Romanian Flowerings

Romanian Flowerings

Written by:

Andrew Choate


September 13, 2018

1. A Single Flower

The only 24-hour businesses in Bucharest are flower shops and funeral homes. The concerts that took place after midnight during Outernational Days 2 were across the street from a long stretch of flower vendors. One of my friends was playing in a new ensemble on the second night, so after the concerts in the afternoon and early evening in the Uranus Garden, I walked over to the flower vendors with the intention of buying her a flower, which I wanted to present to her after her performance – I had a feeling she was going to shine, boldly, and I wanted to give her something to symbolize the accomplishment.

So I walked over to a vendor and pointed at a flower I wanted, a single flower. Of course, the vendor wanted me to buy an entire bouquet, for a price of 100 Romanian lei (about $25.) When I communicated that I just wanted a single flower, I held up the one I chose and started counting leu, with the intention of paying about 20 ($5.) The vendor got offended and started repeating “cadeau, cadeau” (gift) and dismissing me with a wave of her hand. I tried to get her to take my money, but she wouldn’t have it. “Cadeau,” she repeated, shooing me away. I was embarrassed. I had a friend with me, two more were watching the scene from a couple steps away, and a dozen strangers were now turning their heads. I tried one more time to offer more money, but was again dismissed.

Abashed and a little fazed, I took the flower and walked away, unsure of myself but sure of the gesture I wanted to make to my friend. (Her performance later that night was indeed transcendent, and the flower was given and received in the spirit in which it was intended.) But my interaction with the flower vendor lingered. For the vendor, I was a foreigner speaking English (and bad French) in Bucharest, so I could surely afford spending 100 lei. For me, I was thinking too short-term: I simply didn’t want to burden my friend with a grandiose bouquet of flowers she would have to look after for the rest of the evening, in addition to her instruments. In retrospect, I feel that I let the blissful simple-mindedness of my intent bleed over into the attitude I brought with me regarding what I thought would be a simple economic transaction with a flower vendor. But cross-cultural transactions are never simple, they are always imbued with political complexity. Over three days in July of 2017, the Outernational Days 2 festival addressed this complexity and celebrated the richness that emerges when artists mine and honor the specifics of their environments and lives.

2. Aesthetic Spectacularity

Les Filles De Illighadad
Les Filles De Illighadad

The festival began the day before, Friday, July]7, 2017, in the beautiful and big Uranus Garden, with Massicot, an all-girl Swiss quartet with a no-wave early-Boredoms vibe and ska-level energy. I immediately gravitated to the front of the stage and danced like my soul depended on it. (Little did I know, I had a lot of dancing to do over the next three days.) The singer Mara Krastina played a tiny, red electric bass with three strings; the way she plays is charming and devastating. Their rhythms seem inspired by MC Escher staircases, like tying This Heat, Wire, and The Ex together with a film noir soundtrack. The overall effect is so focused and immediate that I thought about a four-star restaurant making exceptionally good chicken nuggets.

The Hamburg-based electronics and drums duo Circuit Diagram appeared next, joined by the Turkish/ German saz virtuoso Derya Yildirim. Unfortunately this set was marred by some sound difficulties as Yildirim’s saz was appearing and disappearing from the mix. Even more unfortunately, they sounded fucking amazing when all three were audible: super-psychedelic wah-wah saz, with all the wild overtones that instrument can produce, in combination with funky rolling drum patterns and thick synth beeps and loops that constantly evolved. Yildirim was visibly disappointed, rightly so, but the music they hinted at was so soaringly gorgeous it filled my mind with imaginings of magical potentials. They also set the tone for a lot of the bands that appeared later in the festival - combining traditional instruments or forms with the freshest of perspectives and the grooviest of results.

When I started looking into the bands that were about to play at this festival, I started in the order of the program. After I got to Les Filles de Illighadad, I stopped. I was absolutely blown away by a video I found of the quartet of three Nigerian women and one man. The singing and the percussion were so unusual for me I was stunned. I didn’t need or want to know anything else about the bands I would see. Live, I didn’t even need to be close to the stage; Les Filles de Illighadad induced a trance-like acceptance of all things via voice and rhythm. I felt cleansed listening to them; anything vile or bitter can’t exist in the same space as their music. They played for forty-five minutes and I wondered about what their performances were like in their native Niger, because it seemed to me like the kind of thing I would want to hear for four hours straight, going deeper and deeper into the undulating rhythms and the sharp yet blended tonalities of their ensemble singing.

