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Music and counter-culture in communist Romania
The communist regime in Romania imposed harsh regulations in all the social spheres and culture was no exception to the rule. These regulations, called canons at that time, were being established by the communist activists in charge of culture and censorship. These canons were targeting the high culture but the cultural forms coming from under the printing press were being marginalized and mostly materialized themselves into what we know as counterculture.
Besides classical and opera music, counterculture chiefly manifested itself in rock, jazz, blues and folk music. Pop music proved to be the most conformist back in the communist time, strictly keeping with the canon, but artists who tried to embrace styles from outside of the canon were quite few due to the difficult access to the sources of inspiration. For this reason, attempts to convey through music messages not complying with the official cultural directions were quite scarce back then.
Nevertheless, the counterculture stemmed out of the people's need for freedom in the creation process. Its inspiration sources, such as beat music, rock, blues and jazz produced in the West were being smuggled in Romania together with other Western products that were really hard to find on the communist market such as garments, cosmetics and jewels. Besides all these goods, foreign students used to smuggle in Romania vinyl records with music, which wasn't produced in this country.
Another source of inspiration for Romania's musical counterculture were the jazz and rock music programmes made by Willis Conover and Cornel Chiriac and aired by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe respectively.
Even more important than music was poetry and the verses proposed by the Romanian counterculture of that time had irony as their main characteristic in a bid to stimulate ideas and critical thinking. The severe food shortage and the extremely gloomy atmosphere of the 80s served as a major source of inspiration for the nonconformist poets of the time. Although the communist regime eventually made a couple of concessions allowing the jazz festivals of Sibiu and Costinesti, the grim reality was visible everywhere. Historian Sorin Antohi is recalling that gloomy period in Romania's history.
Sorin Antohi:"I remember an episode from the severe food shortage that was plaguing Romania back in the communist time. I had just come back from the Jazz festival in Sibiu back in 1980 with a couple of friends. We were bound for Iasi in northeastern Romania and we had to change trains in Ploiesti in the south. While crossing the city in our attempt to move to another train station we saw people close to one of the largest communist supermarkets pushing and shoving each other in an attempt to purchase butter. We saw small white packages flying in the air and didn't know what were at first. Then we realized that the communists used to cut 200 gr. packages of butter in two so that they may sell to as many customers as possible. So the people we saw were actually fiercely fighting over 100 grams of butter."
In communist Romania, censorship imposed certain forms of musical expression, which prompted some of the artists to try to avoid them. One of those artists was architect and singer-songwriter Alexandru Andries, a figurehead of musical counterculture in the 1970s and 1980s. Two of his songs were resounding hits, namely What a beautiful city and On the TV newsreel.
In the first song, Andries hinted at the existence of plants and factories which could be seen everywhere, simply stepping out of the line as against urban trends and principles. Concurrently, the lyrics of the song included barbed comments targeting the privileged ones, who lived in neighborhoods that were very well taken care of. The second song, On the TV newsreel, was not a subversive song, but a pastiche. The song became subversive later on, in the 1980s, when the food crisis hit Romania's population. In a recent conference, Andries recalled how he developed a passion for the music that challenged the mainstream, officially accepted one.
Alexandru Andries: "I must admit that on one hand, it was sheer fat luck as my mother's sister, my genuine aunt, left for the USA in 1966, by marriage. And that's how's I had access to books and LPs that were beyond reach, here. I remember that the Smithsonian Museum edited some sort of vinyl edition of American traditional music, encyclopedia, there were recordings from 1900 to this day, with the music of African -Americans who sang blues, with the music of the Redskins. I wanted that encyclopedia for myself quite all right, I didn't realize that in fact, it was a box with vinyl LPs that were very heavy. Little wonder then that the authorities summoned me, to tell them what was that about that big box I received from the USA."
English was a key component of musical counterculture. Andries recalled that when they had music classes, the teacher used to bring a turntable with her quite often, and played the music of Rolling Stones. However, for Andries, the fact that English was the language of the songs caused a lot of dissatisfaction and that had a strong bearing on his artist's progress.
Alexandru Andries: "As far as I'm concerned, the most important thing was that I could not listen in Romanian, what I was listening to in other languages. And I got peeved because of that. Of course I didn't have any interest in Romanian entertainment music whatsoever, with all its dull lyrics and with all those people who made a living writing such songs, songwriters and singers who did not have problems with the censorship. There were only two versions for that: there were either lyrics that did not convey anything special, or there were poems written by classical Romania poets, whose work had been published. And that was the main reason why I said to myself why shouldn't I write some songs the way I would like to hear them. I never imagined I would sing them live, in front of an audience."
The products of musical counterculture in the 1980s have also had their own public after 1989. And that, not for the relevance they may have today, but for the value they had back then.
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