At the beginning of the ‘90s, after the fall of the communism regime, a distinctive but blurry map of cultural capitalism took shape in Romania, with lots of intersections, exceptions and indistinct borderlines. People started to embrace the values of a new and forgotten democracy; since the censorship was no longer an important issue, a lot of Romanian musicians and bands started to extend their audio recordings to wider audiences.
The pseudo-underground music retreated further in the 80s as isolation increased. Experimental bands disappeared or transformed, releasing only naively utopian, easy listening tunes and albums. But in partial isolation other genres emerged, unexpected mutants like proto-manele, kind of working-class party/restaurant music, or an Indian-Oriental 8-bit combination. Amongst the most significant bands of this decade are Generic, Azur, Albatros, Tomis Jr., Îngerii Negri, Real B., Novomatic and others. None of them will make it into mainstream come the end of the decade.
Most of the proto-manele bands were released on the Romanian record label Eurostar, which started producing music on vinyl records made in their factory, then diversified its activities by going to the production of audio cassettes, video CDs and DVDs. Most of the bands were produced by Paul Stîngă, a young proto-manele mogul manufacturer - at that time. Since the cassette format was the most accessible, very few bands made it on wax.
The music from that decade (’89 to ’99) - which is partly featured on this mixtape - is produced rudimentary, with naïve orchestrations and simple (but meaningful) lyrics, often dealing with generic themes like loss, love, poverty, alcoholism, ethnic racism (especially gipsy), small illicit business, migration experience, melodramatic chants and love laments.
After 2000, the music industry got swamped by a huge number of manele bands and singers. Romanian manele - the contemporary Rroma music that has spread around the Balkans with different flavors and modulations - is living off the wedding industry. Musicians release singles and YouTube videos just to ensure the flow of wedding gigs (similar to dabke or halay artists). Sometimes the music is hybridized with pop and dance beats in an attempt at the mainstream, but local manele stars usually earn their main money at mafia bosses’ family events. Around 2005, Manele music started to become a cultural issue for the masses and produced a radical schism between different generations and social layers.
This special episode of our From the Archive Podcast comprises a selection of songs from the first wave of proto-manele ('89 - '99), all compiled into a continuously vinyl DJ mix. Tune in, turn on, let the party start !
*photo credits: Bianca Chica-Ros