not interested in the tulnic anymore. As for women under my age, there are too few of them left.”

“For me, the tulnic is joy. Look at my age - to go around with a tulnic and play - it’s not too easy. The young ones don’t seem to realize the value that the tulnic can bring.”

When speaking of the history of tulnic, one should mention Maria Ana Gligor, one of the most well-known tulnic player, who has recently been included in the UNESCO living human heritage. “Maria Ana Gligor lives in Câmpeni, she sings different songs, which are more special, I don’t know how to tell you, she doesn’t play what we play”.

Is it true that up here, in the Apuseni Mountains, women work harder than men? “Well, they work, you know, they work. Men work in these places, they used to go farther and work wooden barrels, kegs to put brandy in; they used to go with them in the countryside and sell them where there were grapevines, where people made wine, where plum trees grew and people made țuică, our men used to go in such places and sell kegs. Women would stay at home, with the children, with the cattle, with the household, working the field. They didn’t have jobs, getting paid and the likes, they would live off the land. And men would make barrels and go around selling them.”

Why do only women play the tulnic? “Men...only Mihai Duma used to play. Men do other things. They had other jobs, they didn’t learn how to play. Men don’t want to play, they don’t need it. I remember there were some boys from around here, from the school, who wanted someone to teach them how to play, they played until one day other colleagues came and told them ”What, you’re gonna go places and play the tulnic? But you’re not Mihai Duma.” And that was it; they never touched the tulnic, they didn’t want to. The tulnic, I think this is an instrument for women. For women up in the mountains, with the cattle.”

“In the evenings, at home, we had sittings, we called them turcării. We would spin hempseed and go outside the house, and play the tulnic; two or three women. We would sit like that until 2-3 AM. We would spin, we would weave, we would make skirts, blouses, out of hempseed, we weaved them in looms, we used to spin them, whiten them and weave them in the loom. We wove for us and for the little ones; all homes had five or six children. Now they’re gone. Some families had as many as twelve or fifteen children.”

“The tulnic will disappear, this is what I believe. The young ones don’t...girls are not interested in playing the tulnic anymore. There are still a few of us here, who like the tulnic, but no... it’s on its way out. They don’t like playing it. Not one bit. And they don’t want to learn. And even if you tell them that they must learn, they still don’t want to learn.”

Born in 1937, Mrs. Maria remembers World War II as well. “The Russians came then. The Russians came to protect us from the Hungarians. They used to make a lot of brandy in the boilers back then. A neighbor of mine had about a cauldron of brandy – I didn’t stay here always, I used to live up on the hill, about a kilometer away from here. He had a lot of barrels full of brandy, in a cellar, God forbid. Thousands of liters. The Russians smelled it. They came before the Hungarians, to protect us, with high commanders. If the Russians hadn’t come, we would have been doomed. And the Russians smelled it. And this man couldn’t stay home, he came to us. I was little, so were my brothers. And he came to the man in charge, to my parents, to ask for an axe, so he could break the door and get some brandy from there. But he spoke their language, and they never came back. I remember all they needed was polenta with milk and cheese. And mom used to make forty polentas at a time, she made polentas all night long back then.”

”You know what’s missing? Some of us have pensions that are too low. What can you do with 640 lei? -around 136 EUR - My husband died eight years ago. The boyars living it big, they have all the money in the world, and we have almost nothing.”

“Mountain air helps us. We have the forests here, that keep this air clean. I have only one child, a boy. They have a boy as well, and he is married, and their boy has two kids. I’m a great grandmother!”, Mrs. Maria laughs. ”I don’t get bored. Not one bit. I keep calm. I read from my prayer books every now and then, I listen to this small radio. I have no TV.”
Eugenia Gavră digging through photo archives
Eugenia Gavră digging through photo archives

Eugenia Gavră

Mrs. Eugenia is 53 years old. She has played the tulnic since she was 14 years old.

“I used to go with the head teacher, Elena Pogan, with Mihai Duma, and with the veteran of our present group, Maria Coroiu, for whom we are really glad that she is still among us. I started to like going with this group ever since I was young. Years ago, after Mrs. Elena, the teacher died, I went with Mihai Duma, the best tulnic player in the country, who, unfortunately passed away four years ago. We have tried to bring in young girls, from the school, so we can carry this beautiful tradition forward.”

“I am a mother of four girls, I am also have two nieces. I also sing in the church choir, I like to take part in the holy service, to sing. Apart from the job I have, the village mail woman, I feel a leisure, a joy when playing the tulnic.”

