Nicolae Feraru occasionally spouts a dark sense of humor. But you would, too, if you had lived under a communist regime that hated your heritage.
“It’s heavier than a coffin,” he says of his cimbalom, the dulcimerlike instrument that was his only companion during immigration to Chicago in 1993. But at Richmond’s Folk Festival, Feraru will be smiling brightly while his hands play at whirlwind speeds. This is a distinctive feature of his performances: the pure joy of a man who’s free at last.
“When I lived in Romania, the cimbalom was practically illegal,” says the 57-year-old musician. The instrument, essentially a box with strings stretched across it, hardly looks intimidating. As Feraru says, “it is not complicated, though it is very hard to play.” The cimbaloms’s deep association with Gypsy culture explains the real reason for Romania’s de facto ban. The state instituted a hierarchy based on a musician’s background and Gypsy culture was deemed inferior. Feraru defied expectations by earning top rank through state-approved tests, but still recalls facing prejudice. In one instance, his image was edited out of a filmed concert. He says that when the television station’s supervisor returned from vacation, she kept the soundtrack but had a lighter-skinned actor pretend to play Feraru’s piece.
Thus began Feraru’s journey into self-pride. “We don’t have a single Gypsy country, we’re spread all over,” says Feraru, who likens his heritage to the Jewish Diaspora. “I live in America, but I’m still very proud to call myself a Gypsy and to make it an honor.”
Chicago’s Romanian population is known for harboring world-famous figures. University of Chicago professor Mircea Eliade sought to understand the nature of religious symbolism, for instance, and became one of the most influential scholars of the 20th century. Feraru admits that fame does have perks. He enjoyed playing for Barack Obama a few times while the former president was still a senator living in the Windy City. In 2013, he received a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in folk arts.
“Gypsies are very musical, just like African-American communities traditionally are,” Feraru says. His wife and children have now joined him in the United States, where more than 1 million Romany are estimated to live.
Locally, some may be familiar with the Richmanian Ramblers, who pay homage to Romanian folk music and the Bucharest-born Maria Tanase. In 2012, bassist Nate Mathews told Style that “[w]e can’t just throw that word around lightly — it’s almost exploitative to say we’re playing Gypsy music.” This year, Chicago’s Civitas Ensemble collaborated with the Czech Republic’s Gipsy Way Ensemble to highlight the culture’s musical heritage and dispel pop stereotypes.
Feraru says he’s happy to see the spread of Gypsy music, though. He believes the cimbalom is increasingly taken up by musicians, even Americans. He’ll be bringing assorted gear with him to give Richmonders a sense of the instrument’s range. One piece, which weighs about 250 pounds, is called a concert cimbalom. It has legs, and basically looks like a table. He’ll also have a smaller, 80-pound version. He used to own a portable, strap-equipped version that his grandfather played in the trenches during World War I. But the heirloom was either stolen or lost in transit after a night at a motel. “I still cry when I think of losing that one,” he says.
The strap on his grandfather’s cimbalom was useful for fulfilling Gypsy wedding custom, where band members marched from house to house in a village. Music would be played for several days straight. “That’s why my father didn’t want me to be a cimbalom player like him,” Feraru jokes. “It’s so much heavier, compared to the accordion. After three days, my father was almost dead.”
But young Feraru was determined to take lessons from Mitica Marinescu-Ciuciu, whom he affectionately refers to as CiuCiu (pronounced choo-choo.) Ciuciu was considered a virtuoso for playing with people as varied as folk artists such as Maria Tanase and traditional orchestras. Today, Feraru says he enjoys exploring classical and jazz compositions. He has learned the tangible side of his craft, too, and carves his mallets from walnut wood. He also refurbishes cimbaloms, though his efforts don’t generate much compensation. Feraru doesn’t mind — he’s more interested in legacy.
“Whether rich or poor, we all go to the same place,” he says. “I want to leave cimbaloms behind, so that someone can say, ‘Hey, Nick made this.’”
Nicolae Feraru performs on Saturday, Oct. 14, from noon to 12:45 p.m. on the Altria Stage and from 3:15 to 4 p.m. at The CoStar Stage. Feraru performs on Sunday, Oct. 15, from 1 to 1:45 p.m. at the WestRock Foundation Stage.