“You’re not going to be able to play tonight!”, the doctor says to a man lying on an ambulance stretcher.
“Yes I can!”, insists the gray-haired man, dressed to the nines, black suit and pink tie. He breathes through an oxygen mask, streams of sweat gushing down his forehead.
The man is Gheorghe Fălcaru, known as Fluierici, from the band Taraf de Haïdouks. He’s been their flute player for 26 years and he’s due to go up on stage, closing the 2016 edition of the Balkanik festival.
Everyone urges him to go to the hospital. A few minutes later, Fluierici rips his blue shirt off, from total rage and despair. He storms out of the ambulance and heads home.
Last summer, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Caliu, his violinist band mate, kept on nagging him to get it operated, but Fluierici was afraid he’ll never play again.
“He wanted to die on stage”.
Gheorghe Fălcaru wasn’t just any old flute player: he invented a particular flute-playing technique, one that he alone would master. Musicians from around the world came to steal his trade. Carlos Pichardo, a Mexican sax player, who spent three weeks at his home in Clejani, attests to the fact that “from a young age, you’re one with the instrument here. Your name is flute.”
Fluierici and his Taraf de Haïdouks band mates won the grand prize at the BBC Awards for World Music, Europe and Middle East category. They filled up concert halls from Japan, and all the way to America. They starred in the motion picture The man who cried, alongside Johnny Depp, and performed for the prince of Monaco. They graced the catwalk at one of Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto’s fashion shows and were featured by The Guardian and the New York Times.
I became Fluierici’s acquaintance back in June, when two American musicians wanted to meet him and asked me to translate. After performing for us under the grape vines in his yard, he told us of his throat cancer. I was looking forward to hearing him perform live on September 11th at the Balkanik festival. But I only made it to his wake three days later. I then set out to understand the life of Gheorghe Fălcaru, the musician who was buried with his flute rested on his chest.
Photo: Jeremy Barnes
Oh, you can cry and you can shout,
One like Gheorghe was the last to sprout
Fluierici was the youngest of the family. He was born in the village of Valea Seacă, Bacău County, on 29th of June 1954, from a family of ursari Roma (bear trainers). There were five siblings, four boys and one girl. The father was working at the mill while the mother was at home, attending to the kids; when the cold weather would set in, she’d go into the woods to gather firewood. All seven of them lived in a one-bedroom house, scraping by and school was absolutely out of the question.
Gheorghe would go grape-picking and herding the neighbours’ livestock. When he turned seven, his father bought a small wooden flute for one of the older brothers, because there were a lot of musicians in the village, playing the trombone, trumpet and sax.
Gheorghe told his father to give the flute to him, but he wouldn’t hear it. So the little boy would steal the flute every day and hit the woods with it. He’d climb the trees and listen to the birds chirp, trying to mimic what he heard. Whenever he returned to the village, he’d go to the old trumpet players and steal a few notes off of them as well. Upon learning of Gheorghe’s flute-playing habits, his dad told him he’ll give him a beating unless he played it right. Another excuse to raise his hands on Gheorghe on top of his drunken tirades.
When Gheorghe was nine, his mother died. Soon after, his father found another woman who convinced him to throw the boy out on the streets. Accompanied by snowfall, with the flute in his hand, wearing peasant’s sandals and penniless, he went to the local rail station and boarded the train to Bucharest. That’s where his older sister, Angela, lived; he hadn’t seen her in many years. All he knew was that she lived near a restaurant called The Fainted Dog.
Later that evening he arrived in the capital. He asked around about The Fainted Dog and got on a tram towards the neighborhood of Rahova. With a growling stomach he finally made it there.
There was a band of lautari (traditional musicians mostly of Roma origin) playing inside. The 4-foot something boy went up to them and told them he can play the flute. They all laughed at him, with his ragged clothes and runny nose. But when they heard him play the Moldavian doinas, silence ensued.
A well dressed, twenty-something woman entered the restaurant. She sat at a table and overheard the patrons talk about the flute-playing Moldavian boy. When Gheorghe took a break, she went up to him and asked where he’s from and who his parents are. “From Valea Seacă. Ion and Maria’s.”
