Sunday 9th of August 2020, 19:32 CET
Managing a private Tatar ensemble in Romania
June 28, 2002
Transitions Online

Written by Marius Dragomir
Posted by HW on August 9, 2020

I am walking in the main street in the village Valu lui Traian, 12 kilometers from the Romanian Black Sea Coast town of Constanta. Drivers are racing on the large high-road guarded on each side by the villagers' adobe-made houses. I enter one of the yards where a short, black haired man with a Mongoloid face, greets me. His vigour, jollity and verve are entrancing and bowling me over in the same time.

Cairi Riza, 50, is guiding me on a narrow, cement alley under a rich vine, to his house where you stumble over used TV sets, tape recorders and other electronic devices spread pell-mell all over the place. I am in the place where a graduate of the Faculty of Electronics at the Bucharest-based Institute Unirealives, a man who for 28 years, until 2000, worked as an electronic engineer with the Constanta-based branch of the Romanian company Electronica.

But I am not here to talk about oscillators and diodes. One of the thousands of Tatars living in Romania, Riza is telling me the story of his past ten years during which he has been managing the only private Tatar folklore ensemble in Romania, which brought him some kind of recognition but also plenty of enemies.

"Money and a great deal of 'craziness' are strictly necessary to make a high quality folklore ensemble in Romania," Riza says. "I had saved some money before setting up the ensemble, and I have always had a great deal of 'craziness,' ever since I drew the first breath. I did all this because I love to distinguish the nation I belong to, and I'll fight for its cause until I close my eyes for good. How much is it? Enormous for the pocket of a simple citizen who has to make lots of sacrifices to bear a miserable life in a country heading towards collapse, a country where art and culture are the car's fifth wheel. But for me it's a way to destroy the millions of prejudices about Tatar history. After my ensemble shows, spectators are wondering: 'Who are the Tatars? Where do they come from? What do they want?'"

Jumping into culture

The adventure began in January 1992. "It happened after a show performed by the so-called 'united artistic forces' of the Union of Turks and Tatars in Romania (UDTTMR)," Riza remembers. "These 'forces' made an ass of themselves [with a show full of dilettantism], mangling the culture of both nations. That horrible event actually changed my life. I decided then to within a few days set up my own folklore ensemble without any links to the above-mentioned union, to the local mayor, council or any state structure. With such a completely insubordinate ensemble, totally private, I hoped to bring to light the value and beauty of the forgotten customs and traditions of my sorely tried nation, which has had a destiny and history unfortunately too little known in the world."

In February 1992, in one of the classrooms of a Valu lui Traian-based basic school, 25 young Tatars from Riza's native village, braving the cold, came to a selection rganised by Riza. A folklore group named after the national Tatar dance, Kaytarma, came into being within a few days. Three months of rehearsals in the same cold classroom followed. The children were rehearsing only during weekends. All of them were high-school students between 15 and 18 years old. In the beginning of May, Kaytarma had the first public appearance at the rustic festival organized in the forest nearby Valu lui Traian.

In the next four years of its existence Kaytarma scored a fine record with shows in Bulgaria (1993 and 1994), several Romanian towns such as Tulcea, Bucharest, Constanta, and the Black Sea coast resorts. The group also performed at charity shows for orphanages in Constanta county, giving presents to orphans, all at Riza's expense, he claims. "I was the main financial sponsor of Kaytarma, around 60 per cent of the total expenses, meaning transportation, accommodation, costumes, passports," Riza says. "The remaining 40 per cent was provided mainly by Romanian businesses. Tatar owners were few and sponsoring just sporadically."

But when Kaytarma began to gain a reputation, Riza quit managing the ensemble amidst arguments with the artistic tutors who were swerving from Riza's artistic line, he claims. "I gave Kaytarma up when my requests were not materialising on the stage, and the ensemble's repertory became too motley, with eclectic Balkan influences," Riza says. "This was because the choreographer of the ensemble was a Russian language teacher. She introduced some [Russian dance] kasatchok on the stage. Moreover, there was no concern for professionalism. My artists were performing lamentably. It was a pity for my pains and money. I decided then to set up a new, really private, professional ensemble with a name foredoomed [What does this mean?] for the Tatar people-Efsane [Legend]."

He set up this new folklore group on 4 February, 1996, and the first rehearsal took place in the ballet hall of the Constanta-based Romanian Opera. The artistic teacher and choreographer was Monica Magardici, first ballerina of the Constanta-based Opera.

