Zaraza


Bucureştiul interbelic este locul unde s-a întâmplat totul, pre-war Bucharest was the place where everything happened, announces the phrase by Ioana Pârvulescu that has became a proverb from her Întoarcere în Bucureştiul interbelic, “Return to pre-war Bucharest” (2002), a pioneering work of the recent Bucharest revival.

Pre-war Bucharest was micul Paris, a small Paris, the capital of a suddenly rounded out country promising unlimited chances, with an elit educated in France and with palaces built on French model, with clean streets and tramways, cafés and places of entertainment where the greatest stars, Jean Moscopol, Cristian Vasile, Titi Botez, Dorel Livianu, Maria Tanase, Zavaidoc, Petre Alexandru sang the most fashionable and most characteristic genre of contemporary Central Europe, the one expressing both the desperate will to live and the tragic atmosphere of the age: the tango.

The Oteleseanu House, once the place of the most celebrated balls and receptions. Its café was the center of the bohemian life of Bucharest. Now its place is occupied by the central post office.

After the war all that came to an end. As Budapest was cleared of its cafés by the new regime, so was Bucharest cleared of its places of entertainment. Jean Moscopol became a concierge in New York, Cristian Vasile died in indigence in Brăila. Bucharest sank into poverty and was denuded, so that its modern inhabitants look with incredulity at the old photos. And then the megalomaniac building activity of Ceauşescu wiped off a great part of the old city forever. The extent of this destruction is well demonstrated in the recent post of Dumneazu (it looks like in this month we keep writing about the same topics). When walking about in the Bucharest of the ’80s, we watched in bewilderment the destroyed city while our local friend enumerated with melancholy the splendid buildings once standing here and there. The majority of great tango singers still were alive in the early ’80s, but in contrast to the Buena Vista Social Club nobody discovered them. There remained only some vinyl disks left behind by them as well as some old people who still remembered their songs.

The palace of Regal Cinema, Café Corso and Columbia Records was built by Leonida Negrescu in 1900. It was demolished during the enlargement of Calea Victoriei.

It was these two sources that the Romanian singer of Berlin Oana Cătălina Chiţu drew on when at a distance of sixty years she revived this forgotten world on her CD Bucharest Tango published in the last year. She has complemented the songs heard from her father with the old 78 rpm records of their Bucharest relatives to create in 2007 together with Romanian and German musicians the show “Bukarester Tango”. This CD displays the most popular tangos and chansons of pre-war Bucharest. Right the second one is the most famous Romanian song of all times: the Zaraza.


Când apari seniorita în parc pe-nserat
Curg în juru-ţi petale de crin
Ai în ochi patimi dulci şi luciri de păcat
Şi ai trupul de şarpe felin

Gura ta e-un poem de nebune dorinţi
Sânii tăi un tezaur sublim
Eşti un demon din vis care tulburi şi minţi
Dar ai zâmbetul de heruvim

Vreau să-mi spui frumoasă Zaraza
Cine te-a iubit
Câţi au plâns nebuni pentru tine
Şi câţi au murit
Vreau să-mi dai gura-ţi dulce Zaraza
Să mă-mbete mereu
De a ta sărutare Zaraza
vreau sa mor şi eu.
When you appear in the park at sunset,
señorita, lily petals are falling around you,
sweet desire and sinful lights burn in your eyes
and your body is a curling serpent.

Your mouth is an ode to mad desires,
your breast a sublime treasure.
You’re a demon of dreams that stir up and lie
but your smile is that of a cherub.

Tell me, beautiful Zaraza:
who has already loved you?
How many have crazily cried
and how many have died for you?
Give me your sweet lips, Zaraza,
poison me continuously!
From your kiss, Zaraza
I want to die, too.


Zaraza was the most famous song of Cristian Vasile called “the last troubadour”, and Vasile was the most famous performer of this song. Their names have become inseparable in the memory of the golden years of Bucharest, so much that the writer Stelian Tănase could call with reason the pre-war city “the Bucharest of Zaraza”.


Cristian Vasile: Zaraza

The song has created its myth. Mircea Cărtărescu, the apocryphal chronicler of the Bucharest revival first published the story of Cristian Vasile and his lover, the beautiful Gypsy girl Zaraza in his volume of short stories De ce iubim femeile (Why we love women) of 2004, the most successful book of post-1990 Romania. Of the two great singers Cristian Vasile and Zavaidoc, competing in the early ’40s for the favors of the dancer of the bar “Vulpea Roşie”/Red Fox, the former won, but the latter revenged himself. Zaraza died, and Vasile disappeared from the theatre of Bucharest. Only the song continued to be sung

“all over the city: Zaraza became the Lili Marlene of Bucharest. It was sung in the bars, in the air raid shelters, in the trenches. The enchanting Gypsy girl became just as renowned as her famous lover.”

