What is Romanian Folk Music?

A friend once asked me to help her find some “authentic Romanian folk music” to sing. Of course I wanted to help, but I needed more specific information. What style of Romanian folk music was she looking for? From which region of Romania was she interested in? She didn’t know. So the next day, she sent me an mp3 of a Romanian song that she liked, a lullaby. But, she said, she wanted something . . . different. I had no idea how to help her. Our lack of a shared Romanian music vocabulary made the project difficult.

I arrived in Cluj last October and almost immediately began working with Romanian folk musicians. Since then I’ve been surprised over and over by the confusion here over Romanian folk music labels. While I knew that Romanian folk music encompasses a very broad range of musical styles, I didn’t know just how ill-defined Romanian folk music is, even in Romania. Even professional Romanian folk musicians living in Cluj don’t entirely agree on what to call Transylvanian string band music from the village: Trio Transilvan? Lăutărească din Ardeal? It seems that no matter who you are talking to, Romanian folk music is surprisingly difficult to talk about.

First, there are many subgenera within Romanian folk music, like muzică populară, muzică tradițională, and lăutărească. There is also cross-over music, like etno and cafe-concert, that is heavily influenced by Romanian folk music.

Then there are regional differences in those musical styles. Muzică populară from Transylvania, for example, sounds different from that from Oltenia, Muntenia, and Moldova. These regional styles are broken down even further, and more accurately, into smaller subregions, like Transylvania’s Maramureș, Satu Mare, Salaj, Bistrița, Alba, or Mureș areas. Some ethnographic regions, like Banat in the southwest, have recognizable folk traditions that extend beyond Romania’s political borders, into Serbia and Hungary.

Perhaps one of the most confusing facts is that some songs or dance tunes are found in multiple regions, but they might go by different names. For example, the same song that would be labeled romansește in the region of Salaj would be called învârtita in the region of Codru.

Finally, even the word ‘Romanian’ presents a problem when talking about folk music: does it signify an ethnic group, nationality, or citizenship within Romania’s borders?

While confusion over labels certainly doesn’t stop anyone from making all sorts of great music, it does pose a real problem when you want to have a conversation about it. In order to clarify things in my mind, I made a short reference list, with examples, of some of the most common types of Romanian folk music played today, focusing on the broadest subgenera categories.

Muzică Populară

Muzică populară is an urban folk music, supposedly derived from rural traditional songs, cultivated for staged performances. The texts are usually romantic, but an overtly nationalistic character emerged in muzică populară during the Communist era when lyrics often expressed Romanian patriotism.

The ideal instrumental ensemble is precise and uniform. The musicians are often conservatory trained and use classical instrumental techniques. Typical musical characteristics include a walking bass line, accordion, țambal, guitar, and/or viola accompaniment, and melodic instruments such as violin, saxophone, clarinet, and targot, playing in unison. Vocalists, both men and women, sing in Romanian and use a wide vibrato. (Video by Noroc Media)

To learn more about this genre, the site Muzica-populara.com is helpful. They categorize Romanian folk music by starting with muzică populară as the main heading, and divide it by regions and styles or musical function. The site text, which at times is overtly nationalistic, is in Romanian, so you might want to keep google translate open in a separate window. The site has many excellent and helpful examples of muzică populară, however, I disagree with their choice to include musicians playing folkloric instruments like the bucium (alphorn) as examples of this genre.

Muzică Lăutărească

Muzică Lăutărească is the music of the lăutari, a professional class of Roma musicians living in the regions of Muntania, Oltenia, Dobrogea and Moldavia — however, Romanian, Jewish, and Turkish musicians in these regions have also been known as lăutari. As early as the mid-16th century, lăutari played in the courts for princes and boyars, as well as in monasteries. After being emancipated from slavery in the 19th century, they settled in rural villages to make a living by playing for weddings, baptisms, funerals, and other ceremonies for the peasant population.

Lăutărească music has many different styles, and varies from region to region. Common characteristics include virtuosity, complex harmonies, abundant ornamentation, and the ability to re-interpret the melody in new ways.

One of the most famous lăutărească ensembles is Taraf de Haidouks from the village of Clejani. But you can also find lăutari playing in tourist-friendly restaurants, like Coliba Haiducilor in Poiana Brașov. (Video by colleenfiddle)

Muzică Tradițională (Folclorică)

Muzică tradițională, also called folclorică, is the music passed on from generation to generation, played by non-professional, rural residents. In theory, the tradition is still carried on today by amateur musicians who play for personal enjoyment in private, or in front of friends and family. In reality, many of these musicians perform on stage, too, at folkloric festivals. Some have even made recordings of the music that they composed. Typically, folclorică musicians are either self-taught or learned from an older relative or mentor. Because it is an oral tradition, it is not necessary for folcloric musicians to know how to read musical notes on a page.

Muzică tradițională is a huge category that encompasses many sounds, instruments, and musical styles from many regions.

From Transylvania (Videos by colleenfiddle):

From the Moldavian region in northeastern Romania:

From the Oaș region in northwestern Romania:

Trio Transilvan

Trio Transilvan is the traditional string band music played in Transylvania. The name Trio Transilvan comes from the core of the ensemble: 3-string contrabass, 3-string braci (modified viola), and violin. These ensembles often expand to include a second violin player, and sometimes a second braci player and/or accordionist. Another name for these groups is Transilvan lăutari or lăutari din Ardeal (Ardeal is the Romanian word for Transylvania). However, some knowledgable Romanian folclor musicians and scholars, like Ovidiu Barteș for example, say that it is not correct to call Transylvanian musicians lăutari.

The core Trio Transilvan ensemble (Videos by colleenfiddle):

The trio can be expanded to include an accordionist:

The core group can be expanded to include two violinists and two bracists:

Táncház Népzene

Táncház Népzene, a Hungarian name meaning dance-house folk music, is a Hungarian-specific phenomenon. The táncház genre began in Budapest, Hungary, in the late 1960s to early 1970s, and has evolved since. The táncház genre especially champions ensembles of the Trio Transilvan formation, whether they are made up of conservatory-trained musicians from Hungary or Romania, or carefully selected apprentice-trained village musicians from greater Hungary, Transylvania, and Moldova.

Whereas the Trio Transilvan bands specialize in music from a particular village or region, táncház musicians are required to learn a large repertoire from multiple regions throughout Romania and Hungary so that they can offer dancers a great variety at parties. The táncház genre’s focus is on participation, but staged music and dance performance also plays a major role in the genre. The táncház scene has an ultimate goal of Hungarian community preservation and building.

Here is the Heveder táncház band playing with Florin Codoba from the Palatcă video above. (Video by feketeszekely)

And Some Outliers . . .

These subgenera might fit better into other categories like pop or light classical. But due to folk music’s obvious influence, these two subgenera especially deserve to be mentioned.

Muzică Etno

Muzică etno sets traditional or traditional-sounding Romanian songs to electronica beats, creating a folk-disco hybrid. Sometimes muzică etno goes by the name muzică de petrecere (party music). (Video by sonicstudio 1)

Cafe-Concert

Not all cafe-concert music is folk influenced, but the light-classical show pieces such as Hora Staccato, Hora Martișorului, Ceasornicul (The Clock), and Ciocarlia (The Lark), which were all inspired by muzică lăutărească, would fall under this category. Cafe-concert music was at one time in great demand in restaurants and cafes in Bucharest. The genre encompasses light classical, Viennese ball, folk, jazz, and pop forms. Many muzică populară musicians and lăutari are also cafe-concert musicians. (Video by Noroc Media)