On the Manelization of Romania in Identitarian Times

On the Manelization of Romania in Identitarian Times

November 3, 202013-15 minutes read

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Manelization is a term claiming that Romania is being transformed into a manele-country, where the manele ethics becomes the main aspect of society. Inherently racist, this critique of Roma pop has deeper roots than what one might think.

We are sometimes in the '70s, most probably during the New Year's Eve—the public TV station presents a lăutari music program featuring Gabi Luncă, accompanied by a striking ensemble led by her husband, the accordionist Ion Onoriu. The aesthetics produced by the communist TVR works lightly with the visual symbolism of that era—a remix that contains a call to tradition viewed in a modernist way, acting as an hauntologic marker 50 years after, as the manifestation of a specific "cultural moment", as Mark Fisher said in his book Ghosts of My Life. The music itself has an enduring tradition here, one that stretches long before this precise moment in which Gabi Luncă's incredible voice is captured by the microphones of a TV studio to be spread on the air across the country.
Addressing large audiences, live and also on YouTube, manele singers perform happy and sorrow songs for mainly non-Roma audiences who identify with the lyrics that talk about their own lives, reproducing the historical connection between Roma and non-Roma in a difficult process of identity construction through negation, keeping the two worlds artificially separated.
What the artist born in the Prahova village of Vărbilău sings on that TV show is, by any common sense definition in this world, a manea—certainly one that is performed in the political language of her time. In the broader scheme of cultural identity produced by the local politics in the 70s, this Romani music had a place of its own within the official culture, connected to the discoursive engines of an authenticity that could afford to be inclusive at least on the surface.

A shortcut takes us abruptly in 2001, July 17th. In the 29th issue of 22 magazine, edited by a non-governmental organization named The Group for Social Dialogue, Andrei Oișteanu, presented as an ethnologist, anthropologist, writer and historian of religions and mentalities, signs an article called "Țara Meșterului Manele"—a word pun using the character's name from a local founding legend, Meșterul Manole—from which we allow ourselves to quote: "I recently saw a poster on the streets of Bucharest, which advertised a disco 'with no manele music'. If young Romanians ended up dancing manele in discos (and we see this not only in Bucharest, but also in Timișoara, one of the strongholds of Central Europe), it would seem that the war with the Ottomans was lost. As once upon a time, in the 16th century, the ruler of Wallachia was Turkishized (Mihnea Vodă became Mehmet-Bey), now it seems that Wallachia itself was Turkishized. We are slowly becoming a Turkish colony, relapsing to the Phanariot era and mentality". Oișteanu perceived Romania as an economical realm whose fertility could be in danger of being completely vampirized by the ubiquitous Turkish companies—Turkish banks, Turkish shops, Turkish pubs. The Romanians themselves were lured by the Turks to spend their money on cheap holidays in Antalya. Most shockingly, Romanian football fans took to the streets when "Galata Saray team" (n.a. - sic!) won. The manele music trend will probably subside eventually, says Andrei Oișteanu, nevertheless it's symptomatic for a Romanian society no longer looking in the right direction: “It gives the measure of a society immersed in triviality."

Between România Mare party and Vacanța Mare comedy group (both of an involuntary nauseating humor), between the telenovelas fever and the Surprize, surprize TV show, between Iosif Constantin Drăgan unveiling a monument of Ion Antonescu and the orthodox priests demanding their collaboration with the secret police not to be made public, the manele music subculture is at home". Leaving aside the author's last two references, his reaction is indicative for the local cultural aristocracy—a lordly aversion for pop culture and by extension, for its producers and consumers and a rampant fear that they might decide the direction Romania is heading, in 2001 or before. In "Muzică Orientală: Identity and Popular Culture in Postcommunist Romania", the 3rd chapter of Balkan Popular Culture and the Ottoman Ecumene, Margareth H. Beissinger remarks that recognizing manele music fans and enemies is "crucial to understand its role in postcommunist Romanian identity construction".

