I’ve said it before, and I’m about to say it again: Asphalt-Tango’s Bygone Age series is excellent. This latest volume is a reissue of 10 songs and three instrumentals from the repertoire of Dona Dumitru Siminică, a Romanian Roma who, on the cover, looks like a extra in a Scorsese gangster flick—there’s a dark mole by his ear, a scut of black moustache on his upper lip, lapels as crisp as knives, a white handkerchief folded perfectly in the breast pocket—but when he sings he sounds like a mature 30- or 40-something alto woman armed with the mournful fatalism of a second Coleridge contemplating the albatross. It’s a beautiful voice and totally startling. “Siminică had… a large number of female fans,” I read in the notes, and the first thought that jumped into my head was, “What, like Farinelli?” My resident layman had the same reaction.
“Is this him singing?”
A castrato? No he wasn’t. It was illegal to produce castrati by the time he was born, and anyway, I don’t think little Romanian Gypsy boys were high on the Italian choirmasters’ hit lists. Still, you listen to Vol. 3 and wonder how a man could have such a remarkably female voice. It’s not female in the way that Tiny Tim singing falsetto sounds female; it’s a fully rounded, weirdly genuine womanly sound. If you were going to compare him to a singer from Vol. 2 of the Bygone series, then it would be Romica Puceanu you’d pick, not her male counterpart Victor Gore.
This similarity lies not only in the pitch of his voice, but also the way he uses it. Puceanu sings in stretched-out, creamy croons, and our Siminică is likewise a crooner. I wonder if his “large number of female fans” looked on him the way that women used to look on Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby. Possibly not. He’s got that Roma sadness that comes from being kicked around too often by ingrained prejudice; he doesn’t offer you the happiness of jingle bells or snowrides. The triumphalism of “My Way”, which celebrates a life in which you can “plan each charted course” and plough on merrily through misfortune with your chin jutting out seems hollow next to his indigenous woe. He doesn’t have Puceanu’s moue of implied good cheer. When he sings of love, he sounds sad as well as tender, and when he sings about disasters, watch out. Your girlfriends, gentlemen, will desert you, your income won’t cover the cost of food, and you will live in squalor. Even trees have it better than you. Yes, even them, dumb plants, forest trees! Fate has locked you in her sights, my dear. You think that woman loves you? No, no, she loves your friend instead, and you can’t see it!
The constancy of this woe is Vol. 3‘s one weak point. It’s not the album’s fault (you get the feeling that Siminică didn’t exactly give Asphalt-Tango a host of upbeat songs with which to lighten the atmosphere), but there’s not a lot of variety in the mood of Vol. 3 until we reach the instrumental tracks: “Căntec Oltenesc”, “Căntec de Petrecere”, and the inevitable hora, “Hora Ploieştenilor”. Even the cymbalom feels sad when he sings. In volumes 1 and 2 it trotted and jigged like a pony, but as soon as Siminică opens his mouth it acquires a half-hitching limp. His sorrow can wear you out. Yet what ravishing sorrow it is! What romantic, luscious woe! Just listen to those notes he hits in “Afare E Intuneric”, those beautiful, arching, almost-soprano sounds that sink, trembling, onto their knees. They’re so gorgeous you could slit your wrists to them and feel aesthetically satisfied while you were doing it. In “Cine Are Fata Mare” he reaches a kind of falsetto apotheosis, trotting out short series of slightly descending notes, his voice going down the staircase of Sad.
The man was born a little way outside Bucharest in 1926 and suffered a fatal heart attack in the early 1980s; his body was found in the stairwell of his building. He was roughly contemporaneous with the headlining musicians from the other two discs, Puceanu and Ion Petre Stoican. Like them, he worked in the capital’s lautari scene. In fact, he sometimes performed at weddings with Puceanu’s cousins, the Gore Brothers, and Vol. 3 and Vol. 2 share the same cymbalom player, Marin Marangos, who was well-regarded in Bucharest as an accompanist.
In Vol. 1, the clique of Bucharest musicians looked like a shadowy cabal because we were seeing it from the point of view of Stoican, a man who only broke into the game after a stroke of luck and some persistent nagging. Now the compilers are rounding out the cabal with personalities. They note that Siminică was an introvert (easily believable), a bricklayer (harder to imagine), and that he inherited a violin from his father. As the series goes on, we’ll no doubt find out even more about the Romanian capital’s Romani music scene as it was before the westernising influence of pop took over. Marin Marangos looks likely to pop up again, the Gores can have another guest role on someone else’s album, and Costel Vasilescu might even bring back his trumpet. Grand adventures! I feel like the Famous Five. Break out the macaroons and ices, Timmy, we’re going to explore.