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What’s wrong with Manele? Analysis of the most criticized Romanian music genre

manele music
Mario Friscia

Mario Friscia

Table of Contents

History and meaning of the word Manele

The term Manele indicates a music genre whose peculiarity is given by the combination of Romanian folk music with contemporary pop.

More specifically, Manele is the plural form of the word ‘Manèa’ which designates any piece of music belonging to this genre.

The history of Manele finds its origins in the music Mahala or Lautareasca, a particular kind of traditional music that was played during parties or important events such as weddings or even funerals.

Romanian Manele music began to establish itself in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and featured Turkish influences.

Subsequently, in a range of time that goes from the 80s to the early 90s, the so called ‘old Manele’ was replaced by the ‘modern Manele’.

The latter is characterized by Turkish, Greek, Arabic, Bulgarian and Serbian influences, accompanied by an arrangement in pop key and the use of new instruments typical of this genre, such as electric guitar, electric bass, electronic organ, synthesizer and drums.

Even today, Manele artists get hired to sing and play live at private parties or weddings, as many Romanians still believe that a ceremony cannot really be celebrated without Manele music.

This video clip by Adrian Minune confirms what I just said:

 

 

Manele was considered illegal under the socialist regime and experienced a phase of great expansion and affirmation in the 1990s, after the collapse of communism.

But what are the main topics covered by the Manelists?

Is is correct to label Manele as gipsy music?

But there’s more: why did these songs generate a lot of debate in Romania and get constantly “targeted” by the public opinion?

Ok, first things first.

Let’s start analyzing the question whether Manele is gypsy music or not.

 

Is Manele Gipsy Music?

Many wonder if Manele is gypsy music or if there is any correlation between the two.

It should be noted that a body of songs labeled as Manele already appeared in the gypsy communities of the 1950s and 1960s, as a response to the older and more sophisticated violin music.

The genre Manele, in fact, described aspects of the life led by the Roma.

This style, however, was originally called “Manea Turca“, probably to emphasize the fact that it was not gypsy music and therefore belonged to a distinct rhythmic universe, borrowed from Turkish party music.

However, it is also true that Romanian Manele music is mainly written and played by Gypsies.

The most famous of all is certainly Florin Salam, who takes his surname from the Arabic word “Salam”, which corresponds to a greeting.

The Manele genre was therefore performed by Roma musicians, who were used to play instruments such as the violin, the double bass, the accordion, the lute and the pan flute.

Later, in addition to taking inspiration from the pop genre, it was further enriched by a number of influences coming from other musical genres, such as Tech, Dance and even Rock.

Here’s an example of a 2021 Manele Tech song called “Kana Jambe”:

 

 

Having said that, now it is interesting to focus our attention on why this musical genre has completely divided Romanian public opinion.

 

Manele: the musical phenomenon that divided Romanian public opinion

Going deeper into the matter, it is difficult to find a Romanian who admits so easily that he appreciates Manele.

At first, one might think that the main reason for this aversion is due to the sexist and “superficial” message that lies behind the lyrics of Manele songs.

This song by Florin Salam, “Esti Bomba”, “You’re a bomb” is a clear example of what has just been said:

 

 

It highlights several aspects that are quite recurrent in the video clips of Manele songs and that have contributed to create a bad image of the genre as a whole:

the idea of the woman as an object (in fact they are almost all semi-naked and with a leash), the singer’s feet above the woman’s body, the corruption of churchmen, the presence of an expensive car.

Later in the article I’ll go through the topics covered in the lyrics.

It is also possible that the real problem Romania has towards this musical genre could be the fact that this is the music of the Roma community.

Yes, because it is probably easier to despise Manele, it is something considered socially more acceptable than declaring and openly expressing a feeling of racism towards gypsies.

In confirmation of this, a Romanian gypsy Youtuber named Bahoi, in a recent documentary Youtube Bazaar, compares the Roma minority currently located in Romania with African Americans in the United States.

Bahoi says both ethnicities have a history of state oppression and slavery behind them.

Here’s why music represents for the Romanian gypsies a way of salvation, a way of expressing themselves freely.

And they did it, through Lautereasca music and, more recently, with Manele.

 

Song lyrics and topics covered

If you have ever listened to a Manele song at least once, you will surely have noticed how engaging, rhythmic and energetic this style is.

