Q&A with Romania's premier blues artist A.G. Weinberger - a bridge between American blues and Balkan area

"We all walking the path paved by our glorious predecessors, and yes… we all have to cherish their contribution with the utmost respect and reverence… But I’d rather look ahead and think about the future…"

A.G. Weinberger: Bluesylvania Tales

Attila Weinberger, popularly known as A.G., is absolutely peerless in his mastery of the American blues, a musical genre that has taken Romania, his native country, by storm. A self-taught guitarist from age 11, he garnered several prestigious Romanian awards by age 20. In the mid-80s, A.G. made the transition from rock guitarist to blues guitarist and has been on a roll ever since. In 1991 he puts together his own band to promote the Blues throughout the country, organizing concerts, setting up instructional workshops, and supporting the development of neophyte blues musicians. Along his touring band he regularly plays to packed houses countrywide and has attracted rave reviews in rock, jazz and blues festival from USA to Germany and Israel. Weinberger pursues his promotion of the Blues with missionary zeal. He advocates the Blues as a bold symbol of freedom and individualism and sees his music as an ideal vehicle for transferring these values to the Romanian youth. Through his art he aspires to create a bridge between American blues devotees and their Romanian counterparts whose numbers are increasing daily.

A guitar player, singer, harmonica player, producer for airplay shows and albums, initiator of the so-called “Club Movement”, he represents a definite authority in his field. After a short career with a renowned rock band – Metropol where Weinberger thinks of himself only as a “session man”, in 1986 he starts his solo career. It is in this period that he builds the first Blues band in Romania Transylvanian Blues Community. Ignoring the censorship imposed by the communist regime, they succeed in performing in many tours throughout Romania, where tickets sold out immediately particularly because they were considered “outlaws”. During the same period he is invited to work together on their albums with well-known performers in Romania. After 1990, when the borders opened, he is offered the opportunity to perform in tours in Europe where in 1992 he performs as a supporting act for Al DiMeola. Another unique musical activity of Weinberger is his co-operation with several theatres in Romania. There he wrote music for: R. Nash “The Rainmaker” (1985), “Cinderella” (1986), Allen Ginsberg, Jacques Prevert Death Father Blues” (1992), Camil Petrescu “Procust’s Bed” (1996) and others. In 1991 builds his own Blues band, called Weinberger Blues Machine, where along the years he has had the honor of performing with several musicians belonging to diverse attitudes and ways of thinking, which helped A.G. along his evolution. Delivered the way electric blues is meant to be, Live, Loud and Raw, “Mighty Business” (2015) is AG new release. The eleven-song CD recorded in May 2009 at the Hard Rock Cafe in Bucharest is the first live album from a man on a mission to bring the blues to the world. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos by Adrian Coleasa, Anca Coleasa, Adrian Mociulschi & Adra Aaron

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

For many years I thought of blues and jazz as a sort of a symbol of personal and social liberation - I guess many of us, especially here in the eastern part of Europe, stepped into this judgmental trap… I grew up like this in the communist Romania, trying to dissociate myself from those social values which I refused to agree with. For me, western type musical expression was the ultimate escape from the communist ghetto… Living through these musical genres for almost 40 years now (started playing guitar at my age of 10), I realized that there is no existential dimension to it, whatsoever. People are so confused and jaded when it comes to any freedom related and delusional matter, anyway… However, I’ll not give to your kind question the usual stereotype answer… You see, blues been good to me for a while, but lately she’s playing hide’n seek with me… She’s giving me no certainty, as she used to… Therefore I’ll act as a 5 star Michelin chef and I’ll do the fusion cooking in my kitchen, where I’ll invite you to come on to, time to time… where, perhaps we could mingle with our eternal distant dreams and frustrations from our own tradition and history, for the benefit of our illusions, padded with sarcastic irony… This is what blues is to me nowadays… frost on mind, pragmatism in heart and frustration in soul…

