By Tucker Wiedenkeller Art by SMALLTALK July 14, 2022
Located at the southeastern tip of Europe, stretching atop the Balkans with its edges plunging into the Black Sea, is Romania. Through a history of Ottoman rule, authoritarian communism, unstable revolution and surrender to Western capitalism, Romania’s sounds have shaped and adapted to the times while reflecting its unique geo-cultural character and multi-ethnic composition. Bucharest is now home to a thriving underground scene that spans pop, trap, R&B, electronica and krautrock, all infused with a healthy dose of psychedelia. A particularly distinctive product is a style known as “manelectronics,” “manelectro,” Where “manele psihedelice.” Future nuggetscollective and label responsible for republishing the work of the Romanian experimental pioneer Rodion GA., also introduced listeners to an obscure and offbeat corner of contemporary Romanian music through a series of compilations titled Sounds of the Unheard of Romania.
Ion Dumitrescu and Camil Dumitrescu (no relation) launched Future Nuggets in 2011 “without clear directions or goals, as there was no local network of alternative expressions”, explains Ion. “It was more about inventing a scene in Bucharest.” Future Nuggets was DIY from the start, “releasing” 100 home-produced CDs at a local club in Bucharest. Many groups on the The sounds of the unheard consist of the same musicians, most of them related in some way to Ion’s N-am studio. “We embraced the exteriornational condition to its full extent and thought to take conceptual advantage and intensify the darkness, inventing bands and names (Anahoreții, Eng. Coman, Anatol), playing with genres and attitudes like progressive rock, dub, electronics of all kinds, heretical forays into dance clubs and general psychedelia.
Manele is a very popular but stigmatized Romanian music associated with the Roma, one of the largest minorities in Romania. Originally created for weddings and parties, it is now blasting out from PA systems across the country. What sets manele apart from other Romanian styles is its Turkish and Arabic influences, such as its use of çifteteli rhythm. Romania’s relations with its Balkan neighbors – historical, political, cultural, social, economic and religious – have led to a significant mixture of cultures, which explains not only the regional popularity of manele, but also the prevalence of its styles. brothers in the Balkans, including chalga (Bulgaria), tallava (Albania and Kosovo), skiladiko (Greece), and turbo folk (Serbia), among others.
When it began to spread beyond Roma society, the manele was regarded with condescension by the elite: rude, kitsch and lower class. And although it is still subject to bans and censorship, including on national radio waves, manele created its own powerful industry, reaching ears beyond its own cultural boundaries. For Ion and Future Nuggets, “increasing awareness of the position of this cultural expression in Romanian society, how it has been marginalized by local elites for decades” is important to their work. “To begin with, showing love and respect and always being available to learn more, moving forward knowing that we don’t know,” says Ion.
To understand this underground sound of Bucharest, it is essential to understand “protomanel” Where Song of Petrecere (“party music”); a kind of derivative style, it bridges the gap between the traditional manele and the modern version that developed in the 80s and 90s. Although not really true manele, artists such as Albatros, Tomis Jr., Azur, Generic, Zorile din Galați and Formația Condor din Craiova were “pop bands, sliding freely between Balkan influences”, whose “lyrics spoke of a different reality, the reality of the proletariat” says Ion. Like manele pioneer Dan Armeanca, these bands electrified their setup, introducing keyboards, synthesizers, electric guitars and drum machines, and playing mostly in restaurants, festivals and old houses of the culture.
Although this scene developed separately from the mainly Roma-dominated manele scene, there have been some collaborations with traditional manele musicians like violinist Bogdan Stoian, clarinetist Nicu Chinezu and singer Renato din Salaj. However, the influences of this current Bucharest sound go far beyond the manele. Their new release Sounds of the Unheard of Romania Vol. 4 shows a slow, organic sound development over the past decade. “I would say we’ve been immersed for so long in so many styles of music besides manele that we don’t differentiate or target a particular influence per se. A kind of overcoming fusion and becoming syntheses,” says Ion.
In true underground fashion, many of the following artists are obscure and low key. Many of them are different collaborations of many of the same people. One thing they all have in common is that they are “adventurous, mixing unmixable and transgressing genres, seeing the studio process as a laboratory, mixing global sounds, and always searching for the unknown future”. On that note, step into this strange laboratory in Bucharest.
