Living an extraordinary life doesn’t necessarily lead a musician to create extraordinary music, but Sanda Weigl’s journey through the roiling cauldron of the 20th century has resulted in a gripping, drama-drenched sound steeped in ancient tradition yet bracingly contemporary.
From Iron Curtain rock ‘n’ roll renegade to political prisoner to Downtown darling who brought the music of the Gypsies to New York City’s avant-garde jazz scene, the Bucharest-born Sanda is a singular artist who has gracefully traversed a bloody and treacherous stretch of history. Steeped in the theatrical techniques and music of Bertolt Brecht, she’s a live-wire performer whose evocative vocals reveal the emotional essence of a lyric so vividly one needn’t understand the language to comprehend the message.
Her new album Gypsy In a Tree finds Sanda reinventing the music of her Romanian roots with a brilliant cast of New York-based Japanese musicians, the brothers Stomu and Satoshi Takeishi, on electric bass and percussion, respectively, and Shoko Nagai on accordion, piano and Farfisa organ. In many ways the CD is a follow up to 2002’s acclaimed Gypsy Killer, a collaboration with inventive pianist Anthony Coleman (known for his work with Marc Ribot as well as John Zorn). Rather than ripping the songs out of context, Sanda and her savvy cohorts infuse the music with an international array of influences, as if continuing the Gypsies wanderings into new and unexpected lands. It’s folkloric music for the Internet age, pulsing with the blood and tears of Romanian soil, but wafted along by hints of klezmer, tango, cumbia, jazz and soul.
Coleman contributes several arrangements to Gypsy In a Tree, but the album’s creative fission flows from the process of exploring the traditional songs with her Japanese accompanists, artists who have worked, together and separately, with an imposing array of improvisational masters, including Lila Downs, Don Cherry, Henry Threadgill, Butch Morris, Dave Liebman, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Motian, Myra Melford, Erik Friedlander and Satoko Fujii.
“Satoshi was the musical producer,” says Sanda, who’s lived in downtown Manhattan for the past two decades. “Shoko is an amazing pianist and accordionist, and they’re all such creative musicians. They’re so responsive and intuitive. It was an incredible journey to work with them.”
Sanda learned many of the songs as a child on the streets of Bucharest, but she gleaned others on a 2004 trip to the Transylvania countryside where she gathered a fresh batch of traditional songs. Singing in Romanian, she interprets the darkly humorous, often fatalistic lyrics with passionate intensity. On “The Gendarme,” a young girl calls down the heavens on an unhelpful cavalryman: “Oh Lord, dear Lord, make the rains so heavy/That all the land is flooded/The horse stumbles in the mud/And the roads are no more.” The songs express the kind of longing, passion, and bone-deep sense of resignation often found in the blues, and like the blues, the celebratory public act of performing the music works as a salve against oppression and the vicissitudes of fate.
The parallel between Gypsies (or Roma as they refer to themselves) and African-Americans is not a stretch. The album’s title refers to the untenable position of the Gypsies in Romanian society. Nomads who often earned money as musicians, Gypsies were treated poorly and when hired to play for fancy events, they were forced to stay out of sight, sometimes by perching in trees.
Sanda grew up hearing and loving Maria Tanase, a revered Romanian folkloric singer who recorded hundreds of Gypsy songs and brought the music from the streets into theaters and concert halls. But Sanda also absorbed Roma music directly from the source, as her family’s house faced a police station where Gypsies were often held.
“They always brought the Gypsies to the police, and the whole family came along and would camp in front of the station waiting for them to come out, sometimes for days,” Sanda recalls. “They would sing and dance and as a child I really loved this music. All around the city you would hear Gypsies playing, in restaurants and the street.”