How do you describe AG Weinberger sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I got no other choice in these bizarre times we are living in, other that follow my ancestors’ legacy and embrace the multicultural tradition of my own territory I was born into. Furthermore, undoubtable I have to obey all the masters - covering a multi millennial timeframe - who contributed to my cultural, musical and philosophical edifice. I’d like to refer to my own sound as a uniquely flavored blend of Blues/Jazz/Rock/Soul with a little twist of genuine Transylvanian multicultural (Jewish, Romanian, Hungarian, gypsy) musical heritage in it… You can call me a blues related slinger who continuously has the urge to observe social and historical tendencies of time. My playlist is vary from occult blues songs of the ’20-‘30s up to contemporary interpretation of jazz and blues/rock tunes… My interest is in the ‘how’ and not in the ‘what’…

"Considering the pre-war blues, maybe… some might find common ground with pentatonic scales here and there and the poetry of the lyrics could show us a bit of similarity. But modern blues music is a fusion in it’s own right, anyway…"

What were the reasons that you started the Blues researches? How started the thought of BlueSylvania Foundation?

In my early teenage years - from 12 on, I was part of an illegal ‘customer goods’ provider chain in my hometown. You need to know that in Romania of those times stores were empty, even basic food was extremely hard to provide. Therefore the need of a ‘supply chain’ of these goods emerged and shaped into a very ‘lucrative’ fact. My part of the pie was the vinyl/video/book supply. I kept contact with the end user, and by this I did line up a pretty decent clientele. The main titles in demand were the rock records of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. The records were provided by the smugglers who got them form Germany, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, India, Pakistan and Russia. We were up to date with everything came out on the market. Among the licensed originals we had plenty of high quality counterfeited bootleg records as well. Actually this is how I started my own vinyl collection - all those unsold jazz and blues records ended up on my shelves… I remember that the very first record I kept was the Spectrum of Billy Cobham and his exquisite band. That was the reason that I bought my first turntable… Man, that record turned me into this kind of music, especially that guitar player - Tommy Bollin, turned me on… I knew that this would be my path to step on. Fine records just kept coming to my direction - The London Session of Howlin’ Wolf, Fathers and Sons of Muddy Waters, the American Folk Blues Festival entire collection, a couple of Humble Pie records and countless others... nobody wanted them, so I kept them for myself. Information was extremely limited for me about these art forms back in the day… I secretly tuned my receiver to Voice Of America and Radio Free Europe for the good music, got those xerox copies of blues and jazz magazines and guitar methods from the US… Even my English is coming from the translation of those blues songs I was playing those years… This is why I am what I am today… Basic existential need somehow turned out to be a career start.

The BlueSylvania Foundation was a necessary step in order to be able to set up gigs and workshops for myself. I needed a legal form to conduct a growing business. Attorneys advised me that the ‘foundation’ is a healthy and easy way to get around with. Of course since 1998 things got a different dimension and the Foundation became a pioneer and a major player in developing the musical community in Romania. I had the opportunity to produce and host festivals, radio and tv shows, which took the Blues music in front of a nationwide audience. We already have an 18 years of accomplished history behind us… 

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Definitely meeting BB in Las Vegas, backstage at the HOB at Mandalay Bay… while in Vegas I met a bunch of other amazing players as well, whom I developed close relationships with… The best advice I ever got was from Romanian jazz pianist extraordinaire, Johnny Raducanu, who told me - back in early ’91 in the backstage of a big venue in Bucharest - that I should save 75 cent out of every earned dollar and move the hell outta Romania ASAP. Well, as he was very close to me, I sure believed him and I did just that… By the end of the first Gulf War in ’91 I was already playing the club circuit in Israel with a power trio. From there the entire world opened up for me…

"Spending more than 7 years in the US, working the club and the chitlin circuit I came to a solid understanding about all these aspects… I experienced great interracial endeavors blending in just fine with Afro-American cats, but I felt the worst of the reverse racism as well…"

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Sure thing… they are plenty of great memories… during those 35+ years in the business I’ve been through many situations, but here I am… survived them all, don’t I? Those interested might read about these memories in my upcoming book, sometimes in the near future…

