top of page
  • Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s Treasures: the Roma Romanians

In her Memoirs, Zoe Cămărăşescu, a Romanian aristocrat whose mother had been a lady-in-waiting at the belle époque Court of King Carol I and Queen Elisabeth, refers repeatedly to the Roma protagonists of her childhood memories. One such man is Vasile the coachman of the boyar Golescu family, “a former slave on their estate who, when the slaves were freed, declared that he didn’t need his freedom and wished to stay on with the Golescus”; Vasile was the family patriarchs’ most trusted domestic servant, whom they were so fond of that, when the man became ill, they sent him to Paris for treatment. [1] Another Roma character in the book is “the wonderful gypsy cellist” Dimitrie Dinicu, who played with George Enescu for the Queen at the Royal Castle at Peleş, and who, “intelligent and civilised”, could take a joke about his skin colour... [2] Yet another passing hero in the Memoirs is Cristache Ciolac, the lăutar* described as “the bard of our epoch”, whom young Prince Carol himself wanted as the main performing musician at his coming-of-age party; “the King granted him that wish and that’s how a group of friends were invited to the usual dinner at Peleş and Ciolac performed. At Peleş, dinner with lăutari!” [3]

* a lăutar is a member of the old gypsy guild clan of musicians

Cămărăşescu’s romantic memories of idyllic countryside settings with loyal ex-slaves who could dispense with freedom, and with gypsy musicians at the royal palace conjure a kind of harmony in the coexistence of Roma and non-Roma Romanians that was to be shattered over the following decades. Gone was the Memoirs author’s good-humoured blend of admiration and condescension towards the Roma in the 1940s, when the Roma Holocaust took place, and in the communist Romania of the 1950s-1980s, when this ethnic minority was subjected to forced assimilation. Gone it is nowadays, when 35% of the non-Roma Romanians would not be comfortable having a Roma neighbour, 64% would not accept a Roma into their family [4], and 48% believe that the Roma are a shame to the country [5].

Regaining balance about this ethnic minority, Europe’s largest and Romania’s second largest, would be such a beneficial act of historical hygiene. We might all be better off shedding mind-narrowing discrimination and victimisation, and fully acknowledging the valuable contribution that the Roma have had in the development of modern-day Romania. In music, for instance, the Romanian Roma have not only fuelled the invaluable immaterial heritage that is the art of the lăutari, but they also inspired great classical music composers like George Enescu. That’s probably not surprising about this “people without a country” that, according to legend, left India at the request of Persian monarch Bahram Gur, who had asked his Indian counterpart to send him 12,000 musicians to enliven the leisure time of his subjects.

According to history, on the other hand, and the evolution of Romani, the language, the ancestors of our Roma apparently left India around the 6th century B.C. [6], settled in Persia (today’s Iran) long before the 10th century A.D. [7] and then, in further migration waves, arrived in Wallachia and Moldavia in the 14th century. The locals here made them slaves, a condition which was first attested in a 1385 document whereby a Wallachian prince donated 40 families of gypsies to the St Anton Monastery at Vodiţa [8]. Five centuries of free work followed, by gypsy slaves toiling as farmers, ironsmiths, fishermen, barbers, cooks, tailors, masons and, of course, domestic servants, to the benefit of probably hundreds of princes and boyar families, and hundreds of monasteries [9] - until 1856, when, thanks to the forward-thinking vision of the paşoptişti, slavery was abolished in the United Principalities of Walachia and Moldavia. Unsurprisingly again, then, another major area where the Roma have contributed immensely in the past decades is social sciences, especially human rights.

So zooming in on the input of Roma Romanians in music, sociology and, as we shall see, acting, let us review the life and work of some Roma Romanian personalities. First, we’ll have a look at violinists Cristache Ciolac himself, Grigoraş Dinicu and Ion Voicu, as well as composer Johnny Răducanu and singers Romica Puceanu and Ştefan Bănică Jr. Secondly, we’ll focus on actors Ştefan Bănică Sr and Alina Şerban. Thirdly, we’ll look into the sociology group started by Nicolae Gheorghe and continued by representatives like Gelu Duminică and Ciprian Necula. Finally, we’ll make the acquaintance of an extraordinary role model, Anina Ciuciu.

