Born in the countryside and working in a port town on the coast of the Black Sea, Romanian wedding violinist Ion Petre Stoican wanted to break into the Bucharest market, which was dominated by a coterie of influential lautari families. He’d tried working there once before but it was hard to build a reputation for yourself when you were just another musician in from the provinces.
Luck came unexpectedly when he noticed a man behaving in a suspicious way and handed him over to the police. The man turned out to be a foreign spy. By way of a reward, Stoican was given the chance to record an album with the state-operated label, Electrecord. “The most important Gypsy musicians from the Bucharest Lautari scene” (to quote the CD case) became his backing band, and the album had the effect that he must have hoped for: he made his reputation in Bucharest and played there until the end of the ‘80s. He died not long after the fall of Ceauşescu in 1989.
This reissue of the original 1977 LP is dominated by dances, particularly the socially indispensable hora. In other words, this is the kind of music he would have used to impress people who might hire him for their festivities. His most enticing hora is the one that opens the album, “Hora Lui Sile,” which starts with a brisk, ascending ripple of notes that rises like pathway up a mountain and then stops at the top of the rise and stands there trembling and grinning. “Ah ha ha!” the ripple says. “I can see something good coming along just after I’ve finished making this quivering noise but you won’t know what it is until I show it to you. Wait ” and then the ripple runs down the other side of the mountain, dances to and fro for a while and finally flings itself out of the way to show you Ion Petre Stoican himself, who joins in the dance with restrained vigour.
Our ripple comes from Toni Iordache, a man described as a “cimbalom god” by the liner notes. If you took the violin out of the picture then Iordache would be making the most memorable noises on the album, with the yummy, corny, lazy interludes from Costel Vasilescu’s trumpet running a close third. In some ways this isn’t fair—Iorcache was responsible for many of the arrangements, and it sounds as if he wasn’t too shy to give his hammered dulcimer a leading role—but in other ways it isn’t. It’s obvious, even from that simple opening ripple, that he was a musician whose playing had its own exciting character, impatient and succinct, and Sounds From a Bygone Age: Vol 1 is better off for his prominence.
Stoican himself is a good player but not always an exciting one. When I say that, keep in mind that the Romanian violinists I’m used to hearing are the Romani who were recorded more recently, in the post-Ceauşescu era. They have an outdoors go-nuts sound that Ion Petre Stoican was not aiming for. His dances sound like indoor dances, they’re lively, with some exquisite twiddles and quirks, but essentially they’re contained, they’re country dances urbanised by streets and walls. When he sings, as he does on “Ia-Ţi Mireasă?, Ziua Bună” his voice quivers mournfully like a wet animal trembling in a bucket. (the notes identify this sound as “falsetto, which was en vogue in Bucharest at the time,” but if this is falsetto then it’s the deepest damn falsetto I’ve ever heard.)
But his musicianship still has the taut, sweet quality that makes Romanian folk violinists so compelling—that sound that goes almost too far to bear, and would melt your insides if the musician didn’t hold himself back out of consideration for you, the onlooker, in a kind of extended, aural coitus interruptus.
The next musician to benefit from Asphalt Tango’s post-mortem rediscoveries will be the singer Romica Puceanu, with her lovely romantic voice, and I can only hope they keep going because the treatment they’re giving these reissues is fabulous. I’m thrilled by the amount of love this label pours into albums that don’t scream ‘huge commercial profit’. I love the fact that they write “Romanian traditional music in original analog sound recorded in the 1970s” on the back of the case, following it with an exited exclamation mark as if the prospect of buying analog Romanians is just the thing that will tear the punters away from their R&B and Britney Spears. (“But mummy, I must have him! He’s Romanian! And dead!”)
One thing bothers me though, and it has nothing to do with the music. The government granted Stoican the opportunity to make his album because he caught a spy for them. The musician got his Bucharest gigs, but what happened to the spy?