“I went to vocational school in Alba Iulia. Life was very hard in the city, when I was 18 years old. One would stay in queues hours at a time, to buy a liter of milk for the little one, and when your turn was finally up, there was no more milk. And there was chaos in the city. And then I decided to get married, I said I was better off in the mountain side, the place I had left from, with the neighbours in the village, so I came back.”

“But here, in the village, there aren’t that many sources of income, like proper jobs. For a while I was a housewife. I took the cattle out, I raised the kids. I also worked in a clothing factory, and for a few years now I’ve been working as a mail woman. It’s hard, but it’s also beautiful. Here there is clean air, it’s quiet, there’s freedom. If I want to shout out to somebody, I can shout, but I can’t do that in the city. If I want to house a discotheque in my backyard, no one shouts at me, no one bothers me.”

“I think that, every now and then, someone still looks out after the tulnic, and I believe things will get bigger, that the tradition won’t be lost.”
From left to right: Ramona Pogan, Maria Coroiu, Fiț Lenuța
From left to right: Ramona Pogan, Maria Coroiu, Fiț Lenuța

Lenuța Fiț

Mrs. Lenuța - Fiț Lenuța – went to school in Turda, for three years, after which she returned to the village of Avram Iancu. She is a mother of four children.

She has played the tulnic since she was seven – eight years old, when she used to sing along with her mom and grandmother. When she 13 years old, she went to her first festival, together with Elena Poganu, the previously mentioned tulnic teacher.

“It was very beautiful. I remember it perfectly. I went in many places with the tulnic, but after I had children I took a break, since there was no one I could leave the children with. I had to be at home, to take care of the household, of the animals. My husband had a job as well. After the children grew up, I started going around again, with the band. Back in those days there were around forty of us, women. Fifteen of them died. And they played the tulnic really well. The tulnic nowadays doesn’t sound as good as the ones back then, because they were made of oak trees, that grew up on the rocks. They had no contact with the water. The tulnics were made by hand, unlike now, when they use machines to make them. They had a different resonance and they played very well.”

“I learned to play the tulnic when I took the cattle out to graze. When I hear the tulnic, I feel content, I feel an inner joy, like I’m young again. It would be a good thing for the tradition of the tulnic to carry on, to not lose itself. When I’m in front on the audience, up on the stage, I am very excited. I’m excited here. But it’s nice, I like it a lot.”

“The village is growing old. The young ones go to the city, because there are no sources of income here. A lot of houses are empty, some people buy summer houses. Crops like grains, or corn, people don’t grow them here. We have cows, pigs, hens. It would be nice if the villages were adorned with young girls. If you look around, for each house people still live in, four houses are empty. People have grown old. Young ones go where they can get a job, from where they can secure a retirement fund. Up here you have animals, but they only provide you with food for the family, that’s it. If they could get a job here, children would come back. In the past, men would work in the forest, in the mine, at the plant in Câmpeni. The mine closed down, the forests have been pretty much cut down. The barrel factory closed down, the sewing factory closed down as well. After we liberated ourselves from Ceaușescu’s regime, we thought things would be alright here, in the village. But it wasn’t like that at all, I am really sorry it happened like that. The simple folks, the workers, the householders did not matter. No one encouraged them, no one supported them.”
Ramona Pogan on the motorcycle
Ramona Pogan on the motorcycle

Ramona and Mihaela

Ramona Pogan is 14 years old, she was born in Avram Iancu. She lives in the village next to Mrs. Lenuța's house. “I’ve been playing the tulnic since I was nine or ten years old. A lot of people told me playing the tulnic is nice. Mrs. Lenuța taught me. The first time I played it was at the 100 years commemoration of Avram Iancu’s death. I was very little, I was nine years old. I felt a bit awkward, there were a lot of people, I was nervous. The littler, the younger I am, the better I can learn how to play. I carry on the tradition, by teaching other children how to play. Boys are not too interested to play the tulnic, they have other things to do. Football, internet.”

Mihaela Lazăr is 14 years old and was born here as well. She has been playing the tulnic since she was eight years old and she learned to play from her grandma. “The first time I played the tulnic with Ramona at the 100 years commemoration of our hero Avram Iancu’s death. I was very nervous, there were a lot people present. I felt everyone was watching me, the excitement was high. For me, the tulnic means joy, relaxation, love. I think that people will fall again in love with this instrument.”

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About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Attic, sound researcher and allround music adventurer, with a keen interest in the anthropology of sound.

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