BARBOI (AFP).- At his home in central Romania with hens and turkeys wandering in the courtyard, Vasile Nica welcomes visitors who have come to hear him play a unique stringed instrument that is facing oblivion.
Under the shade of an apple tree with coffee, house wine and cakes laid out on the table, Nica starts to pluck his 80-year-old wooden cobza with a goose quill.
At 73, he is one of the last traditional players of the "Romanian oud". It is a long journey over potholed roads through the hilly countryside to find the musician in his native village of Barboi.
"When I have the cobza in my arms, I feel happy, I feel like my soul is expanding. I don't need food, I don't need anything anymore," says Nica in his dark suit and spotless white shirt, eyes sparkling with delight.
With violinist Marian Ilie, they sing about love, the forests of their homeland, or they improvise songs inspired by their guests.
But the cobza is in danger of playing its last notes as few masters of the instrument remain, and Romanian music lovers are working to save this integral part of the country's cultural heritage.
A Romanian cousin of the oud and the lute, the cobza consists of a half-pear shaped resonance box with pegs placed on a neck bent back at an angle.
It can be found painted on the walls of the 16th-century UNESCO-listed monasteries in the Bucovina region as well as in frescoes at the National Museum of Arts in Bucharest.
"In the 19th century, it was unthinkable in certain parts of Romania to have a wedding, a christening or a party without a cobza," Florin Iordan, a Romanian ethnomusicologist at the National Peasant Museum, tells AFP.
Small bands of "lautari" -- professional musicians or troubadours -- would come to play and sing, and they usually had a violin, a flute and a cobza.
Many "lautari" were Roma enslaved in rich urban families. When they were freed, some settled in the countryside playing their music in the villages.
The talent of Romanian lautari has been much admired by expert foreign visitors, including noted US ethnomusicologist Robert Garfias.
And in 1847 Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt was stunned to see Barbu Lautarul, a Romanian lautar, perfectly reproduce with his cobza one of his improvisations.
Lautari learn to play the cobza from older masters.
Nica, a true "lautar", learned from an old Roma, Nea Costica, who lived in his village. He paid for the lessons with a sheep.
He then started to live like a professional musician, travelling across the country to play the cobza at weddings, celebrations and even funerals.
But the cobza has being going out of fashion.
"It was gradually replaced by other instruments seen as more modern, such as the dulcimer (tambal), the accordion and the electronic organ," Speranta Radulescu, a well-known ethnomusicologists in Europe, tells AFP.
"When I started my career, I met cobza players that were still living from their music but most of them died and no one took over," she adds.
The cobza may soon be found only in museums.
"None of my children or grandchildren have learnt to play," laments Nica.
But Ilie, his accompanying violinist, whose family has been playing music for generations, is convinced that the cobza and its music are not fading away.
"This music has such a beauty and authenticity that it cannot die," he says.
An endangered treasure
As a first step to save the instrument, Speranta Radulescu and Florin Iordan have crisscrossed Romania to record the last cobza players still alive.
Thanks to them, Constantin Negel, who died five years ago, played in front of hundreds of people at the Cite de la Musique in Paris in 2003.
Young Romanians have also rediscovered the beauty of this unique instrument.
Iordan and his wife Beatrice, both cobza players in their 30s, founded a band of ancient music, "Trei Parale", with three other friends. They play across Europe.
"Today music has become something commercial but the cobza represents to me the sincerity of the past, when people in the countryside used to sing and play music just for the pleasure of it," Beatrice says.
"This instrument that is now neglected has an incredible musical heritage," Florin adds.
Bogdan Simion, a literature student at the University of Bucharest, also believes in the renaissance of the cobza. He has collected about 40 of them and learned to play from older masters.
This year, he organised concerts in one of the most famous clubs in the Romanian capital, Control. Dozens of young people clapped and danced to the sound of the cobza.
"Young people need a past to build a present and a future," Radulescu believes. "The cobza will bring them back to the world of their grandparents, a world full of treasures."
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