Since immigrating to the United States, Nicolae Feraru has perpetuated the Gypsy traditional music he learned from his father, and other lautari, or minstrels, in his native Romania. The second youngest of seven children, Feraru was born in 1950 in Bucharest, Romania, into a musical family. Feraru's father played the tambal mic(small cimbalom, or dulcimer in the Romanian tradition) and cobza (lute). Despite the warning from his father against becoming a musician because of the long, sleepless, weekend-long weddings, Feraru took up the cimbalom anyway. His father then arranged for him to take lessons on the tambal mic from Mitica Ciuciu-Marinescu, one of the leading Romanian performers on the large cimbalom. From him, Feraru learned formal harmony and theory, but most of the learning was through observation and imitation of the master musician.
After achieving the status of muzician, the highest rank awarded to a musician in the Communist system, Feraru was able to work and tour as a musician. For many years, he played in Bucharest restaurants, in the panpipe soloist Radu Simion's ensemble, as well as accompanying such singers as Gica Petrescu and Ion Albesteanu. In 1973, he played for six months in a restaurant in Montreal and made two solo LP records on the Electrecord label. When a rare opportunity to tour in the Romanian communities in the United States arose in 1988, Feraru travelled to Detroit. He then applied for and was awarded political asylum (he became a U.S. citizen in 2001). In 1994, he moved to Chicago and was joined two years later by his wife and three sons; his two daughters had to remain behind.
Until recently, Feraru worked in a dental equipment factory, while also regularly performing at weddings, community events, and restaurants throughout the Chicago region, including the Chicago World Music Festival. He has performed at various public events and for public officials, including former President Bill Clinton at the 2009 dedication of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. In 2007, Feraru participated in the Illinois Arts Council's Ethnic and Folk Arts Master Apprentice Program and the same year the Romanian Round Table of Chicago gave him an award for his cultural contributions to the community.
[Excerpts of "Caruta Postei" and "Un Parinte Poate Creste," by Nicolae Feraru from the album, Tambal si Voce, used courtesy of Nicolae Feraru. Video of Nicolae Feraru accompanied by his son-in-law, Sile Dorel and grandson Orlando Dorel, accordions; Daniela Bisenius, violin; and Bane Djordjevic and his son, keyboards. Filmed by and used courtesy of Shaun Williams.]
Interview with Nicolae Feraru by Josephine Reed for the NEA
August 22, 2013
Edited by Liz Auclair
Learning to play the cimbalom
NEA: Can you begin by describing the cimbalom?
Nicolae Feraru: The cimbalom, like an American hammer dulcimer, was built for the first time around 1875. A Hungarian from Budapest who also played piano, he started to make these big instruments with legs. In Romania they started [making] a small cimbalom at that time, and my grandfather played this instrument, my father played this instrument, I played, and my son plays today too. The instrument is in the form of a trapezoid and has strings like piano strings, and the pins are like the piano pins. Everything is almost like a piano, but a simple piano.
NEA: And you strike the cimbalom with hammers.
Feraru: Yes. [The cimbalom's origins are] from Asia: in Iran, China, India. They started with one string, [then] two, four, until [they made the instrument you see today]. With the cimbalom, I am able to play all kind of music, from jazz to folk, and classical music. Everything is possible with this instrument.
I was born in Bucharest, and I start to play on the cimbalom when I was almost five years old. But my father, he told me, "No, you will not learn the small cimbalom."
NEA: He was a musician, and he played it.
Feraru: Yeah, my father, he played the cimbalom. And my grandfather. But they don’t play the big cimbalom, just the small. My father, in that time, he played for weddings for three days, from Saturday until Monday. This was the custom in Romania. He was very tired after three days, because he put the [cimbalom’s] strap around his neck. He said, "No, you can learn another instrument, but not cimbalom." I did not listen to him. I started to play cimbalom every day. He fought me sometimes. Finally he told me, "Okay, if you like this instrument you must go learn this instrument from the famous teacher in Romania." His name was Marinescu Ciuciu Mitica, and he started to give me lessons, but on the big [cimbalom]. When I got to eighteen years old, we had the contest for the Romania Orchestra. There were many guys in the contest, but I was first. I won, and after that, I started to play in Bucharest . And in the Army, I was in the band.
After this, in 1972, this famous singer in Romania, she took me to Canada for six months. I married before this, and my child, Janina, was around six months. When I returned, I started to play in famous orchestras, like with Gheorghe Zamfir. Gheorghe Zamfir is a famous guy who played pipe-pan. And in Europe he was famous between '72 and like '90. And the other orchestra was with Radu Simion, and I started to play with him, and I travelled everywhere. I stayed in my house maybe one month. I travelled three months. Again, three weeks. Again, two months. For me it was very good. The people, they know about me. And the TV, the radio stations, and the media wrote about me, and it was very, very nice.
