Maria Tanase

Lung cancer might have killed this woman at 49 (June 22, 1963) but her legacy in music continues today and is becoming ever more popular. Maria Tănase is one Romanian folk singer with a phenomenal voice.

What is she acclaimed for? Her voice is very beautiful, granted, but she is a woman who dedicated her life to the revitalization of Romanian folk songs. Her repertoire was not entirely composed of songs from Romania though, in fact she explored music from other sources and would create her own versions of what she found. In Istanbul she did exactly this, she is said to have learned songs within a few hours of hearing them from a street performer, after which, given her voice and her style she made them hers. The work that Tănase did in Istanbul is known to have been very successful, it was embraced by those people to whom she performed it.

How did Tănase’s contribution to the music scene affect the Romanian community? Today it is highly unlikely that you will meet a Romanian who does not know Maria Tănase, her impact on the understanding of what heritage the country has is significant. So significant that she is a part of the country’s heritage and her face appears on the national stamps.

Tănase is not easy to research, fame might have taken her New York and Paris but she is known for the music and not for her personality. This seems odd though because recounts of Tănase often describe a stunningly uninhibited approach to life. Her friendship, that may have been sexual (how could I know that? But everyone loves scandal) with Constantine Brancusi, is often commented upon, where upon he is used as a anchor to base claims that she would play chess naked. This is still sensational behaviour for people today.

Tănase is also said to have had sex at the age of 15 or 16 with a doctor (or physicist) at Bucharest Central Hospital, consequent of which she became pregnant and had to have an abortion. This event meant that she was then unable to bear children. As people are often said to be shaped considerably by their sexual experiences in life, this information might be worth sharing.

Jaime Menchen wrote one of the longer articles about Maria Tănase that are available online. In this document he continues his research to include some of the artists influenced by her life and her voice, the list is almost exclusively composed of artists working within the field of music. The wider influence of this artist, particularly into the realms of what is obviously high-brow entertainment is very curious:

The spirit of the singer has been maintained most by artists not directly related to folklore. One example is the British heterodox fiddler Nigel Kennedy, who, in the album “East Meets East” (2003), with the Polish band “Kroke“, includes a song titled “Tribute to Maria Tănase”.

The Bălănescu Quartet devotes an entire album to the artist, explicitly named “Maria T” (2005). This project recovers the original voice of Maria Tănase to be accompanied with new strings arrangement. The band developed a series of concerts that included video and photo projection alongside with the music. For its part, the Romanian singer Sanda Weigl, who developed her career in East Germany and now in United States, performs traditional songs under Maria Tănase’s guidance in her album “Gypsy killer” (2002).

Contemporary Romanian jazz: Mircea Tiberian’s “Lumina” (2003), with the voice of Maria Raducanu, who sometimes approaches the songs to the Fado; and Teodora Enache’s “Rădăcini / Shorashim – Back to my Roots” (2007), an album that achieves a natural mix of jazz and folk.

On a non-musical field, the 2009 Nobel Prize Herta Müller, born in Romania though German speaker, has said about Maria Tănase’s music: “Somebody asked me today what it was that I have learnt from the avant-garde and I answered I learned a lot more from folk songs. When I first heard Maria Tănase she sounded incredible to me, it was for the first time that I really felt what folklore meant. Romanian folk music is connected to existence in a very meaningful way.”

I noted that the above comments link Contemporary Jazz with the artist’s folkloric work. This is just one side of the page, on the other side electronic artists have been taking her voice and the accompanying music forward into popular culture.

Another article online by romania-central.com offers a very short interview. As with all translations, much is probably lost before it is phrased in English.

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