In the latest print issue of Berlin Quarterly, a bi-annual review of long-form journalism, William Ralston has submitted a 20,000-word in-depth reportage entitled “Sunrise in Bucharest.”
The reportage led the UK journalist to base himself in Bucharest for five weeks in order to dig deep into the yet untold history of the “Ro-minimal” sub-genre that has had and continues to have “a substantial impact on the wider landscape of underground electronic dance music,” as he writes.
Beginning with a detailed investigation into the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, he traces the sub-genre’s journey right back to its earliest beginnings with clandestine parties and pirated tapes, and he explores the places and events that led to what he describes as a “global phenomenon”. In doing so, Ralston speaks with the key figures and seminal artists in this movement — many of whom have never previously given interviews.
To fully understand how “a scene that was once so profoundly controlled and limited is now exceptionally artistically autonomous by virtue of self-control” it’s essential to know the social, cultural, and political context that influenced its evolution. So now, we are tremendously excited to invite you to explore, chapter by chapter, parts of a fascinating story that very few people have had to chance to hear.
Chapter 1 | December, 1989 & 45 years before
The article opens by delving into the 45-year oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, that “was unlike anything Europe had seen” and had “grave repercussions for Romania’s musical landscape.” He holds fascinating discussions with Lucian Stan (a.k.a. DJ Vasile), a pioneer of Romanian electronic music; Mircea Florian, one of the country’s most celebrated musical rebels; and Cristian Vladescu (DJ Vladone), Romania’s first ever DJ. He also discusses the inner workings of Electrecord, the only state-run label. By tracing the label’s discography back to the beginning, he asserts that the Romanian population was not exposed to electronic dance music until after the revolution.
For much of this time, almost nothing came into Romania, and almost nothing went out. International travel was banned; communist propaganda dominated the television and radio airwaves. Western music, strictly prohibited, was by and large inaccessible. […]
Across Romania there also existed a vibrant market in legitimate though forbidden imports, mostly coming from friends and family abroad. Those who were required to travel for work—pilots, air stewardesses, and athletes—were known to return home with items from the West, and some would exploit their position by selling these items. Close friends would then be invited to private listening sessions. These records would often also be copied onto tape, creating a sea of pirated replicas. “The whole neighbourhood knew if you had a good The Police record in your house”, one local jokes. It was through these methods that much of the Romanian population developed their most basic musical education.
This opened the door for Vladescu. In 1977, after four years in a Romanian discotheque, he was hired as a DJ for a Swedish company by the seaside. The venue remained open for the duration of summer but precluded Romanians from entering by requiring an entry fee of US$1.50. Vladescu now had access to all the music from the West. He became a glitch in Ceaușescu’s system: not only did he regularly share his records with DJs of Romanian discotheques, he also shared them with friends to copy onto tape—supporting the market for pirated Western music.
Before the Second World War, Romania boasted a thriving musical scene with multiple independent recording labels. In Bucharest alone, there were six or seven labels that were pressing records and had mini studio sets of the artists. At the end of the war, the Soviets nationalised everything they found in Romania, thus bundling all these independent label bodies into one state-owned brand under the name Electrecord.
Ceausescu’s death sparked the beginning of a national transformation. A slow period of privatisation ensued as the interim president sought to minimise inflation, though many believe he sought only to retain his power. Capitalist euphoria ignited as the country began connecting with the Western world. “It was a complete boom”, one local says. […]
One of the first new markets was for pirated cassette tapes. Until the revolution, piracy had been an underground and personal practice: friends and family members would lend records to each other to replicate for personal use. There was little or no business surrounding it. But this changed after the revolution.
Chapter 2 | The ‘90s: The Birth of Clubbing Culture in Romania
As the scene grew, its vanguard figures began looking for a home. The early ‘90s had seen a host of “poshy,” mobster-run discotheques pop up around Bucharest, none of which catered to the advancing musical taste. Artists like DJ Vasile, who refused to compromise, were forced to either produce their own events or imprint their own styles onto more sophisticated venues. Vasile could often be found playing his drum and bass and jungle records in expensive cocktail bars with “fancy” girls. Before Studio Martin opened in 1994, there was simply no other option.
