It’s great to have neighbors – sometimes. You can borrow a cup of sugar when needed. You can snag their teenager when you have to dash to the store or recruit a babysitter. You can pick up one another’s mail when on vacation.
But, neighbors just might want what is yours, and definitely this presents a problem. Such has been the issue with a recent country I visited. To its north, lies Ukraine. To its west, we have Hungary. To the southwest, we have Serbia. Bulgaria sits to its south, Moldova to its east, and the Black Sea to the southeast. This geographically describes Romania, a beautiful country that has known turbulence for centuries. The Ottomans have claimed it, as have the Austrian-Hungarians. More recently, the country operated as a satellite state of the Soviet Union (1948 to 1989.) While we toured Romania, singers and dancers introduced us to the doina, the country’s most widespread form of folk music. I came to see this music as an integral part of its history and culture. It cries forth its pain when oppressed and longing for autonomy.
After visiting Bucharest with its Palace of the Parliament, the second largest building in the world after the US Pentagon, and its all-day rush hour congestion, we were ready to head north for hopefully a slower pace. We found this in the charming village of Sibiu. Pedestrian-only town center proved to be a very welcomed site.
Less touristy and even more village oriented, we stayed a few days in Maramures in northern Transylvania. It is here that our hosts and their families and friends introduced us to the doina. The doina is a lyrical, solemn chant that is improvised and spontaneous. As the essence of Romanian folklore until 1900, it was the only musical genre in many regions of the country. The peasant doinas are mostly vocal and monophonic and are sung with some vocal peculiarities that vary from place to place: interjections, glottal clucking sounds, choked sobbing effects. Instrumental doinas are played on simple instruments, often various types of flutes. One can compare it to the blues for its rhythmic tension. The Smithsonian defines the doina as “a song of love, a pantheistic poem, a fighting song, or an outcry against injustice or a foreign ruler.”
Our guide and driver, Paul from Compass Travel Romania, easily became swept up with the music and accompanying dance. The two nights of singing and dancing with John, the drummer; Anca, the female singer; Victor, the violinist; and Maria, the dancer and recently crowned Miss Maramures, lingered in my memory. I asked Paul to translate a number of the songs. In the lyrics, I grew to appreciate the struggles of many humble people, their desires, and their resilience. Even when we departed from Maramures, the doinas’ messages remained in my mind and heart. In fact, I found them to be an integral part of my appreciation of this land.
One verse of a doina we enjoyed exclaimed in translation, “Nobody dies from missing somebody.” Did not this attitude fortify villagers as loved ones moved, died, or entered war zones? The song continues, “I am missing you, my family, my possessions, the things to make food.” These are simple treasures, yet far from simple when often deprived. Such has been the history of Romania. Stoicism rings forth in song, dance, and an attitude of survival.
Another verse tells us “When I was young, I wore expensive dresses. When I am old, my dresses seem too heavy.” Paul told us that the woman is moaning the burdens of her life. She continues to express, “Each leaf that falls down never climbs up again.” While sadness is surely encompassed in the lyrics, so is an appreciation for life’s challenges. The song continues, “The willow branches spread toward the river to give its experience of last year. It soaks up the water to survive the next year.” I asked Paul if the river was washing away last year’s heartaches. He adamantly declared to me, “Oh, no, she is keeping the lessons of pain to better handle what will lie ahead.” This resilience shouted forth at every turn we experienced with the people of Romania.
In this same area, we spent an afternoon in the important site of the Anti Communist Memorial, a political prison in the Communist times following World War II. This UNESCO site ranks alongside Auschwitz and the Peace Memorial in Normandy as a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man during and post the war. Romania fell under the complete influence of Soviet Russia. The forced abdication of King Mihai was the final puzzle piece for the communists who had already imprisoned the political elites. Many of Romania’s ministers and members of the Parliament died in extermination prisons, while more were sent to forced labor camps or deported. The first communist decade was marked by massive arrests of up to two million political prisoners and devastating economic measures. The nationalization of private property and the forced collectivization of agricultural land destroyed the economy already weakened by the war. The successor of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dij, the first communist Secretary-General, was even more rigid.
The dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu (1965-1989) made impossible any kind of real reform. Romania was near collapse. People lived on strict rations for food, electricity, heat, and gas. The violent revolution of 1989 was a direct consequence. It was the bloodiest of all from the Eastern block. It ended with the death of many protesters and the execution of Nicolaue Ceausescu and his wife. How did many Romanians prevail? I suspect some answers lie at the core of doinas’ lyrics.
One doina expresses, “If longing were for selling, I would be a buyer.” Their history recants the longing for peace, the longing for human decency, the longing for stability. The song continues, “Now the world has changed. Hi longing, longing. If only someone would sell, Hi longing, longing.” Easily, we gazed into the eyes of the singer and saw a history of woes that music helped express. Another doina chants, “And that’s how it sometimes feels to me, dear, To stab the stone with a knife.” Historically, how many Romanians stabbed at stones? How many wishes did others attempt to squash from these humble people? And yet the doina ends with hope, “And so a thought comes to me, To go to the woods singing, To go to the woods singing.” While Nature might not always heal, it surely soothes.
Indeed, Romania is a beautiful land, known for its Carpathian Mountains, salt mines, wine, medieval fortresses, Dracula, sausages and stuffed cabbage, dense forests, the Black Sea, sunflower fields, and painted wooden eggs. But to me, I came to appreciate it also for its doina. The villagers gave me their songs. And in their songs, they gave me a glimpse into their history, into their love for their land, and into their spirit of resilience.