It may sound like I’m having revelations left and right, because I am, but the biggest revelation of the entire festival for me was the discovery of manele, an entire genre of Romanian music that combines midi-controlled instruments with beats and singing. A short history, as I understand it, is that traditional Arabic, Turkish, Serbian and other folk songs from the region–the kind of stuff that would be sung at weddings, birthdays and other celebrations–underwent a radical change when electronics, and specifically midi-based electronics, were introduced in the 1980s. Instead of needing a large ensemble for all the sounds, you could condense the band and still get the good gigs. The music adapted to a combination of raw folk song and free-wheeling digital harmonics. My first exposure to this music was Shamanelism, a band made up of midi-controlled clarinet, midi-controlled electric violin, drums, bass guitar, two keyboard synths, and a coterie of flutes. Even if your feet hurt, as mine did, you had to dance to the music to be able to hear it. I had never heard anything like it - part pop schmaltz, part folk music, part experimental electronica, plus grandiloquent MCing, so badass.

The festivities wrapped up at the Uranus Garden and we walked over to the Ark for the late-night sets. I spent the first couple hours hanging out with friends and talking so didn’t experience much of the DJ sets by Seltene Erden and Doug Shipton, but I made my way to the front of the stage for Italy’s BABAU, a young duo focused on making a combo of synths and traditional instruments seem like a seamless, timeless, cosmic mindfuck. They were also joined by a drummer for this set and it was groovy, droney, spacey, and––because of the old wooden flute with a tweaked sonority––incredibly earthy and fire-laden. The music implied tales of inexplicable activities told around a fire, fitting for a band named after the Boogeyman. It made me think that in fifteen or twenty years this kind of music could be dominant: real history, real traditional instruments, real emotion, real abstraction, a real conjuring of possibility out of the ether, and appropriately spooky for such an activity. And you can dance to it!

Istanbul’s iNSANLAR was next, a band featuring small hand percussion, deep bass, baglama and vocals. The psychedelic side of the baglama was again in effect, this time with a huge, rumbling bass sound that only subwoofers can provide. By this time the pattern of combining traditional instruments and modern styles of multiple genres into one cohesive ensemble was undeniable, and while the pattern was proving consistent, the results were so radically distinctive and authentic to each band’s sound that I firmly realized I was standing in the future. iNSANLAR was high energy, with soul-piercingly tragic, broken vocals and the deftest percussive touch, all emphasized by an undercurrent of throbbing dance music that somehow highlighted the soulfulness of the acoustic instruments. On paper, this kind of thing shouldn’t work, but the radicality pushes so hard against the edge of reason and expectation that aesthetic spectacularity reigns.

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3. Day 2


The next afternoon I attended the panel discussion on cultural appropriation, but it didn’t touch on the most salient aspect of the issue - the economic reality of how it works, nor did the discussion broach the strange phenomenon of all the deep music-heads all over the world listening to the same thing at the same time, the way Les Filles de Illighadad took over the minds of all those in-the-know last year. Raed Yassin, ever the honest artist, did make a powerful point when he said that “everything is interesting, even the wars,” implying that, yes, war is terrible shit, but it produces incredible confrontations between cultures that inevitably ends in new kinds of food and fucking and culture.

A panel discussion on manele followed, but as it was in Romanian, I couldn’t follow it, so I went to take a nap under a tree.

Social Insects, a Swiss improvising duo of Hans Koch and Gaudenz Badrutt, were the first to take the big outdoor stage on Saturday. I’m familiar with experiencing this kind of music live, but the bigness of the space made the abstracted tangle of lines produced by this bass clarinet and computer duo feel small. Improvised music has developed for the last 50 years in much smaller venues, and the music has developed to the size and intimacy of small venues with quiet listening; it is more suited to crowds of 40 people, or 400 maximum, rather than giant open spaces made for 4,000.

There was a lot of outstanding fashion on view in the audience at this festival, but my favorite ensemble was a woman wearing a long, thin, black cape with a stencil of a giant peacock on the back, and the word “Sayonara” stitched in lavish cursive font, to be read as she walked away and the cape fluttered.

A solo by Görkem Şen on the Yaybahar, an invented instrument that has to be seen to be believed, proved perfect to an afternoon of lulling and listening in the garden. The Yaybahar is a wooden string and spring instrument with percussive elements and an ethereal sound, like spirits bursting from the exhaled bubbles of an extinct animal. It was evocative and relaxing but the substance was a big, hearty sound, somehow romantic and spiritual, like a good sex fantasy, or folk music from an interplanetary moon.