The woman fainted. When she gained her consciousness, she hugged her little brother tightly and took him home. She was Angela, his sister, who moved to Bucharest after she got married.
A few years later, they all moved to Clejani, a musicians’ village, where music was handed down from father to son. One day, Gheorghe walked into the local pub, where musicians gathered weekly to arrange and divide up upcoming gigs among themselves. Not one musician there played any woodwind instrument. The boy pulled out his flute.
“I started weeping when I heard him”, recalls Caliu, his colleague, who was nine at the time and earned his nickname because he always wandered about with his violin and a pony. “He turned Clejani upside down”.
That was when Gheorghe turned into Fluierici.
Let her be, she be old
Let her cry there unconsoled
That’s where he got the hots for a gentle gypsy woman, with long black hair and plump lips, one year his senior. Leana Băsaru graduated eight grades in school; she was a seamstress and came from a family of singing Romas. Her brother and father played the cimbalom.
One day, when she was sewing a wedding dress for a village girl, Fluierici came up to her and asked her to iron a shirt and some pants for him. The girl ironed his pants with one of those steamy machines. She didn’t like him, because he was broke and hung around with a divorced woman who had seven children. But something spurred her on. “I liked him, you know, as a musician, as a man, as civilization.”
Leana was afraid he’ll dump her over her handicapped foot; her left leg was shorter than the right one by a centimeter. When they got married proper, he was 24 and she was 25. Fluierici’s dad also attended the wedding. Gheorghe thanked him for driving him away from Valea Seacă; he was happier in Clejani. Leana dressed him up nicely and showed him how to behave: “I taught him the fork”.
It was her that also taught him to write his signature, look, this is how you do a G and an F: Gheorghe Fălcaru. They were very much in love with each other. Fluierici called her my indian. “We got along very well. He wasn’t stashing money away from me; we used to argue sometimes, but out of jealousy. He’d beat me now and then, curse at me, because he was jealous.”
Nn accordance with the custom, musicians’ wives must wash their husbands’ feet, before and after every time they perform on stage. One day, Gheorghe was away from home all day and came back in the evening, to get ready to play at a wedding. “And while I was prepping to wash his feet, I noticed they’d already been washed”.
– Oh my, who washed your feet?
– C’mon, woman, why you gotta ask me this, are you crazy?
Her mother told her: “Let him be, mind your own business, cause that’s how musicians are.” They sing about this. “A le le le, bluebell flower, / Lookie, my wife starts to wonder / Whether I’m seeing another. / I tell her she’s my one queen mother, / But she ain’t hearing it, rather./ – What kind of a life is that / When I’ve only got one cat?”
Eventually, he’d always return to Leana and the kids.
Now we’ll have to leave the country
So the kids will get the bounty
In 1986, Fluierici and other five musicians from Clejani went to Bucharest, at the Folklore Institute. Speranța Rădulescu, an ethnomusicologist, the manager of the Institute’s music section, had invited them.
A Swiss man named Laurent Aubert, the director of the Musical Archives in Geneva, had come to score a collection of records featuring traditional Romanian music. Speranța Rădulescu issued an open call for five so-called “tarafs” from different areas of the country. “The first one was this taraf from Clejani, which had people I’d known and worked with in ’83. I picked those that I thought were the most lively and, certainly, very good instrumentalists and vocalists.”
The scholar had discovered that in their love songs, the musicians from Clejani would pick a fight. “One delivers a package of lyrics and then hops in another one, delivering another package. It’s like a competition of sorts, of who can deliver the most unheard before lyrics, who can deliver the most fervor, and so on. I thought they’d make a good impression”, said Speranța.
The sextet played the flute, the violin, the cimbalom, the bass and the mouth. “They captured Laurent Aubert on the spot. He developed an instantaneous passion.” In the end, the Swiss told Speranța Rădulescu that he’s waiting for her in Geneva, to see the records’ release, alongside the six musicians from Clejani.