Cristian Vladescu (a.k.a DJ Vladone) continued DJing on the Black Sea coast after the revolution. Upon returning to Bucharest in 1993, he discovered an old, abandoned theatre fit for a discotheque. He contacted some friends to fund the renovation, and together they launched one of the city’s first post-communist party spots: the doors of Studio Martin opened in 1994. Like most venues of its kind, it was open from 8pm until 3am, six days per week—with one left for cleaning. It was full every night. The musical programme was monitored by Vladone. Only vinyl was allowed—a rarity given the scarcity of turntables in the ’90s.
The Web Club
There were three rooms. Two rooms became Bucharest’s second Internet cafe after Ion Liberopoulos installed a satellite dish on the rooftop. The larger third room housed a billiard table and a prodigious mushroom mural—a symbol of the venue. There were also some turntables, a mixer, and some speakers. He called it The Web Club: whisky—for drink- ing; echo—for the music; bravo—for the fun. It’s coincidence that “Web” came to mean the Internet. “Back then it just meant what the spider makes,” Liberopoulos says. […]
La Mania & The Mission
The turn of the millennium brought various other small spaces in Bucharest and beyond as demand grew. Of particular note were Kudos Beach Club, run by Rosario Internullo; La Mania, an infamous club on the Black Sea coast that remained open until 2011; and The Mission. […]
This was the birth of clubbing culture in Romania.
Cătălin Ghinea (Tati)
What started as a one-man band, headed up by Ghinea, has evolved into an internationally significant, 11-man operation that sits at the centre of Bucharest’s music scene.
Ghinea’s rooster grew over the ensuing years. A lack of competing agencies allowed him to acquire any Romanian DJ, from the underground figures to more commercial names from the radio. Then, in late 2004, he quit his job and began throwing his own Sunrise events, bringing in names from overseas to play to Romanian crowds for the first time.
Chapter 3 | The Boys and Their Music. A Community Forms
Radu Bogdan Cilinca (a.k.a. Rhadoo) was the first of these boys.
Rhadoo is as elusive a character as they come. Born in Galati in 1975, he was among the first generation of DJs to pop up after the revolution—inspired by DJ Vasile and Vladone. He began performing at Club A, where he played tapes two nights per week throughout the ’90s, later gaining more experience and visibility at Zerillo’s, The Office and Karma. By the early 2000s he had secured his own weekly radio show and was traveling across Romania to play. He is a legendary figure—and is, in many ways, the orchestrator of everything that has developed since. Yet little more is known about him.
Ghinea met Rhadoo in 1990 at Club A. They spent ensuing years partying together and a relationship of mutual respect developed. Rhadoo soon began looking to outsource the business side of his budding career and, recognising Ghinea’s business acumen, he encouraged Ghinea to start an agency.
Rhadoo’s aspiration was simple: he craved the artistic community that was painfully absent during the early post-communist years in Bucharest. He also recognized that just playing music was not enough, and so he sought to provide a platform for those around him. “In order to achieve a bigger goal, you need to work with someone,” he adds.
Chapter 4 | Arpiar: Rhadoo, Petre Inspirescu, Raresh
Rares Ionut Iliescu (a.k.a. Raresh) and Radu Dumitru Bodiu (a.k.a. Petre Inspirescu/Pedro) were among the first to connect with Rhadoo.
Although one of the younger members of this “brotherhood,” Raresh is the most celebrated of all the Romanian DJs, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of music has earned him the nickname “Google.”
The community grows
Cezar Lazar (a.k.a. El Cezere or Cezar) was next to join in. A soft spoken but essential member of the family— and one of its oldest—he runs the record label Understand, and Ourown, a distributor and booking agency founded with Rhadoo. Not far behind were Serban Goanta (a.k.a Kozonak/Kozo), Florin Cuntan (a.k.a Praslea), and Mihnea Opartan (a.k.a Herodot), followed by others—many of whom made the move to Bucharest, leaving home to join this swelling movement. And it was during these early years in the capital that the foundations of today’s community were laid: those who were there became part of this success; those who didn’t missed out. “We were all trying to make it bigger,” one artist says. “It became our mission.”
Chapter 5 | Ricardo Villalobos: A Light Shines In
In 2006 the wider world began to take notice.
The first support came from Ricardo Villalobos, the Chilean-born techno pioneer. Ghinea brought Villalobos in from Berlin to Bucharest and scheduled Raresh to open for him. Recognising Raresh’s air and skills, Villalobos insisted that Raresh continue playing before joining him later in the night. The duo played back to back until the early hours at an after-party organised by Ghinea. Upon his return to Germany, Villalobos advised Cocoon—his booking agency at the time—to add Raresh to the roster, and the agreement was confirmed within 48 hours.
A Common Style
By this point—in 2007—an identifiable musical aesthetic had taken shape within the community.
Ideas, records, and even specific production techniques are continuously shared within the group, meaning that there are certain “in-house” secrets, all of which contribute to a similar sound aesthetic. Raresh says that this is only natural in a “family of people who cherish the same things.”
This shared insularity contributed to a certain uniformity. “We were all blank canvases,” Cezar explains, adding that it created a population of “sponges,” all looking to absorb the newfound musical influences to which they were now exposed. But their respective influences and the informations were almost all the same; access to wider music and information had been heavily restricted for so long and within this community was a lot of online and online music exchanging. Learning to produce music and DJ is something you can do via others, and it just so happened that this community all shared the same education—they attended the same parties and were exposed to the same music. “We all attended the same school,” one artist explains.
Exposure began to evolve in 2001 with the availability of dialup Internet in homes. While it did not cater to streaming, it allowed people to share links to recorded sets and tag artists, labels, and genres within them. There were two leading Romanian platforms for this: understand.ro and nights.ro. The former was set up by Kozonak and his peers and operated as a smaller forum that boasted around 300 promoters, critics, and artists at its peak. It was a meeting point for anyone in Romania to talk and share their thoughts on music. Nights.ro was also a larger resource for finding club nights, but it was not focused on the underground. Some of the artist aliases today—Herodot and Kozonak, for example— were their forum usernames.
…soon the artists began searching for a “new way to express themselves,” with many experimenting with more breakbeat and electro sounds. e answer then came from Petre Inspirescu and Rhadoo via Ibiza.
Chapter 6 | The Minimal Connection – Ibiza – Minimal Arrives in Bucharest
Influenced by these parties, this small community of Romanian DJs began experimenting with styles, playing any music they could get hold of. Praslea was playing hard techno, while Rhadoo was playing a hybrid of techno and breakbeat. Many even began experimenting with production, frustrated at the lack of material for their sets. “You could only find a few tracks to play out,” Cezar explains. “We were like twelve DJs, and we didn’t have any material. Everybody was playing the same 100 tracks.
Petre Inspirescu arrived in Ibiza in 2002 to stay with Stefan Cosma, who had left Bucharest after losing his job at MTV. Looking to make ends meet, Cosma began working as a photographer for Space Ibiza and as a writer. He was well-connected on the island, and found some bookings for Petre at a bar and at private parties.
Petre began to pick up more gigs towards the end of summer 2002, and by 2004 had become a known name on the island. He was joined by Rhadoo, who had made the trip from Bucharest, and soon both became key figures at the DC10 nightclub.
Residence in Ibiza also gave the artists access to records. The introduction of digital DJing so ware like Serato and Traktor encouraged many DJs to sell their vinyl records, much to the delight of Petre Inspirescu and Rhadoo. Many artists sold their collections to Vinyl Club, a record store run by DJ Luc Ringeisen.
Minimal Arrives in Bucharest
These minimal sounds were only presented in the small after-party scene, but the music resonated within this small community. Rhadoo was one of the first Romanian electronic producers to have success abroad, so it was “natural for people to start emulating him,” one local explains. “If you’re a success abroad then Romanians will follow you. They knew there must be something there.”
But timing also seemed to have been a factor: the Romanian DJs were searching for a more interesting musical direction and a minimal sound ticked all the boxes because it allowed for mixing in a more “attractive” way.
Chapter 7 | Sunwaves: The Next Step
Sunwaves Festival was the next step forward for this movement.
