The Sound of the Impact on the Drum: Moldavian Music

  • Samantha Libby
  • 5 July 2011

It’s nighttime in downtown Chisinau, Moldova. At Jam Live Sound, Zdob şi Zdub has just come on stage. The crowded bar gets to its feet and soon the whole place is grooving to syncopated rhythms. The instruments fill the space with their warm tones and folk harmonies.

It’s not your usual four-step baseline, made popular (or infamous) by European electronica. The rhythms are both modern and traditional, part of a rich musical heritage that dates back hundreds of years to a time in Moldova marked by religious rituals, feudalism and overlapping empires.

True, you wouldn’t be serenaded by the wildly popular rock-laced tunes of Zdob şi Zdub, or even Gyndul Mytsey, while attending a court festival in the 18th century. Instead you’d be more likely to hear a lively brass band of Moldavian folk instruments, belting singers and, of course, the indispensable fiddler. The difference between then and now is quite remarkable, but to a trained ear, they are not so divergent in terms of melody and choice of instruments. The journey between the two styles of music is testament to Moldavian history and the rich influence of the Russian and Ottoman empires.

Strong Musical Roots

Like most folk tunes, Moldavian music is deeply rooted in national traditions. It is characterised by the use of traditional musical instruments such as the nai (also spelled ney), a multi-tubed instrument designed for solo and ensemble performances. To play the nai, a musician must be specially skilled, because the nai emits different sounds depending of the angle of the instrument.

Given the degree of difficulty involved in playing the instrument and the amount of training required, musicians proficient at the nai are deeply honoured by the community. The work of Konstantin Moskovici is widely regarded as the most beautiful rendering of the instrument and a listen to his recordings is all but mandatory for any lover of folk music.

The nai is an instrument unique to Moldova

The nai is an instrument unique to Moldova. It produces a different sound based on the angle at which the musician holds it. A high level of skill is required to master the nai. Photo courtesy of wikimedia/Zserghei

Traditional folk music is also at the heart of modern Moldavian music, which is marked by a mix of Balkan rhythms and a unique tonal system, and evolved from a combination of folk, secular, academic and contemporary schools of music. One privileged place in Moldavian music is held by the Doina (a type of lyrical folk song that emerged during the early feudal period) and the Kolinda (a ceremonial song belonging to Slavic ritual tradition).

Multiple Influences

As Moldova came under the reign of the Ottoman Empire, the style and type of music changed in keeping with the Turkish, Middle Eastern and North African cultures that swept through the Balkans.

Of course, it wasn’t just music that felt the presence of the triad of influences. A stay in any historic Chisinau hotels or a tour of Chisinau reveals just how layered the architecture is and how complex Moldavian cuisine is with its rich blend of eastern flavours. Or just look at a map of Moldova or a map of Chisinau to get a sense of how the geographical location, one that fell into many powerful spheres of influence, was so important.

Moldavian folk dancers

Folk dancing goes hand in hand with its musical counterpart, creating a physical ceremony in which listeners can actively participate. Photo courtesy of Flickr/dannmark2000

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chisinau had become one of the largest cultural centres in the southern Soviet Union. The city was home to some of the period’s best performers including Leopold Auer, I. Hoffmann, A. Siloti, Nezhdanova, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, L. Sobinov and J. Heifetz, and F. Chaliapin.

The Contemporary Fix

Nowadays, instead of court musicians and pastoral songs, young people are getting their folk fix with the likes of internationally famous bands such as Zdob şi Zdub, a name that roughly translates as ‘the sound of impact on the drum’.

In October 2000, Zdob şi Zdub recorded a cover version of ‘Saw Night‘  to pay tribute to Viktor Tsoi’s “Kino”. The song became a hit in the Commonwealth of Independent States, topping the charts for an entire year. The album eventually sold about 1. 5 million copies, a triumph for folk rock in the digital age, and Zdob şi Zdub was dubbed the best live band in Russia (according to Fuzz magazine in 2000). Later, songs like ‘So Lucky’ and ‘Bunica bate doba’ would take Moldavian music to Eurovision and the rest of the world.

Zdob şi Zdub is a folk rock band in Moldova

Every country needs a rock anthem, and thanks to Zdob şi Zdub, Moldova has got one too without having to forsake a rich folk heritage. Photo courtesy of wikimedia/Frédéric de Villamil

Going to a concert of folk music, increasingly classified as traditional music, is becoming one of many ‘musts’ on any traveller’s list. Folk music offers a rare chance to interact with centuries-old practices, carefully passed down from one generation to the next. Folk music is something of a time capsule, moulded over the years alongside shifts in culture and traditions, all while keeping true to a sense of national identity.

For an unforgettable Moldavian experience, get in contact with UNIGLOBE Slavion Travel, the whl.travel local connection and premier travel operator in Moldova, to book unique hotels and tours.

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Samantha Libby

Samantha Libby is a freelance journalist based in Hanoi, Vietnam, where she works for a contemporary art gallery. She is also an artist and the author of numerous short stories, plays and, most recently, a novel. She loves the crazy, the random and the weird, as well as places and people that some would deem 'uncivilized'. She received her BFA in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, in New York City. She likes cake, too.
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cities, Eastern Europe, Europe, festivals & events, fine arts, Moldova, music, whl.travel,

2 Responses to “The Sound of the Impact on the Drum: Moldavian Music”

  1. Maureen says:

    Great article Sam! There is nothing better than chancing upon a local concert when you are traveling, a folk festival in Moldova sounds like a dream…

  2. Chelsea says:

    Wow, great post. I know nothing about music from Moldova, and it was really interesting to learn!

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