Cristache Ciolac was born in Bucharest in 1879, into a family of musicians: his father played the panpipes and

his brothers the violin and guitar, respectively. He started to perform in his father’s taraf (lăutari musical ensemble), then took off on his own, playing his violin at weddings or in public houses, until he put together his own taraf, in 1890. Two years later he was beginning to perform at more important, higher-class events, and in 1894 he went on a musical tour around Belgium, where his taraf got good reviews. Back in Bucharest, he played in various trendy restaurants, and in 1900 he participated in the Romanian Pavilion of the Paris Universal Exhibition and was decorated by French President Émile Loubet. In 1902 he met George Enescu and they started working together to transcribe a number of folk musical pieces; it was Enescu who made sure Ciolac was not sent to the battlefield in 1916, when the war broke out, but stayed behind the lines and performed for the army. In 1918 he suffered paralysis of his right arm and had to give up playing the violin. He died in extreme poverty in 1927, and the money for his burial had to be raised from the public. [10]

Ciolac’s distinctive music interpretation style is said to have inspired Grigoraş Dinicu (1889-1949). The latter came from a family with many famous musicians, including lăutari but also classical music performers like the aforementioned cellist and Conservatoire professor Dimitrie Dinicu. As a child, Grigoraş sang in the local church choir and took his first violin classes with an old lăutar. Between 1902 and 1906 he studied violin and composition at the Conservatoire, and during his graduation concert he was bold enough to play one of his own compositions, “Hora staccato”, which confirmed him as a violin virtuoso. For a while he made a living participating both in classical music events and as the leading musician in a taraf which performed in restaurants. During World War I, Dinicu organised charitable concerts for the wounded, and after the war he launched on an international career touring Monte Carlo, Paris, Vienna and London, where he was promoted as “king of the gypsy players and his ensemble” [11]. Highly successful classical music concerts took place in Bucharest subsequently, as well as participations in the 1937 Paris International Exhibition and 1939 New York World Exhibition. When Dinicu passed away, he had acquired world fame and the admiration of personalities as varied as Marlene Dietrich, Jascha Heifetz and Ion Luca Caragiale.

Another violin virtuoso, Ion Voicu (1923-1997) was also born into a family of musicians and he received his first violin when he was around 5. He is said to have started playing on the spot, trying to perform all the songs and tunes he had heard and picked up. Impressed with his talent, his mother hired a violin teacher, and at 6 the little virtuoso started his violin classes. When he sat, at 14, the admission exam to the Royal Academy of Music, he was admitted directly as a 5th-year undergraduate and consequently finished his studies in just three, instead of the regular seven years. He started performing with the National Radio Orchestra and was soon spotted by George Enescu, who gave him free classes, and Yehudi Menuhin, following a contest in 1946 where he won the first prize. 50 years of tremendously successful career followed, with concerts in Paris, New York, London, Rome, Vienna, Tokyo, Berlin, and co-performers like Menuhin or David Oistrakh. In 1964, Voicu was awarded the title of Artist of the People and he received a Stradivarius violin made in 1702, which he played on up until 1986.

Changing musical styles, jazz musician Johnny Răducanu was born in 1931 at Brăila, into a family of lăutari descent. He started playing the double bass when he was 19, then he went on to playing the piano. He studied music in Iaşi and Cluj, and enrolled at the “Ciprian Porumbescu” Conservatoire in Bucharest, which he graduated in 1956. His LPs include Jazz in My Country, Jazz Made in Romania, Jazz behind the Carpathians, as he was very patriotic: talking about the golden generation of the paşoptişti, who had been eminent students in Paris, he pointed out a tradition of excellence among Romanian students at Sorbonne in the 1930s. He believed young musicians had the duty to go and study abroad, widen their horizon and then come back to Romania to demonstrate their love for the country and their ancestors by changing things for the better. [12]

