The Polyphonic Search for Authenticity in a Balkan Country Photo by Cosmin Gurau on Unsplash

The Polyphonic Search for Authenticity in a Balkan Country

November 29, 2020

Written by:

Claudiu Oancea

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This article starts from a controversial issue in itself: its focus is on Romania through the lens of the Balkans. But is Romania a Balkan country? Romanians often take diametrically opposed sides on this question. Some shudder at the very thought of such a perspective: for them, Romania is an island of latinity in a Slavic sea.1 Others tend to have a more nuanced and balanced approach on the issue and go beyond the mere spectrum of geography, while reaching the notions of self-colonisation and decolonisation. In the end, it all leads to a very charged definition of the Balkans, not only as a peninsula situated in Southeast Europe, but as a historical construction which bears a multitude of stereotypes and prejudices. Furthermore, the Balkans are at a crossroads of cultures and religions and present a vivid ethnic diversity.

When one takes these aspects and puts them together, one is left with the daunting complexity of defining a national culture through the lens of a construction which is simultaneously transnational and local. This article only aims to underline the complexity of this issue in the realm of Romanian music, based on a selection of musical artefacts which stem from diverse music genres.

From folklorists to composers of classical music, from rock musicians to manele performers, the issue of defining Romanian cultural authenticity in the Balkan context has been a recurring one. Historically, musicians have often sought to express their musical views through text. At the same time, in the context of popular music, the modes of musical expression have evolved, incorporating moving images and artwork, in order to enhance the message of the music and to make it more marketable. All this leads to various discourses of varying complexity, which address the many facets of musical authenticity in the Balkan context.

Discourses of “otherness”, of cultural superiority have existed not only between different states from various parts of Europe, but also on a social level, on the domestic scenes of various states. How have Romanian cultural elites adopted and appropriated these dominant discourses of “progressiveness” versus “backwardness”, which have opposed the West against the East, or the Orient?

The Iron Curtain

The Romanian band Azur. Photo: Nelu Vlad
The Romanian band Azur. Photo: Nelu Vlad

From a geographical point of view, Romania is not part of the Balkans, whose northern border is delineated by the Danube river. Nevertheless, from a geopolitical and cultural point of view, Romania shares a historic legacy with its southern and south-western neighbours, which stretches across centuries. Again, from a geographical point of view, the Balkans are situated in the southern part of Eastern Europe, which has its own history of stereotypes and prejudices that go back centuries. During the second half of the 20th century the famous “Iron Curtain” (a term coined by Winston Churchill in 1946) lay over the eastern, socialist half of Europe. For almost half of a century, Europe was divided between the Western, capitalist side, and the eastern, communist one. From Cold War to detente, and from an Iron Curtain to a “nylon curtain”, these two halves competed against one another, collaborated, and projected their own stereotypes over the other, based on political ideologies and historical background.2

While 1989 represented a moment of rupture, in that it put an end to the Iron Curtain and set about the premises for a unification of Europe, it also allowed for the idea of Eastern Europe to continue, as historian Larry Wolff has argued.3 In a way, one of the reasons (if not the reason) why the metaphor of the “Iron Curtain” was so compelling and arresting was that it reinforced an image that had already been created by Western Europe at least since the 18th century, during the Age of the Enlightenment. During that time, while Western philosophers of the Enlightenment invented and appropriated the notion of “civilisation”, they also projected the opposite image, that of backwardness on that side of Europe that did not fit with their interests.

Until the Enlightenment, the division of Europe had been North versus South, the states of the Italian peninsula versus the barbaric states of the North. Yet during the 18th century, this division moved from the North-South axis to the West-East one, which brought together as part of the same backward image Poland, Russia, the Balkans, Hungary, or Bohemia. During the 19th century, travellers from Western Europe to its Eastern parts annotated and enhanced this image. Geopolitical interests of the major European states and empires only served to reinforce this mental image.