There is nothing new under the sun—in "A History of the Manea" (Manele in Romania. Cultural Expression and Social Meaning in Balkan Popular Music, 2016), Costin Moisil reminds us that the new elites lived with the same fears in the 19th century: "The aversion to manele—or at least a slightly contemptuous attitude of superiority—could be met among the progressive intellectuals, be they Transylvanian, Wallachian, or Moldovan. For Barițiu, Petrescu, Odobescu, or Bishop Melchisedek, the manea was the music of the 'uncivilized, corrupt Muslim' Orient". Then as now, for various reasons our cultural identity was strongly disputed between West and East.
Romica Puceanu, Gabi Luncă - Muzică lăutărească casette tape, Electrecord, 1977 (source: Discogs)
Romica Puceanu, Gabi Luncă - Muzică lăutărească casette tape, Electrecord, 1977 (source: Discogs)
The year of 2001 could be the one of the escalation of a major cultural conflict within the Romanian society that emerged from the more than difficult decade of the so-called transition from communism to capitalism. Those were the times when some "brigades" did not unite with the others, to quote a famous song by Florin Salam, but started to operate a sanitization work that went to the core of an increasingly profitable entertainment industry—the one place where manele and dance pop music, for example, got along very well at the time. The danger that Oișteanu, George Pruteanu, and all those hot-headed guests of Marius Tucă Show on TV, and all the other apologists of the detoxification of orientalism and triviality through westernization were afraid of was the very loss of identity. What could be interesting here is the fact that among the counter arguments the cultural elites, followed by an emerging middle class, threw in this guerrilla war there were songs such as the one performed by Gabi Luncă. The appeal to authenticity, to the purest form of lăutărie as an incomparable art form works flawlessly in the game of polarization—virtuosity versus lack of talent, honesty versus artificiality. But if we admit that "Bambina", the nineties hit of Adrian Copilul Minune, is one of the updates to "Mama mea e florăreasă", we can believe in a principle of continuity, in a continuum so specific to pop music. There is also a continuum in what we might call the assertion of the manelization threat.

From claims such as “We witness in our region a total manelization for the public discourse and political vocabulary. Literal manelization, also conceptually, through vocabulary” (Dan Alexe, Radio Free Europe) to "We do not mind Guță’s manea song, but we revolt against the manelization of Romania" (Ionel Dancă, National Liberal Party spokesperson, during the 2019 election campaign), the condemned connection between pop music and politics is ever present in the local discourse. Manelization attacks the idea of a Roma culture that becomes mainstream, with all the well-known stereotypes—lack of formal education, swearing, antisocial behaviour, lack of class adequacy, dilettantism etc., transforming the Romanian social body into something that is not. Of course, this process is an illusion and it can be easily reasoned against but our interest in this aspect is the connection of social transformation to pop music.

Part of a cultural industry that plays globally, manele performs quite well the discrepancy between what they really are and what they pretend they are at their peak success. The manele songs benefit from the sophisticated technology of dissemination to create taste and play the card of musical democratization, liberal individual diversity but also, through their standardization and the conventional style of their consumption, manele music functions also as hyper-efficient tool for matching collective attitudes and beliefs to social norms.

The idea of manelization is not new and one can find its predecessor in Lăutărism, a concept explored by the philosopher Constantin Noica in similar negative panicking terms: the threat of joining the ranks of lăutărism is ever present and can make anyone a victim. Its meaning relates the social explanation of reality to the imitative manner of cultural production, the focus on improvisation, lack of creativity and measure, bad taste, immediate success, banal and exotic folklorism, untrustworthiness: "At the immediat level below that of the man of great stature, the creative polyhistorism of the Romanian, his openness to too many things at once, his comprehending lacking of profoundness and vision, become lăutărism. I haven't found a more suitable term and I am not looking for another one either, because it is all about the triumph of playing it 'by ear', of doing it like Barbu Lăutaru, who astonished Liszt with the ease with which he played a never heard before song".

Lăutărism, a naming connected to the old Romani musicians, lăutari, the former slaves of the social elites, is followed by Noica historically from the eighteenth century, in an attempt to separate the true elites from the corrupted imitators. Surely, Barbu Lăutaru got to impress Franz Liszt but that wouldn’t come close enough for the Romanian philosopher to create a culture. An identity.
Various Artists,
Various Artists, "Colecția Manele" 2001 CDr, Atomic, 2001. (source: Discogs)

To Lăutari

The notion of Roma lăutari played a different role historically, in the process of modernization. The slave abolitionists from Wallachia and Moldavia were also the architects of the nineteenth century construction of the idea of a modern Romanian nation. They tried to answer a fundamental question related to Roma slavery through a mere historical, but colossal fantasy of inter-subjectivity: who are we? The concern for the understanding of Roma-non-Roma relations has intensified especially between 1830-1860. In the process of presenting a more positive image of Roma slaves, the abolitionists focused on the enslaved lăutari, the Roma musicians. Lăutarii are the predecessors of manele musicians who usually call themselves also lăutari. They were considered models of integration in the Romanian society, due to their proximity to the slave-owner’s family and as keepers of Romanian folklore and traditions.

How to understand manele and lăutărească (the music produced by lăutari)? Talking about manele and traditional Roma music, one can easily fall into the trap of “academic difference-seeking tourism” or, in a less sophisticated way, of daily and neverending comments on how they are so different from us which reinforcers the claim of ontological separation and grows the fear of mixing.