Formația Aburiții is composed of Ginerică, Anton Munteanu, Gianni Fannina, Andrei Titanu, Dani Manageru and Eclipsa, although they collaborate with others. Formația Aburiții combines 808 çifteteli producing beats and traps with indifferent AutoTuned vocals and slinky manele synths. Released on Linia 1, “Mugurii” is hopelessly catchy. The beginning is dominated by slowed down and AutoTuned male vocals over vibrating basses. A sensitive new voice (Nea Nuțu) floats, leading to an ethereal breakdown before an ecstatic buildup. Sudden organ strokes and pitch-bend keyboard are interspersed with reggaetón-esque cries of “gasolina, gasolina.” They capture an exciting mix of experimental trap and manele, ready for a party or cheeky nihilism.
Driven by her current emotional state, Suck FragaThe music for “is mostly made up of scrambled ghosts of every song and sound I’ve heard in my lifetime”. With an album titled Fragucci to his credit, several singles and collaborations with Ion Dumitrescu, Nany and his group deathbycoconut, Suce Fraga is one of the most active artists of this scene. “Ya Habibi” is lethargic, unflappable and stony. Although Fraga’s music is not so explicitly manele–infused, she claims it as an influence, and with a keen ear, that comes through in certain synth lines and vocal movements. Part of his process is “putting together things that don’t usually mix together in search of a paradox akin to the everyday uncertainty of life” evident in his incarcerable music. His apathetic vocal delivery reflects an urban cool, indifferent and full of humour.
Nu Mai incerca
Matteo Icelandzu, or the “black prince of the Bucharest underground”, as he describes himself on his Bandcamp page, started making music while he was a student in London. Upon his return to Romania, he began collaborating with Future Nuggets, developing his sound into a trap-infused electro-manele with a detectable rock influence. His songs use bouncy electronic elements, trance synths, metallic manele guitar lines layered over crispy kick drums and lightly auto-tuned vocals. Busy, but not crowded, his music is both fresh and danceable.
Μη μου λες
Mainly a director, Sarra Tsorakidis directed music videos for other performing artists. She cut her musical teeth at N-am Studio with the help of Inana, Plevna and Ion D, resulting in her first EP, Inchis Drum. Sarra, who is half-Greek, sings in Greek and Romanian. “Μη μου λες” opens with a wandering organ line reminiscent of Captain Beefheart; Sarra’s voice floats and a cymbal crash is followed by a rubbery manele synth. A mix of stripped-down live drums and bizarre electronics, “Μη μου λες” sounds like a dance party at a deranged dystopian tavern. This track will also appear on Sounds of the Unheard Vol. 4. Longtime followers of the series may notice that Future Nuggets skipped Vol. 3, because, as Ion says, “the timeline is for those who can afford it.” (He also attributes it to “the time distortion experienced by ever-developing countries.”)
Xenofolk is the musical pseudonym of Ion D and Suce Fraga, who set out to create stimulating concoctions of their various influences, or, “to address all of their points of intersection and go further, anywhere”, as Ion says. On “În doi sau în trei (chemarea pământului)”, from Xenofolk 2, an organ exhales an ethio-jazz melody on wobbly drums and electronic shimmers. Fraga’s vocals are heavily AutoTuned and celestial midi flutes gurgle. It’s by far the most psychedelic title of a deliciously crazy album.
Plevna is the work of Future Nuggets mainstay Horațiu Șerbănescu, a musician, producer and engineer who also plays in Australopitecus Oltensis, Concentration Band, Ing. Coman and Steaua De Mare. Plevna is an instrumental project, drawing heavily on Balkan wedding music and Bulgarian music kuchek. On “B-Man”, which is written in a 9/8 rhythm called Karsilama, a stream of lush atmospheric synths flows beneath a nasal keyboard melody that bends within an inch of its life. Adding the waterfall darbuka results in an irresistible Balkan breakbeat.
Mara from Timisoara & Alex Bittman & Bombardior
With its sweet, effects-laden guitar intro, you might expect “Regina Cuielor” to turn into romantic neo-bachata. Instead, it becomes sort of an internet-pop-manele version of the same thing. Mara de la Timișoara’s sultry, AutoTuned vocals are accompanied by ecstatic screams presumably provided by Bombardior (of the three artists on the track, only producer Alex Bittman has any internet presence). Languid, sentimental and very indulgent, “Regina Cuielor” takes the electromanele completely kitsch.
Inana is the recording alias of Thomas Höfer, a musician, producer and artist based in Bucharest, and a figure in his own right in the circles of Future Nuggets and N-am studios. Ion describes his music as “a synthesis of hypnagogia manele with ghost trap… dark wave and prog rock. Inana opts for another description in her Bandcamp bio: “Making unpopular hits since 2012.”