Manele and the Hegemony of “Good Taste”

In November 2010, the National Council for the Audio-visual (CNA) argued in front of the Culture Committee of the Romanian Parliament’s lower house for the changing of the “must carry” provisions of the Audio-visual Law, which made it mandatory for cable providers to include the most popular stations in their basic package. The reason for this proposed change: the realization that among the top 15 most popular TV stations, two were exclusively dedicated to “manele”, Romania’s own brand of Balkan-influenced Turbo-folk. The Council’s reasoning was that failure to change the law would be “forcing manele into people’s homes”.

by Mihai-Alexandru Ilioaia

Following their rise of popularity two decades ago, manele have been hated by the generally West-gazing middle classes and the cultural establishment, being described by both the media and public intellectuals as the musical equivalent of “burping contests”, “perverting the taste of the population” or “gypsy filth”. Associated with both the working classes and the nouveau-riche, as well as with Romania’s large Roma population, the genre is, despite its popularity, de-facto banned from mainstream TV and Radio, being confined to niche stations, with any attempt to discuss the genre openly resulting in media moral panics.

Regardless of this, in the last few years a new demographic has embraced manele and have begun to defend them publicly. They are mostly young, middle-class, non-Roma students and professionals who seem as far as possible from the stereotypical, kitsch-clad manele consumer that seems to be burned into the collective imagination.

The Rise and Rise of Manele

Manele are a purely Balkan phenomenon. Similar to the Serbian Turbo-Folk, Bulgarian Chalga or the Albanian Tallava, they are a unique, popish blend of Turkish, Arabic and Greek influences, played on modern instruments and thoroughly adapted to the local cultural sensitivities. Technically, they are an eclectic mix of traditional instruments like violin, accordion, cimbalom and double bass to which Yugoslav electronic influences were added (particularly in the case of the electric keyboard)[1]. Later, brass instruments (particularly the clarinet and the saxophone) became a staple in the orchestras, being also joined occasionally by drums or guitar. A wide range of music is referred to as manele, but the sound is almost always a vaguely oriental one, being inexorably a danceable music. Considered somewhat of a continuation of the more traditional Roma “lăutărească” music, manele are largely associated with Roma artists, though notable exceptions exist.

Nicolae Guță, one of the biggest names in manele, in an early example from 1994. The band playing on a socialist-style monument proves to be a  unintentional display o symbolism. 

Speranța Rădulescu, a famous ethnomusicologist who studies manele claims that the basis for the birth of the genre was laid down by the appropriation, by the Socialist regime, of the folklore, ”translating oral tradition music into propaganda instruments and deliberately excluding any reference to a Balkan past”[2], making the early manele music a form of resistance against the nationalistic aberrations of the regime. Ethnochoreologist Anca Giurchescu recalled how, while the Roma weren’t excluded from orchestras – which played traditional Romanian music – due to the skills they had on different instruments, they were kept hidden by the regime, Romani artists being put through make-up whenever they performed in front of foreigners. It was only after the 1989 revolution, she continues, that Roma musicians had the liberty to arrange their own music publicly and they used manele as “a symbol of visibility”.

Their existence was marred, from the very beginning of the modern manele wave, in the early 1990s, by harsh cultural deliberation of their value and purpose. Initially treated as exotic “gypsy music”, while it was still bearing heavy similarities to more traditional Roma music, they experienced a boom of mainstream consumption in the mid-to-late 90s, defining the turn of the millennium. Soon after, manele started sharply falling from grace with the more educated public who started to disconsider not so much the music, as its fans, who were seen as retrograde, uneducated and uncivilized.

Public intellectuals cried against it, virtually all mainstream TV and radio stations in the country stopped broadcasting it and the middle class seemed to wage a war against it. The main arguments of manele’s detractors were the perceived poor-taste of the music and the vulgar, simplistic, rude and offensive nature of the lyrics, that often deal with one’s own wealth, talent at running illegitimate businesses, threats of violence against rivals, as well as the objectification of women. A heavy-handed anti-Roma message would usually accompany the diatribes, with expressions such as “the manelization” or “the gypsyfication” of Romania starting to be used by anyone who disliked the genre.

Florin Salam, considered the most important manele artist of the last decade, with a cover of Bulgarian chalga artist Azis, the manele video with the most views to date

A few partially-successful attempts at prohibiting the genre existed, with some cities forbidding  bus and taxi drivers, seen as large consumers, from playing the music during work[3], with others banning manele from festivals[4] or touristic areas[5], the latter at the request of a religious organization, no less. Moreover, the filming, in 2008, of a manele video in the Bucharest Opera House lead to a ridiculous media-born moral panic[6] that claimed the act was offensive and demeaning to the “artistic prestige” of the institution.

