Apropos of my earlier post on the popularity of ‘Selfie Pulla’ in Romania, here is one more example of cross-cultural pollination. A Romanian song called ‘Condimente’, by Nosfe and featuring Ruby wears its Indian influences on its sleeve. The song lyrics have the singers using funky spice metaphors to talk about their relationship. (‘You’re spicy, like chili or paprika/I just eat more light, be my soy sauce/me basil, you mint/This ain’t perfect but it has a tint’) The video features India-influenced background dancers, and the setting is totes obvs Bollywood. If we lived in the 90s, this song would already have made an appearance in an Anu Malik album — or four — by now.
If you are a connoisseur of the comment section on YouTube, you will be surprised to see the number of Romanians commenting on this particular video. As it turns out, “Pula” is Romanian slang for the male member/dick/cock/prick/insert (giggle) your synonym here. The video was featured on an entertainment show in the country, and suddenly went viral there. My Romanian friends have been sending me the link for expert commentary, and it’s hard to keep a straight face. Not since ‘Kolaveri Di’ (which was popular enough to be included in zumba classes in Cluj) has an Indian song made such an impact on Romanian internet circles.
But then, I have my own arsenal of pop culture artifacts to make the most hardened Romanian patriot blush, or at least back away slowly, eager to deny all association with these gold-encrusted nuggets.
Exhibit B: (NOT work-safe, hellz no)
But to be fair, Romania has its share of good music. The most obsequious, and often reviled, genre is dance-pop, and it even has a special name for the country — ‘popcorn’. O-zone’s ‘Dragostea din tei‘ (if you don’t remember it, maybe you recognize it as the ‘Numa Numa’ song) was a legit hit in the early 2000s, and by the end of the decade, artists like Alexandra Stan, Inna, and Andreea Banica had broken through, making frothy, catchy pop music that is easy on the ears and quite the rage in night-clubs around Europe. Synthesized accordion and brass melodies are occasional hallmarks in these songs, and most feature English lyrics that sound like afterthoughts on top of the production, suffering from a lack of depth. (Hey, who are we to complain, we purveyors of Ishqwala Love/Selfie Pulla/Hai Hukku?) Overall, popcorn is very distinctive, drawing influences from trance, house and dub-step into a sound that is uniquely Romanian. The videos are rife with pretty people; the artistes themselves are usually gorgeous, and are consequently mainstays on /r/sexymusicvideos. Here’s an extended, albeit, outdated popcorn playlist:
Of all the popcorn artistes I know, I tend to favor Inna and DJ Andi the most. I heard the latter for the first time in 2009, when his ‘Freedom’ was playing in every bar and nightclub and radio station during my visit. Inna is dear to my heart because I heard some unplugged songs by her, and I simply could not resist.
I can’t stand Romanian rock. With very few exceptions, most local bands have an 80s hair-metal hangover that turns me off. I suspect it is both my taste and my lack of context for the lyrics that contribute to my lack of interest in them.
My favorite sub-genre in Romanian music happens to be ‘etno’, which mixes traditional instruments, rhythms, voices and melodies with sleek production values. It is folk meets turn-tablism, hip-hop, D&B and dub-step loops. Subcarpati is a band I keep an eye on, and they feature outstanding work on their tracks, the language barrier hardly a factor in bopping along with their songs.
If you want to keep an eye on new Romanian pop, /r/RomanianHouse is the sub-reddit to follow.
And if you really want the dregs of Romanian music, don’t look further than Manele. Local critics have used terms like “pseudo music”, “pure stupidity, inculture and blah-blah”, “the genre for the mentally challenged”, and my personal favorite: “society’s bed-wetter”. I am not morally equipped to point you to manele videos, proceed at your own peril. Please do not come asking for a life refund once you are done, okay?