Although this touching story, as the author confesses it in a footnote, is entirely the product of his imagination, nevertheless the public has received it with pleasure, and today it is already spreading over the web as a true story. A popular audio book version has just been published, and in 2008 even a Hollywood-style film was released of it. One of the most memorable scenes of this latter is exactly the one where Vasile sings Zaraza to the public of the Red Fox bar.


Although the name of the beautiful Gypsy girl sounds strange to Romanian ears, nevertheless Cărtărescu has his explanation at hand, further developed by the review of his book in an almost philological thoroughness: “Zaraza, or more exactly Zarada is a traditional Gypsy name, whose original Spanish meaning is «beautiful» or «shining».”

Although the Spanish language knows no such word, nevertheless the reference to the Spanish origin is quite revealing. In fact, this most Romanian tango is simply an adoption of a South American tango. The original song was written by the Argentine Benjamín Tagle Lara (1892-1932) likewise with the title Zaraza, and in 1929 it won the second price of the authoritative Concurso del Disco Nacional of Montevideo, organized by Max Glücksmann. In the same year it was recorded with three great singers: José Razzano, Ignacio Corsini and Charlo with the Canaro Francisco band. However, in the original song Zaraza is the name not of a beautiful Gypsy woman, but of another attractive being with a similarly black, deep and melancholic look. Of an ox.


Blanca huella que, todos los dias,
clavado en el yugo, me ves picanear;
compañera del largo camino
las horas enteras te veo blanquear.
Mientras que, bajo el peso del trigo,
los ejes cansados los siento quejar,
yo, anudando mi pena a esa queja,
con cantos y silbos te sé acompañar.

¡A la huella, huella, zaraza,
huella, huella, guay!
Volverá la ingrata a su casa
andará por ahí…
Que si yo la viera, zaraza,
la hablaré, velay…
¡A la huella, huella, zaraza,
huella, huella, guay!

Buey zaraza, tus ojos tristones
mirando la huella parecen buscar
el milagro de aquellos pasitos
que al irse la ingrata no supo dejar.
Compañero que, unido conmigo
a un mismo destino, tenemos que andar,
seguiremos rastreando la huella,
la misma que siempre la vemos blanquear.
White path that see me every day
at the yoke, while pricking the ox:
my companion in the long walk,
I watch your white color for long hours.
And while I see the tired eyes complaining
under the weight of the wheat,
I join my pain to their complaint and
accompany you with singing and whistling.

Go ahead, go, zaraza,
go ahead, go, hey!
Will the ungrateful one come home
or is she rather wandering far away…
If I will see her, zaraza,
I will speak to her for sure…
Go ahead, go, zaraza,
go ahead, go, hey!

Zaraza ox, your sorrowful eyes
watching the path seem to look for
those wonderful small footsteps
that the ungrateful one has failed to leave.
My companion, in union with me
and sharing the same fate, we have to go,
always following the path, always
the same that lays white ahead of us.

This song was made popular in Paris by the greatest tango singer Carlos Gardel, the already mentioned “Creole Thrush”. Glücksmann tried to convince him to record this song too, but Gardel declined this honor by saying that he found it dishonest to compete with the record by Razzano. He recorded instead El carretero, “The coachman”, which is an earlier version of the same song. One had to wait eleven years to the energetic record by Rodolfo Biagi which was probably the one to get to Bucharest.


Rodolfo Biagi: Zaraza (1940). From the album Campo Afuera y su Orquesta Típica 1939-1942.

Others say that this song was made popular in Europe by the film Rive gauche (1931) of the British producer of Hungarian origin Sir Alexander Korda, in which it was sung by Sofía Bozán who had performed in Paris together with Gardel. This film also inspired the Polish version of the song, performed by Wiera Gran and Albert Harris with the title Gdy gitara gra piosenkę, “When the guitar is playing a song” (1939). The change of the title was motivated by the fact that in Polish zaraza means – pestilence.


Anyway, in Bucharest the song became popular in the performance of Cristian Vasile and with the text of Nicolae Kiriţescu which preserved the call word zaraza! of the Spanish refrain, endowing it with a new meaning.

