Nicolae Feraru is a revered musical master in Chicago’s Romanian and Hungarian communities. Now 68, he retains the same undiminished love of the cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) that he exhibited as a child, when he ate while practicing so as not to waste time on meals. “The music, this is my life,” says Feraru. “When I start on the instrument, I forget everything that is bad in the world.… The instrument is like for me my food.” In 2013, he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for traditional artists.
Nicolae Feraru was born in Bucharest, Romania, into a family of Gypsy musicians, or lautari. His grandfather, Marin, and father, Ion, played the tambal mic (Romanian cimbalom), a smaller cimbalom that is played while being carried with the aid of a neck strap. His father initially discouraged his interest, insisting that playing the cimbalom for sleepless, weekend-long Gypsy weddings was too tiring a profession. But young Nicolae was undeterred. Ion eventually relented, and by the time Nicolae was 11, he was playing at weddings with his father. Eventually, they arranged for him to study the larger Hungarian cimbalom (also known as the concert cimbalom, because it is played seated) with the famous master Mitica Marinescu-Ciuciu, who quickly became like a second father.
By the time he was 18, Nicolae Feraru had earned the official title of muzician, the most prestigious category of performer under Romania’s communist government. This meant he could seek work anywhere, and could even perform abroad, which he did to great acclaim in the ensembles of artists like panpipe masters Gheorghe Zamfir and Radu Simion. But while life for any musician was difficult under Nicolae Ceausescu—Romania’s ruthless dictator from 1965-1989—Gypsies faced particular persecution. Government officials constantly surveilled performances, demanded bribes, and censored muzica lautareasca (Gypsy music). Censors even once edited Feraru out of a television performance, showing a lighter-skinned, non-Gypsy actor playing the instrument. In 1988, as the political situation in Romania worsened, he decided to stay in the U.S. when a tour ended. He was granted political asylum, and is now a U.S. citizen.
After several years in Detroit, Feraru moved to Chicago in 1993, where his family was eventually able to join him. Twenty-five years later, he now lives part of the year in Romania, but when in Chicago, he is in great demand as a performer for weddings and community festivals. The Illinois Arts Council has recognized him as a master teacher. With his national honor in 2013 and a concert at the Chicago World Music Festival in 2014, Nicolae Feraru is now receiving the accolades of music connoisseurs across the United States and Romania for his breathtaking mastery of the cimbalom.