Romanian society has undergone dramatic changes since 1989, and few of them are more visible than those in music. For the first time in recent memory, Romanian performers have hit the pop charts in West European countries, but the real battle is here, at home. One of the most outspoken battles is fought around a musical genre that emerged in the early 1990s, the so-called “manele”, whose popularity is only matched by the hatred they elicit from the people bothered by this type of music.
Our reporter went to speak to Speranta Radulescu, a professor of ethnomusicology at the Bucharest Conservatory, who explained the history of the genre:
"This type of music, the ‘manele’, could be encountered in the first decades of the 19th century, and at that time it was music for the local noblemen, the boyars, performed by their gypsy thralls at feasts, it was a slow, nostalgic music, full of sorrow. This was music for the aristocracy. These ‘manele’ started disappearing in the second half of the 19th century, when the country started going western. They were kept alive only by some old time traditional players, and suddenly reemerged towards the end of the 1960s. At that time they were only played among gypsies, among the poorest of the Roma.
They stayed underground until the 1990s, when the ‘manele’ started taking on new forms, which appeared in opposition to the musical forms that passed as traditional during communist times, imposed by the state. Initially they were the music of marginal groups in society, very poor people and swindlers, because both categories were seeking their place in a society that was about to reinvent itself”.
We then asked Speranta Radulescu what accounts for the popularity of this music:
“The ‘manele’ have a strong following among simple teens and youth, especially in the countryside, because of the skill which the singers and composers display. They provide an ambiguous discourse, aimed at the people who are winners. As standard bearers of the modern era, winners are of two kinds: people with access to money and power, meaning the real winners, the corrupt nouveau riche, but also potential winners. They are the target audience for the ‘manele’ singers: those who are willing to learn the subterfuges that open their way towards riches and power. From this perspective, it is clear that the ‘manele’ are immoral, as they are often accused of being, explicitly or implicitly”.
The ‘manele’ are clearly not limited to music, they are part of an entire phenomenon that could be dubbed a subculture. We asked Speranta Radulescu about that:
“The ‘manele’ are not simply music, but a complex phenomenon made up of dance, gestures, behavior, a specific iconography which we are generally tempted to qualify as kitsch, bad taste. Spearheading the attacks against this music genre are intellectuals, especially in terms of the music. The ‘manele’ are the result of the transformation in urban music in Romania, especially southern music, turning into a popular type of music, much loved by the general public.
This new type of music bears a number of fingerprints: the fingerprint of Balkan fusion, of Euro-American consumer music, and that of local music, because they grow out of several types of local Romanian music: urban folklore, Banat music, which in turn has suffered serious Balkan infiltration, and gypsy music of the Banat-Transylvania area.
The ‘manele’ are not just music. As music goes, I don’t know if they can be considered a genre, because the songs are not homogeneous stylistically, and it is hard to find features that are valid for all their components. They are eclectic, but this is something that characterizes most popular music in the post-modern era. This is why young people perceive them as modern music. The ‘manele’ are under constant transformation”.
We asked our expert to provide us with an explanation related to the controversy created by this type of music:
“The ‘manele’ are strongly contested by intellectuals, some of them very visible in society, and this has determined many social strata and media to react in a hostile manner, to the point where there is an almost psychotic reaction from the public. The problem is that, generally speaking, intellectuals ignore the phenomenon, and don’t make an effort to understand its roots, its target, and what they want to express.
The ‘manele’ are a reflection of Romanian society in general, they are an expression of the huge gap that exists between intellectuals and people of very modest means. This is a flaw of Romanian society. They reflect Romanian society as it looks at present, unstable, insecure, marked by corruption. Therefore it is society that has created the ‘manele’, they don’t destroy morals or social structure. They express, not cause things to happen”.