Two years later, on March 3rd 1988, Fluierici, Caliu, Cacurică, Culai, Șaică and Buzatu were at the Bucharest airport, together with Speranța. Speranța Rădulescu says that the Swiss man had dealt with the approvals and visas: “I don’t know how he did it, but over at the Ministry of Culture, there was an uproar; they told him «how can this be, these are gypsies, they lack the experience, they aren’t part of a folklore band, they have no conductor». Bolshevic crap”. “It’s either these guys or no one at all”, the Swiss replied to them.
Their families requested several items from abroad; gold rings, pikinis (bikinis, e.n.), scarves, fishing rods, earrings, and watches. As soon as they got to the airport, they went to a restaurant and ordered brandy. Out of fear that they’ll go hungry aboard the plane, Fluierici also took a few cans of meat with him.
“It’s like the tractor back home doing the land!”, he said upon takeoff. Then he started feeling homesick for his children and asked the stewardess, by sign language, if he can play the flute.
“It was a Swissair flight, full of serious, well-dressed businessmen; everybody stood there in a civil manner, without commotion”, Speranța recalls. Once Fluierici set the tone, Cacurică started singing by mouth. “The stewardesses were charmed instantly. In those times, Romanians were barely getting out of the country; you didn’t expect them to be peasants, and certainly not gypsies, and just as certainly, not musicians. Everything was extravagant, inadequate, but in a way it made them appear naïve, spontaneous and imaginative; people liked them wherever they went.”
In Geneva, at the hotel, “they’d scamper barefoot on the hallways, pull the toilet flushes over and over, damage them, talk loudly, make a racket, argue; the hotel manager would scold me, but still, there was something charming about them”, Speranța recalls.
The musicians were speaking in Romani often. One time, Speranța told them: “«hey, guys, why do you keep speaking in gypsy language? ‘cause I don’t understand a thing.» To which Cacurică replies: «Well how’s that fair, ma’am? You speak French. How about people thinking that my mother took the trouble of teaching me foreign languages when I was a kid for a change?» They had humour… First they would argue and say crap and then they’d say something hauntingly beautiful, because there were artists in their essence, it transcended even in their words.”
Fluierici “was angry all the time, ready to shout, to argue with the others, and he was also the first on the brink of tears, he’d be moved by anything and, in all instances, talking about his kids would cause a deluge of tears”. At the concert, the musicians played with the same ease as they would at a wedding. The Swiss media had huge praises for them, but also noted that the musicians talked to each other backstage, stating their intentions to sell some electronic watches they’d received as gifts.
Upon his return home, Fluierici told Leana he’d been to the otherworldly side. He brought back scarves, coffee and jeans for the kids.
The musicians didn’t even dream about leaving abroad ever again, Caliu recalls.
In his pockets he would reach
And give money to them each
In 1989, two foreigners came to Clejani, Stephane Karo and Michel Winter, accompanied by a translator named Marta. Stephane was a thirty-year-old Belgian, tall, wearing prescription glasses, who’d listened to the album that was released in Geneva and fallen in love with their music. The Belgian told them that he wants to manage them and take them abroad.
The musicians didn’t even know what O.K. meant, but they struck a deal eventually. They named the band The taraf of outlaws (in Romanian: Taraful haiducilor, e.n), and the manager translated that into French: Taraf de Haïdouks. “What were the gypsy musicians of Clejani doing in the olden days? They’d go to the boyars’ houses and sing. They’d see that the boyars had money and they’d steal livestock and gold and give it to the poor. Those were the haidouks”, says Caliu.
Stephane Karo, at that time, had the advantage of being a foreigner, thus obtaining visas with much more ease than Romanians would. “In ’93, I went to the States and met with another manager who already knew about the musicians from Clejani. The news that some extravagant folks are singing something special and doing a fantastic show traveled fast”, says Speranța.
After the concerts abroad, the parties would go on until morning. One time in Sweden, they wanted to sing The lark, and Fluierici was the one who started the tune. “Normally, you’d sing this tune in F Major, but Fluierici took it from an A, which is five tones lower”, Aurel Ioniță, currently the leader of the band Mahala Rai Banda, recalls. “We were all thrown off. We just couldn’t play anymore. And he started laughing: «see? you’re all good for nothing». He was a natural born talent. Wherever he’d lay his hand on a flute, that’s where he’d play it.”
