Dobrotesti or Doage, musician Gica Diricel's village, is located in southern Romania, on the wide and fertile plain of the lower Danube, about 150 kilometers from Bucharest. Its traditional way of life seems destroyed; in reality, it is so strong that it is capable of absorbing and integrating all the changes brought by time into its apparently urbanized structure. Most of the houses, sumptuous and of a queer and eclectic architectural style, have two stores, but they are mere "show-off" villas, for their owners go on living in their familiar fânat, i.e. in their small, two-roomed structures which they either inherited from their ancestors or built as annexes on the model of the old ones. Many villagers have become prosperous businessmen who sell and buy anything: garlic, blue jeans, sheepskins, building materials, corn, plum brandy, Swiss chocolate, etc. Yet, in each extended family -- some young couples live in the husband's parental home -- there are at least two persons who trade in agriculture and sheep breeding, the traditional occupations in the region. The villagers from Doage do not seem to attach much value to their own customs any more. However, on Eastern Orthodox All Saints' Day (also known in the area as the Summer Fun Fair and celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost) they come from all sides and get together to observe with utmost exactness a ritual of incredible archaism. At 2 o'clock a.m. all the women go to the cemetery to mourn at the cross of the family grave and to fill the departed in on the latest news, in a loud voice: births, marriages, villagers' departures for work or school elsewhere, successful exam results, etc. At 7 a.m. they go and sit down in the middle of the street and devoutly wash the feet of the passers-by. Finally, toward noon they go home and prepare a lavish feast for all the relatives. Dobrotesti will soon be a town, but mothers get angry if their daughters go to the Sunday dance in the company of boys from another part of the village. At weddings, the bridegroom hires the taraf (ensemble of professional musicians), which comes complete with female vocalist, synthesizer, electric guitar, drum, and amplification equipment, but in the middle of the banquet the lautari (sing. lautar, i.e. professional musician) produce their traditional violin, dulcimer, and double bass and start interpreting the old ballads ordered by the table-mates. About 40 years ago Dobrotesti revolted against collectivization and consequently suffered a heavy toll of people killed, tortured, and imprisoned. After the repression the village calmed down and changed its strategy: to survive decently they took to the black market. Right after the events in December 1989 their business was legalized. Now the village is full of life and action. The musicians, too, must keep pace with the changes demanded by the village's strong-willed and energetic inhabitants.
Gica Diricel, violinist and vocalist, was born about 69 years ago into a poor family of lautari. His father was Gypsy, his mother Romanian. "At seven father had me play the 'cobza' (accompaniment instrument from the lute family). When grandma saw that, she broke it on his head, for in our family there had only been violinists". His mother got his child a violin. "Father had a brother to whom he said, 'You take care of the boy.' /My uncle/ put the violin in my hand and showed me how to play, 'Look, you do this, and this, and that.' He was not theoretical, but practical." From the very beginning his uncle taught him one of the hits of the time. "I learned it in two or three days. I was seven. I could not put the violin under the chin, only on the shoulder, here, for it was a full-size violin? Neither could I sit at the table, for my head was full of what he was showing me? After a month I could play by myself what I heard?"
Before long his father was forced to join the Army and his mother died. "I grew up wretchedly. I worked by the day, and provided for two, three, or four brothers. Father was away in the war? that is, about his unit, making music like all the Gypsy 'lautari'? When I was ten I was working on a farm in the landowners' service?" Discharged, his father apprenticed Gica to another brother, a blacksmith in a nearby village. "It was a mean world then? and I didn't want to stay around and be sworn at, as was the habit in those days" (meaning: because I did not work, though my family was having hard times). One day the master "dipped my hands into the crude oil he lubricated his wagon shafts with" to prevent him playing the violin again. "I burst out crying and went away on foot? I stuck to my violin." "Father would teach me what he himself played, the dances from here, their melodies? After a year I could teach myself the tunes I heard?" At eleven or twelve Gica first accompanied his father to a wedding as an accompanist. Then, "at 13 or 14 I would make music at weddings by myself. Father played at a wedding, I at another. My brother accompanied me with a dulcimer and another boy with a 'cobza'? There weren't female vocalists in those days? There weren't so many clever people then, with radios, tape recorders?" His clients paid him only half the price for grown-up musicians or else in kind. "I often got two sacks of corn as payment, for our family was large and we never had enough." That was after the war, and after the great drought that starved the entire country. In the meantime, his father remarried with a Gypsy woman and his stepmother was always picking quarrels with him and made him work hard.
He served his term in the Army in another end of the country, at Satu Mare. "My profession made me the man of the day in the Army. There was a performing arts group and a brass band. I performed for officers, at New Year's Eve celebrations, as a member of the ensemble of the unit? I made music at the Militia's Ball, at the restaurant, and my wife served refreshments? We married then."
