Having recorded all over Europe as part of A Hawk And A Hacksaw with Heather Trost, Albuquerque alchemist Jeremy Barnes (formerly of Neutral Milk Hotel) has taken in his fair share of European spectacles, recording in Saumur, Athens, Prague, Budapest, Tura, Zece Prajini and glorious Enderby over the course of their previous four records.
Immersed in the Eastern European culture that underpins their Balkan-citing pomp, Trost and Barnes now live in Budapest, so Barnes kindly offered to lead us through a brief account of a few recent pecularities he’s encountered. Samuel Strang
Now that Romania is part of the European Union, the Romanian gypsies are once again free to roam across Europe. When we are on tour, we see them in most cities - in Italy, Spain, Ireland, England, Norway. They are often considered a blight, and Silvio Berlusconi’s new government, for instance, is trying to figure out a way to stop them from coming to Italy. But they often represent a beautiful and misunderstood culture that, if it were accepted, could flourish and do more to reduce their criminal activity than prison, abuse, and other forms of punishment.
Video: AHAAH, ‘Fernando’s Giampari’
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If I hear an accordionist in the street, I can usually tell if they are Romanian. Even when the songs played are along the lines of the theme from The Godfather or Doctor Zhivago. It is a typical technique to try and appease the local populace by playing the songs they think we want to hear. If you see a gypsy in the street, playing the accordion, I suggest you request a Sirba, Hora or Giampari. One no longer has to travel to Romania to hear this music; it is all over the streets of the big cities. You just have to request it.
In Oslo, we saw a blind accordionist, playing and singing through a microphone placed on top of his accordion that ran into a miniature amplifier that turned his sound into tin. He was playing old Romanian ballads, the kind you would hear from Dona Dumitru Siminica, on one of the walking streets in the city centre. It was dusk, and all the other street accordionists had gathered around to listen; he was the master. But no one else really paid attention.
A Hawk And A Hacksaw Playing On The Streets Of Lisbon
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In Seville last month we met Maria Ion. She is from Bucharest or thereabouts, and had taken a three-day bus ride from Romania to southern Spain. Her spot was in the shade of an archway close to Seville’s largest church. She was playing to the Spanish, older popular tunes, trying to get them to drop a few centimes in her accordion case. We listened for a bit and it occurred to me that here was someone along the lines of the blind man in Oslo. A total virtuoso, deserving of the best concert halls but playing for change in streets and hoping to make some euros to bring home to Romania after the tourist season ends.
We requested a Sirba, and she gladly ripped through some amazing pieces. She possesses kind of musical prowess that western managers of Romanian bands like to declare is extinct in Romania – save for their bands. They hold fast to the fiction that their bands are Romania’s last great folk musicians. Maria Ion and many like her prove that they are completely wrong. We requested for her to sing, and she went through a few songs by the great Romanian divas Gabi Lunca and Romica Puceanu. This kind of music is to my mind as powerful as the music of Edith Piaf or Oum Kalthoum.
Video: Gabi Lunca, ‘Cu-o damigeana si-un pahar’
Video: Rominca Punceanu, ‘As munci la plug si coasa’
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We ended up spending the day with her. She is in Seville until August, alone, hoping to make money to bring home to her family. She rents a room for €8 a night. She sighed and said, “It’s a lot of money!” We went to a café where she and I played her accordion. It was interesting. Take her off the street and into an establishment and people listen, people appreciate it. I think that every musician should play on the street; it is and excellent way to let go of one’s ego. But Maria Ion deserves a stage, an audience, and respect for helping to preserve some of the most beautiful songs in European music.