“The Scourge of Romanian Culture”

The disdain for manele in Romania is, despite opposition, inextricably linked to Antitziganism and, in a more vague sense, it is a hypocritical call for the “forced civilization” of certain social classes. While parts of the anti-manele crowd surely object to the genre on aesthetic reasons, rather than racial ones, the entire thing has become a deeply abusive and disturbing war on the underprivileged. Pot-bellied interlopers and overpaid footballers might be the ones flaunted about as the typical manele fans, being at their parties that manele artists are being showered with money in ridiculous exercises of opulence, playing the role of court poets of the rich, but the bulk of the manele consumers are working class or underclass citizens, with many of them being Roma.

Marius-Bogdan Tudor, a Romanian historian and coordinator for a magazine that deals with the socio-political dimensions of art (www.artapolitica.ro) thinks the anti-manele attitude has little to do with the music itself and that it “reveals, rather, the racism of a certain part of the Romanian middle class regarding what is perceived as “gypsy” music, on the one side and the class disdain for the “cocalar” (colloquial term for a manele fan), on the other.” He further argues that despite the genre’s widespread popularity, there’s an imbalance in the public discourse, with “moralizing-civilizing discourse of some intellectuals, adopted by the middle class, being more visible than manele’s popularity”.

Sandu Ciorbă, who mixes the manele sound with folkloric music and awkward videos has found an unexpected fan base abroad, becoming a YouTube sensation in Poland

While the genre is broad enough to accommodate a plethora of motifs (joy, sorrow, migration, family, politics, women, home appliances, heroin addiction etc), it is usually a highly-relatable sentiment that is being transmitted through the lyrics. Migration, for example, is nearly universally relatable in Romania, a country that has around 4 million citizens living in Western Europe. Few fields are richer for scholars studying European migration than the lyrics of manele, with song ranging from the gleefully optimistic “Italy is mishto / You earn thousands of Euro” of Nicolae Guță to the heartfelt, mournful goodbye of Liviu Puștiu’s “Don’t know how longer I can take it/I’m at the airport again/Ready to leave the country/Away from my girl/Away from my home”.

It stands to reasons that these lyrics are going to resonate with a large segment of the population, serving as a smallest common denominator of sorts, and that denying the right to listen to the preferred music in an attempt to make dominant a middle-class culture is incredibly aggressive and tantamount to symbolic violence. This becomes even more evident in the virulent defence of more traditional Roma music, particularly from the inter-bellum period, which is held in high regard as “true gypsy music”, being neat and tidy enough for non-Roma, middle class audiences to enjoy, despite it being as vilified in the epoch as manele are now, or in the case of those who, while hating manele, thoroughly enjoy listening to non-Romanian Roma music, like Goran Bregovic, Gogol Bordello or Gypsy Kings, to say nothing of all the other “world music”, which is treated completely different, due to it being imported and thus, exotic. After two decades of constant complaints regarding the lack of a middle class in post-socialist Romania, by the early 00s, the middle class appeared strong enough to exert culturally hegemonic pressures in the lower classes and, particularly on the Roma.

As for the perceived vulgarity of the nouveau-riche’s lavishness, often chronicled by manele artists, this is a case where manele only serve as a medium, rather than a catalyst, as the opulent blowing of one’s own horn in musical form is just another expression of capitalism’s obsession with individual success. The more stringent the life one lead before success came, the more publicly it should be presented as a victory of the individual over the crowd, through whichever means.

Furthermore, discussion of “vulgarity” and “lack of education” are moot from the get-go, as by the late 00s, it wasn’t just the intellectuals denouncing manele, but almost everybody, quickly losing any pretence at moral superiority. The word itself, particularly the form “manelist”, referring to a fan of the genre has become a powerful stigma, to the point that even those who would listen to manele would slander them publicly, least they would be seen as part of the fanbase. Throwing a glance at any manele video on YouTube will reveal an incredible amount of verbal abuse coming from the anti-manele crowd, usually with extremely heavy racial elements, even getting as far as calls for the “death of all gypsies” or posting graphic pictures of holocaust victims.

Florin Salam, Bogdan Artistu’ and Copilul de Aur performing in high-end manele club in Bucharest.

The Reconquista

Around the beginning of the 10s, however, a certain counterforce starting to be felt from certain, usually left-leaning, segments of the middle class, particularly in the academic environment. More and more young intellectuals were starting to defend the genre, from either a spirit of inclusion, a desire to fight the seemingly almighty labels put on it by the cultural establishment or just for enjoying the fun-sounding, danceable music. Manele were beginning to come to the centre, despite vehement protests.