Back to lăutar music, Romica Puceanu (1927-1996) was a brilliant representative of this musical style. Dubbed “the queen of lăutar singing”, Puceanu was a soloist who debuted in 1934 with his father, a cimbalom player, and then performed with her cousins’ taraf. Between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s she became famous as a pub performer in the posh northern neighbourhoods of Floreasca and Herăstrău, in Bucharest. In 1963 she made her first LP, followed by almost 30 albums, and from the 1970s on she started touring other countries like Israel, the United States, Japan and China. Had the communist regime allowed her proper international exposure, she would have become a Romanian Cesaria Evora or Billie Holiday, they say. Nationally, she was considered the Roma equivalent of famous Romanian singer Maria Tănase. [13]

Switching to rock now, Ştefan Bănică Jr, born in 1967, has also acted in movies and plays, composed music,

moderated, presented and produced TV shows, besides being a very popular rock singer and guitarist. A successful entertainer, Bănică was married to two of Romania’s most famous beauties: model and socialite Mihaela Răducanu, and TV show host and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Andreea Marin. Bănică has been a very prolific musician: he has made 14 albums, has had more than 1,000 concerts country-wide, and seven sold-out consecutive Christmas concerts, which is considered an impressive record. His role as a talent judge on The X Factor show also brought him public acclaim. As for his artistic credo, Bănică believes he is, above all, an actor, and that loving what you do ensures half of the success you’ll have doing that. The wonder of being artistic, Bănică maintains, consists in the emotional exchange actors and musicians have with their audience. [14]

His father, Ştefan Bănică Sr, was more of an actor than a singer, and not nearly as successful as his son, but he was a popular comedian of the “golden generation” of Romanian actors. He was born at Călăraşi in 1933 to a lăutar father. His family had to move to Bucharest, where young Ştefan started singing in the Radio children’s choir and performing in theatre play for schoolchildren. In 1955 he graduated from the Theatre Institute in Bucharest, after having worked as an extra to support himself during his undergraduate years. He was employed by several state theatres in Bucharest and acted in about 20 quite successful movies. His home town named a street after him and had a bust erected to him in the city centre.

New-generation actor Alina Şerban was born in 1986 into a poor Roma family. When she was 8 her family was

evicted, then her mother was sent to prison and the children had to move in with her father’s relatives. She grew up in extreme poverty and the dismal conditions that go with it, until she was a teenager and decided to enrol at the National University of Theatre and Film in Bucharest. She graduated in 2009, after which she participated in the Open Arts program for a year at the Tisch School of the Arts (New York University), and in 2011 she got a scholarship to do her one-year Master’s degree at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. While living there she had a very hard time trying to support herself, as Romanians at the time were not allowed to work in the UK, and she also had to face discrimination. The latter is, in fact, the main theme in Alina’s best known work, Declar pe propria răspundere / I declare at my own risk, a play she wrote based on her childhood and teenage diaries, about accepting one’s Roma identity. Alina believes that performing the play in a variety of formal and informal settings will help its eye-opening message combat stereotypes and reach all sorts of audiences, including disadvantaged Roma who need encouragement, support and positive role models to openly own and make the best of their ethnic identity. [15]

With that, we have entered Roma activism territory, where prominent sociologists contributed their important share to fight negative bias and enhance Roma emancipation. The first such contributor was Nicolae Gheorghe (1946-2013), who was born in Roşiorii de Vede, moved to Bucharest during his childhood and studied philosophy and sociology between 1968 and 1972. After graduation, he worked at the Centre for Sociological Research, and his work enabled him to become familiar with Roma communities from a whole range of areas and backgrounds around Romania. Thus, he learned Romani and in the 1970s he developed the concept of social insertion of the Roma. However, because of his growing association with the Western academia, the communist regime forced him to discontinue his Roma studies; instead, he initiated contact with Radio Free Europe to inform them of the situation of the Roma in the country, which drew the attention of Ceauşescu’s Securitate and made him a subject of surveillance. Nicknamed “the Martin Luther King of the Roma people”, Gheorghe will always be remembered as the man who, after 1989, laid the foundations of the first Roma organisations in Romania, shaped a generation of young Roma intellectuals, and helped reform the international Roma emancipation movement. [16]