I knew the Swiss/ Lebanese duo Praed (Paed Conca on clarinet and Raed Yassin on electronics/vocals) from a set I had experienced by Praed+ a couple years before, but what was awesome about this set was seeing how they completely controlled the huge crowd. Ever wondered how to make extended technique clarinet freakouts intensely accessible? Add rhythm tracks from generic Arabic pop music and the charismatic moves of a dancing and sweating DJ/MC. The combination sounds like a dorky kid practicing clarinet to the radio while the electricity in the apartment isn’t very good, so the sounds from the radio come out distorted, sometimes at double or triple speed, or ultra-languid at half hyperspeed. It’s actually a harsh juxtaposition, but Yassin’s stage presence is so welcoming that he trains our ears to accept the juxtaposition as natural: reality + the imagination, in one convenient package. When lyrics like “Ai Weiwei/ LSD/Ai Weiwei/ LSD” become a chant that the crowd is singing, you know you’ve developed a pretty distinctive party vibe.

The last set in the garden was a dud. Mircea Florian is a beloved Romanian multi-instrumentalist whose career has seen him move from folk to psychedelia to computer music and installation art; he’s been all over the place since the late 1960s. As a shapeshifter, it was no surprise that he was remaking himself again for this set, this time as a kind of softcore R&B lounge singer, but with lasers and some kind of nod to manele. Two of the musicians from Shamanelism were in his band, in fact, but even they couldn’t help salvage any energy from this tepid, half-cocked affair.

Then it was time for the late-night sets at the Ark. KӣR’s modular synth solo shook me to the core. Wet and slithery tones rolled obtusely in crystalline patterns that boggled the mind and entranced the body. The rhythms were angular but the tones were soft, or the rhythms were peaceful and the sounds were chainsaws wielded by a rusty robot. Everyone on the dance floor wanted to move, and did, but they couldn’t really figure out how to move to this. It was inviting but insane, harsh but calm. I saw one girl struggle to find a suitable reaction with her body, and then decide to stick her ass right in front of the 3 foot subwoofer. Kudos.

I began this festival recap with the story of me and the flower, and the next set was the one I bought it for. Downstairs from where all the other action had taken place at the Ark, a quintet of two Romanians––Bogdana Dima (saxophone and accordion) and Diana Miron (violin)––joined three Lebanese––Rabih Beaini (electronics), Mazen Kerbaj (trumpet), and the aforementioned Raed Yassin (doublebass)––for a semi-directed improvisation. Intercultural improvisation is nothing new, but this quintet coalesced with the naturalness of baked bread. The long room was quite dark and the audience was sitting on the floor. The music felt scary and desperate and soothing and necessary. These musicians have such distinct vocabularies on their instruments that to hear all the different personalities make sense together was thrilling. In terms of sound, space, need, love, action - it was one of the most riveting improvisations I’ve witnessed. Now, more than a year later, I remember specific gestures and interactions that occurred, but, more radiantly, I remember the mood created - a mood to hold fear and lust and resolve and growth amid darkness.

I was so deeply touched by that set of music that I needed a break and went outside for a bit. By the time I came back in, Düsseldorf’s Toresch was in full effect, the slippery vocals and commanding presence of Viktoria Wehrmeister pooling the focus of the audience as their heartbeats matched the throbbing insistency of the beats. I sunk into it and loved the plunge, but my body said I had to go home, so I reluctantly left before it was over.

4. Day 3

Florin Salam with band
Florin Salam with band

I showed up to the garden the next afternoon for the artist talk by Octavian Nemescu, one of my favorite composers in terms of democratizing every instrument, whether it be a computer, a synthesizer, a piece of percussion or an oboe, and then making outrageously expansive music. (I am really hoping his book “The Semantic Capacities of Music” gets translated in my lifetime.) Sensibly, though, the talk was in Romanian, so I just listened for the sonics of the language.