Gica Diricel came back home with an ethnic Hungarian wife. His father and stepmother put up with him for a while, then drove him away. He rented, then built a house in a Romanian district of the village. His marriage has been a failure. They did not have any children. As a childless family is inconceivable, Gica adopted a suckling from the orphanage. The boy's education has also been a failure. Today Gica's adopted son is a do-nothing who has already served several terms in prison for common-law offenses. However, he fathered a child, Gica' grandson, to fill Gica' home -- an illegitimate child whom the grandparents must look after all by themselves.  Gica' wife became discontented and quarrelsome, always finding fault with Gica and, more seriously, with the neighbors. Gica Diricel, an honest and highly regarded man, is quite affected. His endeavors to remain the best musician in the village are now doubled by his efforts to keep up appearances of respectability in all spheres. But he is clearly losing the former battle. His half brother Radu, the son of Gica's hostile stepmother and about 15 years Gica's junior, a man still in the prime of his life, a virtuoso violinist and leader of a strong ensemble which he can rely on, for it is made up only of his family members, carries the day. It's true that Radu does not sing, as was the custom only a generation ago, but his wife and daughter are vocalists. Perhaps he does not know too many old melodies either, but he apparently manages pretty well with newer songs, dances, and light music pieces. He has another advantage too. He knows how to perform, just like the "real" interpreters from the radio and TV, gorgeous concertante folklore pieces that are halloed with the prestige of the mass media broadcasting networks. Gica hates him with all the bitterness of his wretched childhood and with all his pride as former local star. The two brothers do not talk to each other. When a villager wants to hire one of them, he knows he had better not mention the other brother. The insults they exchange are transmitted through relatives and common friends, themselves Gypsy lautari from the same village. (It is interesting to note, though, that some of these musicians cooperate professionally with both brothers, depending on the clients' requirements.) Their most unquenchable anger is caused by the real or alleged deception practiced on the public by the other rival. But lately Gica Diricel's public has been thinning out alarmingly, and he has made desperate attempts to tip the scales in his favor. In summer, for instance, he sets up his amplification equipment in the courtyard at midday, preferably on holidays, turns on the sound to the maximum, and makes music in front of it together with his ten-year-old grandson, who plays the accordion. That is his way of reminding his neighbors of his existence. Yet, this kind of self-advertisement in one's own courtyard is unusual for musicians. Aware of his value, proud, and sorely sensitized by the competition, Gica resorts to that stratagem only with unspeakable suffering. But he has no choice. He must live. Before the revolution, when he was still in full strength, he could manage better. He had accustomed himself to a somewhat better life than that of the Romanians in the village and now he finds it hard to lag behind. Yes, he could very well choose to till the land, but he will not even hear of that. It would humiliate him too much. It would remind him of his wretched childhood. (However, less ambitious lautari do often work as cultivators too.) He must live and he must live well. The more so as, having recently become a bachelor again, he has made up his mind to remarry and his fiancée, a young Gypsy woman, is not easy to satisfy.
Gica Diricel is battling against adversity, but he won't win. He will only manage to live from hand to mouth and to go on being respected. His native village and region are going forward and donning fast the symbols of modernism. Gica knows too few hits of the day and seems unable to learn. His voice and bow have weakened, his accompanists are a bit oldish, his old songs and tunes -- not in great demand anyway -- are no longer so convincing as in the past. Unfortunately, his heroism is tinted with sourness, for he can hardly cope with defeat.
Gica's life is full of events and circumstances which single him out from his rural community. None of them is unusual in itself -- two mixed marriages (first that of his parents, then his own), his childhood with a stepmother, the controversy with his father and brother, his inability to start his marital life like everybody else in the parents' home or in his own, his childless marriage, his adopted son's delinquency and failure, and his fruitless efforts to stay at the top of his profession --, but each of them has been a disadvantage and  their accumulation is pushing him toward marginality. So that Gica has had to fight continually with all his might to obtain and maintain his status of an honorable man in his village. In addition, a Gypsy musician generally finds himself in an ambiguous situation because both his profession and his ethnicity make him a "stranger" to the community, though not as alien as Gica's wife -- who has come from almost 1000 kilometers away, has no relatives in the village, and speaks Romanian with a different accent from that of the locals.
In his life, Gica Diricel has been a stranger for an endless number of times. First, in his family, although his father's relatives surrounded him with love, they have, nevertheless, always considered him half Romanian. Then, in his father's home, he was a stranger to his Gypsy stepmother and to his half brother. A stranger in the remote place of his military service. A stranger to the district in which he rented, then built his house (to this day the inhabitants of Doage lay great value on the integrity of their districts, which were probably distinct villages once). As a lautar and Gypsy -- a stranger to his Hungarian wife. (Perhaps it is not by chance that Gica now wants to marry a Gypsy woman.) A stranger to his adopted son, Romanian and incapable. A stranger to the group of married villagers  because he proved to be a childless man who could not even adopt a nephew of his own blood, as custom requires. Somewhat estranged from the category of decent people because of his withdrawn and cantakerous wife. Estranged from some of the Gypsy lautari, who are avowed supporters of his rival brother. More recently, estranged from part of his potential public because of his old repertoire and archaic interpretation style. But is it not, maybe, these very repertoire and style, which have not been entirely imposed on him by the general musical climate and by the teachers from his far-off childhood, but are the result of a succession of personal options, that reflect his inner aspiration to anchor himself firmly into a conventional social system, a system from which the circumstances of his life have tended to estrange him? Is his musical conservatism not the expression of a much coveted comfort?
Gica's favorite epic song is "Voinicel strain" (Brave Stranger):
A brave stranger   Voinicel strain
Walks in the village at night  Umbla noaptea-n sat
By the dogs barked at?  De câini e latrat?
It is one of the most widespread and popular ballads in the area. Older men order it at wedding banquets, but not all of them do, especially those whose lives have been marked by estrangement. In Romanian, estrangement (înstrainare) means physical, social, or emotional detachment and separation (because of departure, marriage, rejection, dispossession, etc.) from family, nation, generation, sex category, marital obligations, village, sweetheart, land, or household. In short, it is the loss of the peasant's most precious values.