Working as a Gypsy musician in Romania
NEA: Now Gypsy music has three categories. There are love songs, there are dance songs, and then there are drinking songs. Talk about the differences among those three.
Feraru: If I play for one wedding, we start to play “the table song.” The people stay at the table, they start eating, and we play different songs. And the people enjoy the music and they stay and they listen to music. After they’re finished eating, we play the songs for love; or a sad song, for the people who are sad for different things, because his mother died or the kid, he’s sick. And after this we have a very nice song for the people to go to dancing. And even today a Gypsy wedding will be like two days.
NEA: And it used to last in the old days how long? Five days? A week?
Feraru: Yeah, it was three, four, five days; depends on the people, whether they have a lot of money to spend on the wedding. But even today they last Saturday and Sunday. In the Gypsy culture, when we have Gypsy weddings, we have invitations. I invite you. When I invite you, I give you the invitation. But on this, I wrote each name of the musicians playing at the wedding. In the Gypsy culture, they put the name of the musicians every time. The Gypsy, they do not come just for food and drink, they come for music. If they don’t like the music, they just come to the wedding, they give you the money and they leave.
NEA: What was it like as a Gypsy musician in Romania?
Feraru: I can tell you in the communist system, the Gypsy has suffered a lot. Even in the school, if I go to learn something, other kids say, "Gypsy. You are Gypsy. You are Gypsy," because the color [of my skin] was different. And if you apply for a job, they won't hire you. I had one bad experience during this time. When I was [playing] on the TV one time, they cut the transmission. They would not put me on the TV.
NEA: They had your music but not you.
Feraru: It was about the music and about me too. The first time, they did not give me permission to play Gypsy music in the communist system.
NEA: You have described how when you were in the recording studio and making a record and then a whole little committee comes in. Describe what happens. You make the record, and then people come in and decide whether it's good or not, from the government.
Feraru: Yes, it's true. I remember, when I made the first CD, I give them the material, and sure I put on some songs like Gypsy. And a couple of songs they rejected. They say, "No, you cannot play this because the style is not like Romania, it's like Gypsy."
NEA: What is the Gypsy style?
Feraru: The Gypsy style is total different than the Romanian style, because in the Gypsy style, most of the song, when we describe our life, the people are poor and the people are happy. The content, it's totally different than even the style. We have most of the songs in 6/8. In most of the songs we reflect on our lives, and it's total different from the Romanian style. If I play for you something now, you will see the difference between Romanian song and the Gypsy song. In the Romanian song, they talk about flowers, they talk about—I don't know—different things. But we talk about our life. ... When I made my record, I talked about my city, and they said, "No, you cannot put this, because it's like the Gypsy style." But I have an idea. I change the rhythm, like Romania rhythm, but I play the same song. And in this case, they did not realize it's the same song but I changed the rhythm. Also when we play in the restaurants, we must sign the paper and give them [the right to decide] what we play. If we put on some Gypsy song, they would not approve.
NEA: So they have to look at the set list.
Feraru: Exactly. And if the inspector came in the restaurant and if they heard us play Gypsy music, they give us a ticket. It was very hard. And I remember this happened a couple times because the Gypsy give tips for music. The Gypsy people really like music and they give tips to play for them. And the tips were against the law in Romania.
NEA: You also talked about musicians having to take tests to be given a certain ranking of musician? Explain that, because that's very foreign to us.
Feraru: When I was 18 years old, I played in the ensemble, but after the Army, in Romania, every four years we had the exam. And they [give] us the category, like the first, the second, the soloist, the instrument. The first time they gave me the first class. What was important was the paper [that said what my class was]—the first class or second or the third. I had to keep the paper in my pocket, like an ID. They paid the salary in [relation to] the class you had. If you were in the fourth class, they gave you a smaller salary. If you had the first, they gave you a very good salary.
And it's very interesting for me because I can tell you maybe 90 percent of musicians in Romania will travel a lot in the world, like Gypsies. The government of Romania, they needed the money. When we play in Canada, suppose I made one thousand dollars. I must pay Romania three hundred dollars.
I was very mad in this time. This is the reason I decided to leave Romania. On the TV station, when I played one time, somebody said, "No, this guy can’t go on the TV no more, because he's too dark." And my family was very mad. And I said, "Okay, they won’t let me appear on TV, but when I play in a different country, I’m good and I have to give my pay to the government. But when I’m in Romania, now I’m not good?" Yeah, it was very, very strange, and the situation was very bad.
