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  • UNESCO Collection Week 11 Kosovo and Romania: Looking Outward and Inward

    Week 11 of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music features Festive Music from the Maramureș Region, a previously unreleased album of music from the Romanian countryside, and Islamic Ritual from Kosovo, documenting ceremonies of Kosovo’s Sufi community.


    By Maurice Mengel

    The UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music has been an impressive document of cultural diversity since its beginnings in the 1960s, offering interesting and often unexpected insights into musical traditions that are rarely heard elsewhere. This holds true today when the Internet makes media accessible at the click of the mouse. Even when one looks only at a small region of the world, such as southeast Europe, the UNESCO Collection provides very different images of musical traditions which, taken together, display a mosaic of musical diversity.

    Festive Music from the Maramureș Region
    A case in point is the album Festive Music from the Maramureș Region, recorded in the early 1990s by the ethnomusicologist Speranța Rădulescu and her team from Romania’s National Peasant Museum. The Maramureș region on Romania's northern border with Ukraine is known as a picturesque rural area where peasants still farm using traditional techniques.

    An earlier version of the album circulated on cassettes when I first travelled to Romania in the late 1990s. It provided a view of a changing musical tradition that, at the time, helped me to make sense of the different forms of Romanian folk music. During the Cold War, the Romanian state favored interpretations of Romanian folk music that expressed socialist ideals. This new musical tradition emphasized highly arranged, virtuosic performances, often by large ensembles, as well as recordings that featured a rounded, well-balanced and harmonious sound similar to that of classical music.

    The value of Rădulescu's recordings lies in the fact that she avoids these tropes and simply presents the music made by Ioan Pop (guitar) and his wife Anuța (vocals) accompanied by friends singing, playing the fiddle, and adding drums. At the center of the album are several tracks recorded on site during a private dance party in 1992. Additional tracks showcase songs and dances typically performed at weddings and other festivities.

    Young drummer during a dancing party in the village of Hoteni.

    Young drummer during a dancing party in the village of Hoteni. Photo by Dan Comănescu, September 2001.

    This album was never published in its current form, where Smithsonian Folkways provides twenty-five pages of especially rich and detailed liner notes that include dozens of photos. In the notes, Rădulescu offers historical context, discussing how the music she found in the 1990s differs from Béla Bartók's account of the same region before World War I. Rădulescu also hints at more recent developments. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Ioan Pop and his friends still performed in local, traditional contexts, while today they mostly perform on stages during national and international tours. I find it to be no small irony that two decades of capitalism have brought about what four decades of communism tried so hard to achieve.

    Islamic Ritual from Kosovo
    Islamic Ritual from Kosovo is a very different kind of album, as it offers us a glance into the musical traditions of the Sufi brotherhood and their religious practice. The album is a re-release of a 1974 production and comes with the original liner notes by Bernard Mauguin, who made the recordings in what was then a part of Yugoslavia. Here, the listener has the chance to experience captivating group singing, occasionally accompanied by drums and cymbals. The group documented by the album is the Rufa'i brotherhood, which traces its history back to the 12th century.

    Sufism is a branch of Islamic mysticism that deeply incorporates music into their spiritual traditions. For this brotherhood, singing, accompanied by special breathing techniques, sends the individual on an inward journey where normal consciousness is put to rest while another, superior consciousness is awakened. Even without being able to understand the words or their deeper religious meaning, Mauguin’s liner notes allow the listener to comprehend how communal singing has the power to alter perception.

    Photos: Bernard MAUGUIN

    Photos: Bernard MAUGUIN

    These two albums from the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music are just two examples of the range of musical traditions explored by the series as a whole: one directed outwardly, used while celebrating with the community, and the other directed inwardly, to refine the spiritual self. Both demonstrate the diversity of European identities and the different ways that music functions in traditional cultures.

    Maurice Mengal, M.A.
    Doctoral Candidate, University of Cologne

    UNESCO Collection Week 11 Kosovo and Romania: Looking Outward and Inward | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings