Nicolai Ciotoi, born in 1950, is a successful and well-known Romani violinist based in Bucharest, Romania. He emerged as a lăutar (Romanian-Romani professional musician) on the coat-tails of what he calls the ‘old guard’ of muzică lăutărească (a broad term that encompasses Romani music mainly from southern Romanian or what was once the Principality of Wallachia). He is protective of an ideology, authenticity, dignity and tradition that, in his opinion, have been almost entirely eclipsed by new genres. He performs muzică lăutărească.
Ciotoi made his living as a professional musician during Communism, playing music at weddings, baptisms and other festivities. He performed alongside some of the great performers of the 1970–80s, including Romica Puceanu and Florea Cioacă.
Romanian Roma usually learn music by ear within the family; for his part, Ciotoi learned from his father and his uncle, both of whom were violinists. Nicolai also speaks highly of Cornel Bosoi as a fellow lăutar and as a teacher, lauding his technical ability and his expressive powers.
Nicolai often laments the loss of the golden age of lăutar music – a reflection of how public opinion of Romani musicians has declined. Before the 1989 revolution, lăutari were highly respected; however, today's wedding music scene in Romania is saturated by manele (a new pop-folk Romanian-Roma genre).
In this video clip from February 2014 by Ioanida Costache, Ciotoi tells the story of how he managed to obtain his first violin, despite his family’s lack of resources. This highly emotional narrative demonstrates the powerful role of music in the life of a lăutar and the various dimensions of meaning, memory and family history that coalesce in this musical tradition.