Until the late 19th century, in Romanian countries playing music was a profession reserved exclusively for Roma slaves. The music in the Romanian countries is irredeemably linked to the lăutari slaves: the first mentions of the musicians from the Romanian countries appear in the 16th century documents concerning the sale or donation of Roma slaves (in 1558, in Bucharest, King Mircea The Shepard gives Ruste, the Lăutar, to Dingă, the Steward, from Moldavia, and in 1565 The Steward Dingă buys from Barcan, the Wallachian Equerry, for the price of 4000 Turkish silver coins, a group of Roma slaves, including Tâmpa, the Lăutar). Roma performers and lăutari were associated with 500 years of slavery, and their proximity to the boyar and ruler made them intimate slaves in their houses. As an old lăutar but also manele performer once told us after a concert in 2016, “we are still hated by other Roma people because we, lăutarii, were sitting at the same table with the boyar and we were wearing his old clothes and shoes”, the subjectivity formation being strongly influenced by a spiral inter-identification (for the boyar subjectivity also) which nevertheless maintained the strict power structures unchallenged and with strong effects over centuries.

The lăutar was the strongest example of the production of the Romanian self in opposition and symbiosis to the Romani self through the specific connection to cultural production and proximity of the Roma slave musician to the boyar. In this sense, the Romanian representation of Roma people plays a central role in the identity construction through negation even nowadays. We can take into consideration the never-ending debate about the naming confusion Roma-Romanian that is brought up on any occasion of a public discussion of Roma-Romanian dynamics and its implications for the Roma and Romanian identity construction. Also, as the Roma historian Florin Manole observes, through its social and psychosocial implications the Gypsy-Roma dispute can be considered “the center of the Roma identitarian project”.

In their effort to build a modern nation, the liberal boyars considered lăutarii as keepers of a folk Romanian spirit through their music and lyrics, a necessary element in the national building process. As the most used example of the Romanianized slaves, through their condition of home slaves (or vătrași) and constructed in the abolitionist discourse in contradiction to the Roma nomads, for the main abolitionist Mihail Kogălniceanu, the lăutari were a model of integration into the Romanian culture following the pattern: “Vătrașii (...) do not look like other gypsies; they forgot their language, they lost their customs… Vătrașii are the most civilized and they deserve the whole freedom”. Abolitionism took in many cases the form of forced Romanianization of the Roma people after the abolition of slavery, various assimilation projects (which were difficult to implement for a new state which lacked modern institutions) focused from the start on the annihilation of the Roma ethnic and cultural identity and the transformation of the former slaves into “new Romanians”.

In the context of the 1848 Revolution, the Roma emancipation from slavery was linked to the agrarian reform and the Roma slave was represented in numerous instances by the image of the lăutar, as Ion Ionescu de la Brad wrote in Pruncul Român/The Romanian Child in 1848: "From a mistake in the making, let us address the means of production: the fiddle is the tool of the lăutar, the earth is the tool of the peasant; let us now emancipate these two producers and see what will come out: you take the fiddle from the lăutar, you take the land from the peasant and then neither one nor the other will feed on the sweat of his brow".
Theodor Aman, Petrecere cu lăutari, (around 1884), mnar.ro
Theodor Aman, Petrecere cu lăutari, (around 1884), mnar.ro
Ion Ghica gives a series of important details about Wallachia during 1812-1818, and he does not avoid mentioning the lăutari of the era: "Art was unknown. In the whole Bucharest there was only one piano and a harp. The music belonged to the lăutari and church singers". These lăutari were present in all the bigger cities or the burgs of the Romanian principalities, at the disposal of their masters at any hour. In the middle of the night, the bands of lăutari were forced to sing for those women to whom the boyars were sentimentally attached, giving voice to the desires of their masters. There were cases in which women fell in love with the voice from the street and the words spoken by the Roma slave, being deceived at the sight of the master who could not be associated with the words of love. Also, at night, the band in the street was associated with the presence of the boyar in love, the group being inseparable. The band that sang in the veranda of the house of the girl to be married functioned often only as a diversion, while the boyar was actually in the girl's room. The lyrics of the romance song performed by the slaves were based on the boyar's love story, but they were adapted, versified and put on music by the lăutari. Also, the same lăutari were responsible for keeping the songs from father to son, long after the love story had died.

Radu Rosetti's memoirs give us more details about the relationship between the boyar and his lăutari slaves: "I have not heard that a boyar has ever taken the fiddle in his hand, or tried to soften the heart of his lover by the accents of his voice. Sighs played a very significant role in these blue-hearted songs, but they always came out of the copper-colored chests of the Gypsies. When the boyar thought that a sigh would give more power to the song played by the lăutar, he whispered to him: 'Sigh, crow!' (a derogatory term for Roma people), and if he thought that the sigh was not deep enough, he would order with a still obedient voice, but harsher: 'Sigh louder, crow!'. That terrible luxury in servants cost the boyar very little".