The exact meaning of this word in the original Spanish text which apparently uses it as the name of the ox but writes it in minuscule, is not that easy to clarify. According to the dictionary it means “calico” or “printed textile”, but this does not seem to have any sense here. In the opinion of Río Wang’s fellow Argentine author Julia nowadays it is used in the sense of “mumbo jumbo” (written sometimes “sarasa” and pronounced in the same way). Her mother even recalls that it might have been used for oxen of a certain color, and even as an ox name, as Gardel uses it in the above quoted El carretero.

Finally Julia has come across Malena’s tango blog, whose Argentine author had faced the same problem in Zaraza, and her investigations had led to Isidra Solati’s article Un lenguaje de púrpuras y zarazas. According to this essay, the zarazas were the occasional village feasts organized at the arrival of a wandering musician, where the only decoration was a hastily stretched out piece of textile: a zaraza. This word full of desires and festive atmosphere has later become the refrain of coachmen singing and urging their ox, and finally also a name for the ox.

View from the Kretzulescu Inn. Since then both the inn and the street has been demolished.

In spite of this meandering story, my favorite song on Oana Cătălina Chiţu’s album is not Zaraza, but the once successful romance by Titi Botez: Sub balcon eu ţi-am cântat o serenadă, “I have serenaded under your balcon”.


Titi Botez: Sub balcon eu ţi-am cântat o serenadă, original recording.

Its melody and especially its refrain suggests of having been also adopted from a foreign original, but the identity of this original is still a mystery even to our Argentine sources. The investigation is in process. As soon as we’ll have some result, we will get in touch again.


The Athénée Palace. The source of the images of old Bucharest is Tudor Octavian: Bucureştiul interbelic: Calea Victoriei, Bucharest 2009.

11 comentarios:

Language dijo...

Another great post. I don't know if I'd want to visit the current version of Bucharest; even though I've never been to the old one, I've read enough descriptions and seen enough pictures that I expect the destruction would haunt me anyway.

Studiolum dijo...

No, Language, you should visit the modern Bucharest and you should not expect of it to be the old one. The new one is other, it is different, and I do not want to influence you by telling in what it is different: but it is equally vivid and exciting, and it has conserved something of its old identity what you can discover both in the city and in some antiquarian bookshops of it.

Language dijo...

By the way, would it be possible for you to cut down considerably on the number of posts on your front page? The image-intensive nature of the posts plus the long page means it takes quite a long time to load.

Studiolum dijo...

Yes, of course. Now I have reduced it by about half. I hope it works more smoothly like this.

A.J.P. Megkoronáz dijo...

Wonderful pictures. Some of the larger buildings remind me more of the architecture of late 19th C. New York, rather than of Paris.

I'll have to come back and look more tomorrow.

Studiolum dijo...

You have a sharp eye! In fact, a number of leading architects of pre-war Bucharest came directly from New York. Of course the étalon the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants could link their style to was invariably Paris.

Language dijo...

Thanks!

A.J.P. Megkoronáz dijo...

Thanks. If they hadn't actually attended the École des Beaux Arts themselves any New York architects would have had an American education that was derived from it; so there was a Paris link.

Julia dijo...

Aquí hay un texto sobre el tango en Polobia escrito por un argentino hijo de inmigrantes polacos, quizás te interese (si no lo habías visto ya)

Me interesó este párrafo. Intenta explorar el encanto que se sentía por el espíritu melancólico de los tangos y dice:

" Creo que cabe mencionar que la mayoría de esos compositores y letristas, nacidos en Polonia y educados como artistas polacos, eran de origen judío y llevaban la carga de muchos años de la ocupación y la influencia rusa. Estas circunstancias pueden tener peso, en alguna medida, en sus elecciones artísticas y en su predilección por las tonalidades nostálgicas de la música. "

Studiolum dijo...

Muy bueno el artículo que no conocía (mientras los tangos de Polonia sí). Resucita la memoria de aquel mundo que está tan olvidado como el de Romania. Lo citaré cuando, en breve, escribiré de un tango polaco que llegó a la fama mundial como chansón rusa.

Anónimo dijo...

In Spanish "zaraza" actually means "an old and decrepit work animal" like an old work horse penibly drawing a carriage, and definitely doesn't translate as "beautiful".

The original tango song named "Zaraza" sings indeed about such an old work decrepit animal.

The person who adapted/copied the song into Romanian, had no clue about the meaning of the original lyrics and transformed the common name into a proper name, allegedly of a girl called "Zaraza" :)

It is as flattering as calling someone "Old Fatigued Bitch" :)