To observe that Nicolae Feraru has an intense relationship with his instrument, the Eastern European cimbalom, would be an understatement.
"The first love for me is not my wife, it is this instrument," says Feraru, 63, sitting before his beloved cimbalom, which is similar to a hammer dulcimer, with "sticks" or mallets used to strike strings.
"I (tell) my wife: 'You are my wife, but, actually, this instrument is my wife. Because everywhere I traveled around the world, I took this instrument like it's my heart."
Feraru may be exaggerating a bit for effect, but there's no question that he has devoted his life to the cimbalom and has suffered greatly for his art. As a child in Romania, he routinely heard the cimbalom referred to as "a garbage instrument" because of its deep association with Gypsies. The increasingly harsh discrimination that he and his Gypsy family suffered prompted him to seek political asylum in the United States in the late 1980s.
Despite his travails, however, Feraru long ago emerged as one of the world's great cimbalom virtuosos, which helps explain why last month he was named a winner of his adopted country's highest honor for folk arts, the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship. The award, which will be presented in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 25, comes with $25,000, though that doesn't seem to be its greatest appeal to Feraru.
"It's a lot of money – I never got $25,000 in my life," says Feraru, in his Chicago apartment. "But even if they not give me money, to give me lifetime honor is something fantastic, because they (are saying) it makes no difference between you, (an) American, and me, a gypsy from Romania.
"They say everyone is the same."
That was not the case in Romania, where throughout Feraru's years there – and long before – Gypsies had been regarded as an underclass or worse, he says. Even so, he was determined to take up an instrument that practically epitomizes Gypsy culture and gives voice to its vast repertoire of songs.
This music courses through Feraru's bloodline, his grandfather and father having been esteemed players, as well. But they knew the rigors involved in playing the cimbalom, and Feraru's father urged the boy not to heed its call.
"He would play three days, three nights on a (single) wedding, he must go seven, eight miles, walking and playing on the street," says Feraru, his father playing a smaller-sized cimbalom that hung around the neck for such roving engagements.
"When he come home, he was almost dead. He said, 'You not learn this.'"
But Feraru was seduced by the haunting tintinnabulation of the instrument, its sound ethereal and mysterious, its practitioners' mallets moving so quickly as to disappear in a blur. Moreover, like a piano, the cimbalom easily can accommodate a broad range of music, "classical, cafe, jazz, folk, all of it," says Feraru.
After begging for lessons that his father gave him starting at age 6, Feraru at 15 began studying cimbalom with one of Romania's eminent players, Mitica Marinescu-Ciuciu. By 18, Feraru was a pro, thriving in restaurants and theaters and eventually touring the world.
He made recordings in Montreal in the early 1970s and fervently "perpetuated the Gypsy traditional music he learned from his father," notes the NEA citation. But by the 1980s, life for him, his wife and their five children had become onerous during the Communist regime. Censors had to approve musicians' concert and recording repertoire, says Feraru, to ensure that no Gypsy repertoire was included.
When Feraru dared to invite foreigners to visit him at home, he was banned by authorities from performing publicly for a period of time, he says.
The final blow came when he played during a TV taping in Romania, newspapers advertising that he would be seen on the show the following week. When it aired, says Feraru, his music indeed resonated in the orchestra, but the camera showed footage of a different, non-Gypsy musician playing cimbalom.
Furious, he called the broadcasters, who told him, "The manager came and say: 'Take out this man because he's too black,'" remembers Feraru
"I said, 'What does this mean?' I play music for kings, for the people, and we pay taxes. … For big stuff, I was not too black. For TV, I was too black.'"
Fed up, Feraru decided before a 1988 tour of the U.S. that he would defect and applied for political asylum while in Detroit in February of 1989. He moved to Chicago in 1993 because so many fellow musicians were coming here and got a day job working in a dental supplies factory.
"When I took this job, I died a little," he says, having never done such heavy labors before.