Sanda's family was forced into exile in the early 1960s, due to persecution by the harsh communist regime in Romania. They settled in East Berlin, joining her aunt Helene Weigel. Bertolt Brecht's widow and director of the Berliner Ensemble, Weigel immersed her niece in the innovative musical and theatrical world of Brecht and Weill. Sanda put her training to use a few years later when she joined the popular rock band Team 4 (lead by future East German Deputy Minister of Culture Hartmut Koenig). While she tried to find an audience for the Gypsy music she loved, Romanian songs had no cache in East Germany, particularly among young people who were looking to the West and rock 'n' roll.
Her insistence at sharing her passion for Roma music gained traction when the 17-year-old Sanda won a gold medal at Dresden’s International Song Festival with a riveting performance of the Gypsy song “Recruti.” But her career in East Germany was cut short when East Bloc tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to put an end to the liberalizing Prague Spring. Joining an underground student group to protest the Prague occupation and the government’s repressive rule, she was arrested and sentenced to two and a half years in prison (though international pressure led the government to replace prison time with hard labor).
Barred from performing, Sanda once again found herself forced to leave her home when East Germany expelled her as an enemy of the state. Landing in West Berlin, she reinvented herself at the Schiller Theater, where she worked with a glittering cast of directors and performers, including the celebrated playwright/actor Klaus Pohl (whom she married) and Robert Wilson. It was through Wilson and Tom Waits’ “The Black Rider” that Sanda returned to her first love, as she recruited the production’s musicians for her band and returned to singing Romanian Gypsy songs. With Wilson’s support, Sanda and Pohl ended up moving to New York City in the early 1990s, another relocation that took her by surprise.
She may not have aspired to Gotham, but she arrived at a propitious moment, as many Downtown musicians were exploring Eastern European musical styles. Before long she connected with pianist/composer Anthony Coleman, who opened the door to a menagerie of brilliantly iconoclastic players eager to explore her repertoire of Gypsy music, including guitarist Marc Ribot, cymbalom (hammered dulcimer) master Alex Fedoriouk, trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, bassist Brad Jones, accordionist Ted Reichman, percussionist Roberto Rodriguez, and reed expert Doug Wieselman (who’s a guest on her new album playing clarinet and guitar next to Ben Stapp on tuba).
Sanda has also explored the expressionist cabaret music of Weimar Berlin, particularly Kurt Weill and the underappreciated Mischa Spoliansky. Whatever her repertoire, her music has moved audiences around the world, including a heralded performance of her Gypsy and cabaret songbooks at the Pina Bausch Festival in Wuppertal, Germany. She has played sold-out theaters and major events such as the Forum International in Monterrey, Mexico, the Ringling International Arts Festival (curated by the Baryshnikov Arts Center), the Jewish Music Festival in Krakow, Poland, and the 2009 Nobel Prize Celebration In Stockholm, Sweden, where she performed at the request of Romanian-born Nobel Prize Winner for Literature Herta Mueller (with whom Sanda recently toured Germany, singing Gypsy songs after Mueller’s readings).
It’s in New York City, however, that Sanda has truly found herself. She has met a steady stream of musicians eager to throw themselves into her music. And she’s encountered numerous fellow émigrés who took their own circuitous journeys to New York. She didn’t realize just how many until a former Bucharest grade school classmate tracked her down. From her long-lost best friend, Sanda discovered that from her class of about 20 people, 15 of them live in New York. They're part of the region’s large Romanian community that has embraced Sanda and her music. The music is also supported by the Romanian Culture Institute NY (RCNY), which has helped to fund the recording and touring.
While the collaboration with Japanese musicians on Gypsy In a Tree might seem unlikely, it’s a perfect reflection of the way New York’s melting pot can distill an artist’s essential identity. Twice disposed, Sanda can’t go home again, but her music is thriving in the transplanted soil.
“I would say that I found my roots in New York,” Sanda says. “When I go to Romania, for them I’m a stranger. It’s strange but I feel much more rooted and much more at home than when I’m in my home country. In New York, I’m more in Romania than in Romania.”