Truly Tatar

We interrupt our discussion here. It is time to see Efsane's young artists. We get into one of Riza's two old Romanian cars, an Oltcit, and head to Constanta, somewhere in the center of the town. He parks the car behind the revue theater Fantasio. It is the place where he found a hall available on weekends for the ensemble's rehearsals. We go into a large hall, which was not whitewashed [Is this right?] for years. Ten of the 12 young members of the ensemble are already dancing on a shabby, old linoleum floor. This hall itself says more than enough about how culture survives here. Anyway, it is better than in a frozen school classroom where you dance and sing with gloves on. The dancers are moving under Elena Vasile's eyes, ready to catch every small mistake. Vasile is the new choreographer of the group. She took over this job last year. Before that, Maria Baran was in charge with the ensemble's choreography.

I and Riza pick up the thread of the story. "Efsane was meant to do what no member of Tatar family has ever done," he says, proudly pointing at the children dancing. "This means performances at high artistic level to noise Tatar customs and history beyond the seas. To make my dream come true, I needed new artists, new costumes, professional choreographer, professional instrumentation, original repertory, better conditions for professional rehearsals, everything at high exigencies."

If he could not impose his artistic philosophy on the former ensemble, Riza now boasts a 100 per cent Tatar repertory of dances and music, part of it culled by Riza himself during his trips to the places where Tatars live, such as Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Central Asian countries, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Poland. "Both music and dance are inspired from there," Riza says. "I picked all this up in the past 15 years when travelled a lot at my own expense, using my own electronic devices. I found out a tremendous amount of things about our tradition, some of them that I didn't know before. For example, it's interesting to know that in the Tatar dance the boy is not allowed to touch the girl even with his fingertips. Violent, aggressive element- like abrupt moves, is completely inexistent in Tatar dances. However, we are still considered a barbarian, violent and uncivilized people. If people could see how much poetry, gracefulness and tenderness are in Tatar dances, they would change his opinion about us."

Riza met old Tatars in different countries, asked them to record old Tatar songs, went to Tatar weddings in Bulgaria and recorded the songs and dances played during the wedding parties on video tapes, visited Tatar museums in Turkey , where he found models of dresses worn by young Tatars centuries ago.

The girls' costumes are a copies of a Tatar bride dress from 17th century, which can be seen in the private collection owned by a Tatar based in the Russian town Astrahan. The girls wear a greenish shirt, a green dress and on their heads they have a toque with a string of golden-like coins around and a veil long to their knees. The boys' costumes imitate the clothes of the soldiers led by the legendary Mongol khan Genghis-Han. Riza found a model of this costume in the Museum of Tatar Culture in the palace of the Bahcesaray khans situated in Crimea, Ukraine. The boys wear boots, black tight fitting pants, shirts with a small collar, blue tunic and an Astrakhan fur cap.

Among the songs Riza culled in his journeys are "Sinannay," a song of Tatar fishermen living in Balcik, Bulgaria; "Kirim Kiza" [Crimean Girl] a song from Sapancea, Turkey; "Tat Kiza" [Mountain Girl] a song from Server Kakura, a Tatar living in Simferopol, Ukraine; "Kok Kogersin" [The Grey Pigeon] a song from a music teacher living in Ziua, Ukraine; "Karanla Gege" [Bleak Night] from the 90 year old Tatar Ali Osman Bekmambet who lives in Riza's native village Valu lui Traian. All these were analyzed and processed by musicians and choreographers and then introduced in the ensemble's repertory.

Fights behind the scenes

When selecting the future Efsane artists, Riza set high exigencies. First the young men eager to become part of the folklore ensemble had to show artistic bents, have a Mongoloid appearance, knowledge about Islamic culture, speak Tatar, be between the age of eight and 14 and come from a 100 percent Islamic family. Twelve of 50 participants passed the exam, all of them studying in basic schools and high-schools in Constanta. As Kairi puts it: "I believe that the reason why so many youngsters rushed to the selection, making me feel like the most 'targeted' Tatar, is this: Which child is not glad to wear a national Tatar costume, disseminate their centuries-old customs and traditions on big, highly reputed stages in Romania and abroad, on TV screens and radio stations? Now I dare to say that if Tatar culture and history are known in the world, it's also partly due to Efsane."

But culture in Romania is kind of cushy job, Riza claims. Money are flowing to some folklore groups under the state wing. "The ten Turkish or Tatar folklore ensembles acting under the wing of the ethnic Turk and Tatar unions, are financed y the state with exorbitant sums," Riza says. "In 2001 for example Turks apparently got ROL 3.5 billion, and Tatars five billion."

Riza was ready to accept public money several times, but realised in due time that this would mean low-down compromises and a debt that he would never be able to pay without tarnishing his image. For example, Riza says, if you accept money to organize a tour abroad, "sponsors" are subtly telling you that you bring officials' relatives who are eager to travel. That has become a common habit in the country's cultural affairs, Riza says. Last year he had planned a tour in some Central European countries with the financial support of "a so-called impresario." Riza says: "He just wanted to take all his relatives plus chiefs and "people in charge with spare time" to Europe, meaning that beyond the 15 artists I was to take other 30 people who were just to gad about."