Romanian composers of contemporary music
Romanian composers of contemporary music


The Balkans are part of this larger history of Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, for anyone with a map and the slightest interest in history, it becomes obvious that the region is situated at a crossroads. Geographically, it represents the bridge between Europe and Asia. Culturally and historically, the Balkans have amassed a wealth of diverse peoples, religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), languages (Slavic, Latin, Greek), while retaining several dominant cultural features. In the tradition already mentioned by Wolff, of “inventing” Eastern Europe, The Balkans were invented, as a name, at the beginning of the 19th century by German geographer August Zeune, who used the term Balkanhalbinsel, replacing the older term, that of “European Turkey”.4 Notwithstanding, it should be mentioned that the term itself is of Arab/Turkish origin and it denominates the mountain range of Stara Planina, in Northern Bulgaria. This should come as no surprise, as the Balkan region was under the partial or almost complete dominance of the Ottoman empire for several centuries, since the Middle Ages until the 19th century when several nation-states were formed in the area.

Ironically, one of the reasons the name “Balkan Peninsula” was accepted and promoted by the newly formed Balkan states was the cultural reorientation toward Western European models as a basis for a new European identity. Yet the term, although coined by a West European, on the basis of an Arab/Turkish word soon became pejorative, as part of the larger discourse on Eastern Europe, but with a series of particular twists. The Balkan Wars at the beginning of the 20th century, the communist experience, the conflicts in the former state of Yugoslavia only served to enhance the negative image of the region, as that of an “uncivilised” land of “backwardness”. As historian Maria Todorova has argued, this image is part of a discourse on the Balkans as a whole, which relies on a complex history of cultural prejudice, political ideologies, and geopolitical interests. In her book, Imagining the Balkans, she associates the history of Balkanism with:

(1) innocent inaccuracies stemming from imperfect geographical knowledge transmitted through tradition; (2) the later saturation of the geographical appellation with political, social, cultural, and ideological overtones, and the beginning of the pejorative use of “Balkan” around World War I; and (3) the complete dissociation of the designation from its object, and the subsequent reverse and retroactive ascription of the ideologically loaded designation to the region, particularly after 1989. 5

Todorova’s use of the term “Balkanism” was influenced directly and fore-mostly by the work of Edward Said, Orientalism, originally published in 1978. Said saw the relation between the West and the Orient as an asymmetric relation of power. In his explanation of how the Orient was “Orientalized'', Said argued that the Orient was not only discovered to be Oriental, but that it was discovered that it could be made Oriental.6 In other words, to quote anthropologists Milica Bakić-Hayden, and Robert M. Hayden:

… orientalism refers to pervasive patterns of representation of cultures and societies that privilege a self-confidently “progressive”, “modern” and “rational” Europe over the putatively “stagnant”, “backward”, “traditional” and “mystical” societies of the Orient.7

Notwithstanding the fact that Todorova inspired her use of the term “Balkanism” from Said’s own “Orientalism”, she made a critical distinction between the Balkans as a concrete region and the Orient as an abstract notion, paying attention to the criticism Said garnered for his vagueness of the term. While Said’s Orient was coined from literary and historical representations, mainly from French and British sources, the Balkans were a much more approachable focus, by comparison. Todorova argued in favour of “balkanism” as a concept in itself, not just as a sub-category of “orientalism”.8

Covers of Romanian albums
Covers of Romanian albums


Indeed, one can notice that the 19th and 20th centuries discourse on the region was shaped by its historical transformations in a context which was already marked by rapid changes: the industrial revolution and its aftermath, colonisation and the creation of global empires, the advent of nationalism and the challenges it brought to the geopolitical status quo around the world, the emergence of the bourgeoisie as a new middle class. The emerging nation-states of the Balkans steadily embraced the culture of Western Europe (namely France, but also Germany), while renouncing their Ottoman heritage. At the same time, on a political arena caught between the direct interests of three major empires in Eastern Europe (Habsburg/Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman) as well as those of the major Western European powers, the Balkan countries became to be themselves regarded as a legacy of the Ottoman Empire after the latter’s fall at the end of World War I.