The closing event of the National Centre of Dance was dedicated to a party with musicians from the much-feared Ferentari neighbourhood of Bucharest, a predominantly Roma-inhabited area of the city.[7]  A series of lectures at the Bucharest Conservatory that were meant to bring together experts and explore the sociological implications of the genre was forced to relocate to a different university after one of the disgruntled Conservatory professors formally pressed charges against the national University of Music rector for “high treason” and “organizing an action that is detrimental to the security of the state”. Casa Jurnalistului, an alternative journalistic commune founded by Vlad Ursulean, one of Romania’s leading young journalists, organized manele parties where one could encounter the who’s who of Bucharest intellectual and cultural life, from journalists and writers to actors and cultural managers. “It’s a general WTF, that’s why they end up so cool. People don’t know what to do, they don’t have calculated moves for this situation, so they just screw it and are having actual fun. I don’t know what those from outside say, they probably think that it’s a social experiment or that we went insane” describes Ursulean the parties.

Babi Minune and Narcisa. Some manele artists start their careers quite young, with Babi Minune having both a music and TV career by the age of 12, after being discovered through camera-phone YouTube recordings

Ideological statements also appeared, with Adrian Schiop, a writer and journalist who is currently doing his PhD on manele penning an article for the leftist platform CritcAtac where he publicly  defended the genre. Schiop’s article was a manifesto of sorts and contained a scathing critique of the way Romanian society, media and especially intellectual establishment has been treating the genre, arguing that accusing manele of being obscene and vulgar, while at the same time embracing hip-hop as a cool and edgy way of reaching young people shows an enormous bias for Western cultural products and a disdain for anything that sounds vaguely oriental, Balkan or Romani.[8] It boils down to the situation where the West is seen as being civilizing and kosher, yet the East is retrograde and dangerous. Vlad Ursulean claimed on the issue that the hatred directed at the genre has to do with it being “more powerful than the Romanian-mystic-occidental culture that we crave. We’re like homosexuals in denial.”

In just a few years, a new segment of manele consumers emerged, which Marius-Bogdan Tudor calls “centre manelists”, yet others, less sympathetic, call “hipster manelists”: educated, cultural omnivores, usually coming from creative industries or activist circles, trying to connect to popular culture. The manele parties at Casa Jurnalistului and elsewhere are happening every other month or so, with seemingly increasing regularity and they have ceased to raise as many eyebrows, with the genre gaining more and more footing among the category that previously demonised it.

As with every appropriation of ethnic art by the white, middle-class public, there is a danger of gentrification and of “slum-tourism” that comes with the well-meaning affection. Firstly, there is the exoticizng effect that consuming ethnic art “ironically” brings, building a patronizing relationship between the producing artist and the more educated consumer. Secondly there are those who believe that this music loses all authentic value when it is taken from its natural environment and brought to the “centre”, a practice reminiscing of colonialist appropriations of art, as Marius-Bogdan Tudor claims that there is something unseemly in seeing “gypsy parties”, where ”young people, regardless of their hipsterdom, wearing what they believe to be Roma clothing (flowery dresses and scarfs for girls, hats and thick gold chains for guys) in very safe spaces and dancing on lăutărească, Balkan music or manele”. Vlad Ursulean, on the other hand, is more lenient on this part, believing that it is still “a super-niche phenomenon” and that, as hipsters start to listen to manele, “some manele listeners will become hipsters and there’s going to be a peaceful fusion”, with some artist already moving in that direction.

Romeo Fantastik, a “marginal among marginal”, performing in EDEN, an ultrahip club in Bucharest, to an euphoric audience

Conclusions

While manele are still widely considered a cultural bane by some, including authorities and the right-leaning cultural establishment that Romania has in place for 25 years, the efforts of few and the fun of many are bridging the gap between the genre and mainstream acceptance. More important, maybe, is that these things are publicly discussed, with both sides of the argument being represented, rather than shunning the genre altogether.

Last week, during the writing of this article, EDEN, an ultra-hip club in Bucharest, announced that they will host an event where Romeo Fantastik, a famous manele singer, will perform. This has led to fierce debates in the online space regarding the inclusion of manele, arguments being brought from all sides, with the matter discussed in terms of race and class components, as well as the merits of “camp art” or post-ironic kitsch appreciation[9], whereas, just a few years ago, the whole thing would have been a public lynching of both the artist and the institution who (would not have) dared to invite him. In conclusion, is not that manele are becoming more loved that’s important, but that manele are becoming  less hated.

About these ads