I love exploring different types of music and a few years back, a friend from Romania got me hooked on manele, a type of Romanian pop music with Gypsy and Turkish roots. In this post, I’d like to give you a little background about the style of music and its social influence. To get started, here’s one of my favorite manele songs, “Boom Shaka Laka”:
Now tell me that doesn’t make you want to clap your hands and dance? Maybe like these people who made a silly video about the same song…in drag:
But manele has more meaning to it than means the eye. The music originated with Romani (we use the term Gypsy, but it is not considered as polite as Roma/Romani) musicians who used to wander the countryside performing at weddings and other events. The music had a heavy Turkish influence as well, as Romania was once part of the Ottoman Empire.
Once Romanians came under Communist rule, there was an effort to repress the Oriental part of Romanian culture, in particular the Roma musicians. However, with the arrival of democracy and EU integration, Romanians increasingly looked westward economically and politically as they rid themselves of communism. Yet even as they looked westward politically, many also looked eastward culturally, towards their oriental heritage (e.g. Ottoman Empire), their Roma citizens, and their Balkan neighbors for musical inspiration- today’s manele music. Having rediscovered this Romani tradition after years of repression, Romanians rekindled ties with the West while simultaneously grounding themselves in their history and their broader region. As Professor Margaret Beissinger puts it: “Throughout Romania, and all of Eastern Europe, musical culture changed conspicuously after 1989: borders dissolved and previous restrictions were eliminated or loosened. As I have suggested, these openings were exploited; traditional and popular music, now freely entering from both East and West, were keenly embraced and assimilated by Romani musicians.”
Indeed, manele shares many similarities with other music in the Balkans and Middle East – Chalga (Bulgaria), Turbofolk (Serbia), Skyládiko (Greece), Arabesque (Turkey), and Mizrachi (Israel) music. For instance, all of these styles of music have artists who cover each other’s songs. It is not uncommon to hear a Turkish or Greek song get covered by a manele artist. Or a Mizrachi artist to cover a Greek song. Or a Greek artist to cover an Arabic song. And so on.
But it is also the context of the music, not just the interchange of music described above, that brings these styles together. Take a look at this excerpt about manele music:
“The ‘manele’ are clearly not limited to music, they are part of an entire phenomenon that could be dubbed a subculture. We asked Speranta Radulescu about that:
‘The ‘manele’ are not simply music, but a complex phenomenon made up of dance, gestures, behavior, a specific iconography which we are generally tempted to qualify as kitsch, bad taste. Spearheading the attacks against this music genre are intellectuals, especially in terms of the music. The ‘manele’ are the result of the transformation in urban music in Romania, especially southern music, turning into a popular type of music, much loved by the general public…The ‘manele’ are strongly contested by intellectuals, some of them very visible in society, and this has determined many social strata and media to react in a hostile manner, to the point where there is an almost psychotic reaction from the public. The problem is that, generally speaking, intellectuals ignore the phenomenon, and don’t make an effort to understand its roots, its target, and what they want to express. The ‘manele’ are a reflection of Romanian society in general, they are an expression of the huge gap that exists between intellectuals and people of very modest means.'”
In this respect, manele is highly similar to Mizrachi music in Israel- a style created by the working class and marginalized ethnic group (in the case of manele, Roma, and in the case of Mizrachi music, Jews of Middle Eastern descent). The style then has to fight for social recognition, as the dominant classes dismiss the music as crude and unworthy of exposure. Some may even find similarities between manele music and hip hop or Reggaeton.
When it comes to manele, it’s clear that it’s a fun and edgy (and sometimes inappropriate) style of music, similar to many of the styles we’ve come to love around the world. Every song might not be your cup of tea, but let’s remember that this music isn’t just about fun and dancing (although that is encouraged!). It’s also about Romania’s new place in the world, embracing a diverse history, and giving a voice to the marginalized people of society. In that respect, there is much more to manele than meets the eye. And that is why I love it so much.
For more manele music, try searching on Youtube for videos, purchasing songs on iTunes, or these manele radio stations. Enjoy!
**UPDATE 2017: I’m Jewish and I’ve been doing some genealogical research and have just discovered that I’m part Romanian! All the more reason to proudly listen to some manele music! 🙂