However, the issue is rather complex, not only because it has been examined by scholars coming from different fields (history, anthropology, literary studies), but because it deals with discourses about an abstract “other” which also shape the beholder’s identity. While concrete geographic or geopolitical regions, such as the Balkans, may offer the illusion of affording an easier tackling of our topic, especially when compared with the vastly abstract notions of North versus South, West versus East, it becomes obvious, when investigating the matter further, that discourses can not only shape others’ and our identity, but that they can also be appropriated, or internalised. Milica Bakić-Hayden used the term “nesting Orientalism”, in order to conceptualise the use of external discourses by political actors on the domestic scene of 1990s Yugoslavia.9

Western concepts that were part of the dominating discourse of Western versus Eastern Europe/ The Balkans, such as “progressiveness”, “civilisation”, “enlightenment” were used as indicators to delineate between various degrees of otherness within the former state of Yugoslavia, from its more Western part, of Slovenia, to its Eastern end, of Serbia. This appropriation of an external discourse on “otherness” for internal political purposes is just an example of internalising a dominant discourse. At the same time, one can argue that this also is a manifestation of self-colonisation. Historian Alexander Kiossev defines this particular concept as typical for cultures which have “succumbed to the cultural power of Europe and the West without having been invaded and turned into actual colonies in fact.10

The Search for Authenticity

The concepts of “nesting orientalisms” and “self-colonisation” can prove extremely useful when construing the search for authenticity in the musical realm of Romania, or any other state in the Balkans. Discourses of “otherness”, of cultural superiority have existed not only between different states from various parts of Europe, but also on a social level, on the domestic scenes of various states. How have Romanian cultural elites adopted and appropriated these dominant discourses of “progressiveness” versus “backwardness”, which have opposed the West against the East, or the Orient? How have musicians adapted to these discourses in order to make a name for themselves, as well as in order to create a “national” culture that would be comprehensible to Western cultures, but still retain a sense of authenticity? How can we construe these reactions depending on the evolution of certain genres of classical and popular music during the 20th century? After we have summatively analysed several key texts discussing the issue of discourse/image about the other, we will attempt to answer the questions above through a series of case studies from Romanian music, ranging from the mid 19th century until present. The selection will include music from all kinds of genres, classical and popular.

Ștefan Niculescu

Composer Ștefan Niculescu (1927-2008) graduated from the Royal Academy of Music and Drama Arts(Academia Regală de Muzică și Artă Dramatică, 1941-1946), as well as from the Polytechnic Institute (1946-1950). In the 1950s he continued his studies in music at the then-renamed Ciprian Porumbescu Conservatory (the former Royal Academy of Music and Drama Arts, which is now known as the National University of Music in Bucharest). 11 During the 1960s, Niculescu will also study electronic music at Darmstadt (1966-1969) and Munich (1966) and be composer-in-residence in Berlin (1971-1972).

Niculescu’s case study is particularly important for our study, for two reasons. First, Niculescu was also interested in the specificities of folk music, following the paths opened by composers such as Bartok and Enescu. Second, Niculescu was an innovative composer who bridged the traditional and the avant-garde in the academic realm of 20th century classical music, while also becoming a mentor for an entire generation of composers of classical music in Romania. He is credited with developing heterophony (a texture – the way in which tempo, melody and harmony are brought together in a composition, determining the overall quality of the latter’s sound – in which there is a simultaneous variation of a single melodic line) as a means of composition. In doing so, Niculescu was influenced by Enescu’s synthesis of archaic music and Western classical music. This juxtaposition of contradictory elements as a sign of authenticity will mark his compositions at the end of 1970s and during the 1980s. One such example is Symphony No. II “Opus Dacicum”, written between 1978 and 1980).

During the 1980s, Niculescu also started paying special attention to the importance played by rhythm in a composition. In the same vein of bridging together sounds from different traditions and cultures (including academic and technological ones), Niculescu wrote the Symphony No. 3, “Cantos – Troisième Symphonie” for saxophone and orchestra. Dedicated to French avant-garde saxophone performer Daniel Kientzy, the symphony sought to utilise Kientzy’s playing abilities, while also using types of intonations that were specific for Byzantine music, as can be noticed from the opening sounds of saxophone in the work.

