on the road: my quest for the horned violin

Posted by on Oct 16, 2010 in music, on the road, pc-romania, veronica | No Comments

Back in my reading-everything-about-Romania phase, I found an article about the horned violin played by Roma musicians. The article mentioned a fall targ (or market) that happens once a year near Cluj where the Roma (primarily Hungarian Roma) come together to sell their wares. While last year I was just getting used to Romania in the fall, I knew that the targ had to be apart of my fall travels this year.

A little background on the violin itself… The horned violin was originally made by a German man named Stroh, but it wasn’t really all that popular. However it found a home in the northwestern part of Romania where it is was and is still used for both traditional Romanian and Hungarian folk music as well as Roma folk music.  The sound isn’t apparently all that pleasing, but it supposedly blends well with the Romanian pan flute. Anyway, I’ve been intrigued with its look, the sound and the construction of this violin.

Cluj is 383km (~238 miles) away from the nearest big train station to us and it took an entire day of riding overly heated trains to get to Cluj.  But once there, we had our reward — we met up with our gypsy targ crew — Melody, Mary Ann, Courtney, and Gretchen. After a dinner out and a night’s sleep, we hit the always-interesting personal train to Negreni.

It was just like I had read.  The train meanders through sleepy hilly towns where there’s almost nothing and then the train stops in a valley and it’s hopping with an enormous market spread out. Everyone hops off the train into the targ.

the targ

Within the first few minutes, we lost Melody. Not to worry, a few hours later, we found her.  The problem turned out to be that with Negreni being so small and the targ so big, the cell phone towers couldn’t handle all the traffic, so couldn’t use our phones to find people.

we found Melody!

We meandered through a flea-market-y section, an antique section… and of course we stopped for some tasty sausages and pulled out some palinka that Gretchen brought along (yes, we are becoming more Romanian).

tasty carnati

There was tons of embroidery and Hungarian handicraft. I picked up a beautiful tablecloth for 30RON ($10), some handspun wool for 5RON (less than $2), and a trivet made of dried corn husk for 12RON ($4). I’m amazed that handiwork is so affordable here.  I asked some of the seamstresses at my organization about it and they said it’s not expensive because everyone knows how to do it.  That makes sense.  But I do worry that a lot of the handicraft traditions that make Romania so Romanian aren’t being passed down to the younger generation.  It makes me wonder about what would happen if these women had the ability/access to connect to something like Etsy.

Romanian woman with her handspun wool.

Lots of handiwork.

David picked up some old Romanian lei and a nice military medal from the Communist era.  Melody and Courtney indulged in traditional Roma skirts and aprons.

Courtney and her skirt!

So we’d been at the targ all day and were contemplating our evening. We’d heard different stories. The article mentioned lots of singing, dancing, and music. A PCV in Cluj had a friend who said there would likely be music in the evening. But a Romanian we ran into said that with the crisis, the targ was more flea market and less culture.  I knew that I couldn’t leave without finding and hearing a horned violin.  So we were all prepared to camp (in the near freezing temperatures) at the targ unless the violin was found and experienced.

We meandered a bit more in the targ — there was a lot to see. Every time I heard music, my brain was trying to break down — is that a violin? is that live or canned? And then I’d scan the crowd. As we were headed back to the campsite to make the final decision about staying the night or going, I heard it! I squealed with delight — I FOUND IT!

The gentleman is a Hungarian Roma from Bihor county (on the border with Hungary). He’s not a violinist, but he makes the violins. He had made three since the last year’s targ.  In all honesty, I think he knew how to play only one tune, but it was uber cool and I caught a video of him playing his signature bit.

[flickr video=5086971260 w=500 h=375]

Out of curiosity, I asked how much the violin cost.  He wanted 700RON (a bit over $200). David and I didn’t have that much on us and it was a bit more than we wanted to spend. So back to the campsite we went. After some chatting, we decided with the impending cold, the negligible chance of music, and our overall exhaustion, that we’d head back to Cluj for the night.  Although props to Jenny and Mihai and Gretchen and Courtney — they camped and then went home on a 4AM train. Much more hardcore than us.

On the way to the train, we passed the violin guy. Melody and Courtney had said that if I wanted the violin they’d spot me the cash.  I had all but decided to give up on it because my practicality kicked in — did I really NEED a horned violin? 700RON is a full month’s living stipend. But my dear friend Melody completely changed my mind by reminding me of the whimsy of it. Of course I needed one. I had researched and traveled a distance and dreamed for months about this little piece of Romania.  Even though it would most likely hang on a wall rather than being played regularly, this violin is ROMANIAN and ME. It’s a memory of a whirlwind weekend with friends who joined me on this crazy quest.  And I reasoned that if I haggled a bit, I would lessen the blow to my pocketbook and still help the Roma economy.

So I chatted with the gentleman again. I only had 400RON, I told him. He thought and said, for you, only 500RON. And I took the deal. And I’ve been pleased as punch ever since.

After throwing some elbows, we hopped on the ever-interesting personal train back to Cluj, had a great dinner with Melody and Mary Ann. David and I spent Sunday exploring Cluj. The weather was beautiful. The only times we’ve been in Cluj have been in the midst of traveling, in the snow when all we’ve really wanted to do is to eat at McDonald’s and have something hot to drink. So we were glad to have the chance to check out Cluj.

It was really sleepy on Sunday.  We caught an array of houses of worship- Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Jewish,with Rooster themes (apparently in honor of Peter’s denial of Christ). . .

St. Michael’s Catholic Cathedral

Orthodox Cathedral

Rooster/Cock Church

We walked and talked and rejuvenated. We stopped for covrigi (Romanian bready pretzels). We stopped to read. We stopped to listen to Orthodox chanting and to watch weddings. In the midst of the busy-ness we find ourselves in at site right now, it was great to take time to stop and take things in when we wanted to.

Monday morning, we were back on a train headed eastward toward reality. . .and work. . .

So all in all, the whirlwind quest for the horned violin was not only a success, but great fun.  Granted the targ was more flea market than festival, more Hungarian than Roma, less music and more Chinese crap…  but I needed the brief whimsy with good friends and I’m grateful for it (and my new violin!).

All our pictures from the targ can be found here.
All our pictures from our exploration of Cluj can be found here.


  1. Karen Gamble
    October 16, 2010

    So I really need to see a pic of you playing the horned violin (which, to be honest, I thought was a cow-horn violin….)

  2. melody ghirardininininini
    October 17, 2010

    i smile…. it was grand wasn’t it? great shots of the skirts…


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