All Things Romania

Music in Romania


When I first came to Romania, I was confronted with a wild and dazzling array of different kinds of music, most of which I had never heard before. It also didn’t help that I couldn’t understand the words either.

In fact, due to my odd memory, I can tell you exactly which song I heard in Romanian first, an old and very popular ballad by the soft rock supergroup Holograf called “Banii Vorbesc”, literally “money talks”, about how fucked up the world is and only money counts.

The main chorus indeed states, “There is only one law and that is that money talks”.

Let’s set aside what kind of mentality that portrays. What I could easily understand (musically) was soft rock, hard rock, a little rap and straight pop songs, including what later would be the most famous song in the Romanian language of all time.

But what about all the other kinds of music I was hearing in Romanian?

You might have noticed some terms on my sidebar concerning this. One of the links goes to ETNO TV, which unsurprisingly enough, is a channel that broadcasts etno music. But what is that?

Literally the word etno would be translated as “ethnic” music. But saying it’s Romanian “ethnic” music doesn’t make much sense.

It took me a long time to realize that muzica populara (another category on the sidebar) is essentially the same as “etno” music. But what does “popular music” mean? Again it sounds somewhat vague in English.

It wasn’t until I moved to Timisoara and began to occasionally watch Radio-Televiziya Srbiye that I became aware of various styles of music in other countries that is extremely similar to Romania’s and a lot of things started to suddenly make sense.

For a long, long, long time, life for ethnic Romanians was extremely rural, agricultural and pastoral. A great number of songs, ditties and tunes were written and sung, passed on down from generation to generation.

As ethnic Romanians began to gain a stronger sense of national unity (remembering that this country isn’t even 100 years old) they began writing some of these songs down. As the 20th century began, some of the most popular ones were often re-written to (either) be easier to sing and/or make the music more catchy and upbeat.

The “populara” doesn’t just mean popular, it also means “for the people” in Romanian, which clearly meshed well with the ideology of the Communists during their long reign.

This is, essentially, what etno music is, also known as muzica populara. At the end of the 20th century and including even today, there are also several groups who have re-updated many of these songs. You can see one of the most famous ones on the sidebar called dulce-i vinul (sweet is the wine).

When the songs are sung and performed in the very old style, as in the most traditional format, this is often called folkloric music. These songs are often sung in combination with dancers performing traditional dances.

The other intertwined strand of music in Romania of course comes via the ethnic gypsies, who developed their very own signature styles and sounds.

It must be understood however, that sometimes there is no clear delineation between these two branches, Romanian and Gypsy, as they indisputably have cross-fertilized with one another.

Considered virtually an inherited talent and therefore controlled mostly by certain families and clans, the original Gypsy music is called muzica lautareasca. These musical families would travel from town to town, earning their money by singing a set of songs for important rituals like weddings and baptisms.

Since (ethnic) Romanians have spent over 100 years paying for this music, it is generally considered still quite respectable even today.

More recently however, a number of Gypsy musicians have combined an electronic, often heavy on the synthesizers sound, utilizing a primitive but compelling blend of Arab, Turkish and Balkan rhythms with both their lautareasca songs as well as many (ethnic) Romanian etno songs to form the monster elephant in the room known as manele.

The last time I was in a hotel with ETNO TV, I switched it on and was shocked to see I knew the words to the song playing (done in the folkloric style) because I was familiar with the manele version of it.

For a wide variety of reasons, the greatest social schism in Romania society lies between those who listen to and like manele music (known as manelistimoney-leesht) and those who hate it, loathe it and spit on it.

Any Romanian with any kind of sense of high status falls in the second category – the mention of or appreciation of manele is anathema so don’t ever do it if you want to win friends and influence people here!

Even if you don’t understand the words, if you can learn to audibly separate the sounds of manele from these other types of music, you can instantly know what kind of Romanian you’re meeting, which can be of critical importance.

Of course there are always exceptions (such as my own self hehe) but 99% of the time, if the person is listening to manele it is highly doubtful they will speak English (or any other foreign language).

In fact, in all the places I’ve traveled to and lived and amongst the people I’ve met, I’ve clearly seen that monolingual Romanians by far and away are more likely to listen to manele than multilingual Romanians are.

Therefore any Romanian reading this by definition is at least bilingual (since you speak English) and almost invariably not a fan of manele.

Once you can distinguish this particular kind of music, you can use it as an audible form of GPS. When you begin to predominately hear manele music, this means you are straying off the tourist-friendly path and heading into the “deep bush” of a much more insular Romanian world.

If you get in a taxi and the driver is playing manele, chances are they don’t speak English (or anything else). In fact, listening exclusively to any kind of Romanian music is, unsurprisingly, mostly done by monolingual Romanians although the dividing line is less sharp as plenty of Romanians listen to English language music that they can’t understand (well).

There are a wealth of other musical traditions to be found in Romania as well, including Hungarian, Jewish, Russian and Serbian dances and songs which you may occasionally hear as well.

That being said, the vast majority of music you will hear in bigger cities and high-tourist zones is a vanilla blend of 90% English pop/hiphop, 7% Spanish, 2% Italian, 1% German and 10% Romanian, mixed and pureed in a couple of ways.

In fact, if you are sensitive to having songs getting “stuck” in your head, be aware that in Romania songs are played over and over again ad infinitum and are almost impossible to avoid hearing (for more on that, I’ll write a full article later).


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