One should also mention that the symphony, together with two other works, “Hommage A Enesco et Bartok (Sinchcronie II)” and Unisonos II were edited by Electrecord in 1987, as part of a series which bore the name “Aksak”, as a nod to the peculiar rhythm which is such an integral part to musics around the Balkan region. As with his other Romanian fellow composers, Niculescu was acutely aware of the need for Romanian classical music to synchronise with European classical music, to which Romanian composers had always compared their works and approach. While being aware of the rich musical heritage of Romania, which lay in its Byzantine tradition and archaic folk music, Niculescu’s approach to fully integrate Romanian classical music into that of the European canon was both quantitative (by number of works written) and qualitative (Western techniques, local sounds)12.


After the socialist-realism of the late 1940s and 1950s, the 1960s brought about a period of relative cultural liberalisation in Communist Romania. Started as a phase of political openness, for economic reasons, the cultural liberalisation of the 1960s meant that the cultural realm incorporated new elements of writing and performing music, which either came from the other side of the Iron Curtain, or from archaic, traditional music. Both of these music genres had been rather marginalised during the previous decade, Western contemporary music in particular, which was regarded as a sign of the decadent capitalist societies.

During the 1960s a new generation of composers sought to synchronise Romanian classical music with the latest achievements in terms of composition from the traditional centres of authority in classical music, centres which lay in the Western Europe. At the same time, these composers turned their ears and minds toward folk music, looking for archaic sounds that had remained unheard by previous composers. Composers such as Corneliu Cezar, Octavian Nemescu, Lucian Mețianu, or Costin Miereanu started a musical and aesthetic movement in the 1960s which would be known later on as “spectralism” – a current opposed to the avant-garde of “serialism”, which had developed in the first half of the 20th century.13 At the same time, these composers were also interested in the sound particularities of folk music, either from the Balkans or from other geographic and cultural spaces outside Europe.

Listen to our podcast on Romanian contemporary music: Part 1 and Part 2

Corneliu Cezar

Corneliu Cezar (1937-1997) was among the first of these composers and remains to this day an enigmatic figure, fascinating through both his music and his conception regarding music. During a period marked by an increased atheist propaganda by the Romanian socialist state, Cezar’s music was in search of the “spiritual” side, through meditations and incantations. Despite the fact that he wrote works in the vein of spectralism as early as the late 1960s, his musical recordings were rarely edited.

The one exception might be Rota (written in 1975) which was edited on Hyperion Ensemble’s 1981 homonymous LP. The only collection of musical works by Cezar, which has been published until present, is a CD from 2000, edited by Anastasia Publishing House. Most of Corneliu Cezar’s works still remain unedited officially and can be found on the internet, from radio recordings. One such example, the electroacoustic work Aum (1967) is considered to be the pioneering work of spectralism in Romanian music and, arguably, elsewhere. According to writer Grete Tartler, Cezar assigned a symbolism for each of the three letters: A meant light, U meant descent, while M meant sacrifice.14

A fusion of avantgarde and traditional, recorded in the first electronic music studio in Bucharest, the work “Aum”' represents, in the words of fellow composer Octavian Nemescu “music based on resonance harmonics of a prolonged fundamental” – as he described it in the liner notes for his own CD, Musique pour Réveil 3 (Around the Throne), released on Editura Casa Radio, in 2018).

Such works relied on graphic representations of sound waves, in order to induce the listener into a state of meditation which went beyond cultural and geographic borders. Thus, it would come as no surprise that one of Cezar’s later works, e.g. Taaroa (1968), will include elements of Polynesian music.

Octavian Nemescu. Photo: Mihai Benea
Octavian Nemescu. Photo: Mihai Benea

Octavian Nemescu

Octavian Nemescu (1940-2020) is part of the same generation as Corneliu Cezar and also a pioneer of electronic music in the classical realm. Nemescu manifested the same interest in traditional and archaic musics from different geographic areas, focusing on the structural similarities between mythologies of peoples from areas so distant from one another that it would have prevented them to communicate directly.15

As a musician, he was interested in attaining that primordial language (the “Music of the Cosmos”, or “cosmic music”, as he called it) which links different cultures from different geographic areas. Perhaps the name cosmic music is not overly original, especially in a historical context when popular music also explored the possibilities of electronic sounds, but Nemescu’s music relied on highly particular and complex description of how sounds and graphic arts could blend in, in order to represent stories of ancestral cosmogonies.