NEA: What was it like for you when you first came to the West on tour?
Feraru: I went in 1970 to Canada and to the United States for the first time. When I visited Canada, we did a tour. In United States we played Michigan, Indiana, California, and other Romanian communities. For me the impact was very, very big. A first step. Here in the stores, there’s so much food everywhere. In Romania, the people, under the communist system, they suffered, they didn’t have food. Under the communist system, if I talked about the regime with somebody and the police heard me, they would arrest me. I cannot say anything about the president of the government—or the communist system. There were fights, sometimes people disappeared. Then I visited America and the impact was very, very big for me because I saw the people here in this country, they talked with each other freely, and I remember I went to the school here and I saw people came here for free religion, free speech, free everything, but not in my country. Over there it was a big problem.
NEA: Now when you toured here, did you have a government handler who was with you to make sure that you did what you were supposed to do, or did they just let you come and really wander around and be free?
Feraru: No, the problem [was that] every time when we went somewhere to play, somebody from the Romanian government came with us. Every time. We don't know who, but one person, every time.
NEA: So it was somebody in the group who was a government person and you had no idea.
Feraru: Exactly. Every time when we returned to Romania, somebody had to inform the government [about] what happened with us during the tour. He had to give up all information about us. And I remember the last time when we went in the group, finally we knew who the government guy was. It was very strange, because they had information on us. Also, if I did not return by the time my contract was up, like within three months, I could have been put in jail. Sometimes people were jailed in Romania [for breaking their contracts], because the government said, "Oh, you want to stay in America, you want political asylum." I have a couple friends who are in jail for this. We cannot keep our passports. After I returned, within 24 hours I had to give the passport back to the government. And every time when we need to travel somewhere, we need a visa. Today, Romanians are lucky because if they want to go somewhere in the European community, if they want to go to Germany or France, they just have to have their ID. But in that time, under the communist system, no. And I realized they gave us permission to go, like a contract to work, to play music, because they have a big interest in taking our money, to get the tax over there.
NEA: And you left and moved to the United States in 1988. Basically, a year before the regime was overthrown. You must have watched that over here. You must have just been astounded by what went on in Eastern Europe that fall of '89.
Feraru: Yeah, for me it was very interesting. After what I saw in Romania maybe a couple years before '88, when I decided to leave my country, I saw the problem between Romanians and Gypsies increase a lot. It got worse and worse and worse. Everywhere you went it was worse. No jobs for Gypsies, they only hired Romanians. We were not equal. Every time. They didn’t say anything. They just said, "Oh, we cannot do this." Or sometimes they said it directly. Anyway, when I decided to leave in '88, it was not easy for me. It was very hard for me, because my family was over there. I came to America in '88, but I decide to stay here.
NEA: And you didn't even tell your children you were staying.
Feraru: Exactly. Nobody knew about this except my mother-in-law.
NEA: Not even your wife.
Feraru: My mother-in-law was very close to me, like my mother. I talked to her about everything. Everything. Actually I tried to get political asylum one time. I had in my mind to remain in Germany. But after that, I said, "No, I cannot exist without my family." Finally, when I saw the problems in Romania were too much—no food, no nothing, no jobs for my family—I said, "What [do] I do? I played today, but I'm not sure what I’ll do tomorrow." Because there were no jobs, and the people don’t have the money to live, so I decided to come to this country. Sure, it was very, very hard for me to stay alone. And I remember this guy, Paul Gifford, sometimes he took me to play somewhere and he gave me money to send to my family. In '96 I returned to Romania. I returned after almost ten years. I returned to Romania, and this guy, Paul Gifford, who is like my brother, he went with me, he stayed in my house for almost three weeks. And he was very impressed because he met my family; and he helped me a lot until today, with everything that is possible.
NEA: You left the only country you really knew and came here where you didn’t know anybody or you knew very few people. How did you live? How did you support yourself?
Feraru: I was very lucky because when I came here in 1988, I came as a musician—I played with one group, and I met some people and I talked to them, told them that I wanted to remain in this country. And they said, okay, we can support you and let you stay in our house for a couple of times. And I stayed maybe one week. But because I sold some CDs, I had some money in my pocket, and they rented a place for me. I remember, the first time they rented me one small apartment in Highland Park in Detroit, Michigan. And the area was very, very bad; it was very bad. I remember the government sold the house for $200 because the area was so bad. There were guns everywhere. Anyway, I started to play music. Yeah, it was very difficult for me. And finally, this guy, Bill Webster, he built the chromatic dulcimer, like a small little cimbalom. And he asked me, “Nic, do you want to work in my shop?” I said, “Sure, I want to work.” And I started to work in his shop. And he paid me a little money, like five dollars an hour or something; but it helped me a lot. Anyway, this guy was very nice with me. Sometimes people called him and they said, “Bill, can you send Nic to my house to play some music with the cimbalom?” He says sure. "Nic, go take a shower and take my clothes and go over there to play." It was not easy for me, but I was happy.
