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'A voice as gentle as a caress, but as strong and eternal as the wind...'

Experiencing Gabi Lunca, 'The Silken Gypsy Woman'

By Richard Marcus

When my mother's grandfather came to Canada in the 19th century from Bucharest, Romania (according to family legend he knifed a Cossack during a pogrom and had to leave in a hurry) they chose Quebec because they were fluent in French. Bucharest, along with a couple other cities, considered itself the Paris of the Danube. It was common for educated Romanians to be bilingual, and even favor French over their native tongue as a sign of their cultural refinement.

While this influence waned in the twentieth century, especially after Romania was "protected" from the corrupting influences of the West by the Iron Curtain, French cultural influences could still be found in certain areas. At the same time, while, like everywhere in Eastern Europe, Romania's gypsy population had suffered horrible deprivations in World War II due to being one of the Nazi's targeted inferior races, the influence of that culture on popular music that was performed in clubs in the cities, or community events like weddings in the country was undeniable.

Gabi Lunca, ‘La Carciuma De La Drum’

While the music was undeniably gypsy, with the familiar sounds of the tzimbal, violin, and accordion leading the way, and the language being sung was Romanian, the first time I heard Gabi Lunca sing I was reminded of Edith Piaf and others of the great French chanteuse tradition. Perhaps it's because I wasn't paying any attention to the lyrics, as I don't speak any Romanian, but only listening to the sound of the singer's voice, that I made the connection. Whatever the reason, there was no denying to my ears the connection between the two singers.

I heard of Gabi Lunca only because of the German record label Asphalt Tango that specializes in recordings of Russian and Eastern European music with an emphasis on the music of the Roma or gypsies. Not only has the label been responsible for bringing some of the best in contemporary gypsy music to Western Europe and beyond, but it has produced a series of CDs featuring the music of performers from the Communist era who were largely unknown in the West.

gabiLike the majority of the series the music on Gabi Lunca: Sounds From A Bygone Age, Vol.5 has been culled from the archives of the former Romanian State Radio in Bucharest, and re-mastered for CD. This disc features music from Gabi Lunca's vocal prime, 1956 to 1978. Lunca was considered one of the "grande dames" of the Romanian music world and performed with some of the premier musicians of her time, so what you're hearing on Gabi Lunca: Sounds From A Bygone Age, Vol.5 is representative of the best of the popular music of the years in question.

Gabi was born in 1938, one of 12 children left to violinist Dumitru Lunca to raise by himself when his wife died when Gabi was three. It was music that rescued her from a life of poverty as in the mid-fifties she entered and won a singing competition beating out fifty other entries. With her winner's certificate in hand she presented herself at the headquarters of Romanian State Radio, and was rewarded for her daring with her first recording the same year. While she had a slight hitch in her career in the shape of an early bad marriage, she soon moved full time to Bucharest and never looked back. She retired from public life in 1990, as the constant demands of performing were getting too much for her husband and herself.

Gabi Lunca, ‘Omul bun n-are noroc’

During her heyday she was referred to as "Tziganca de matase," the silken gypsy woman, and listening to her sing you can guess at least one reason for that title. Her smooth, velvety voice caresses lyrics, and she appears almost effortless in her delivery. Even the slight tremor, or strain that one occasionally hears in her voice, is more indicative of being caught up in the passion of the moment rather than an effort to reach a note. According to the extensive liner notes included in the disc, the type of music she sang was meant to lift the weight of sadness from the listener's soul.

They were songs of the quiet yearning that's caused by homesickness, or missing one's mother or sweetheart. In the wrong hands I'm sure this type of material could be deadly; sickeningly sentimental saccharine that would make your teeth hurt just to listen to. Fortunately Gabi's voice has a quality to it that makes her sound so genuine that one can't help but feel the passion she sings with, even though you don't understand a word she says. It was this passion, and the intensity of her delivery that made me think of Edith Piaf and the French chanteuse tradition.

Although Gabi Lunca grew up listening to Romanian radio and singers whose music was predominately of gypsy origins, she was also part of a generation of singers who inherited the legacy of a culture that had been heavily influenced by France. Perhaps it's because of the similarities in the cadences of the two languages, Romanian and French, that I was so forcefully reminded of Piaf when I firs heard Lunca, but I also think it was something deeper. Both women had an almost instinctual understanding of how to communicate emotion to their audience in such a way that no one listening could doubt their sincerity.

Gabi Lunca, ‘Anii mei si tineretea’

It wasn't as if Lunca was imitating the way the Piaf sang, I doubt it was a conscious decision on her part to imitate anybody, it was more a reflection of how the two cultures had historically merged decades earlier. What's truly amazing about Lunca is her ability to seamlessly merge the chanteuse tradition of France with the gypsy music of her personal heritage.