It doesn’t matter if you understand the lyrics of the song or not, this genre immediately makes you want to party and dance.

The lyrics are simple and easy to memorize if you know the language well.

But if you don’t know Romanian at all and you do want to understand what a certain song is about, I recommend a site that will allow you to have a good translation of the text in English or in any language you want: Lyricstranslate.

The topics that Manele singers often deal with in their songs are about wealth, social status, boasting of oneself at the expense of enemies, the difficulties of life, alcohol, often you can find a clear mention of well-known brands, but they also know how to vary with topics concerning love and the suffering it generates when unrequited.

More specifically, Manele lyrics are about money, women, expensive cars and are full of ambiguous meanings and allusions of a sexual nature.

In addition, a real Manele fashion has been created, which is a luxurious and extravagant style of clothing that gets regularly used by Manelists, singers or fans of this genre.

Manelists love to wear flashy jewelry and well-known clothing brands that represent an important part of the Manele culture.

All these aspects – the lyrics and the fashion – further confirm how much this musical phenomenon has been capable of generating a kind of love and hate in Romania.

The Romanian intellectual upper middle class, in fact, does not appreciate this style at all and strongly opposes its dissemination, to the point that the popularity of the genre is slowly decreasing.

This aversion could also be triggered by other factors such as the incorrect use of grammar, the repetitiveness of the melodies, the texts defined as too simple and crude.

But there’s more: the aspect that has certainly created so much hostility towards this style is the message that lies behind these songs: a hymn to humiliating and bragging attitudes, a legitimacy of violent behavior, of mockery towards other people, especially towards women.

In addition, Manele enjoys a bad reputation in today’s Romania also because it is associated with the criminal world and a low level of culture.

It is defined superficial, non-educative and, as a result, not suitable for children.

The lyrics in some cases boast a transgressive and oppositional attitude towards the law and some artists, in exchange for money, are hired to compose songs for the most powerful and rich.

Speaking of lyrics related to law, prison and corruption, I suggest you to check this song by Adrian Minune entitled “Sydonia”:

 

 

This piece was requested by Fabian Marin for his wife Sydonia, who was in prison for trying to bribe a judge with money and a luxury car, to prevent her husband from serving a sentence for his crimes of violence, blackmail and loan sharking.

The song in question is about the suffering caused to the Marin family by the absence of Sydonia, a kind of prayer that could help their children not suffer much for this.

 

The thorny issue of plagiarism

Another element of the manele genre that caused quite a stir was the accusation of plagiarism, as some manelists took inspiration and adapted Turkish, Greek and Bulgarian folk songs without giving due recognition to their original authors.

One of the most sensational and discussed accusation was the one that revolved around the song “De ce mă minţi?” (Why are you lying to me?) by Liviu Guta which seems to be the cover of another song called “Ah kardoula mou” sung by the artist Despina Vandi.

Let’s compare them:

 

 

 

It doesn’t take much to notice the similarities between the two melodies.

The only difference between the two pieces lies in the introduction, where Liviu Guta begins to sing without the accompaniment of percussions.

And you? Have you noticed any other differences or similarities?

 

An overview of the most famous Manele artists

Now it is the time to listen to some songs belonging to this style and find out which are the main singers of manele.

Some people claim that the first modern manea was sung around 1950 by Maria Tanase, nicknamed the “Édith Piaf of Bucharest”.

The song is titled “Pana cand nu te iubeam“, “Until I loved you”, and was part of a collection of songs published in 1852 by Anton Pann:

 

 

Doing a search on Youtube, I found a beautiful Adrian Minune‘s track sung with Andra: “E noapte si e tarziu”, which means “It’s night and it’s late” .

The reason I’ve decided to share it with you is because it is a piece belonging to the so called “ancient manele“.

In fact, you will notice that there are far fewer electronic instruments than those used in modern manele and that the dominant instrument is the clarinet:

 

 

The text talks about a broken love, two people in love who break up.

The author expresses the suffering for a love that’s been lost while wondering who is the true culprit of the end of the story.

Among the most successful manele singers, besides Adrian Minune, we find: Nicolae Guta, Asu, Denisa, Dani Mocanu, Florin Salam, Spike.

Another piece that falls into the category “manele vechi”, or “old manele” is “Multe lacrimi de iubire“, “Many tears of love” by Denisa.