Speranța Rădulescu claims that Fluierici developed an entirely new instrumental technique. “It allowed him to modulate in several tonalities. Ordinary flute players don’t know or don’t possess this technique.”
In the ‘90s, Fluierici would bring home stacks of dollars, quality coffee, and toys. He had three kids: “He offered us a dreamy lifestyle”, says Florin, his youngest son. With the money from the concerts, he bought an apartment in Bucharest and several cars. He’d throw the money around and, when he ran out, he’d get into debt with the gypsy loan sharks. He’d pay back double after the next concert. He never saved a dime.
Fluierici on catwalk at Yohji Yamamoto’s fashion show
My body couldn’t take no more
It was me death was looking for
On the day of the Balkanik festival, Fluierici felt ill as early as morning. He was having difficulty breathing. He sat in the courtyard that was filled with ripe tomatoes and grapes. He laid down in the shade of a pine tree, on a blanket, in front of his house. Leana brought him some kettle coffee and two boiled eggs, but he couldn’t eat them. He received a call in the afternoon from Margareta, the wife of his manager, Stephane Karo, who asked when he will come over for rehearsals. Gheorghe told her he doesn’t feel so good and doesn’t need to rehearse.
The thought of climbing onstage made him get up from under the tree. He took a pill and got ready to leave. Leana ironed a blue shirt for him, shined a pair of black dress shoes with laces, and then got around to plucking his eyebrows. After Fluierici picked a pink tie from the stack, he went to his wife for help with the knot. She raised her index fingers in front of his face and he passed the tie over them. It was one of the things that they always did together. For head gear, he chose a black hat. He wrapped the brown flute in a white towel, and placed it in a suitcase, which he always carried at concerts. In it, he’d bring Leana coffee and chocolate. He said goodbye to his wife and took off with Florin, his youngest, to Bucharest, to play at the Balkanik festival.
Curses for this life of sin
It’s woven with a thread so thin
Gheorghe first complained of throat ache back in 2014, when he returned from a performance in Alexandria. He’d had something cold to drink and believed that was the culprit. After a few days of pain, Florin took him to the hospital. The doctors told him there’s something wrong with his vocal chords and he must be admitted into the hospital for further check-ups. They advised him to quit smoking. Fluierici was so addicted to tobacco, he would smoke three packs of long Kents a day, and whenever he was short on cash, he’d go on selling household stuff, a Nokia phone, chairs.
“How am I supposed to perform if they put me in a hospital?”, Fluierici wondered. He refused to stay there and went home.
In the summer of 2015, he was diagnosed: throat cancer. “They looked down his throat with a camera and told him he has a flesh grown over his vocal chords”, his son recalls. They told him he needs to have surgery, pull his larynx out and replace it with a prosthesis which would render him unable to play.
“Are you crazy in the head? How can I have cancer?”, he shouted at the doctor. He put his jacket on and took off. Shortly after, he started coughing, spitting blood and talk with a raucous voice. He’d always carry little bags of sugar in his pockets, which he’d pop in, to soften his throat.
He could have gotten laser surgery in France, but he had no money put aside and he didn’t manage to procure a loan either. He came back to Romania even weaker, skin and bones. Even though he coughed often and had difficulty breathing, he carried on the string of concerts both at home and abroad.
Oh, God, please send for my boys
On Friday, it’ll be goodbyes
On the night of the festival, Leana learned from the daughter-in-law that Fluierici got sick and couldn’t go onstage.
When he got home, at one in the morning, Leana was awake and waiting for him. “Whenever he’d go and perform, I couldn’t sleep. I’d move the curtain to the side, turn the TV off and sit in bed, waiting for him to be dropped off.”
Fluierici entered the yellow-painted room, adorned with stills from weddings and concerts, with his head held low. He pulled out the 250 euros he’d gotten, even though he hadn’t performed, and shoved it under the TV set. When she saw that he’s upset, Leana didn’t ask him a thing. She undressed him of his pants, socks and shoes, and they both went to sleep.
