Burnaby violin virtuoso Lache Cercel has distinguished himself as a global pioneer in Roma jazz.
It all began when the Bucharest-born musician was about 12 years old, dreaming up improvisational pieces in his head. However, he didn’t know back then what he was imagining could be called jazz. He was unfamiliar with this word because he was living behind the Iron Curtain.
“We didn’t have access to the tapes,” Cercel tells Pancouver over Zoom.
However, when he was 15 years old, Cercel was visiting Romania’s Black Sea area. And he was astonished to hear French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli on an ultra-short-wave radio.
The teenager had an epiphany. He suddenly realized that there actually was a musical genre beyond the classical, classical café, and Roma folk music that he was learning in Romania.
It also became immediately clear that he had imagined something very real.
“I was so happy in my heart,” Cercel recalls. “I said ‘it exists.’ It’s true. I’m not wrong. There is something else.”
Cercel shares this story in advance of his Sunday (March 19) concert with his Roma Swing Ensemble at Pyatt Hall in downtown Vancouver. It’s one of three shows in the Jaz’N’theViolin Concert Series, curated by jazz violinist and music historian Kit Eakle.
After hearing Grappelli for the first time, Cercel was eager to listen to more of this master of the violin. But his records weren’t available in Romania. So Cercel asked his cousin, then working at a Romanian airport, to encourage a pilot to find Grappelli’s music on one of his journeys to the West.
“They brought me a tape,” the musician recalls. “I used to study with that tape over and over. I made duplicates and I learned all the improvisations, thinking they were songs.”
Cercel reached musical pinnacle in Romania
He became hooked on swing as he rose to prominence as a classical musician in Bucharest. In 1986, the Romanian government conferred on Cercel an “Artist of the People” citation in recognition of his brilliance.
Cercel chats about his life with the same enthusiasm that he exhibits on stage. And what a life it’s been—marked by interrogations by Romanian officials, immigration to Canada, and performances at international festivals.
To fully appreciate his journey, it’s essential to understand the roots of the Roma people, as well as their connection to different music.
The Roma are a widely dispersed Indo-Aryan ethnic group. Their roots go back to North India, primarily Rajasthan.
Well before the British slave trade brought Africans to the Caribbean and North America, Roma were considered property in the European principalities of Wallachia and Modovia.
Back as the 14th century, the Crown, Orthodox church, and upper-class landowners treated the darker-skinned Roma people as slaves. And Roma remained enslaved in this part of the world until the mid 1850s.
In 1862, Wallachia and Moldovia united to become the Romanian United Principalities. Therefore, a history of oppression is as much a part of Cercel’s heritage as it is for African Americans.
“I find, myself, similarities between the Black people and the Roma people, who were in the same slavery,” Cercel says. “Maybe we were sold to Africa, too, from Rajasthan.”
He says this because the Roma people were also present across North Africa.
Violin is part of American Black culture
Through the concert series, Eakle hopes to raise awareness about the violin’s deep roots in African-American life and its connection to jazz music.
“There are records back to the 1600s of there being Black fiddle players,” Eakle says in the same Zoom call.
In fact, Eakle notes that the violin was very much an African instrument. He adds that this may be why enslaved Black people picked it up so quickly in the U.S. South.
“Probably, a major privileged position on the plantation was to be the fiddle player and to play for dances,” he states.
Eakle adds that during the emergence of blues music, many African-American fiddlers played in the Mississippi Delta area. For example, he says, Muddy Waters played his first gig with fiddle player Henry “Son” Sims.
Because the Roma people also have a rich history with the violin and were also enslaved, Eakle included Lache Cercel and his Roma Swing Ensemble in the series.
There’s another thing that Roma and African Americans have in common. Some have demanded reparations to Roma people as compensation for slavery they endured on Romanian lands. Also in North America, many have called for reparations for Black Americans.
Cercel has varied musical lineage
One of Cercel’s grandfathers was a talented violinist living in France before moving to Romania prior to the Second World War.
“After the Communists took over, the government decided to make him a teacher,” he says.