The love lyrics would not have been preserved without the effort of lăutari, and these songs of the world were gathered in some cases by the boyar pioneers of pre-modern poetry, such as the Văcărești boyars (especially Alecu and Nicolae, the sons of Ienăchiță), great lovers of lăutari songs. They also took the paternity of the songs, although the lyrics of their erotic stories were altered and put on music by the subordinate Roma musicians and lyricists. The names and the authorship of the Roma musicians were lost; by being the possession of the boyar, their intellectual propriety and their artistry were also owned by their masters. Considered to be the first author of romances and songs of the world, the mandarin Alecu Văcărescu gathered on paper the songs of the lăutari and freed his fiddler from slavery at the end of the eighteenth century. These songs of the world were published later by Anton Pann and intensely circulated.
Poet Alecu Văcărescu, portrait by Anton Chladek
Poet Alecu Văcărescu, portrait by Anton Chladek
The boyars’ lack of respect for musicians contradicts their need to be accompanied musically by the Roma slaves they owned and who were constantly in their immediate proximity with the special task of giving voice to their inner feelings. The Roma lăutari were present for familiar or official circumstances (the crowning of the rulers, their installation to the throne, diplomatic meetings with representatives of other states, the boyars weddings that could last even for weeks, any party did not lack the music of the slave lăutari) but their two worlds did not meet. When Gheorghe Burada, a young boyar, gave a violin concert at the theater in Iaşi in 1852, the present boyars were resentful for the use of the degrading musical instrument reserved by the boyars for their Roma slaves, Burada being ridiculed, despised and pitied for the incomprehensible moral decay that was exposed to the whole world. Shortly afterwards, Burada gave up on music because of these social prejudices, following a magistrate career, in line with his social status.

Mihail Kogălniceanu mentioned as an argument for the abolition of slavery the talent of the lăutari slaves, able to reproduce without knowing the notes and only by the ear, a sentimental romance or a Beethoven symphony. The aforementioned meeting between Franz Liszt and Barbu Lăutaru in Iaşi was a well-known legend, where the head of the Moldavian lăutari reproduced the improvisations of the Hungarian composer. The decay of Barbu Lăutaru is explained by Vasile Alecsandri as an effect of the abolition of slavery and modernization of the society that wanted German music, waltzes, opera, French quadrilles or Russian mazurkas. Barbu Lăutaru, considered by Alecsandri the preserver of the Romanian folk culture, is rejected by young boyars and his only refuge is the peasant environment: "There we have to win our food, we the lăutari (...) at the horas of the Romanians, where we make the foot plates jump!". Once he became a new Romanian, by erasing his ethnicity, an identity conditioning of the abolition of slavery, Barbu Lăutaru anticipates his disappearance: "From now on, our time has come to disappear, with most of the old customs of the country!". Crying, he asks his cobza, his good days partner, to thank "whom we owe, that we have spent the age in this good and merciful country that has freed the Gypsies!". Those who deserve to receive thanks are "the dear young boyars of the new world," for whom a new age begins, while the elderly lăutari, released from slavery and becoming new Romanians, are destined to disappear as a vestige of the past and a remnant of an old order: “I am going, I am dying / Like an old song!”. This interpretation of Barbu Lăutaru's experience expresses in fact the vision of the young boyars of the 1848 generation, like Alecsandri, who are building for themselves a new modern identity on the ruins of an old society, which also means the physical disappearance of the slaves of their parents, the reminiscence of a too-quickly forgotten world, incarnated by the old freed slave lăutar.

But of course, the lăutari did not disappear together with slavery and their presence and influence in music was constant for the last 200 years, as well as the prejudices towards Roma musicians. A common denomination of the manele club today is the simple “To lăutari”, a place where the manele musicians make the rules and entertain by their own authority.
Manele club, Youtube print screen
Manele club, Youtube print screen
The set up of the manele club differs from the most common manele weddings, baptisms or birthday parties. Addressing large audiences, live and also on YouTube, where the main measure for manele success is the trending place and the millions of viewers, manele singers perform happy and sorrow songs for mainly non-Roma audiences who identify with the lyrics that talk about their own lives, reproducing the historical connection between Roma and non-Roma in a difficult process of identity construction through negation, keeping the two worlds artificially separated. As Romeo Fantastick, a well-known manele singer, told us in an interview: “The lăutari have to know all styles, have to adapt to the crowd, have to sing whatever the public asks for otherwise they are beaten up. That’s how we were taught”.


*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.
About the Author

Paul Breazu & Mihai Lukács

Mihai Lukács is a researcher and artist based in Bucharest.

Paul Breazu is a journalist and DJ, currently involved in projects dealing with the archaeology of Romanian music.

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