However it came about, what really matters is how Gabi Lunca sounded, and if Gabi Lunca: Sounds From A Bygone Age, Vol. 5 is an accurate representation of her career, she was astounding. The passion in her voice, complemented by the passion and the energy of the accompanying music, were made for each other. A voice as gentle as a caress, but as strong and eternal as the wind is not going to be easily forgotten once you've heard it, and I won't be forgetting Gabi Lunca any time soon.

Posted by Richard Marcus at Leap In the Dark

Gabi Lunca: Sounds From A Bygone Era, Vol. 5 is available at


Gabi Lunca today: 'We stopped when we achieved terrific success, but we did it out of respect for our music,'

Gabi Lunca: A Voice From Romania’s Margins

Born in 1938 in Varbilau, a village in the Prahova valley, motherless since the age of three, Gabi Lunca grew up as one of violinist Dumitru Lunca's 12 children and never forgot her early years on the margins of society. Initially gaining the attention of her fellow Romanians when she was an 18-year-old folk singer, she successfully stylized herself as the Grand Dame of Lautari music. Next to her estate in Bucharest's Tei quarter is a children's home financed by the Pentecostal community. Gabi Lunca had first-hand experience of privation. Though her family was impoverished, the Lunca home did have a radio, and through that medium Gabi was introduced to the songs of her greatest influence, Maria Lataretu, whom she later met in a radio studio on her first trip to Bucharest.

In the mid-‘50s Ms. Lunca took part in one of the many regional amateur musical contests held at the time. Following 49 competitors the young singer was the last of the day’s performers; she appeared onstage wearing a dark skirt and white blouse. Her power and virtuosity generated thunderous applause as well as a winner's certificate. The slim country girl, with her cotton socks full of holes and wearing shoes that were far too big for her, then introduced herself at the Romanian broadcasting corporation in the capital. Shortly after this the 18-year-old was contacted by the renowned orchestra leader Ionel Budisteanu, who wanted to record several songs with Ms. Lunca as soloist.

Gabi Lunca, ‘Cu-o damigeana si-un pahar’

There was a first record, then a few years of quiet in the country while she entered into and extracted herself from an unhappy marriage. Finally she moved to Bucharest; at the age of 26 she married accordion player Ion Onoriu, who hailed from Fantanele, a village near Bucharest. With him she was able to perform regularly in garden cafés, appeared on radio and television (being an attractive woman she appeared more frequently on TV any other Lautari singer) and also played at Romanian and Gypsy private weekend parties--in one evening she could earn more money than a factory worker brought home in a month. She became the favored singer of Romania's brutal Communist ruler Nicolae Ceasescu and his wife Elena.

puceanuDuring her heyday, Ms. Lunca's only serious rival--commercially, aesthetically and for the affections of the general public--was Romica Puceanu,, who was considered to be the grande dame of the "cantece de mahala." Born in Bucharest in 1926, Ms. Puceanu, at age 14, had already begun to sing in local cafés in the Floreasca and Herestrau quarters on the outskirts of Bucharest. "Romica Puceanu had an inexhaustible repertoire of these songs," the accordion player and singer Victor Gore observed. She recorded her first album in 1964 with the Taraful Fratii Gore--Aurel and Victor Gore's band--in Electrecord's Tomis Studio. It was the Gore Brothers who discovered the young lady with the powerful voice in their own family and helped launch her career. They arranged gigs for their cousin at weddings in the quarter where the Gore and Puceanu families lived. There Ms. Puceanu sang melodies with stirring words, in which she described the everyday life, longings and sufferings of the simple folk. Above all however she was a soulful performer of songs from the poor suburbs, which merged Turkish "cifte-telli" rhythms with Romanian melodies and lyrics. In a short time she had risen to be the most popular and best-paid singer and the incarnation of Romanian Lautari music. She died following a serious car accident in 1996 on her way home from a wedding performance.

Romica Puceanu, Gabi Lunca's foremost rival, performs 'Saraiman'

Gabi Lunca herself barely escaped death during an earthquake in March 1977. She should actually have been singing that evening in the local cultural centre in the town of Zimnicea, but because band leader Ion Onoriu found the venue too small, the tour caravan (including the tzimbal player Toni Iordache, among others) turned around and went on to Slatina, Zimnicea was wiped off the map and completely destroyed that evening.

Since the early 1990s, when she converted to Pentecostalism, Ms. Lunca has only sung at the services of the Bucharest Pentecostal community. The wedding business became an exhausting duty for her husband following the revolution. She had no interest in competing with the scantily clad new stars dominating her country's nascent manele music. All of these provided the motives for her withdrawal from the secular music business. "We stopped when we achieved terrific success, but we did it out of respect for our music" is her succinct explanation for stepping out of the public eye.


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