Nemescu brought together elements of music from China (the Chinese guitar), Japan, Indonesia (the gamelan), India (the rāga). Thus, according to Nemescu, the composer no longer invents paradigms within which they would create works of art, but extracts them from the “different” musical cultures around the globe. In this new musical paradigm, the concert hall revealed its true artificial character: music had to be taken outside it and placed in the middle of nature.

One example of Octavian Nemescu’s approach to music is Metabizantiniricon. The work illustrates the composer’s theory of archetypes; the work’s score reveals the concentric nature of these archetypes, starting from the center (the foremost archetype) to archetypal forms, such as the spiral, the snail, or the oister.34

One should also mention, in this case, the design for Nemescu’s release for Electrecord, which was done by visual artist Wanda Mihuleac. Nemescu and Mihuleac shared the idea that art should be seen as part of nature and they both sought to achieve this through their own artistic means.

Listen: Composer's Corner Podcast - Octavian Nemescu

Corneliu Dan Georgescu

During the 1970s and 1980s a new generation of musicians emerged in the realm of Romanian classical music, who continued their predecessors’ work and approach. Born in 1938, Corneliu Dan Georgescu studied composition as well as ethnomusicology in Bucharest and would also go to study at Darmstadt. His education meant he would also be interested in folk archetypes and in exploring primordial musical elements.

One such example is the work Model mioritic, written in 1973, as an audio-visual performance, including a choir and electronic instruments. Even without its visual aspect in place, the work retains its mystical character, in which archaic musical elements and contemporary sounds contribute to the ritual of death imagined as a wedding, according to the Romanian folk ballad Miorița. It should be mentioned that this folk ballad acquired and still retains an extremely important position in the Romanian literary canon, which transformed it into a symbol of authentic Romanian folk literature, an archetype in itself.

Nicolae Brînduș

Nicolae Brînduș also received his education from the National University of Music in Bucharest and later benefited from scholarships and training courses at Darmstadt and IRCAM, Paris. The work of Brînduș has many similarities with his Romanian fellow composers, in that he is interested in bridging the old and the new, the local and the universal. His music, however, focuses also on the relation between composer and performer and on the multiple readings of the same composition by different performers. Brînduș draws inspiration in this approach from both classical tradition and folk music, and one case study of his approach is Match – Monodie 1 și Polifonie 4 (1973)16.

Iancu Dumitrescu

One might be surprised to find composer Iancu Dumitrescu included in this selection, whose main criterion is the search of musical authenticity in a country from the Balkans. Dumitrescu has become so well known for his radical approach to sound and his forays into spectralism and electro-acoustic music, the most people neglect the fact that is also interested in finding archetypes and primordial sounds.

One of his first compositions, Aulodie mioritică reflects this latter aspect quite poignantly. Grete Tartler rightfully remarked the composer’s use of elements from folk music (“ethnofonii’) in order to capture the sound of an ocean in one music note.

Guido Manusardi, Harry Tavitian, Johnny Răducanu, Richard Oschanitzky, Aura Urziceanu, Marius Popp
Guido Manusardi, Harry Tavitian, Johnny Răducanu, Richard Oschanitzky, Aura Urziceanu, Marius Popp

Romanian Jazz

Jazz musicians had a rather different trajectory than those of classical music. Jazz has existed in Romania since the 1920s and it developed during the interwar period. After World War Two and the Communist regime’s ascension to power, jazz music remained a rather underground phenomenon, while at the same time an exclusivist one. Jazz musicians could still play but their scenes were limited mostly to important restaurants in major Romanian cities, for a selected audience. Under the labels of “light music” or “dance music”, numerous records from the 1950s, released by Electrecord hid jazz sounds. As with classical music, the 1960s period of cultural liberalisation meant a development for the Romanian jazz scene.

