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Sample Track 1:
"Hora Lui Sile" from Sounds from a Bygone Age, Vol. 1
Sample Track 2:
"Briu Din Oltenita" from Sounds from a Bygone Age, Vol. 1
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Sounds from a Bygone Age, Vol. 1
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Ion Petre Stoican, Sounds from a Bygone Age, Vol. 1 (Asphalt Tango) Songs from a Bygone Age: How Turning in a Spy in Romania Helped a Gypsy Violinist Reach his Dream

This is the miraculous story of a rural musician who turned in a spy in exchange for a record deal, the chance of a lifetime. The musician’s name was Ion Petre Stoican, and the end result—the only LP he ever made—is being released on CD for the first time under the title Songs from a Bygone Age, Volume 1 by Asphalt-Tango Records.  

“This story took place before 1965,” explains Costel Vasilescu, who played trumpet on Stoican’s album. “One day Stoican noticed a man who seemed to him to be behaving suspiciously. This stranger turned out to be a spy working for a foreign secret service agency. Stoican grabbed him and took him to the nearest police station. The secret police then asked what he would like as a reward. ‘Should we give you a house?’ ‘I don’t need a house,’ Stoican replied, ‘I want to make a record.’”

In this bizarre stroke of luck, Stoican gathered the most important Gypsy musicians from the Bucharest Lautari scene—a difficult task for an interloper—to create, even for a moment, an all star band with the tzimbal god Toni Iordache, accordion dervish Ionica Minune, and Costel Vasilescu on the trumpet, creating one of the most egalitarian records of the time.  

Most of the pieces played came from Stoican’s rural birthplace Oltenita and Constanta, the larger port town where he had settled because of the difficulty of getting work in the capital. “The claims to jobs in music in Bucharest have been bitterly defended for hundreds of years by the Lautari musicians,” explains Henry Ernst, director of Asphalt-Tango Records. “Even today there is almost no chance for an outsider to enter the business.” For hundreds of years, the Lautari have been highly sought after musicians and entertainers for weddings and other events throughout the Balkans, and at one time were known for their magic tricks and bear taming.  

“The LP of Stoican was the first record I bought in Romania in 1986,” recalls Ernst. “During all my endless travels in Romania, a tape of the record was my accompanist. Until my appearance, the master of this LP was at the state-run Electrecord label stored in their basement.”  

Recovered from the archives and preserved in the original analog sound recorded in the 1970s, the repertoire is primarily made up of fast rhythmic dances such as the circle-dance Hora, the high speed couples dances Sirba and Briu, and the traditional Geamparale, which no wedding could do without.  

“Usually records in Romania are made by an important soloist or singer which has a backing orchestra,” explains Ernst. “The only important person is the soloist in order to show his technical expertise; the soloist is in the center of the record. On this record all members of the band are important, the aura of the record is relaxed, yet ambitious. I can hear that Stoican knew very well that he had only this one chance in his life to make this record.”  

Stoican wanted to play with the most adventurous musicians in Romania, as the record was to be his breakthrough. He wasn’t a virtuoso violinist of the stature of Aurel Gore, but he was ambitious. “He came to me and asked me if I could help him to realize his vision,” trumpeter Costel Vasilescu reports. Vasilescu, who is a great diplomat and judge of human nature, at first said he would “see what can be done.” He accompanied Stoican to the number one tzimbal player in Romania, Toni Iordache, who held court in the Boulevard restaurant and waited for engagements while drinking Turkish coffee. Iordache couldn’t say yes straightaway, because he was an international star, and Stoican in his eyes was a second-class musician from the country, Vasilescu explains. But Vasilescu didn’t let up, promised rehearsals, and at the end of the day “Toni finally agreed, because Stoican had this permission from on high, and who could refuse that... and on top of that Electrecord had to do what Stoican wanted. This had never happened before! And so a Lautari orchestra met in Tomis Studio at Electrecord, which unfortunately never came together again to record.  

“Our names were not mentioned, but Stoican still managed to get our photo on the album,” recalls Vasilescu, whose bright trumpet tone made him a legend throughout Romania and who was the first to establish the trumpet in Lautari music by using a mute to not overpower the other players. The names of the musicians are rarely found on the records released during the Ceausescu period. Vasilescu is not even mentioned on recordings made by Romania’s famous Gypsy Queens Gabi Lunca or Romica Puceanu—who regularly called him into the studio at that time. The term “People’s Orchestra” is used to describe the musicians on Ion Petre Stoican’s only LP released in 1977. Vasilescu lives in a town house that was luckily not torn down in the demolition fever of the 1980s. The heavy furniture, dark silk, and crystal chandeliers in the living room are less a status symbol than a sign of the times when he played at four weddings a week.  

Stoican cultivated the traditional style he inherited from his father. And he sang falsetto, which was en vogue in Bucharest at the time, and which the singer Dona Dumitru Siminica had made so famous that he appeared in a Bregovic soundtrack at the beginning of the nineties. Toni Iordache, who is not in the center of the group photograph for nothing, arranged most of the tracks and plays Lautari music with the attitude and freedom of a jazz musician. Iordache is the only musician besides Stoican to be mentioned by name on the album: his condition for turning up to the recordings.  

Fourteen musicians made Stoican’s studio band far bigger than a normal taraf, which normally played at a wedding with five or six musicians. When recording, the violinist kept in touch with the spirit of the time, which in the seventies and eighties only promoted People’s Orchestras pushing the rougher but more authentic sound of the tarafs out to the suburbs. However for Ion Petre Stoican his first and last LP established him in the bitterly defended Bucharest wedding market. The man from the province had fulfilled his dream and played until the end of the eighties at innumerable weddings. Costel Vasilescu regrets, “I sadly could not say goodbye to Stoican, because he died shortly after the revolution while we were playing a few concerts in Vienna. But all of our collaborations from then are on this CD and they live on.”—Adapted from Grit Friedrich