One of his grandfather’s students was the son of the culture minister. Another student was his father, which is how his dad met his mother.
“I grew up in this family where I have two sides of music—classical, from my grandpa, who was the one who put the violin in my hands when I was six,” Cercel reveals. “Then, my father trained me to also have knowledge in folk and Roma music.”
Cercel has woven these musical strands together with his love of improvisation and Grappelli to forge a new path in Roma jazz.
This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise because the Roma people have been shaping musical traditions wherever they went.
As far back as the 11th century, they were part of troubadour ensembles. They spread music around Europe after music notation was invented by Guido d’Arrezo. Even though the Roma were considered to be slaves, Cercel says that the emperor in Rome allowed them to travel because there weren’t enough of them to influence other people.
Yet despite facing such intense discrimination, they still had a considerable impact. Composers such as Franz Liszt, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz-Josef Haydn, and Franz Schubert are believed to have incorporated Romani influences into their compositions. And Roma musicians played a major role in the development of flamenco in 19th-century Andalusia in southern Spain.
Interrogated by the Securitate
Cercel points out that the Roma also influenced the development of classical café music in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Central Europe. And it was related to the Ottomans’ love of coffee.
He says that after the Ottomans were expelled from Vienna in 1683, they left tremendous amounts of this beverage. That created a conundrum for café owners and the new rulers.
“They said, ‘What are you going to do with this coffee? Please do not ask us to listen to classical music because it’s too formal and people aren’t wanting to dress up and get prepared,’ ” Cercel says.
He adds that they also didn’t want folk music in the cafés because it was too lively—and the women, in particular, weren’t interested in that. Cercel maintains that this led to the growth of salon music, then popular in the Netherlands and England, which could be enjoyed while eating a light dinner.
“The name became classical café concert,” Cercel says. “It was interpreted in the classical manner. Czardas, which everybody knows, is part of that music.”
He goes on to say that Johannes Brahms’s Hungarian Dance compositions and Boulangère music were also part of that tradition. Cercel grew up with it, as well as learning about French opera composer George Bizet, French music theorist Anton Reicha, and folkloric Roma music.
Cercel’s departure from Romania came with considerable discomfort. He recalls being interrogated intensely by Romanian government’s Securitate before coming to Canada in a musical exchange program in 1987 and settling in Victoria. He decided not to return and as a new immigrant, he performed with Original Balkan Jam.
Two years later, the Iron Curtain fell and the dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, was overthrown.
In 2019, Lache Cercel and the Roma Swing Ensemble performed with accordionist Bob Kozak.
Roma Swing Ensemble blends jazz with classical
To this day, Cercel describes himself as “apolitical”. He points out that the word “Rom” actually means “human”, but his people were often held in lower esteem. He believes that this can affect how people think.
While he appreciates the love that he’s felt from friends in Canada and cherishes his freedom, there is still a residue of fear.
“That’s why I don’t touch computers,” Cercel says. “I don’t write too much because in my interrogation in Romania, they always told you to write it down.”
In 1997, he met jazz guitarist and viola player Don Ogilvie. Together, they formed the Roma Swing Ensemble, which blends jazz with classical, Roma folk songs, and other world music. In 2007, the band toured China.
Over the years, they’ve performed with guitarist Stephen Nikleva, bassists Sam Soichet and Kyle Hagen, and drummer Paul Townsend, along with vocalists Jennifer Layne, Merrier Ben Amor, and Laura Crema.
Their musical influences include 20th-century Romani-Belgian jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and Romani-Romanian violin virtuoso and composer Grigoraș Dinicu.
Cercel says that his upcoming concert will reflect the Roma people’s contributions to world music. To him, that’s a metaphor for how we should be looking at society as a whole.
“Our wish is to understand how we are all one nation—and to bring peace and harmony to the world by seeing this variety,” Cercel says.
For more information about the Jaz’N’theViolin Concert Series, visit MusicKit.com. Tickets are available here for the March 19 show at Pyatt Hall. Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.