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Manele: the controversy around Romani music in Romania

Manele is a modern form of Romani (or Roma) music in Romania. Using traditional Romani instruments and sounds, it also fuses other genres from the Balkans, Middle East, and India.

Manele’s rhythm and sound may be addictive for many, yet despite a general consensus in Romania that manele is catchy and nice to dance to, it remains very controversial. This is partly due to deep-rooted prejudice towards the Romani people, as well as manele’s lyrics and music videos, many of which are full of cars, money, and semi-naked women.

Tzanca Uraganu (Tzanca the Hurricane), sings his major hit single Bat la Șase Buci (I Slap Six Bumcheeks) in Silver Club, the only Romanian nightclub in London. Entry costs sixty pounds (cash only), but people are ready to spend much more, giving Tzanca up to hundreds in sterling for dedicații: special song requests, dedications and shoutouts. Prior to arriving, my Romanian girlfriend’s parents tell me to put all our valuables into a fanny pack and tightly strap it to my chest. They also make sure my girlfriend does not wear anything too ‘revealing’: “They think lots of criminals and dodgy people will be there. It’s because of the music, but also partly because of racism. A really, really normalised racism. Almost everyone in Romania thinks that stealing is part of the Roma culture,” my girlfriend tells me.

The BBC made a documentary 7 years ago about the manele controversy. In it, it linked a few figures of the Romanian underworld to manele singers as ‘acquaintances’ who had helped advance their careers. There might indeed be some truth in the idea that manele as a genre attracts a few criminals, but it is also loved by many ordinary Romanians, especially the younger generation. At the club, everyone takes turns to come to the front to see Tzanca, people smile and dance, and despite the slight stress of my girlfriend’s parents’ warnings, I feel safe and happy.

“It’s nice music, and I don’t have a problem with it,” a Romanian friend tells me. “I like its sound. It’s similar to folk music and it appeals to the music I’ve been raised to enjoy. No one seems to complain about trap or rap music, but when it comes to manele there’s always a fuss. When I had a manele phase I didn’t tell my parents or anyone, because there is such a big stigma. Many people think that if you listen to manele, you’re either a ‘gypsy’ or uneducated. And even those who say they don’t listen to it actually do when they’re drunk enough, because at that moment for them it’s acceptable.”

For some, manele’s constantly recurring clichés of cars, money, love and women, as well as its strange lyrics that often don’t make sense, make the genre more funny than offensive. In ‘Manele in Romania’, the only book that can be found online about manele, Victor Alexandre Stochiță points to the idea that what differentiates those who like the genre and those who don’t is the extent to which its lyrics are taken seriously.

Tzanca and his backup singers sing perfectly in tune despite the noise of the music and people shouting requests in their ears. His entourage of musicians playing the clarinet, violin, piano and drums also prove their skill and stamina, performing perfectly non-stop throughout the night. To be a singer or musician in manele, you clearly need talent and practice. Yet despite this, on a language course in Bucharest this summer, our class teacher refused to acknowledge that being a manelist (manele singer) is a career. “It’s not a career because they don’t study anything for it”, she told us affirmatively. This seemed ironic as a few seconds later, she acknowledged that being a shop assistant was a career despite not needing to study for it either. It therefore seems that manele singers and musicians are looked down on by many intellectuals in Romania. Both class prejudice and racism towards the Roma people without a doubt play some part in this.

As the manele controversy continues in Romania, it also continues to be a very popular genre of music among the youth with a growing international reach. The recent appearance of Florin Salam, regarded by many as the godfather of modern manele, on one of Romania’s most popular interview shows, 40 de Întrebări (40 Questions), suggests that the genre is becoming more and more mainstream. In recent years, there have also been increasingly frequent collaborations between manele singers and more conventional Romanian pop artists, albeit with some critique from the latter’s fans. It remains to be seen whether manele will go on to be fully embraced as part of Romania’s unique musical culture.

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