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I’m not sure that I’d be interested in the past… The past is gone… We all walking the path paved by our glorious predecessors, and yes… we all have to cherish their contribution with the utmost respect and reverence… But I’d rather look ahead and think about the future… how the blues and jazz would sound - let’s say - in 100 years from now? What those aesthetic guidelines would be, which the society of the near future would exist within? I’d rather not waste my time trying to be another epigone of gone epochs. I am the progress… Everything I do today it might not be accepted immediately, according to the requirements of contemporary times… my deeds and ideas would be understood and applied maybe 4-5 years later… this is how it always been for me. I am in the avant-garde. Just look around what’s happening in the world, and observe what kind of spirit bringing together hundreds of thousands of people to a gathering… My hopes are that the huge discrimination going on for the time being, between US artists and those from other territories, would melt away by the wisdom of promoters, record labels and agencies, based on the solid spirit of the well promoted ‘equal opportunities’ principle. My fear is that this would never happen… Strange type of business interests will continue to rule the movement. Therefore Europe will stay still as an excellent and respectfully obeying platform for US artists as headliners, who will grab most of the money payed by the local taxpayers and sometimes by the ‘extremely well skilled’ and snob weekend blues aficionados. Domestic artists will continue to rehearse, buying gears, hope for the best and self-produce their own material, which would never gain attention or interest from any label, management company, festival promoter or mainstream media.  The ever going slogan what we all hear for a long time is: ‘Dear domestic artists, please continue your excellent work ‘Keeping The Blues Alive’ in your local bar, your small scale local festival and your local blues society. Your efforts are truly appreciated… We strongly advise that you’ll keep your day job, though… ‘ The fact is that I know a lot of European bands, musically much more exciting and way more spectacular on stage, than a whole lot of their US counterparts… I know and I do understand - because I lived there for 7 years, that the US market is oversaturated and shrinking… but what would happen with those non-American players, who built a professional career around blues and jazz music? Are we considered intruders of some sort? Is there any kind of reciprocity going on between the US and Europe considering work permits and income taxes? At some point a fair balance should occur in our extended globalized environment in this regard, otherwise a huge cultural implosion would take place, ruining and washing out everything based on those values what we all solemnly pledged on…Those serious decision makers in the blues business are naive hypocrites or just innocently ignorant?

"For many years I thought of blues,  jazz as a sort of a symbol of personal and social liberation. I guess many of us, especially here in the eastern part of Europe, stepped into this judgmental trap" 

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from ‘Mighty Business’ sessions?

Mighty Business is a live recording, not much studio time was involved... But yes, there are some things which will stays forever in my memory... I did not have time for laugh back then… the stress was high, time was limited and the money was short, as always… my focus was on the job, 16 people needed to be coordinated in a professional and efficient manner… I was deeply touched by seeing the great turn out of people who showed up… Hard Rock was packed, waiters had no room to move around with the orders, we had no enough space to spread our gears and had no pathway backstage… I never thought that more than 500 people would be interested in taking part in a live recording… Truly that gig was one of the high peaks of my career.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Romania. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

Unfortunately we cannot speak about a strong blues scene in Romania as such, as the time being… Four of us we started the very first blues band back in 1986 - The Transylvanian Blues Community. Sure it was a bit dangerous adventure, considering those dark times… but somehow we managed to get popularity and survived the worst. Than the regime change occurred… In the mid ’90’s we experienced a promising period… After music lover and friend, Luminita Branco and myself started the very first live blues music place in the country, investors saw opportunities and kicked in, clubs were opening up, festivals started they own development, musicians felt encouraged to pick up the genre and form bands here and there. At one point we counted 22 self-declared blues bands on the record. 

In 1995 I started the very first dedicated blues airplay show on the National Public Radio and within a few month I did the same on a commercial private radio (Radio Contact) - so, the Blues covered the entire Romanian territory and beyond, back than. Slowly a promising movement started flourishing across the country.  My 1996 album - Good Morning Mr. Blues! - as the very first blues record in the country hit the market with serious media interest. A couple of other bands would follow my example for the coming years. Things became hectic and slow ever since… nowadays probably we are 10-12 performers of the genre in the country. A lots of cats simply gave up the struggle and went on cruise liners, or got day jobs, or the lucky ones started small business of some sort… Probably I am the last one standing, fortunate enough, to make a living out of it in Romania, as a full time pro player. I wonder how long it will last, considering the lack of support of any kind from authorities and the bizarre perception from the society. Footballers, thieves, gossip girls has more respect than any kind of artist over here. I guess is the same everywhere else nowadays… Sad, but true…

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from United States and UK to Romanian and Balkan area?

Organically, culturally and artistically I think there are none… Some of us thrive, ambition and personal taste eventually could make a connection as such, perhaps. But nothing more… We are dealing with completely different cultural and historical backgrounds and existential bitterness…

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local blues circuits?

