How to Fail a Field Recording

An Ethnomusicologist’s Perspective

Victor A. Stoichiță 

1. The Field Beyond the Sound

1.1. Back From Nora Luca


In Tony Gatlif’s film The Crazy Stranger (Gadjo Dilo, 1997), Stéphane, a young Frenchman, travels to Romania to find Nora Luca. Nora Luca is the name that was written on a cherished tape belonging to Stéphane’s late father, an ethnologist. Stéphane meets Izidor, an aged Rom man who assures him that he knows Nora and promises to take him to her.[1] But Stéphane needs to wait. He lives for a few months in Izidor’s house, meets Izidor’s community, and learns Rom with them. He realizes that Izidor himself and many of his neighbors can sing and play music. Stéphane records them and – with the help of Sabina, a young Rom woman who can speak some French – he travels and records more Rom musicians. After a series of events which culminate in the burning of the village and the dramatic death of Izidor’s son, Stéphane’s quest bifurcates. The film’s closing images show him destroying and burying the tapes that he had recorded. From the car where she awakes from sleep, Sabina (now his lover) watches him and smiles.


Critiques of the film interpreted the fate of these tapes as the manifestation of a shift in Stéphane’s understanding of Rom culture. He had come for one singer and one song; then he realized that the song was part of a larger repertoire, one that many Rom would sing and play; finally, he realized that Romanians would also pay Rom musicians to hear that song at their own parties. At that point, it became clear to him that he would never find Nora Luca, and that “the song which [had] driven him from Paris to a Gypsy camp in Romania [was] nothing but a sentimental cliché” (Homer 2006: 195). It was actually the events where it was performed that made this song significant to people.


Perhaps Stéphane came to realize the meaning of “field” and “fieldwork,” which had kept his ethnologist father away for so long. He might have also realized the meaning of “schizophonia,” the term famously coined by Murray Schafer to express the idea that recording splits the sounds from their “natural” causes. Schafer intended it as a “nervous word” that should “convey the same sense of aberration and drama” as its psychiatric counterpart (Schafer 1991: 91) . The drama was not lost on Tony Gatlif.


Stéphane’s portrayed journey with the recordings is one of disenchantment as well as increasing guilt. Sean Homer submits the process to a Lacanian analysis and finds that “what Stéphane wishes to capture through these recordings is the authentic voice of Gypsy song, presumably before they disappear, but it is the very authenticity of the moment that is eclipsed through its transcription. […] By inscribing it in the symbolic, Stéphane kills the thing itself” (Homer 2006: 192).


If it were just a written story, Gadjo Dilo could indeed convey a point about the impossibility of objectifying music in general and Roma music in particular. But it is a film, and one that is, ironically, full of (recorded) music. Some of the best Roma musicians of that time appear in the credits. The soundtrack received a César Award in 1999 and is currently commercialized by Warner Music France. Despite Stéphane’s dramatic destruction of his recorded tapes, objectifying and subsequently commodifying Roma music was clearly not deemed impossible by the film’s director and team.[2]