If Dona Dumitru Siminica looked, on the front of his Sounds from a Bygone Age Vol. 3 CD case, like a cheapskate Mafiosi, not the leader of the gang, but one of the ones who runs alongside him tallying up the number of people he kills and muttering, “Nice work, boss” every now and then after a particularly good whack, then Toni Iordache on the front of Vol. 4 with his pale face, high forehead, and black bow tie, looks like a mad scientist’s butler, somewhat spooky and self-composed as if he’s sizing you up to have your brain removed with a hacksaw. In one hand he holds a short, slender object that resembles a white-topped bulrush stalk. This is one of his beaters. He is sitting at his cimbalom. This particular kind of cimbalom is not the small, portable one known in Romania as a ţambal but a larger instrument, the ţambal mare. It stands on four legs, looking like a small piano with no keys and nowhere to prop your score, nothing but rows of yellowish, whitish wires and strips of polished wood.
In video footage you can see his two bulrushes darting across the strings. They look so light that it’s hard to imagine them making a lot of noise. They should sound feathery. There should be a gentle series of apologetic chimes. But Iordache on the cimbalom is an intimidating sound, extremely fast and sure of himself when he wants to be, or gentle and tempered when he chooses. He sounds urgent when the music calls for it, as it does in “Geamparala De La Babadag”. He twines with a mincing yet alert limp in “Tinereţe, Tinereţe” and trembles over “Doina Transilvania”. Under his hands the cimbalom becomes an eloquent instrument, subtle or overt as the music demands, like a silent movie actor, deprived of words, explaining the emotions of different characters through dramatic gestures alone.
We met Iordache on the first album in the Bygone Age series, the one devoted to the violinist Ion Petre Stoican. Iordache appeared there as an accompanist and arranger. He was, however, a more famous figure in Bucharest than that provincial outsider Stoican with his violin and his spycatcher good luck. Iordache was a city native, in demand for the wedding celebrations and other festivities that supplied a lăutari musician with the most prominent portion of their income. A musician of obvious brilliance, he was allowed to tour overseas as part of a folk ensemble that displayed the culture of Communist Romania to the inhabitants of non-Communist countries. Asphalt Tango has been able to ornament their compilation with two well-known singers who must have been happy to perform next to him. Romica Puceanu is back after we left her at the end of Sounds from a Bygone Age Vol. 2, and we’re introduced to Gabi Lunca, who, unlike Puceanu, Stoican, and Iordache, is still alive.
Lunca appears on “Grea Mi-e Doamne, Inima” and “Omul Bun N’are Noroc”. Her voice is higher, huskier, more girlish than Puceanu’s. Her light popular qualities come out best on “Omul Bun N’are Noroc”, with its “Da da da da” chorus that begs you to “Da da da da” along with her, like the old lăutari version of a modern-day nonsense pop hook, like Kylie’s “Na na na.” “Grea Mi-e Doamne, Inima” is slower. It could have been a Puceanu song if it had wanted to. Lunca’s voice gives it a knowing dryness which in the other singer’s mouth would have sounded darkly romantic.
Armed with a more dominant voice, Puceanu takes control of all of the tracks that she participates in. Iordache gallops through “Intreo-O Joi De Dimineată” but the woman sets her own pace, drawing out her words like slow streamers. In “Tinereţe, Tinereţe” the two of them are more evenly matched. “Aş Munci La Plug Şi La Coasă”, which alternates between fast and slow, is the most dramatic of the three, giving her a chance to showboat one long note that hangs in the air and then slings itself down a slope.
On other songs Iordache shares space with fiddles, accordion, bass, brass, and a piano. It’s not easy for a cimbalom to draw the spotlight in an ensemble, as the other cimbalom players in this series have already shown, but Iordache had the skill to take centre stage and pull it off. He lets rip in “Sîrba De La Medgidia” and the rest sit back and let him go. Listening to him on “Ca La Breaza”, I imagine the members of Fanfare Ciocarlia overhearing this as young musicians and saying to themselves, “Yes, there’s our goal. We want to go as fast as that. But with tubas.” It’s a jaw-dropping display of speed and talent.
This is an album that makes me think, “If he’d lived somewhere else, somewhere outside Soviet Romania, somewhere with a huge media reach, playing a different instrument, playing in a genre with greater worldwide popularity, then just imagine his reputation today! Wouldn’t all of us, not only Romanians and people who like Romanian music, be in awe of him? Wouldn’t he be mentioned in all of the popular anthologies that sum up music in the 20th century? Wouldn’t he be one of the worldwide greats, a musician all other musicians would look up to? A Hendrix? A Gould?”
He probably would. I’m surprised it took them four releases to get around to him. Not that I’m wishing the others out of existence, although in hindsight Vol. 1 has been the weakest so far. No more excuses for not listening to the man. Here he is.