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  • Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s Lady of the Romance: Ioana Radu

Geography can be quite irrelevant when it comes to generational traits. Frank Sinatra was born in 1915 in the USA. Chavela Vargas, in 1919 in Costa Rica. And Ioana Radu in 1917 in Bucharest. Children of the First World War, one might say. Born out of hardship and trouble. Life was not nice and gentle to them. Resilient and independent-minded, they were forced by circumstances to believe in their own star or vanish into insignificance. They lived rough, they loved tough, and they had to work every single bit of their way to the top. Perhaps Sinatra’s best-known song, “My Way”, is emblematic of their strong personality: the generation that lived life willfully to the full.

Ioana Radu was born Eugenia (Jana) Braia into a family of sub-modest means that moved from Bucharest to Craiova, in the historical region of Oltenia (a land of notoriously strong-willed people), when she was an infant. Her father was the owner of a tavern called “La ieftenirea traiului” / “At life’s cheapening’s” (they had a peculiar sense of humour back in those days), and her mother – a seamstress. A master sergeant, the father raised his four children in strict discipline where “beatings were not missing” from the daily schedule, while the mother was doing her best to acquaint her three daughters with the demands of needlework. [1] Instead, Eugenia spent as much time in her father’s tavern as to pick up the art of lăutar music from the nomadic folk musicians performing live there.

Music gradually took hold of the young girl’s life. At the “Elena Cuza” High School in Craiova, her music teacher encouraged her to dive deeper into that art, and a few years later, after a brief marriage with composer Romeo Rădescu (whom she had wed as a teenager out of financial need rather than love) [2], she decided to go for music, and music only, head on: she moved to Bucharest and signed up for an important musical contest run by the Romanian Radio Broadcast Society (RRBS) in 1936. 800 candidates. A three-month long selection process. A jury made up of Opera soloists, violin virtuoso Grigoraş Dinicu, composers Alfred Alessandrescu and Theodor Rogalski. And only two winners. Eugenia was one of them. Her new stage name was to be, following the suggestion of a jury member (George Enescu’s accompanying pianist), Ioana Radu. [3]

Success, however, did not follow instantly. She first had to sing for dinner in restaurants around the city of Ploieşti, while also commuting to Bucharest three times a week to sing for the RRBS. Her agent Gaby Michailescu, who also worked for the star of Romanian non-classical music of all time, i.e. Maria Tănase, advised Ioana to specialise in romances. Now, romance is a lyrical type of song, tender, sentimental and heavily romantic. It’s about heartfelt nostalgia, unrequited love, suffering from love, pride hurt by love. Ioana Radu, with her full, smoky timbre touched by her fervent taste for tobacco (she was a chain smoker), gave it her all: “To me, romance was my reason to be! I loved it, I sang it, I collected it and I spread it.” [4]

She owned responsiblity for her loves: “one by one, I married all the men I ever loved” [5]; and “I’ve been married five times with proper papers. Twice I married the same man. I was never a fan of love without papers.” [6] She owned her adventurous character: “I was Romania’s second motorcyclist.” (The second woman to get a driving license in inter-war Romania.) “I rode all around the country. If it hadn’t been for the music, I would’ve certainly been a driver, ‘cos I really loved these vehicles with killing wheels.” [7] And she even owned her nostalgic sense of failure vis-à-vis the tremendous succes of her brilliant rival, Maria Tănase, whom 2009 Literature Nobel laureate Herta Müller praised for the existential depth of her folk music, and who inspired one of Pink Martini’s 2013 pieces: “I’ve always been ‘at war’ with Maria Tănase. As I child I’d made up my mind to outdo her. But I haven’t even come level with her...” [8]

Even so, she filled numberless romantic hearts with the gift of her unsettling yet sweet contralto voice. “A song must be performed,” she used to insist. “I want to feel the emotion; in the [musicians’] fibres, in their muscles.” [9] Indeed, her singing troubles as it soothes: “your voice ... is clear like the water of a stream”, eminent historian Nicolae Iorga told her – while great George Enescu himself remarked to her that “your voice works wonders, which I desire of my violin.” [10]

And the message? “My heart, why won’t you grow old? / Can’t you see what a fool you are? / You’re always in love!...”

International House Bucharest, through its Romanian Language Department, runs online Romanian courses and cultural integration workshops for foreigners living in Romania or interested in the country’s history, culture, language. For more information, click here. To enrol, contact

Notes & Sources

[5] Prisăcaru, Vl. “La centenarul ‘Reginei romanţelor româneşti’”. BiblioPolis 64.1 (2017): 141-143. <>

[6] See [4].

[7] See [1].

[9] Ibidem.

[10] See 3.

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