An hour later, when Gheorghe awoke hungrily, she warmed up a plate of peas with meat, with a slice of bread and cheese on the side, and prepared a chamomile tea for him. Leana massaged his soles and back.
– Oh, Leana, I’ve thinned badly.
– Nevermind, Gheorghe, God will heal you right up.
In the morning, the woman asked him if he wants coffee. Even though that was how every day used to start for them, this time he said no. When Leana wanted to go to the kitchen to cook some pork barrel beans, Fluierici asked that she pick the beans in the room, so she can be in his proximity.
He couldn’t eat the dish; he laid in bed all day. “I gave all of it away to a gypsy”, Leana recalls.
In the afternoon, the musician started crying. “Leana, make sure you trim the grass above me and don’t throw too much soil over me, ‘cause I’m scared”.
He was upset over having worked for so many years and not having put some money aside for the funeral. The whole family gathered next to his bed: Leana, their three children and Jony, their twenty-year-old nephew. They told him to be at ease; they’re going to make a burial vault for him. “You’d better make for a good musician”, he told Jony, who plays the accordion, and kissed his hand.
Later on, when his abdomen stiffened and he was in severe pain, the family called for an ambulance. The doctor gave him a shot for the pain and asked him whether he wants to go to the hospital. “I want to die on my own pillow”, Gheorghe replied.
In the evening, the children and other people in the village sat around a campfire in the yard, so as not to leave him by himself. The musician kept asking what the time was. In the middle of the night, he fired up a cigarette. “That’s it, this is the last one”. He asked the boys for Roger, an accordionist in Taraf de Haïdouks, at nine in the morning. To bring the sound system and sing along with him at the flute. “To play a set one last time”.
At 8:30, the priest came in to receive his confession. Leana left them alone, then walked the priest to the gate and went to the kitchen to eat some salami and bread.
When she got back in the room, Fluierici was by himself. His hand was outstretched and his gaze was reaching to the armchair Leana had sat on earlier. He was no more.
Come on over by my grave
One more time, to hear you wave
On the verandah, there are three martins’ nests. Underneath them, Leana, all tucked up in a black babushka, lays over the coffin:
“Oh myyyy, you’ve left me, my star… My wealth, what’re you gonna bring me from weddings from now on? How am I supposed to get up in the morning and not see you?”
My musician; my boyar; my soulmate; my brother; my husband; my wealth; my star; my leading man.
“Stop crying, he won’t know which roads to take”, an old woman driving flies away with a cherry-tree branch comforts her.
In the courtyard, at the wake, there are loads of people. Caliu plays Indianca on his violin along with other musicians. Whenever Taraf de Haïdouks played this tune in concerts, Gheorghe Fălcaru’s flute was the main instrument.
Later on, other musicians join in. Paul Fantezie and Sandu Vijelie composed lyrics inspired by Fluierici’s life: Now we’ll have to leave the country/ So the kids will get the bounty. The family is dedicating songs to them. “Especially for Fluierici, the king of all musicians from Romania, Florin just gave me two millions (two hundred lei, e.n.)”, says Sandu Vijelie. On his T-shirt it says: pain is temporary, glory is forever.
Leana and Gheorghe had lived together for forty-two years. In the pocket close to his heart, she inserts a yellow rose, and in a little bag she puts a comb, a mirror, and soap. On the right side she slips in his flute, so that he’ll have it on the other side.
Leana is due to turn sixty-three on this day and she’s carrying Gheorghe on his last trip:
The old photos of Fluierici and his family were glued on cardboards with a paste made from flour and water, placed inside wood frames and hung from the walls. Leana cut the photos with small scissors, scratched off the dry paste with her nails and gave to me to scan.
Editing: Lina Vdovîi, Sorina Vasile
Video: Ehsan Ghoreishi
Thanks to: Adi Bulboacă, Speranța Rădulescu, Andrada Lăutaru, Tiberiu – Mihail Cimpoeru, Jeremy Barnes, Heather Trost