By the end of the 1960s Electrecord had already released a string of LPs from its jazz series, featuring Romanian as well as foreign performers. The styles ranged from bossanova to free jazz. In this case also, there will not be long until jazz musicians start looking for an “authentic”, “Romanian” sound in jazz, one that would fuse contemporary jazz styles and approaches with traditional folk music.

Richard Oschanitzky & Aura Urziceanu

One of the first to do so was pianist and composer Richard Oschanitzky. He had also studied at the Conservatory in Bucharest, under several professors, such as Mihail Jora and Tiberiu Alexandru, who stirred his interest for archaic music17

The fact that jazz music was tolerated, and actually unofficially encouraged in certain environments, but officially excluded from academic ones, coupled with Oschanitzky’s personality led to dismissal from the Conservatory, on political grounds. Nevertheless, the lack of a diploma never tarnished the knowledge he had acquired while he was a student. This interest in folk music would later on manifest itself in Oschanitzky’s ethno-jazz creations.

In this sense, Oschanitzky continued the work of his ethno-jazz predecessor, pianist Jancy Kőrössy, who had recorded a series of improvisations based on Romanian urban folklore. An illustrative example of Richard Oschanitzky’s approach to reconfiguring a folk song in a jazz manner, would be Pe deal pe la Cornățel, which was edited on his 1970 LP, “Romanian Pop Music”, recorded with the Electrecord Orchestra, conducted by Alex. Imre. The song preserves the folk melody, while adding a jazz feeling to it, because of the harmonic transcript for tenor saxophone, trombone, and flute. Dimitrie Sbierea’s artwork for the LP enhances Oschanitzky’s modern approach on a series of folk tunes.

Romanian jazz music in the late 1960s and early 1970s often got its inspiration from folk music, while adding musical elements and techniques that were particular to jazz musicians from beyond the Iron Curtain. This is noticeable both in instrumental works (such as the ones by Oschanitzky) but also in vocal jazz. One of the early examples in this latter case is Aura Urziceanu’s Parafrază pe teme populare românești, released on her first EP, in 1972.

Listen to our podcast on Romanian Jazz: Part 1 and Part 2

Harry Tavitian

A particular case study for jazz music under the Communist regime is that of pianist Harry Tavitian, who merged free jazz and ethno-jazz in a manner that initially shocked many listeners and viewers in his early audiences. Together with percussionist Corneliu Stroe, Tavitian formed the duo “Creativ”, considered by Romanian jazz critic Virgil Mihaiu “the most creative transfiguration of the Romanian ethos”18.

An early example in Tavitian’s long career would be his second collaboration with Corneliu Stroe, released in the United Kingdom during the 1980, on the Leo Records label. Entitled Transylvanian Suite, the LP features four compositions which deal with musical themes from the Byzantine tradition and from folk music in the Balkans, in a free jazz interpretation.

After the fall of the communist regime, Tavitian continued his collaborations with a series of Romanian and foreign musicians, particularly from the Balkans, or Balkan neighboring areas, such as Anatoly Vapirov (of Ukrainian origin, who has settled in Bulgaria) or Okay Temiz. One of Tavitian’s most succesful post 1989 projects in Romania was Orient Express, with which he recorded an album in 1999, entitled Axis Mundi.

The album title (translated as “World Axis”) suggests the musical importance that the region of the Balkans has for Tavitian. It also features Veche rapsodie din Balcani (Old Balkan Rhaposdy), probably one of Tavitian’s most successful transcriptions of Balkan folk tunes in a jazz manner. Again, the artwork for the CD completes Tavitian’s imagining of the Levant.

Mircea Tiberian & Nicolas Simion

Jazz improvisation based on folk tunes, whether rural or urban continued into the 1990s and 2000s, with jazz musicians such as Mircea Tiberian or Nicolas Simion releasing numerous albums which contain jazz adaptions of traditional music.