Refusing such deals, Riza arouse many people's hatred. "Not only that they didn't help me, but put a spoke in my wheel," Riza says. "I'm talking here about the leaders of the Tatar Union who couldn't see their children or nephews in the ensemble or couldn't take their families on my ensemble's tours. But their biggest envy is that the numerous commissions and committees in charge with culture couldn't manage at least ten percent of the success of a private ensemble which didn't get a single penny from the state budget or other state structures."

Today, 28,500 Turks and 26,500 Tatars live in Romania, most of them in the southeastern Constanta county, according to the Romanian 1991 census. In Valu lui Traian, Riza's native village today live 1600 Tatars and 150 Turks.

"My work surprised many people with pretended grey matter, from my ethnic minority, doctors in Marxism-Leninism, teachers of scientific socialism, activists in [the former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's cultural public feast] Cintarea Romaniei [Singing about Romania]," Kairi says. "These guys can't accept that the days of action ordered from the "center" are gone. It's actually a fight between a pack of tens, even hundreds of Tatar activists and me alone, having on my side the Romanian media and some businesses. In the Ministry of Culture, Tatars are represented by a dubious guy, a former Communist activist who's drastically censoring my work, forbidding my appearance on minority broadcasts on the national TV channels 1 and 2."

The show must go on

However, the show goes on. Riza's main support is spectators' applause and cheers, flowers on the stage, congratulations and interviews in media. "Day by day the number of admirers has been increasing, and has become more numerous than the number of people who don't even greet me in the street," Riza says.

He remembers that one of the biggest satisfactions he experienced was in August 1999, when he managed to organize the first tour to the land of his grand grandparents, the Crimea. On 28 August the ensemble performed on the stage of the National Theater in Simferopol, at the Ukrainian Music Festival, aired live by national Ukrainian television. Among the 1300 spectators was also the leader of Tatars worldwide, Mustafa Gemil Kirim Oglu, deputy in the Kiev Parliament and candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. "When Efsane finished, he came behind the scenes and kissed all the artists saying that we greatly surprised him," Riza says. "But how much work and sacrifices are necessary for such results? Do you know what it means to hire professional choreographers and orchestration, make passports and costumes for all the artists, pay the rent for the rehearsal and show halls, transportation, meal and accommodation when going on tours? And also money for daily allowances and more other unexpected expenses such as bribes given to the customs- and police officers to legally cross Eastern European borders."

The money necessary to finance such an ensemble in one year, including 20 shows and two tours abroad, is minimum EUR 6000, Riza says. "I drew upon all my financial savings and supported half of the total expenses between 1996 and 2000," Riza says. "Since last year I've been paying around 40 percent of the expenses from my own pocket. This money would have been enough to buy two flats in Constanta."

He gets the rest of the funds from Romanian firms such as the Alexandria-based Florama and Tescom, K&S OIL from Bucharest, Dimos, Agrovet, Oil Terminal, Ovidius Tex, Kamsas, Aurora, Negoi all from Constanta, Bia Mary in Mangalia. All these actually kept Efsane alive. "Between 1996 and 2000 only one Tatar, my relative, supported this ensemble financially," Riza says. "I'm talking about the company Dynes based in the Black Sea Coast resort Eforie Nord. And it's also interesting to mention that while other big fish and state institutions don't give a damn about me, a Romanian guy, a simple citizen, Costel Zechiu, delighted with our show, opened his own pockets to help me. This is how you make culture here."

The rehearsal is finished. We go out and where the old, tired Oltcit is waiting in the parking. "I was conscious that I would get poor as a church mouse and ake lots of enemies, but I just had the obsession, to urn Efsane into a jewel," Riza says. "With these wonderful children, I managed more than others did who are organizing tens of symposiums and round-tables where a clique of quill-drivers talk frivolities and play ducks and drakes with billions from the state budget in sprees with fiddlers and belly bottom dances."

On 10 May, the ensemble will organize a deferential show to celebrate Osman Ali Bekmambet, the only Tatar survivor of the Romanian Stalinist prisons, who will be 90 years old. Efsane will hopefully have some guests from Bulgaria, Turkey, Ukraine [Crimea]. If he gets the necessary finance, Riza will go with this show to other Romanian towns. He also considers two tours abroad in the summer, first in Central Europe, the second to the Western part of Crimea, Ukraine, the birth place of the grand grandparents of the Tatars living in Dobrogea [the southeastern part of Romania].
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