Watching the frustrated struggle of those egocentric cliché players, who’s lack of musicality and amateur attitude would always keep them in the realm of self-hurting… this is always funny and makes me smile, at least… They would never achieve that sought after magic, but they sure become excellent customers for those instruments and gear manufacturers… The world is full of this type of epigonic wannabes, I believe…  But on the other hand there’s a merging young generation coming up… they are well informed, well trained with great chops and with a healthy self-esteem. I help them as much as I can, by promoting them in my concerts, on my TV shows and through my business network… I admire them for their energy, courage and determination… I can’t wait to see the results…

Are there any similarities between the blues and the genres of local Romanian folk music and traditional forms?

Considering the pre-war blues, maybe… some might find common ground with pentatonic scales here and there and the poetry of the lyrics could show us a bit of similarity. But modern blues music is a fusion in it’s own right, anyway…

Why did you think that the Blues and Jazz music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Maybe the stories within the musical form… I don’t know… The fact is that Blues and Jazz are a bit more than just music… they have a certain customized depth to the momentarily truth to each of our own existence. The interplay, the improve, the mutual trust and reliability on stage among players it can create that unexplained groovy magic what every human being is longing for. Devotion it might come as well from the frustration generated by the ‘off limit’ status of the uninitiated follower… The ‘untouchable’ has this great marketing and publicity power since ancient times, anyway… The mystic of unknown attracts people.

Are there any memories from Son Seals, Hubert Sumlin, and Chick Corea which you’d like to share with us?

In 1995 I was the supporting act for James Blood Ulmer and Chick Corea at the Bucharest Jazz Festival. We met only backstage in the artist lounge area, exchanged a couple of words of encouragement and good wishes. In 1998 I was accepted to perform in Memphis, TN at the Bluestock Festival and Showcase. I was scheduled at the Center Of Southern Folklore. I was sponsored and supported by great friends Judy Simons and Michael Gantt of the Baltimore Blues Society and I also had to assemble a band for the gig. I had only 2 days for the entire operation. A street guy named Raymond - who use to hang around the Beale Street, helped me put the band together - he knew everybody and everything around... At the sound check Bobby Blue Bland and Hubert Sumlin walked in the Center for a cup of tea... This is how we chilled a bit and that night, after my show I walked in the BB's and Hubert was there... Preston Shannon was hosting the jam and this is how I ended up on stage for a couple of songs... Than Leon Russell got rolled in with his band and took over the stage for another round of stellar set of music... That was such a night... Great memories for me. Back in 1999, the first edition of the Efes Pilsen Blues Festival took place in Bucharest, with an excellent lineup: Sista Monica, Larry Johnson and Son Seals. As a spoke person for the festival, I was always with the artists to help them getting around. This is how Son and his wife ended up in my kitchen for a Transylvanian/Jewish/Hungarian steak'n ribs dinner with lots of moonshine plumb brandy and domestic red wine aside... Can you imagine the rest of it? Hahaha...

"The world is full of this type of epigonic wannabes, I believe…  But on the other hand there’s a merging young generation coming up… they are well informed, well trained with great chops and with a healthy self-esteem."

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

By law I’d match the social and financial status of a musician with that of the athlete. I’d provide equity based on ethics.

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better blues musician?

The hardest obstacle is always people’s ignorance based on prejudice. This stands for all evil in this world. Unfortunately even today I’m facing anti-Semitic attitudes around me on all its every level of the society and hearing back talks in this regard… which is sad by all means and alarming to some extent. But I truly hope that at one point o sort of social maturity will kick in and from that on a new type of collective conscious will rise. Till than I’ll stay as an extension of my own aspirations and goals… other choice I simply do not have.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Spending more than 7 years in the US, working the club and the chitlin circuit I came to a solid understanding about all these aspects… I experienced great interracial endeavors blending in just fine with Afro-American cats, but I felt the worst of the reverse racism as well… mostly from uneducated players with ‘from da’ hood’ pedigree, who were rushing to the hotel to catch Power Puff Girls on TV… Observing it in macro, blues always been about money and sex… Jazz has a bit more to it, other than this… 

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Back in the early ’50’s in New York City… put me on Bleecker Street and forget about me… See you!

A.G Weinberger - Home

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