Arts & Culture
1:29 pm
Fri August 2, 2013

Oana Cătălina Chiţu's Reprise of Maria Tănase is Divine

Review of new album, "Divine," by the Romanian singer Oana Cătălina Chiţu. The album covers songs made famous in the 1930s and 40s by Maria Tanase, a singer often compared to Edith Piaf. This review provides context to the repressive times in Romania which shifted in 1989 with the death of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, finally allowing a revival of the work of Tanase.

  With only a few exceptions, the “best” days of Communism (and I say that with plenty of sarcasm) are long gone. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (with the final destruction in 1990), the Round Table talks in Warsaw in 1989, and the brutal execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in December of 1989 explain the often heard term Revolutions of 1989 as synonymous with the Fall of Communism.

In 1972, the University of Texas Jazz Ensemble was invited to make a tour of Romania. The out of pocket cost to each member was modest, but I initially thought it would be out of my reach. That's when a generous banker took a risk, loaning me the money I needed. I've never regretted it. This would be an adventure into a world which was well obscured by the Iron Curtain, not yet the rusting relic it would eventually become.

Those were difficult times for the Romanian people. Nicolae Ceausescu had a firm grip, a dictatorial hand, on Romania. Many artists had been suppressed, and there was a systematic war on the Romany people, the gypsies. We saw it all on our 2 weeks touring Romania. We saw the decay in Bucharest, which in the 30s had been regarded as the Paris of Eastern Europe, and we heard our tour guides ridicule the bands of gypsies we encountered in the countryside. Heaven only knows how the Romanian Communists had been persuaded to allow a jazz band made up mostly of hippies and free spirits to come into the country, but they did.

I was very naive, but had enough awareness to know something of Ceausescu's reputation. I recall keeping a diary for the first 8 days, or so, and how it worried the guides when they would see me scribbling away in the hotel lobbies. Band leader Dick Goodwin deflected their concerns one evening, saying to the guide: “He's only writing letters.”

It was in this atmosphere that the Romanian singer Maria Tănase came to be neglected, at least officially, by the party officials. Her recordings systematically disappeared during the 60s, yet she was not forgotten by her fans. When Maria Tănase died in June, 1963, throngs of fans lined the streets for her final journey to Bucharest's Bellu Cemetery. Unfortunately, Ceausescu ruled on, suppressing the legacy of Tănase throughout the 60s and for another several decades after that.

But now we find ourselves in 2013, the centenary of the birth of Maria Tănase, and the Romanian born musician Oana Cătălina Chiţu (pronounced Kitsu) has resurrected not only the memory of Tănase, but also a slice of some of her most beloved repertory, including Romanian tangos, folk songs, doinas, and “cantece de mahala.” The latter refers to music of the suburbs, pre-Communist regime. The Doina is a musical style which is thought to be pure Romanian. A good example of this mix of the Balkans and the Middle East would be the second track on the album “Divine,” titled “Before I fell in love with you.”

Reflecting back on my own experiences of traveling and performing in Romania, I was very taken by the exoticism of the music I heard. Upon arrival in Bucharest, and after a jet lagged attempt at a night's sleep, our group of musicians was bussed to a reception where we were entertained by musicians and dancers. Outside of Georges Enescu's several "Romanian Rhapsodies," we had never heard such music. Yet on the second day in Bucharest I happened upon an orchestra concert where I heard the familiar icons of Western classical music being performed. I remember in particular hearing one of the Beethoven Piano

Romanian Athenaeum in Bucharest, considered Bucharest's principal concert hall (photo 1972)
Credit James Baker

Concerti, though I could not tell you today which one it was. The one thing most apparent during our two weeks in Romania was that here we found a meeting of cultures, East and West.

In Oana Cătălina Chiţu's tribute album, “Divine,” we find this same coming together of East and West, flavored delightfully by the sounds of Chiţu's instrumental ensemble, the Balkan band Romenca. These are Berlin based musicians, multi-ethnic, with a generous splash of gypsy violin and accordian. The purely instrumental 6th track, titled “Tananica,” is totally from the Roma tradition. It's also a great demo track for admiring the wonderful recorded sound one finds throughout “Divine.”

A temptation in doing an album such as this would be to simply imitate, more or less verbatim, the known recordings of Maria Tănase. But the road taken by Chiţu is more akin to what Bela Bartok did when he came to Romania, collecting folk song and dance. He wrote it down, in many instances made field recordings, but then re-imagined the music in his published “Romanian Folk Dances.” In the case of Chiţu, the spirit of Maria Tănase is ever present while allowing the music to meet the 21st Century. The music comes alive again, much as it must once have thrived in Tănase's day, when she would sing to audiences as far flung as Istanbul, Paris and New York.

This album, and much of the other change still occurring in Romania, could never have happened while Ceausescu was still alive. He ruled with an at times bloody hand, and died a violent death as retribution. On one of my final days in Romania, back in the early 70s, our jazz ensemble was summoned to the 

Nicolae Ceausescu (R), greeting musical guests from the University of Texas at Austin. (photo 1972)
Credit James Baker

Presidential Palace to play a command performance for Ceausescu and his retinue. As other musicians performed the word spread that when the concert ended we would proceed in single file to be received by Ceausescu and his wife. I was determined I wouldn't shake his hand, or look into his eyes. My colleagues in the band argued that I was headed down a dangerous path if I stood by my principal. In the end, I shook his hand and moved on. Sadly, this was how one survived in those days in Romania. Certain things, like reviving the songs of Maria Tănase, were simply not feasible. Such projects would have to wait.

Thank goodness the wait is over. Get ready for a real treat when you give “Divine” a first listen. I guarantee you will be drawn in by the extroverted first track, and into the ballads and romances as well. If anyone can spark life into this music and this repertory, it is Oana Cătălina Chiţu and her first rank musicians. Give a listen, then listen again. That's what I've done and I am more delighted with each hearing.