Michael Cretu, acclaimed double bassist and composer, comes from a 300-year-old family tradition of musicians from Transylvania. He appeared at the Just Festival with a talk about the Roma Holocaust followed by a recital in which he played a series of traditional folk songs, jazz standards and original compositions. We asked him about the performance, the musical heritage in the tradition of his family, and the character of Romani and Eastern folk music.

Can you tell us what prompted you to conceive this performance in its particular format?

I come from a family of musicians and I am proud of this tradition, but at the same time I feel a moral obligation, a duty. To continue the tradition, contribute to the fame of the family and to make this knowledge available to people. To communicate and trasmit what happened in the past. This type of talk and recital was something that my ancestor Petra Cretu also did. His knowledge of the Romani folk music was so vast that musicologists and linguistic specialists collected from him verses of the folk song.

I also wanted to transmit knowledge about the Holocaust. It was a horrific period, where people suffered, they were sent to concentration camps, and a huge number of them died. I think it is important for people to know about what happened in the past, to avoid a similar tragedy in the future.

And also because I have this heritage of Roma musicianship. Nowadays the Roma musicians are well educated, they study in conservatoires, their lifestyle has changed by education. And I think it’s important to show the value of this very long tradition and its origin.

How did you collect the material that you use during the performance?

I did research at the Insitute of Ethnomusicology in Bucharest. I recollected the memories and the stories that were transmitted to me from my father and my grandfather, and researched testimonies in other archives in Bucharest.

How can you describe the importance of music in Romani culture?

Music is something very important in Romani culture. It is a strong tradition, built up on the great talent of the musicians. And it has an important role in everyday life as well. It could be expressed in many ways. Sometimes it is just a simple way of entertaining people, while in other cases it evolves into more elaborate forms of music and brings the musicians success with large audiences.

Can you tell us more about Eastern European music, and how it is related to the West?

Especially in Eastern Europe, the contribution to European culture in terms of music is much more higher than is understood.

The folk culture is much stronger than what it is in Western Europe. There are economical and social aspects. Of course, the West is richer and the rural areas are more developed. Life has changed much faster from the medieval times and the East was far behind the West during this process. But the most important aspect is that the relationship between Romani professional musicians and folk musicians is much stronger than in Western Europe. In the West, classical and pre-classical music developed much quicker.

The involvement of the Catholic Church, and then very wealthy people who subsidise music production pushed music to a different stage, while Eastern Europe was somehow not engaged in this process. And even if much later it started and then continue to be involved, there has always been a gap bridged by folk music production.

So was it a difference in formality that caused music development in the two areas to follow different directions?

Yes. There was not a formal development in Eastern European music. It was an informal way of living and creating music. Most of the musicians became professionals by demand, because they were very appreciated. The nobles and the kings had musicians employed who were chosen between them.

In Eastern Europe, Western music was imported, especially because nobles and kings wanted it, but still folk music remained stronger. It has something to do with the quality and with how good Romani musicians are. When something has a great success in the entertainment then it becomes valuable on a commercial basis.

Then, at a later stage, when classical music reached a very high point, there was a need to find new ways of expression because so much had been done, and the folk music of Eastern Europe became an important source. A lot of contemporary music and late classical music composers were influenced by Romani musicians. And it was recognised all the time. Romanian and Hungarian music, its composers like Bartok, Enescu and Ligeti have a strong connection with folk music. And the connection among the Romani musicians is very strong as well. The influence from folk musicians goes to classical musicians, and some others who were jazz musicians were influenced as well. Some great folk violinists who worked with Enescu are an example of the connection between the two worlds. Some of them are not well known but they fit in this kind of artistic melting pot.

In the recital you play a selection of traditional folk songs, jazz standards and your compositions. What are the reasons behind this choice?

This is a personal thing because the traditional folk songs comes from the folk music knowledge of my father and grandfather who then passed it to me. I chose some jazz standards because I love this music, I learned it from my uncle and it is a testimony of my connection with him. And then my compositions, which have a very strong folk influence, I thought they were important for showing this long tradition.

What do you think about the experience at the Just Festival and the Fringe Festival?

I think it is a great opportunity to be here, people are very open to what I propose, and that makes my experience here at the Just Festival, and further on the Fringe Festival, very valuable. Edinburgh becomes one of the most important places in the world, so just to be part of that it is important because, as I said before, it gives me the possibility to communicate about Roma culture and folk music and give exposure to a period of history that is not very well known.

Read our review of Michael’s performance here