One of the Roma intellectuals who gained prominence as a result of Gheorghe’s initiatives is sociologist Gelu Duminică, born in 1977 in Galaţi. Dumincă’s life story is about fighting poverty, racism and violence, but also believing in yourself, finding support in the few people who firmly encourage you to go on (in his case, his mother), and, most importantly, counting on schooling and education to keep learning and making progress. “Many people expect you to fail rather than succeed, especially if you’re Roma,” Duminică recalls. “You have to work twice as much as the others to be taken into consideration,” he states. For a young Roma determined to make it, he says, the difference consists in education. And then to succeed in life you just have to “brace up and keep going”. [17]

Ciprian Necula’s own social message runs along more historical lines. The 1979-born sociologist

studied political science at SNSPA/the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration (2001-2005), then did a public diplomacy postgraduate course in Geneva (2005-2006), and completed his PhD in sociology and anthropology back at SNSPA (2010-2013). He worked as a consultant to the Council of Europe and a National Minority Expert with OSCE. In Romania he founded the Museum of Romani Culture and Romano ButiQ, a social business supporting Romani crafts. Crafts are, in fact, the backbone of Necula’s outlook on the Roma: he explains that the ethnic minority is organised according to their guilds (blacksmiths, florists, copperware/silverware/woodware workers, etc.), and that there is a specific set of values and cultural practices for each guild. Thus, the Roma ethnicity, especially on a European level, is a culturally diverse, non-homogeneous and complex one that seems to put forward a trans-national model of society which might well come in handy when redefining, in future decades, social and state structures within the European Union. [18]

Speaking of which, our last representative of the Roma is Anina Ciuciu, a former candidate for a seat in the French Senate. Born in 1990 in Craiova, the would-be politician has had an extraordinary life story and is, therefore, a fantastic potential role model for young Roma girls who have had to go through the hardship she experienced. When she was seven, her family left Romania for Italy and then France because of the discrimination and unemployment they were facing here. Abroad, Anina had to beg in market squares in order to round up her family’s income, but with the encouragement and support of a French schoolteacher she was able to pursue her education. [19] A Sorbonne alumna and former intern with the London office of Amnesty International, Anina published in 2013, when she also became a French citizen, an autobiographical book titled, Je suis tzigane et je le reste / I Am Roma and Will Remain So. In it, the notion and imagery of “people who are suffering” keeps resurfacing. Anina takes ownership of all the suffering she had to put up with as a Roma: “It happens that I am Roma. I have always asserted that side of my identity… even when people advised me to hide it.” [20] Back in Craiova, her relatives confess: “Anina never gave up . . . I am proud that she studied at Sorbonne and is now running for a seat in the French Senate. That makes all of us here, the Roma in Romania, proud, and we should all follow her example.” [21]

To all their suffering, struggle, determination and grit, a tribute by one of their best: Ion Voicu. With Yehudi Menuhin and, of course, Bach.

Notes & Sources

[1] Cămărăşescu, Zoe. Amintiri. Bucharest: Ponte, 2012. Print. Pages 122-123.

[2] Ibidem. Pages 270 and 275.

[3] Ibidem. Page 314.

[6] Fraser, Angus. Ţiganii. Bucharest: Humanitas, 2017. Print. Page 40. The fact that India is the cradle of the Roma people and culture/s was recently acknowledged by the Indian authorities, which declared the Roma population of the world an integral part of the Indian Diaspora. See, for example, <>

[7] Ibidem, page 43.

[8] Ibidem, pages 68-69.

[9] Ibidem, page 70.

[10] “Cristache Ciolac”. Wikipedia. Accessed 7 Nov 2018. <>

[11] “Grigoraş Dinicu”. Wikipedia. Accessed 7 Nov 2018. <>

[13] “Romica Puceanu”. Wikipedia. Accessed 7 Nov 2018. <>

[20] Ibidem.

Picture credits

253 views0 comments


bottom of page