While Tiberian seems to pay particular attention to urban folk music from the 20th century, Nicolas Simion also incorporates archaic sounds into his numerous projects, in an attempt to continue the path opened by pianists Kőrössy and Oschanitzky half a century ago. One particular case for our study is Simion’s collaboration with the Fanfare Shavale and Simion’s arrangement of a series of Balkan melodies.

Phoenix in concert (1977)
Phoenix in concert (1977)

Romanian Rock

Rock music has known a rather similar path to that of jazz during the Communist regime, despite several important differences between the two genres, which only deepened after 1989. Like jazz, rock music was largely regarded as a cultural symbol of the decadent West.

Notwithstanding, the same cultural liberalisation that allowed classical and jazz music to develop and to incorporate new styles, allowed rock music to emerge and then to develop into its own music scene. For jazz and rock music, the development of the tourism industry also played an important role, as it offered the two genres the necessary performance scenes.

Communist Romania needed hard currency to develop its economy and Western tourists were the only ones to provide it. Therefore, during the 1960s, Romania allowed foreign tourists to bring in their own consumer products and even provided them with a cultural scene that would offer them renditions of the pop music they listened to while at home. Thus the first guitar bands were born and it was not long before the idea of covering folk tunes in a rock or beat manner appeared.

While the first such approaches featured interpretations of these folk tunes using electric instruments, with the vocal part combining pop music style with vocal elements that were typical to the traditional renditions of the song, such as in Sincron’s Hăulita de la Gorj (1967) , by 1970, rock bands such as Olympic ‘64 had taken a deeper understanding of how to incorporate archaic melodies into their rock idioms, the result being an original sound which influenced numerous bands in its wake. 19

An excellent example in this latter case would be the song Cântic de haiduc. What deserves attention in the case of Olympic ‘64, is vocalist and song writer Dorin Liviu Zaharia’s preoccupations with music genres from other geographic regions, in the same vein as his fellow classical composers.

During the 1970s, the band Phoenix would create the most successful (commercial and artistic) fusions between folk music and rock, in the vein of the then world popular progressive folk, which had been spearheaded by bands such as Jethro Tull. Phoenix had also started as a beat band, but by the early 1970s, the communist regime shifted in favor of a more nationalistic trend, in particular with popular music genres, which were supposed to have a larger educational appeal, in terms of audience. This forced Phoenix to change their style, while maintaining their musical integrity.

Their artistic peak would be the double LP Cantafabule, conceived as a musical bestiary, with numerous music influences, ranging from progressive rock, to hard rock, to electronic music, and folk interludes, with medieval overtones. Of particular interest for us is their song Cântic-lu a cucuveauă-lliei. With lyrics in Aromanian (the Romanian dialect spoken in Southeast Europe, in several Balkan countries), the song represents the earliest example of a Romanian rock band acknowledging the direct Balkan heritage, instead of Romanian folk heritage.

The Romanian rock scene after 1989 seldom acknowledged its Balkan music influence. Certain bands, which were more blues based than rock, such as Nightlosers, openly addressed the numerous folk influences from the Balkans and incorporated them into a unique melange of US blues, jazz, and folk tunes from the Balkans (including Romania). An excellent example is their 1997 album, Plum Brandy Blues, which features a series of covers of Western songs, each performed in a fusion of two styles, a local one and a world music one.


Others regarded the Balkans heritage in ironic terms and warned of the threat posed by Orientalisation through the emerging genre of manele. The genre of manele, a post 1899 Romanian version of ethno-pop became a highly controversial genre in Romania and its analysis can reveal numerous cases discussed in the theoretical introduction, in particular that of nesting orientalisms. A low-brow genre, performed mainly, but not exclusively, by Roma musicians with musical influences regarded as “Oriental” (meaning from the Balkans, as well as the Middle East), manele soon became the target of numerous campaigns, in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

These sought to ban them from mass-media and radio posts, and drew attention to the lyrics and themes which were favourite among manele performers, such as leading a life of crime and enjoying its financial advantages.

