Culture, Travel & Sport

Songs they never play on the radio: Romania’s love-hate relationship with manele

In many ways the 2010s was the decade that marked the death of the musical guilty pleasure. It was the decade when everything went mainstream, the decade when just about every radio station across the world began pumping out electronica, hip-hop, Latino and K-pop, in no particular order, with the internet easing the transition between once completely isolated subcultures.

There used by a genre known in music circles as songs they never play on the radio. These days, there generally aren’t any.

In Romania however, there remains one exception: manele, still frowned upon by just about everyone in public, although often secretly enjoyed in private, behind closed doors.

Manele is a genre which, depending whom you ask, is either an integral part of Balkan culture or a cheap bastardisation of the region’s traditional music. Its roots are found in the folk rhythms and lăutărească music of the 18th and 19th century Ottoman Balkans, usually performed by Romani musicians in ensemble bands featuring instruments such as the violin, accordion, double bass, pan flute and lute. Over time, the pan flute fell out of fashion, and the lute was replaced by a cimbalom, a type of chordophone. In the 20th century new instruments were introduced, such as the trombone and saxophone, as well as the clarinet. 

Romania’s manele owe much to the tradition of lăutărească music (a lăutar was somebody who played in a band), but has always slightly differed from traditional Romanian folk, which relies more heavily on the flute and can feature instruments as varied as the bagpipes. Regardless, lăutărească music was embraced as a part of Romani culture for well over a century, and following the Romanian Revolution of 1989 quickly developed into what is now instantly recognisable as modern-day manele, primarily by adding electronic elements which were difficult to produce under the communists, as few musicians had the necessary hardware.

It’s at this stage that we need to introduce Adrian Copilul Minune (Adrian the Wonder Kid, dubbed as such as much for his short stature as his precocious talent). Now long since into adulthood and more commonly known as simply Adi Minune, his massive hit Chef de chef (which vaguely translates as The party of all parties) from the early 2000s remains the blueprint for manele writers and artists.

Chef de chef is still played at many Romanian parties. Its rhythm has been used ad nauseum by tens of manele artists, and its lyrical themes seem to encompass all those typically touched upon by the genre. Minune brags about how his party will be remembered for years to come, about how incomprehensibly rich he is, about how he couldn’t ask for better friends, and there’s plenty of room for the kind of sexist comments and objectification of women that is sadly still a feature of too many styles of music.

Alongside Minune, other manele singers (maneliști) who gained prominence in the 2000s and are now household names (although it probably depends what kind of household you live in) were Nicolae Guță, Sorinel Puștiu, Sandu Ciorbă, Vali Vijelie and Florin Salam, arguably the best-known manelist outside of Romania. I say this because to the best of my knowledge, the 84 million YouTube views of his song Saint Tropez firmly place it as the most viewed Romanian video on the site, and dare I say the best-known Romanian piece of music of all time (Dragostea din Tei, known outside of Romania as the Numa Numa Song, was actually the work of a Moldovan band, O-Zone). 

How big is Saint Tropez? A few years ago, a friend of mine went on a skiing holiday to Austria and Saint Tropez was one of the tracks the apres ski bars had on heavy rotation. Once he introduced himself as Romanian he instantly gained coolness points.  

Saint Tropez’s lyrical themes are similar to Chef de chef, although this time the emphasis is placed on being rich as opposed to how good the party is; it begins with You rich people, come have fun, come have fun, ah le le le, ah le le le le following an admittedly killer descending clarinet riff. The song gets its title from the chorus, where Salam invites the listener to “holiday in Saint Tropez, bring your wife too, and your mistress as well”.

By this point it should have become clear that by breaking down manele and trying to analyse them, they all appear to follow the same formula. If you like this formula, you’ll like manele. If you don’t, you’ll despise them. 

The issue, however, is that the repetitive rhythms, the comically poor grammar and lyrics, the questionable views that male singers may have about women, the excessive use of autotune and distorted clarinet solos are far from being the main issues that many people have with the genre and with manele culture. 

They do, I admit, contribute to the negative perception of manele in Romanian society, but there’s a bit of musical snobbery going on here. Almost all pop and rock music uses a classic 1&3 beat, and even rhythms that appear more complex are oftentimes built on top of this beat. YouTube drummer Stephen Taylor made this fantastic video which shows how the same “money beat” is used across many different styles and eras of popular music, the way in which a similar rhythm is used in most manele.

What’s more, the same people who criticise the poor grammar used in manele will then go home and listen to a Radiohead song in which Thom Yorke says no 42 times in succession.

The questionable attitude of male maneliști towards women is probably the most valid criticism of manele. I remember an instance at a pre-lockdown party when I kept thinking how borderline rapey the words of one track sounded. More troubling is that nobody really seemed to mind – I was the only person to bring it up. And yet while it’s difficult and inadvisable to defend the sexism in manele, it does rather reflect the sexism widely present in Romania as a whole. 

This, after all, is a country where sexual (or any) violence against women is rarely taken seriously by the police, and where the victims are often blamed for provoking their attackers.

Do the questionable-at-best lyrics found in some manele help to validate such attitudes? Almost certainly. But pretending this is a manele-only issue is wrong. Many hip-hop and trap artists from all over the world use distasteful lyrics, yet it’s manele that gets the most criticism. Not only that, but to say “manele are sexist” assumes everyone in the industry is a predator, and ignores (relatively) positive examples such as Mr Juve’s Mișcă din buric (Move your belly button) whose second verse concludes with Come on Juvel, take her home / I would, but she doesn’t want me to, the artist making apparent his respect for the consent of women, and how he decides to call it a night after he realises the girl he fancies isn’t interested in him. 