Finally I [applied for] political asylum. But after one year, in 1989, Romania was a democracy, because Ceausescu was killed. When I went to the immigration, they denied the case. And they say: "You must get a lawyer." When I got the lawyer, he said: "Nic, you can return in Romania now because it is a democracy. No more political asylum." I said no. He said, “Why are you saying no?” “Because I have a problem if I return to Romania.” “What kind of problem?” “I’m Gypsy. If I go now to Romania, I won’t be hired.” It was the truth. My lawyer asked me, “Do you have proof you cannot move to Romania because you will have a problem?” I said, “Yes.” My friend Paul Gifford, I talked with him—he worked for the Flint Library, and he sent me a lot of papers about Gypsy in Romania. They even set fire to a Gypsy’s house in the night. They just threw fire on their house in the middle of the night, with people sleeping inside.
I stayed in Michigan maybe six years. And after this I decided to move to Chicago because most of the musicians there were Romanian. And I talked to my friend and told him I needed some work to support my family. And he got a position for me in a dental factory, and I went to some school in the factory. And I started to have a salary. I had medical insurance; which was very important for my family. The Chicago Tribune came to my house, to interview me, and they asked me, “Why if you are such a big artist, do you work in a factory? I said; first time, first step. I don’t have the job every day to work on my skill. Second, I need the insurance. And third, I want to be sure I can get some money to pay for everything—the rent, lights, everything. Anyway I’ve been very happy because, I repeat again, in this country it’s not important what kind of nationality you are. All people are the same.
NEA: Now when you came here and you were working in the factory, were you also playing music?
Feraru: Yes, I played music in many places. I started to play with a Polish orchestra. I played with a Hungarian orchestra. In Detroit, I played in a restaurant almost two years, in a Hungarian restaurant with Hungarian people. Just me; I was the Gypsy guy. The rest was Gypsy-Hungarian. And I played here in the Green Mill restaurant, a famous one in Chicago. I played at Millennium Park; I remember I played for the Ford Holocaust Museum, when it was opened a couple of years ago, and former President Clinton was there. And I played for when Bob Dole was in the election. I played for Mayor Daley here. I played for many personalities. But also I played for regular people, for weddings; I remember I played for a funeral one time.
NEA: When were you able to bring your family to the United States from Romania?
Feraru: My three boys, they came in ’94; and I have two daughters, and they are married, and they came six months ago. And thank God because the government, America, gave me this opportunity, and they were able to come here.
NEA: Now, you just came back from a long trip to Romania. What about Gypsy music now in Romania? Is it still as vibrant or are the traditions still very much alive there?
Feraru: When I left my country, the Gypsy music was totally different than today. Why? Because we respect the traditions of the Gypsy. But after the revolution, 1989, some people, they started to play in the Turkish style. The rhythm is the same for every song. Just the words are different from song to song. This is very bad. Because in this case we lose our tradition. We lose everything. What is one country without tradition, culture? Nothing.
NEA: And where are Gypsies now in Romania? Is there still a lot of discrimination and repression there?
Feraru: Sure, there’s discrimination; but not like before. Today, some musicians in Romania, like singers, they are very rich. They are very rich because they play this kind of music and the people give a lot of tips. Not in my time. I had money enough to support my family. I was very lucky because I went to different countries to play music, to bring some money or got different things to sell, in that time to make money for my family. But for the people who lived in that time it was very bad.
NEA: Now how did you feel about receiving the NEA National Heritage Award?
Feraru: I’m very, very proud about this. And I told the Chicago Tribune, I feel I am somebody today in this country. Yeah it’s very interesting for me because until now, even the Romanian community, they see me, “Hi Nic, how are you?” And when I got this award, and they saw in the newspaper, everybody talked, “Do you know Nic, he got this?” Everybody, they changed their mentality. They say, “How are you maestro? How are you maestro?” It’s very interesting. But I haven’t changed. I play the same music; I’m the same person. The staff of Romania who came here for the festival, like senators, like congressmen, they thank me; they say, “Oh, congratulations. Thank you so much; because you promote Romania in the world. This is very good.” And yeah, I’m very, very proud.