One of the earliest and most popular examples of a rock song warning of the threat manele posed to Romanian society was Sfinxexperience’s Sfinxstanbul album, from 1999. The CD cover was a parody of the official emblem of Communist Romania, which featured a river, pine trees, mountains, an oil rig and the rays of the sun, surrounded by a wreath of wheat ears. In the upper part of the wreath lay the red star.

Sfinxstanbul’s cover features the Turkish/Ottoman crescent and star, while the river, pine trees, mountains, and oil rig are replaced by an image of the Hagia Sophia turned into a mosque. The title song tells the story of how dancing to Oriental music will turn Romanian into a nation of belly-dancers (“neam de cadâne”). Ironically, the music itself is a crossover between dance-pop and Balkan and Middle-Eastern influences, which ensured at least a part of the song’s success.

The years 2000 marked a decrease in the criticism of manele, while the years 2010 even saw the emergence of an urban young middle-class which was ready to openly embrace the genre. While has been a step ahead in coming to terms with a genre which has proved to be the most controversial, but also the most dynamic pop genre in Romania during the past 30 years, the elephant in the room remains to be addressed, namely the inherent racism toward Romani musicians performing manele, and toward their listeners. Most observers have failed to realise that manele performers originate from lăutari, the class of (mostly) Romani musicians who performed folk songs at weddings, baptisms, or funerals.

In the very same tradition of the lăutari, manele performers adhered to the themes required by their patrons. As most mass-media outlets in Romania shunned them, manele performers found a niche by entering under the tutelage of important figures from the organised crime, who used them as cultural means of boasting about their achievements and of obtaining legitimacy among wider social strata20.

But as the genre developed throughout the years 2000 and 2010, the themes manele address has also begun to vary, including also those that deal with the ethnic identity of Romania, as a country of multiple ethnicities. One such example is Made in Romania, performed by Ionuț Cercel. The song advocates in favour of an inclusive view of who is Romanian, regardless of ethnicity or regional origin: “Chiar dacă ești moldovean, ardelean sau țigan, suntem Made in Romanie – Even if you’re Moldavian, or Transylvanian, or Gypsy, we’re Made in Romania”.

In Conclusion

One should also mention the recent Romanian electronic scene, which has developed a style known internationally as rominimal, a play of words based on the name of the electronic music genre of minimal techno. Certain performers, such as Ada Kalh, or Drăguțescu have made references in their music to elements of Balkan or Romanian culture, also as a sign of cultural authenticity. This was also reinforced through the artwork of several albums by the aforementioned artists.

There are several concluding remarks we can draw from the selection of this study. First, regardless of music genre, whether high-brow, or low-brow, there has been and there is almost constant preoccupation with searching not only for originality, but further on, for authenticity. We can also notice the inherent tension which is a marking sign for the cultural realm of most countries from areas which are regarded as peripheral.

Musicians have sought to overcome this peripheral status, by two means, which might seem diametrically opposed on first glance. On the one hand, they have sought to synchronise their art with that of the cultural centre, while on the other, they have plunged into their own music heritage by using the very latest musical techniques they had acquired from the cultural centre. As can be easily noticed, it is this synthesis of music source and method which has allowed them to create their own authenticity.

In various historical contexts, musicians have encountered various administrative or political obstacles, which have also varied according to the type of music they played, and, most importantly, according to how the Romanian state regarded the music style they played in. At the same time, as we have seen from several case studies of popular music, the search for authenticity does not relate solely to music, but also to the social context in which musicians play. From this point of view, this search for authenticity is not only a complex process, but also a tense one, which goes beyond the realm of looking for archaic phonos and asks the question: what does it mean to be made in Romania?

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  20. See Adrian Schiop, “Manele and the Underworld”, in Margaret Beissinger, Speranța Rădulescu, Anca Giurchescu, (eds.). Manele in Romania. Cultural Expression and Social Meaning in Balkan Popular Music, Lanham, Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, pp. 185-204. ↩︎
*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.
About the Author

Claudiu Oancea

Historian, educated runabout, sometimes more interested about other people's past lives than about one's own life, music aficionado, researcher of other people's histories.

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