A formation of musicians playing popular music is known as a taraf, with professional musicians known as lăutari. Such groups have been playing for dancing in Romania for at least some hundreds of years. In the past these were small formations with regionally distinguishable sounds and line ups.
The term lăutar is derived from lăută, a lute type of stringed instrument, the musician that plays this is a lăutar. This term may originate from the middle-ages popularity of the lute through European courts. This term has extended to include all musicians of a popular music taraf, and those who sing popular songs with the taraf. In Romania, most musicians playing popular music in tarafuri are now Roms (gypsies), hence Rom musicians are known as lăutari, although historically the term refers to a profession rather than an ethnic background.
The nobility of Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia employed Rom musicians to play in the fashionable styles of the time. Hence, in Transylvania this is based on the central European string ensemble, and in Wallachia and Moldavia there are more eastern/Turkish influences in the instrumentation.
When Roms were given freedom from the landlords (mid-19th century) they moved to the edges of villages and took over playing the village repertoire, but using the musical arrangements of the fashionable music, leading to the Transylvanian string band ensemble, and the southern Romanian nai and țambal. Some of these village music groups are still playing, with a few some being popularised more recently by the ‘world music’ phenomenon. There is a range in musical style and construction between villages, in some villages the musicians have incorporated more complex harmonies, playing in thirds, and have adapted more recent popular melodies, a natural process for popular music. In others the musicians maybe less adaptable or musically adept and the music has a ‘roughness’ in quality. This leads to some older village ‘traditions’ being maintained giving us an insight to the older form of the music, but it would be incorrect to then assume this former music was also played in the same ‘rustic’ style, as the musicians of that time could be expected to be equal in technique to the best of today.
Following the Second World War the lăutari who were playing in the Bucharest city restaurants joined to form larger ensembles. At first these did not have a conductor, the repertoire was that from the restaurants and cafes, and the number of musicians was not planned. The success of these led to the formation of the ‘Folk Orchestra’ with a conductor, new arrangements based on traditional melodies and a distinctive new sound.
The Rom (gypsy) lăutari
The Rom musicians, often known as lăutari, have had a major influence on the dance music of Romania. In towns and villages the superior musicianship of the Rom replaced the local Romanian musicians. After the Second World War the lăutari who used to play in cafes and restaurants organized themselves into orchestras and played a repertoire of the café music in concert halls. This development of popular ensembles gave rise to the distinctive ‘Romanian’ sound heard in many popular recordings.
The Rom lăutari have mastered the dance music for the population of Romanians and Hungarians over much of Romania. On one hand their expertise removed music from the indigenous people, but on the other they provide the source for much of the research on dance and music might otherwise have died out.
In Transylvania the Rom have transferred melodies between the Romanians and Hungarians, and from area to area. The music of the Romanians and Hungarians is similar, and sometimes almost indistinguishable. The dance melody in one area may well be known as the ‘gypsy-dance’ in the next. The Rom in the Balkans states have their own music and dance, which until recently was suppressed by the state recording authorities, but now is available. In Hungary there are many recordings of popular groups who specialise in gypsy songs.