In 2007, with a wealth of budding musical talent on his books, Ghinea wanted to show them off. The platform was Sunwaves, a four-day festival with a line-up featuring artists from the Sunrise booking roster. The venue was to be Crazy Beach in Mamaia, a small resort on the Romanian Black Sea coast, and the date was 1 May.
Chapter 8 | Ro-minimal: A Global Fascination
Ro-minimal has had a substantial impact on the wider landscape of underground electronic dance music. Not only has it defined its own sub-genre within a saturated marketplace, it has 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 or Chicago house, many artists are now following the recipe of Rhadoo, Raresh, Petre Inspirescu, Cezar, and company. It’s a small circle with tremendous international appeal.
Interest today is intensified by an enduring mystery that surrounds this community.
Very little is known about the sound, the style, or even the artists involved. As one fan wrote recently, “I collect records from these guys but I’m constantly baffled by the never-ending line of new artists with odd names releasing on media-shy labels. What’s going on?”
The whole pocket refuses to engage in standard artist practices. They’ve never sought the fame that they could easily have embraced. Mainstream promotion is scant.
Rhadoo explains how he promotes “values” within the community. He believes that DJing is as much about promoting an attitude as it is about the music; and that he has a responsibility to invest as much energy in pushing the art forward by remaining unswervingly loyal to it, and not to the machine at large. […]
Chapter 9 | The Sunrise Experience
Away from international bookings, the Sunrise community is supported by events organised by Ghinea and his team—Sunwaves is just one expression of an entire Sunrise ecosystem.
Many of these events started around 2008-9 as a platform for those on the agency. Having seen a crash in the country’s nightlife scene—and with international bookings still not in reliable supply—Ghinea began looking for other ways to support his artists. The answer was to create his own events, all under different guises.
Happening in places from Guesthouse, a converted industrial factory located in east Bucharest, to pop-up venues across Romania, they’re like little else in the world.
The events often span the course of an entire weekend, ending only when the people stop moving, sometimes until midday Monday.
Contrary to what the uninitiated may assume, many describe attendance as an “introspective” experience. It’s a difficult idea to entertain at first but the atmosphere at these parties suggests that something reflective is going on.
The romantic view is that the music opens new channels of consciousness for those who listen; sceptics view it as “simple” music that lacks charisma. Yet the effect can be profound; it’s gratifying in a somatic, comprehensive way that is difficult to reduce or dissect.
Final Chapter | The Unknowable Now
The Sunrise universe is an experience of extremes: extreme isolation, extreme ambition, and extreme devotion. Rhadoo, Ghinea, and the early group of artists deserve tremendous credit for what they created; but the phenomenon can only be fully understood in the context of its national history: Romania.
Romanians have been oppressed as a people since the early middle ages, first under the Ottoman Turks, then under the Phanariot rule, and then as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Integrating themselves in a scene that promotes “beautiful” music that has been greeted by success on an international scale provides a contemporary identity that is also psychologically, socially, and spiritually unbroken from the past. This has seen Sunrise develop something akin to a “cult” status with many following the success story rather than the music. […]
Thee scene is not only want for diversity, but for musical diversification too. Sunrise has a great appeal for young artists, and it’s natural that they wish to follow in the footsteps of Rhadoo, Raresh and the rest. It has become their only functioning model for success. But the aesthetic is radically specific, and the magnetism it inspires is equally devotional and artistically limiting. […]
Ourown is Romania’s only record distributor for electronic music. It’s a non-profit organisation founded by Cezar and Rhadoo in 2009 for the purpose of presenting music to a wider audience and it now supports all aspects of being both a local and global performing artist. Cezar’s vision and focus formed the basis for the operation; and working together, the team has created an artist ecosystem—a little community within a community.
Walking around the space, one can’t help but feel this is what Sunrise once was: a hub of musical activity and home to a small group of artists intent on building something for the future. […] It may well be the next step forward.
William Ralston is an independent writer & published author. You can follow his features on music & culture on XLR8R online magazine here.
BERLIN QUARTERLY is a European review of long form journalism, literature and the Arts. It’s a new cultural journal with global perspective. It combines in-depth reportage, literature and visual culture. Don’t miss out on a chance to buy one of the last numbers of BQ – 7th issue and read the full story. Buy here!