This “hit” showcases the particular voice of the singer, who is very famous in Romania, but who unfortunately died prematurely:

 

 

The other succesful hit I want to suggest you is sung by the artist Marius Babanu, “Traim viata ca sultanii”, which literally means “We live life as Sultans”:

 

 

This piece, besides having a great rhythm, is noteworthy because of the lyrics that say: “We live life like Sultani, Like Suleiman and Sulem, so let the our years pass, we have no worries ”.

We continue our journey across Romanian manele music with one of the most successful songs of all time, “Saint Tropez” by Florin Salam, which has earned more than 94 million views on Youtube.

It is a song dedicated to the world of wealthy and powerful individuals, an invitation to have fun and enjoy life to the fullest.

A phrase that summarizes the hedonistic spirit of the song is this: “Let’s spend the money, because our years are passing by”.

 

Musical characteristics

Today’s Romanian Manele music presents a series of recurring characteristics in terms of rhythmic patterns, vocal style, instrumentation and arrangement.

Let’s start by talking about the instrumentation.

Manele music employs a good variety of musical instruments both acoustic and electronic.

Among the chordophones we have classical, acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitar and double bass, while the violin is clearing losing its popularity compared to what happened in the first phases of Manele, when the influence coming from Lautareasca music was much stronger.

The soundscape of Romanian Manele music is clearly dominated by synths and keyboards that get commonly used to replace some of the traditional Manele instruments such as the clarinet, the saxophone or the accordion.

Some singers and music producers still maintain some of the aereophones that I’ve just mentioned above, so as to give a more natural flavour to their recordings and make their live concerts more engaging for the people.

Moving to the rhythm, Manele music adopts both prerecorded rhythmic loops and human-made live drumming patterns, produced by using a various number of percussion instruments, ranging from the typical pop-rock drum set to more ethnical instruments, such as the latin american congas and the middle eastern darbuka.

Most of the songs are built on a rhythm similar to the Arabic maqsum: dum-tak-tak-dum-tak, that is, short-long-short-long-long.

This is an example of maqsum, followed by a Manele song using the same rhythm:

 

 

 

Melodically, the singers may rely on Turkish and Arabic scales (maqam) or follow Western diatonic scales, depending on their own tastes, vocal ability and musical culture.

Most of the Manele artists show a tendency towards the production of difficult melismatic passages (a long series of notes on the same vowel) and tend to sing the lyrics of the songs very loud, as if they want to showcase their passion and masculine vigour.

Listen to this extraordinary vocal performance by Florin Salam marked by a series of sublime melodic passages where he seems to mimic and challenge the sounds of a violin or clarinet:

 

 

Sometimes, the text is enriched by sudden shouts and meaningless vocal outbursts that serve the purpose of capturing the listener’s attention and provide even more rhythmic power to the song.

When it comes to the arrangement, some Manele artists record, arrange and produce their songs within their home studios, since it’s difficult for them to establish partnerships with professional recording labels.

This choice may have an impact on the quality of the musical productions but it doesn’t seem to affect the overall success of their tunes among the followers of this genre.

As I said before, Manele is full of influences coming from the Balkans and the Middle East but it’s also been decorated with rhythms, melodies and styles derived from global music genres, like Hip-Hop and Reggaeton.

This inevitable process of musical globalization has deeply changed the way in which modern Manele music sound compared to the old style, which was more in line with gypsy and Romanian folk music.

If you want to deepen this topic I suggest you to read “Manele in Romania. Cultural expression and social meaning in Balkan popular music”, a collection of essays edited by Beissinger, Radulescu and Giurchescu.

 

Manele on TV and the radio

As we have fully explained in the course of this article, Manele has been quite contested in Romania and defined by journalists and academics as a form “pseudo-music” or “pure stupidity“.

Therefore, it will not surprise you at all to discover that this music, in some cities of Romania, is totally banned on Radio and Television channels and also at festivals and in public transport.

In short, Manele music is accused of primitivism and low culture and is believed to be unworthy of being spread.

However, in other areas of Romania this is not the case and Manele music can be listened freely on TVs and radios make no attempt to boycott it.

Furhtermore, there are online Radios and TV channels dedicated to the fans of this genre, such as FreeIntertv.com and Myradioonline.com.

But it doesn’t stop there!

There are also apps made specifically for listening to manele.

This is the case, for example, of the Radio.net application that you can download for free on your mobile.

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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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