Morning: Henry and I are off early, leaving Florin and Minodora to sleep the sleep of newlyweds. Cimai is Minodora’s uncle so they surely have much catching up to do without Gadje around. We drive out of Roman and leave the highway for a dirt road, passing through a landscape where little has changed in the last thirteen years. Actually, little here’s changed in the last thirteen hundred years. Villagers walk their cows to the fields, a spidery forest covers the rising hills, water is drawn from wells, man and beast plough the land, geese dawdle down the track defiant of our four wheeled incursion, puffs of smoke arise from cottages that look to have leapt from Brothers Grimm fairy tales, men cycle past wearing long overcoats and cachules (a traditional peaked wool hat) on bicycles built in Chairman Mao’s factories. The road rises steeply and soon we’re sailing through cloud, a rising sun burning the mist away to reveal a rolling, tawny landscape over which hawks glide. While Bucharest was wet, the winter rains leaving swollen puddles across broken streets, northern Moldavia is yet to be scalded by storms. “By this time of year the roads are often reduced to mud tracks and driving to Zece Prajin is extremely difficult,” says Henry. “To have conditions like they are today . . . it’s magnificent.”
Soon we’re descending into the valley, passing a lake coated in ice, and I get my first sighting of Zece Prajin: squat houses made of mud, brick, concrete and tarpaper, many painted luminous colours, wells out front and a menagerie to the side of the house. Note more cows, goats, chickens and turkeys on the main road than humans. Country living? Deep country. We swing into Ioan Ivancea’s house. Ioan’s bleary, not long awake, wearing a shapeless Hugo Boss sweater, his big, jowly face cautiously welcoming, checking this new Gadje with pen and camera in hand. Marie, his wife of almost fifty years, offers a glorious gold tooth smile while continuing to husk maize. Marie and Ion look to have been shaped by the Moldavian clay, ingrained in the hills that loom above their valley. Recall Carla Thomas taunting Otis Redding with “you country, straight from the Georgia woods” and think, yeh, Gypsy soul indeed. Breakfast follows: cold meat, hot soup, bread, coffee, vodka.
“Where would we be without Henry?” says Marie as we settle in. “Without him this village would be dead.” Don’t mistake this for an idle compliment, when Henry arrived in 1996 the village’s brass bands had largely fallen into disarray: the economic collapse following the end of communism had cancelled extravagant weddings and few of the children showed any interest in learning an instrument. Now the hills around Zece Prajin are alive with the sound of music.
No one’s sure how Zece Prajin became a laboratory for future Balkan funk but by the 1920s the region’s German communities were dancing to waltzes and polkas: the Roma in this region of Moldavia found brass instruments more suitable than string instruments for fingers hardened by farming. Ioan suggests the Hungarians in the region liked spicy food and thus spicy music. Good theory but it fails to explain why the Romanian diet is so awful yet their music so tasty.
Ioan’s two-room house is Gypsy Classic: green ceiling, yellow-patterned walls, rugs, tea towels, weavings and posters, images of Jesus and flowers, puppies and kittens, covering every surface. Marie cooks on a wood stove. Ioan’s built a new house next to his old one but Henry’s never seen him inside it. Instead, he and Marie appear ingrained in their original homestead, unable to shift what is a tiny physical distance but, perhaps, psychically a huge journey.
At sixty-four Ioan’s Fanfare’s patriarch, leader and sage. He broods on questions, aware Zeke Prajin’s oral history rests in him and his band. “We are of the Ursari tribe, the bear tamers tribe,” says Ioan, “but it is a very long time since anyone here tamed bears. Zece Prajin’s name? Our ancestors were serfs for the local boyar from Dagita (a neighbouring village) and were living on the steeps of the surrounding mountains. This was such a harsh existence, people struggled to carry water and firewood to the camp, so one day the tribe elder approached the Boyar and asked for a space in the valley. The Boyar was a good man and gifted them ten fields in the valley to live. Zece Prajin’s name translates as Ten Fields. Since then all the families have farmed and played music. And always will.”
Ioan then adds, “unless the young generation of Gypsies turn to shit. I grew up with the music of Romica (Puceanua), Gaby (Lunca), Dona (Dimitru Siminica). This music is the real music of the Gypsies here in Romania. We only had it on records and tapes as we could never invite them to our weddings. The new music, it’s bullshit.”
READ THE ENTIRE FANFARE CIOCARLIA INTERVIEW IN PRINCES AMONGST MEN