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A Brief Guide to Romanian Indie Music

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Romanian indie music

Apart from manele, classic hard rock bands and folk music, there is (there is!) an indie music scene in Romania, one that can be interesting for a listener used to search for the last hypes in America, United Kingdom or in his/her country (mine being Spain). Sadly to say, Romanian indie scene also looks for inspiration in the western world, so it's easy to trace a map of influences only citing some well-known bands from the English-speaking countries, Germany or some tendencies based in big-party cities like Amsterdam. But the question of originality is only one of the many we can take to measure the quality of music, and not the most important. There are lot of musicians in the Balkans  who struggles to bring back the tradition and mix it with the latest trends, and at the foundation of what we can understand as indie music, there were bands like Phoenix (not to be misunderstood with the well known French band of the same name) that mixed rock and folk; but as long as I know, it's not the most common thing in Romania neither the way that produces more achievements.  

I would like to keep it clear from the beginning that this is a superficial account of some bands and trends I begun to know about only some months ago, after my arrival to Romania, so sure that there are lot of things missing. Anyway, let's start at once, beginning with the basics. 

The classic: Phoenix 

Ok, Phoenix is not properly indie music, but I found that, as well as other classic bands or artists from the 60s (The Doors, Jimmy Hendrix) are now on the playlist of most indie listeners, Phoenix could be the introduce to “not-mainstream” sound. The band was born in the 60s, right under communist regime, as a cover band of songs by The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Its likening of western rock was not very well seen by the authorities, who suggested that they should make an approach to traditional folk music. That way was born a really nice mixture of West Coast sound (Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane), progressive and hard rock (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin) and some traditional sounds and vocals. The band was remade in Germany under de name of Phoenix Transylvania, and some of its members keep on now like old glories. A very good introduction to Romanian rock, and quite a surprise to someone who just didn't know anything about it. Take a listen to their three albums in the 70s: Cei ce ne-au dat nume (1972), Mugur de fluier (1974) and Cantofabule (1975). 

The first ones: Timpuri Noi 

Sure not the first one, but the first to earn some attention gathering the New Wave (you know: Joy Divison, New Order, etc.) and later the “rock-funky-play it all” style made famous by Red Hot Chili Peppers. Born in the 80s, it didn't released any album before the 90s. A bit too much mixing, but with some great songs, and seems that a lot of people keep on listening to their music. Timpuri Noi split up in 2001, but their components formed new bands (the most important one being Partizan), reuniting again in 2004. 

The indie that became mainstream: Luna Amara, Omul cu Soboni 

Based in Cluj Napoca, Luna Amara was for me the main gate to get introduced to indie music in Romania. The first one that comes out when looking for information about this theme, and one that anyone with a bit interest in indie music actually knows. Asked about this band some young people in Cluj, they told me that it could be interesting in the past, but now it had become mainstream. Hard to know, as I haven't listened yet to all of their albums neither watch them live, but the factual data is that their last lp is sung almost entirely in English, while the others were sung in Romanian (except for few songs). Look for their two first albums, Asfalt (2004) and Loc Lipsa (2006), quite a curious mix of hard rock and pop. On the other hand, Omul cu Sobolani is a well known formation born in Constanţa in 1997. You can find their lps in any music store, being a standard indie rock band in Romania. I don't find their music very interesting, but it's a must to include them here. In the loop of post-grunge Smashing Pumpkins 90's rock. 

What's up right now (underground and nearly underground): Aria Urbana, Brigada Artistica Urbana, Blazzaj, Blanoz Distruzos 

They don't have so much in common, as for the will to mix genres and styles. Aria Urbana (Braşov) can be included in the trip hop label; you can find in its music drum&bass, hip hop, horns, electric guitars, some funky, etc. One of my favourites, although not very known. Brigada Artistica Urbana (Timişoara) is on the same wave as Aria Urbana, but more experimental, a bit harder, while Blazzaj (Timişoara) is free jazz mixed with some pop structures and Blanoz Distruzos (Bucureşti) is more inclined to alternative hip hop. 

Canonic indie scene: The Amsterdams, Les Elephants Bizarres, Kumm, Mood, Go To Berlin, Persona 

They sing in English, make danceable rock music with a classic band formation, clearly look themselves on artists from USA And UK, that goes from Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand and Artic Monkeys to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, Interpol or Vampire Weekend. Speaking about The Amsterdams, they achieve some really good tunes and bright ideas, but lack some continuity. It's easy to understand that they aspire to be on they same league as their idols (only have to take a look to its album design, trendy and fancy) but for now are in some place in between, which anyway is no reason to don't give to songs like “Chased By The Housewives” the attention they deserve. Les Elephants Bizarres is a good band that can give you more than one surprise, with cuts that perfectly fit in any party (just look for “Not Fear” on its myspace); the only problem is the sensation that you already have listen to theirs songs somewhere sometime, a handicap shared more or less by all this bands. Kumm comprises really talented musicians, introducing songs that would be an instant hit if coming from an English speaking country or Sweden. They have the problem of singing in an English that sometimes is a bit too forced, sounding better in Romanian sung cuts as “Morsa” or “1000 de supuri”. Mood and Go To Berlin are as the little brothers of The Amsterdams, a band that in fact is like the little brother of those grown up in the Isles or across the Atlantic Sea. Good for the local scene, still under construction. As for Persona, which has not yet released an album, is one of the good surprises. You can check its songs on myspace: well performed (instrumentally and vocally), sharp, inventive, I'm waiting to listen to their first album when it comes out, actually curious about watching them live. Already participated in the B-Fest. 

Is that all?: Urma, Kravna, Alexandrina, Byron, Silent Strike, Ada Milea, etc. 

There are some bands that belong to the indie scene, but for one reason or the other didn't fit in the upper classification. Is the case of pop rock bands as Urma or Kravna, which make regular standard indie, not so different as the bands described above as to speak about them separately, but interesting enough to be mentioned. Alexandrina is a singer from Republic of Moldova that is regarding great attention in Romania as well; she performs an elegant music somehow in between the mainstream and the indie, like a more soft and less vocal gifted Regina Spektor. I like some of her songs, but find her work a bit too premeditate in order to please all tastes, something similar to what can be said about Byron, a band named after its singer, Dan Byron, from the city capital. Its well made pop rock sung in English is closest to AOR. Silent Strike is an electronic artist based in Bucureşti, whose work is mainly based on calm, relaxed atmospheres. Then you also have in Romania some song-writers on the protest or sensitive tradition that you can find in any country. Not knowing much about them, I'll give two names for those who are interested in this: Alexandru Andries and Ada Milea. The first one can be found in any store, at least his last album, “Petal”; the second is also an actress who likes to perform conceptual albums as fables. 

So, the list could go on interminably, but let's keep the thing like this for now. Good listening.