On Divine (Asphalt Tango Records), Chiţu’s lush alto leads a band that can turn on a dime, powered by driving accordion (the jaw-dropping work of Serbian Rom Dejan Jovanovic), spitfire cimbalom (Valeriu Cascaval’s blazing work on the hammered dulcimer), and a rare sense of timing. Like dancers moving across the floor, the band sways and swings together, reveling in classic songs, while finding catchy, fresh approaches.
Whether tackling sensual love songs, instrumental romps (“Tănănica”), or heart-wrenching doinas (“Cântec de leagăn”), Chiţu and her band breathe bold life into the legacy of Romania’s early 20th-century popular music, without losing their contemporary sensibility or experimental drive.
Born in a small town in northern Romania, Oana Cătălina Chiţu wound up in Berlin, studying jazz and classical voice, but soon found herself drawn back to the old gems of her childhood. Performing the great tango repertoire of the early 20th century — a craze Romania shared with a wide swath of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia — she often heard herself compared to both Edith Piaf and Maria Tănase. She took the compliment, but wanted to go further, not merely imitating Tănase but using her work as a gateway to a lost sound.
During the years between the World Wars, Bucharest was a very cultural and vibrant cosmopolitan city, often compared to Paris,” Chiţu explains. “Apart from the tango, jazz, and café-concert were also very popular, around that period." These diverse musical forms blended with local sounds, as sleek international forms intertwined with local sounds.
The voice and glamorous face of this musical mixing was Tănase, who performed widely in clubs, theaters, and on the airwaves, supported by a crack band of lăutari (Romany/ gypsy musicians). Her work eventually fell into disfavor with the Communist authorities, branded as decadent and ill-suited for a new socialist society, but Romanians never abandoned their beloved, path-finding diva. They flocked to her funeral in 1963, and kept her memory alive.
Though Chiţu’s vocal presence feels utterly polished and cosmopolitan, like Tănase, she grew up hearing Romanian musical traditions all around her. My father had a very nice voice and he used to sing some of these old songs and told me a bit about their history,” she recalls fondly. Following her move west, the singer, though performing Balkan, Romany, and many other bands in the Eastern European melting pot of Berlin, she longed to return to these songs.
The lost sound exemplified by Tănase is no static museum piece on Chiţu and company’s interpretation. She finds plenty of earthy moments along with the urbane grace of these songs They push the envelope, bringing in old-school touches of manouche, hints of cheeky blues (“Lunca, Lunca”), and experimental eerie moments (like the hair-raising “Cine iubeşte şi lasă,” which heaps colorful curses on a faithless lover). At its edgiest, Divine shows that the surest way to find beauty in the past is to reimagine, not reconstruct.
“I feel there are still too many great songs from that era that need to be rediscovered,” Chiţu muses. “The music from that era is so emotionally intense, something that is a bit lacking in today's music - and I want to re-acquaint my audience with those emotions and that intensity.”