It also ignores negative examples from western pop music such as Pharell Williams and Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit Blurred Lines, dubbed “the most controversial pop song of the decade” by The Guardian. 

For all this, the main reason you need to go a long way to find somebody in Romania who will openly admit to liking manele has nothing to do with sexism. It’s far simpler than that: it’s because, as a modern form of lăutărească music, it is primarily written and performed by Roma. E muzică de țigani (it’s Gypsy music).

This may be a scandalous statement for some Romanians reading this, but it’s true. Publicly hating manele is the most socially acceptable way for people to express their casual racism towards Gypsies, a type of racism which is effectively ingrained in Romanian society, and has been for centuries.

In the recently released documentary YouTube Bazaar, Romanian Gypsy YouTuber Bahoi compares the Roma minority in Romania to African-Americans in the United States. He argues that both ethnicities have a shared history of slavery and borderline systematic oppression by the state, and that both groups see music as a form of escape; black Americans having pioneered rhythm and blues and hip-hop and Roma having a rich history in lăutărească music and, more recently, manele

For a bit of context, Bahoi is a Romanian YouTuber most notable for a video in which he jumps off a railway bridge into the Danube-Black Sea canal, and his freestyle rap performances. He was popular in the late 2000s and early 2010s and has recently seen a resurgence in popularity, culminating in the aforementioned documentary which analyses his influence both on Romanian YouTube as well as Romanian meme culture as a whole, not to mention his native village of Lumina, in Constanța county, where he has donated computers to families too poor to afford proper educational resources.

The ingrained racism that plenty of white Americans have had towards black people and their distaste towards, at first, jazz and blues, and hip-hop, is not too dissimilar to how many Romanians feel towards Gypsies and manele

The most damning bit of evidence that supports this is how despite clear proof that George Enescu, Romania’s best-known composer, admired and was perhaps even inspired by lăutărească music when composing his Romanian Rhapsodies, leading a German critic at the time to mistakenly believe Enescu was Romani himself, musical historians have attempted to whitewash this out of history. Enescu’s first encounter with lăutari was on a childhood trip to Băltățești with his mother, where he saw a taraf band perform. 

Musical historians have tried to “rectify” this by claiming the band was actually composed of Romanian peasants as opposed to Romani lăutari (in an attempt to fit the narrative that the Romanian peasant is a profound genius, one I have had to swallow as a result of studying Romanian literature). They have also tried to hide how throughout his life and career, Enescu met and performed with many lăutari, and how his very first musical lesson was from Nicolae Chioru, a well-known lăutar at the time. 

The distaste for lăutărească music felt by musical historians and many Romanians then and now stems from the same root of the casually racist disapproval of manele: they are both performed by Gypsies. Remember, also, that hating lăutărească music is far harder to justify than the reasons people come up with for hating manele: the lyrics can’t be bad because there either were no lyrics at all or they weren’t as prominent, autotune and cheap electronic sounds were yet to be invented, and the rhythm that plagues many manele songs hadn’t yet been adopted as the norm (lăutărească music has a bit more rhythmic variety and tends to be faster).

A positive comparison I can offer is, believe it or not, Bulgaria, where although there are still problems with racism, their equivalent of manele, known as chalga, is far more accepted and is broadcast on all music channels, as opposed to Romania where manele tend to be broadcast mainly on specialist channels such as Taraf TV (although they do often sneak on to mainstream channels at certain times of the year, such as New Year’s Eve. Maneliști are also popular guests on daytime talk shows). It might be tempting to call this musical apartheid, although I believe that’s a step too far. 

Bulgaria’s chalga might actually be the source of many Romanian manele; an exchange student programme to Burgas last year left me speechless as I discovered most manele you find in Romania resemble Bulgarian chalga songs. I don’t mean similar melodies or rhythms: they’re the same songs but with Romanian lyrics. Or maybe it’s the other way around?

A recurring theme in this piece has been how in Romania manele are about – and are mostly heard at – parties. It’s no secret that different styles of music are suited for different occasions – one is not likely to blast Beethoven at a rave, nor is one going to meditate to Tzancă Uraganu.

So ignore what my friends – or anyone else in Romania – tells you about manele during the day. Give them a drink and put Vreau să beau cu frații mei (I want to drink with my brothers) by Liviu Guță and Șușanu on a sound system, and they’ll start shouting all the words at you while jumping up and down. 

The justification they’ll probably give you is that they’re “making fun” of manele or that they’re listening to the music “ironically”.

Except there is no such a thing as listening to music “ironically”. You’re either listening to it or you’re not. Irony doesn’t come into it.

Manele have become a staple of Romanian culture, exemplified by the permanent display on the subject at the Romanian Kitsch Museum in Bucharest (30 lei for entry is a bit steep, but it’s good fun). Seeing a clueless Scottish friend of mine burst out laughing upon hearing an Adi Minune song play at the museum was somewhat heartwarming, as he seemed to enjoy it nonetheless. 

Yes, the lyrics of manele can be nonsensical and outright sexist, the singers can often appear to be too close to organised crime (but then so do many Romanian politicians), and the production is dreadful. But manele are not going away anytime soon.

Most Romanians are rather happy about that fact. Just don’t ever expect them to admit as much.

Photo: Vali Vijelie (Vali the Whirlwind) in full flow. Vali Vijelie official Facebook page.

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