Sunrise in Bucharest

How the "Romanian sound" conquered the world's dancefloors

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by William Ralston

Around 2007, Romania became associated with a singular and unfamiliar musical aesthetic. Incubated among Bucharest’s nightspots, the style was beginning to elicit discussion on foreign shores, where it was referred to as the “Romanian sound.”

Rhadoo (right) and Petre Inspirescu (left) at the Sunrise stage at Sunwaves 21 (2017)

Those involved deny the notion of uniformity, but their work is distinguishable for its focus on loops and novel sequences of rhythms. Each track is long and hypnotic, often bereft of melody. There also tends to be only a few elements, hence the term “Ro-minimal.”

The reasons behind this unified sound are explained by various theories, but the country’s isolation has played a significant part. Long after the communist barriers of Nicolae Ceaușescu had been broken down, access to music remained difficult because there were no record stores and many websites did not include Romania on their drop-down menus until after it joined the European Union in 2007. It was only around 2004, through peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, that Romanian musicians began to synchronise with what was happening abroad, and so their respective influences were almost all the same.

Influenced by western notions, a small community of Romanian DJs began to experiment with styles, playing any music they could get hold of. Frustrated at a lack of material, some began to make their own. It didn’t take long for the artists to begin searching for a “new way to express themselves,” Cezar, one of the scene’s elder artists, says, with many experimenting with more breakbeat and electro sounds.

The answer came via Ibiza, where Rhadoo and Petre Inspirescu (a.k.a Pedro), two of the scene’s pioneers, spent their summers. Minimal techno was sweeping across the island, and DC10 nightclub, where the two were regulars, was still an after-party place of sorts, a home to a minimal sound with “a low tempo and steady groove,” Rhadoo recalls.

“There was so much energy in the room from the moment you went in,” adding that this gave the DJs a freedom with the music that they could play. This inspired the pair to begin searching for minimal records. They bought many of these from Vinyl Club, an Ibiza record store, to which many DJs had sold their collections as they made the move to digital DJing software like Serato and Traktor. 

Raresh (2018)

Each October, Rhadoo and Pedro would return to Bucharest with bags of records focused on “minimal-sounding dub techno” recalls Cezar, and the music resonated within the small community of local DJs. This is partly because it allowed for mixing in a more “attractive” way, Cezar says, but the country’s lax licensing laws were also a factor. Parties in Romania could go on for over 48 hours, and sonic arcs of this duration don't lend themselves to explosive moments; they give DJs the time to build the narratives up slowly and then maintain a steady state of flow. 

Minimal music was a more suitable soundtrack for these conditions. There was now a sonic template, and a small yet inspired vanguard of pioneers, including Pedro, Rhadoo, Cezar, Kozo, and Praslea began to replicate these minimal sounds in their studios. The sampling of old minimal records was a commonly used practice during these years.

Cezar Lazăr (2018)

There was now a sonic template, and a small yet inspired vanguard of pioneers, including Pedro, Rhadoo, Cezar, Kozo, and Praslea began to replicate these minimal sounds in their studios. The sampling of old minimal records was a commonly used practice during these years.

Connecting these artists is Sunrise, a booking agency founded by Catalin Ghinea. After floating around in various sales gigs, Ghinea, commonly referred to as “Tati,” Romanian for “Daddy,” took a national marketing position for an energy drinks brand, which meant spending his days driving between cities within the company distribution network. With a comprehensive black book of Romania’s discotheque owners, he began to supply DJs, beginning with Rhadoo. He founded Sunrise in 1999, which has steadily grown in size. First to join were Raresh and Pedro, who together with Rhadoo formed the [a:rpia:r] label. 

Catalin Ghinea of Sunrise Booking (2018)

Rhadoo’s aspiration at this point was simple: he craved the artistic community that was absent during the early post-communist years in Bucharest. He also recognised that just playing music was not enough, and so he sought to provide a platform for those around him.  

Ghinea soon began throwing Sunrise events, bringing in names from overseas to play to Romanian crowds for the first time. The biggest of these is Sunwaves, launched in 2007 to showcase the talent in his books. 

The Sunrise stage at Sunwaves 21 (2017)

Running twice a year, in early May and the middle of August, Sunwaves marks the official start and end of the Romanian summer season. Both editions feature a long line of international artists, but the showcase is the stage where all the Sunrise artists play non-stop for four days and nights. At the front of the stage are stacks of Funktion-One speakers, the only sound system that properly communicates the intricacies of the music. 

The Sunrise stage at Sunwaves 21 (2017)

The annual event has provided the exposure that the Romanian scene needed. International music lovers travelled to Mamaia intent on seeing their favourite foreign acts only to discover the captivating minimalism of the Sunrise crew. International recognition was a natural progression, and it was catalysed by Ricardo Villalobos. Top-tier artists from Sunrise agency soon became some of the most in demand underground DJs in the world. 

The Sunrise stage at Sunwaves 21 (2017)

Much of the success comes down to the quality of their work, but interest is intensified by an enduring mystery that surrounds this community. The whole pocket refuses to engage in standard artist practices. One can scour the web and find only a few interviews with any of the artists, all of which are characteristically cryptic. Only a handful have social media pages, and none of these are active. 

Rhadoo (right) and Petre Inspirescu (left) at the Sunrise stage at Sunwaves 21 (2017)

The music is also almost never released digitally; rather it is rolled out on vinyl with no promotion and only a limited pressing—meaning only those in the record shop at the right time have access to it. Once those copies are gone, they’re gone.

While many criticise the vinyl-only formatting for being elitist, it’s a necessary means of protecting a rarified community. As Rhadoo explains, the music is made for professionals; it does not work when played in the wrong context. It requires small rooms, a DJ who knows how to use it, and a crystal-clear sound system. Having an unlimited number of digital files floating around would risk an injustice to the integrity that forms the basis of such an intentional community. But it also guarantees an audience. The only way to hear this music is to experience these artists performing live.

And this in itself is a unique experience. The DJ sets will be long and drawn out; often one artist will play for five or six hours. The mixing process is more drawn out: instead of transitioning quickly from track A to B, the focus will be on the combination of the tracks. In order for this extended mix to happen, tracks must be long hence why Romanian productions will normally be over eight or nine minutes.

However you look at it, the sounds of Sunrise have had a substantial impact on the wider landscape of underground electronic dance music. Not only did it define its own sub-genre within a saturated marketplace, it also established itself as a global phenomenon, leading young producers across the world to copy the music. Just as some set out to replicate the sound of Berlin techno, many artists are now following the recipe of Rhadoo and company. It became a small circle that developed a tremendous international appeal.

Credits: Story

Written by: William Ralston
For the full story, head to Berlin Quarterly

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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