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New Europe

Day Fifty: Chisinau to the Danube

Zdob si Zdub 
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The older generation get it together.
Michael Palin - New EuropeA short, round, bright-eyed lady with a ruddy, weathered face welcomes us in. This is Lidia, known universally as Bunica, Grandma, who stole the show when she banged the drum on the Moldovan entry which took sixth place in Eurovision 2005.

None of which would have happened had not a young singer-songwriter called Roma, in search of inspiration, found himself down here amongst the sandy fields of the Prut valley, to see a man reputed to be a legendary drum-maker.

When he showed Roma his work, he asked Lidia to help him play some of the drums he'd made. The energy and power of this traditional music was to be enormously influential on Roma, who blended the music he'd heard into an ethno-folk-rock mix for his group Zdob si Zdub, for whom Bunica became the mascot.

Today he's come back to repay the debt by playing in her backyard.

In contrast to Bunica's bustling friendliness, Roma, a slim, pale boy, stripped to the waist and wearing a black peaked cap, is polite but preoccupied. As his name implies, he's Gypsy. Some others in his band are Russians. Lidia's husband Tudor helps here and there, trailing a little in his wife's wake. He, like her, is short, stocky and weathered. He wears a black trilby and beams cheerfully at everyone.

A meal is served up at the long table. A wonderfully filling fish soup is followed by duck with noodles, various salads, feta cheese and strong local wine, put away with convivial cries of 'Noroc!'.

After the meal Roma, used to playing big halls all over East Europe, gets his band together amongst the goats and the geese. Their trombone, trumpet, flute, pipes, guitars and drums are joined by Bunica and Tudor, their son, two daughters-in-law and assorted nephews and nieces; a Moldovan von Trapp family with embroidered jackets for the men and floral skirts and white headscarves for the women. Roma seems to draw such inspiration from their presence that he pushes himself into an extraordinary hornpipe dance, accelerating all the time, with lightning footwork that has those neighbours who've come along to watch up and on their feet, and a dog breaking loose from its kennel and racing around the yard dragging a length of unattached chain behind him.

It's a happy last image of a muddled country. As a local put it to me the other night, Moldova is a small, weak nation, twenty-five per cent of whose population has fled abroad. The police are on the make and the legal system is not yet strong enough to fight the rampant corruption. But they're not sly, superficial and duplicitous like the Romanians, they didn't kill people's grandparents like the Russians, and they're not like the Ukrainians 'who talk as if they're drunk all the time'. Maybe not a ringing endorsement of national pride, but a pretty good definition of what it means to be Moldovan today. Romania
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Fifty: Chisinau to the Danube
  • Country/sea: Moldova
  • Place: Văleni
  • Book page no: 129

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