Leslie Feist – Mushaboom
Jussi, an old old friend – not in age, mind you, but someone who goes back quite a few years – flew over from Helsinki to come meet me in Cluj, Romania. We had planned a road-trip towards the Carpathian mountains, all the way to Castle Bran – otherwise known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’, and as soon as the man arrived, friends from the office helped us find a rental car agency, where we had to decide between a Volkswagen or a BMW. Jussi and I looked at each other, and he asked the question that was on my mind – “Do they have music systems with auxiliary inputs?” Well, the question on my mind was actually – “what color is the BMW?”, but I had to agree with my friend – priorities are priorities, and no self-respecting road tripper would venture out without ensuring that the car is well-equipped in terms of audio paraphernalia.
The Volkswagen had a CD system – “Plays MP3 CDs”, the person at the rental centre assured us. No auxiliary jack, though. The BMW had squat. Decisions having made, I spent some time that night – after having imbibed quite a few glasses of wine ( I claim 7, others say 6) – burning an mp3 CD. And the next morning, as we started on our journey, we popped the CD in, waited for the music to play and then, nothing.
The music system only played audio CDs, goddamnit.
We burned two CDs on my laptop while having breakfast at a motel. One didn’t work, the other did. Wrote 4 more CDs in a hotel that night, 2 didn’t work. And finally, the next day, we burnt three more CDs, out of which one worked. That last CD included the song that Jussi had been trying to play for me the last few days. Leslie Feist’s Mushaboom.
On the last leg of the trip, the GPS on the car – the way to Cluj from Bran Castle – took us through a route that took us through a forest, and gave us a clear view of the mountains. There was not a single car to be seen, and the sun broke out of the clouds at brief intervals, but the overall atmosphere was that of complete serenity save for the open road in front of us. It was at that magical moment, when the two of us were more than a little tired from the trip, and a wee bit melancholic about the end of a good vacation, that Mushaboom began to play on the music system. And it’s because of that I’ll associate the song forever with autumn evenings, the Carpathian mountains and the open road.
The video was another source of joy when I saw it much later, making me feel giddy with laughter. Bacon bat wings, whee! Flying guitars! Empty carnival grounds, which are usually creepy, but suddenly seemed fuzzy and nice and welcoming.
Katie Melua – 9 Million Bicycles
So when I played Mushaboom to a friend in Romania the week after Jussi left, she asked me – “Have you heard Katie Melua?” I hadn’t. That was remedied within a few minutes, and as the strains of the Chinese flute opened ‘9 Million Bicycles’, the first song in Melua’s ‘Piece By Piece’, I almost held my breath and waited for the song to disappoint. Happily, it didn’t. This was one of those rare songs whose lyrics I paid close attention to during the all-important first listen, and smiled along to the references to light-years and the world’s population. Her voice is a combination of Norah Jones and Joss Stone, and the production in the album just quirky enough not be repetitive.
Later on, I learnt that Melua’s song invoked the ire of science guru Simon Singh, because of the line “We are twelve million light-years from the edge, that’s a guess” – and she apologized by coming up with a witty rephrasing of the stanza, which you can see in the snippet of video below.
Regina Spektor – Fidelity
And there are the songs that just come to you, flying out of nowhere just when you think you cannot be surprised anymore. A friend at the office enjoyed the two songs I played for him – no prizes for guessing which ones they were. He created a last.fm profile for himself, and as he was listening to my station, he asked me if I had any Regina Spektor songs. I did, and the next day, I loaded up his iPod with all the albums I had.
Last night, I sat down near the laptop, and the only music I had on the drive ( it’s the office machine, and I don’t keep music on it, as a matter of principle. Also because it’s only 80 GB) was the aforementioned Spektor albums. I put on the first song from Begin To Hope, which happened to be ‘Fidelity’. I had heard the album before, a long time ago, but the way the song infiltrated my senses – at that precise moment – was unbelievable. Pizzicato strings, piano tinklings and Spektor’s voice kept me company for quite sometime. It’s still the only song I’ve listened to all day, and I have no doubt it will keep me company all of tonight.
And now I wonder – which song lies in wait for me next, ready to be discovered? What memory will I associate it with, and who will I think of when I listen to it?