Romica Puceanu was born in 1926, in Bucharest. By the age of 14 she was singing in cafes. Later she joined her cousins, the Taraful Fratii Gore—The Gore Brothers—who had already earned themselves a respectable reputation as musicians. Aurel Gore played the violin and Victor divided his time between singing and accordion. They brought other musicians in to add the cymbalom, double bass, cobza lute, and trumpet, when needed.
The Gore Brothers specialised in weddings, where they would drive the crowd to tears with melancholy ballads. Aurel died in 1989, but Victor is alive, and living in Bucharest. Puceanu was still performing at the age of 70 when she was killed in a car accident. When you remember that Asha Bhosle continues to sing at 73 and Chiekha Remitti is in the middle of putting out a new raï album at 83, and my Nanna, at 94, is still living at home and overfeeding her pet Maltese cross on Cadburys, then 70 seems far too young.
The liner notes of Vol. 2 compare Puceanu to Billie Holiday, and her voice has Holiday’s depth and profundity without the tangy crackle that runs through the American singer’s voice. Instead she sounds very smooth, and grand, with a sweet, luxurious grin running behind her voice whenever it swings upward. The notes say that she had a good sense of humour. The implied grin makes it seem believable. Holiday could sound like a street-smart person whose heart is about to break, but when Puceanu is sad there’s a wryness behind it, as if she’s ruefully surprised at the depth of her own feelings.
The strength and steadiness of her tone are beautifully illustrated by her handling of the vibrating notes and cries of “Aii-eei” that recur throughout the songs on this album, as they do through most Roma singing. Songs such as “Unde O Fi Puiul De Asaeră,” are filled with these vibrations, and the way Puceanu masters them sets her apart from more typical singers, such as Victor Gore who takes over her vocal role on “Pleacă-o Nevestică-n Lume” and “Adu Calu’ Să Mă Duc”. He gives the lyrics a different kind of power: male, hoarse, uneven and volatile, losing force at the ends of lines, sobbing in the middle. Gore exploits the emotion of a song, letting his voice go ragged to impress the audience with the depth of his feeling, while his cousin uses it the way a wave uses the current that makes it rise and swell. Emotion rounds her out. Her voice has an operatic fullness without the dramatic affectations that can make opera singers difficult to listen to.
The other musicians are all excellent, although none of them is as singular as the singer. Like Sounds From a Bygone Age Vol. 1, Vol. 2 starts with a cymbalom, here played by Marin Marangros who makes it race like a cartoon mouse. In Vol. 1, Toni Iordache’s cymbalom was one of the stars of the album, but on Vol. 2, where the cymbalom player had less of a hand in the arrangements, the instrument remains a diligent background worker, keeping a steady noise bouncing along behind the other musicians. The instruments take turns to echo the singer (she sings a phrase, the accordion repeats it) or add ornamentation. A few tracks are given over to them entirely; they play three horas, but where Vol. 1 gave you this kind of music in abundance, Vol. 2 metes it out in nuggets, buffer zones that keep your appetite whetted between one piece of singing and another. (Running barely over a minute, “Hora Lui Baila” is finished before you know it.)
Puceanu never made a name for herself outside Romania, which is fine for the Romanians, but harsh on the rest of us. We’ve been missing out. You can find ways to order other of her albums if you poke around the web a bit, but Vol. 2 seems to be the first time she’s received anything approaching significant attention from a non-Romanian label. If we’re lucky, Asphalt-Tango will use the Bygone Age series to tackle her again in the future. I wish I knew who was going to be on Vol. 3, but their website isn’t giving anything away. Whatever it is, look out for it. A-T hasn’t failed us yet.