Afterwards, on the same little side stage, trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj played a solo. If you’ve never seen him live, he augments the trumpet with all sorts of accoutrements, and takes it apart as he sees fit. I was watching Nemescu watching Kerbaj and nodding his head in approval; now that’s a proper history of music. Kerbaj moved his trumpet around the microphone like a fly around a carcass. A guy near me in the audience was crushing and uncrushing his water bottle in what seemed like a passive-aggressive protest regarding the subtlety and quotidianity of Kerbaj’s sonics; he was softly admonished and stopped. Mazen himself had several cups that he used to mute the trumpet and swirl marbles around inside, and then he crushed his own cup. With his trumpet perpendicular to the ground and held between his knees, he put a small drum head on top and swirled more marbles in it as the drum head wriggled from the breath coming at it from below; another guy in the audience slowly cascaded his fingers across his girlfriend’s arm in the same rhythm, totally fitting since everything Kerbaj does is so loving, of sound and situation.

On the same stage, an iteration of the PFA Orchestra, a varied collective of improvising musicians from the region stretching from Romania to Hungary and Serbia, performed with guitar, bass, voice, percussion and voice, violin and voice, saxophone and voice, and voice plus effects. It was quite disjointed, which surprised me since Diana Miron and Bogdana Dima from the night before had made such exquisite music in the quintet. The members of the band themselves were dissatisfied after the performance, which was sad to see because they are great people, and failure is an inherent part of improvisation. I wrote a poem while I listened:

team receptacle
team donut
team reward
team turbulence
team tender
team stranger
team contraption
team off
team conditions
team colors
team corner
team trample
team company
team diminish
team horizon
team coupled
team wretched
team cascade
team cessy

The festival transitioned to the main stage in the garden for a concert by the Austrian musician Stefan Fraunberger. For this set, he played a small cymbalom over a dense, electronic drone, somehow combining heavy metal and new age music into the perfect soundtrack for an early-evening head-massage. I got a sense of the power of invisibility.

The nice thing about drinking beer the temperature of a horse’s mane is that you won’t get swept up by the river, your mouth will be a flyswatter, and the hydraulic will not discover the regularity of your heart palpitations in its thyroid. Kenya’s Ogoya Nengo and the Dodo Women’s Group came on next. A young mother near me held her three year old child sideways, and played her bum like a drum. Phenomenal vocal juxtapositions from the multiple singers were punctuated by a variety of hand percussion, and the combination of such fundamental sounds made the band seem close no matter how far away you were.

The name Mark Ernestus’ Ndagga Rhythm Force makes me uncomfortable. Celebrity techno producer Ernestus assembled a group of Senagalese mbalax players, dancers and singers into a band to tour for European audiences. I get it: the band wouldn’t exist without him. And I’m sure they need his name to sell the project, and I’m sure the musicians are happy to have gigs and get paid. I also don’t really care about arguments regarding in/authenticity, because whatever sounds good, sounds good. But after seeing so much live music over the weekend, music that came from the depths of the artists’ beings, this project sounded stiff and packaged. The drumming was solid, the dancing was mesmerizing, but the overall performance seemed like something I was being sold, not a heartfelt gesture. It was the first time all weekend that I felt like part of a demographic rather than a member of an audience of music-lovers, and it was discomfiting.

The final set of the festival was manele's biggest star, Florin Salam. Because manele is controversial in Romania, and Salam the genre’s biggest name, the anticipatory energy for this performance was metaphysically present everywhere, from the sand in the garden to the sky we were breathing to the tables in the bar covered with sticky alcohol spills to the words being spoken between two fresh acquaintances. Salam plays private parties almost exclusively, so the chance to perform in front of a public was momentous. I had been schooled on manele, and Salam in particular, over the last several days, and even I was jittery before he took the stage. The band came out and did a long intro for him, full of midi and synth and percussion. When he finally appeared, night had fallen, and the crowd howled. The saxophone sound veered between Blurt’s Ted Milton and Spyro Gyra’s Jay Beckenstein, somehow smoothly. Salam’s stage presence combines the audacity of Gucci Mane and the chaotically happy theatrics of Sammy Davis, Jr. The band played amped-up, popped-out, freakified csardas, with a vibe similar to that of super-popular narcocorrido ensembles like Los Bukanas de Culiacan or Los Tigres Del Norte. The sense of the intensity of the set for the audience––public performances being so exceptionally rare––and the specialness of the moment was also visible for the members of the band, as they took selfies and pictures of the giant wave of undulating audience members. For Salam in particular, you could see the tears of joy and gratitude on his face as he finally got an opportunity to sing to his people.

Outernational Days 3 runs September 19-23rd; come join us and get revelationary.

About the Author

Andrew Choate

Andrew Choate is an artist and writer, born and raised in South Carolina. Author of works such as "Stingray Clapping", "Language Makes Plastic of the Body", and, most recently, "Learning", a self-help/mystery collage.

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