Alexandrina band @ Form Space in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Photo by Mike Long.
The word “Transylvania” usually conjures up images of a giant castle, possibly some bats, a sickle-like moon and almost certainly a vampire or two. In fact, Transylvania is a diverse region in Romania about the size of Louisiana that’s full of vibrant scenery and dark music. Despite the fact that vampires are tied to the town of Braşov (where the Dracula-esque “Bran’s Castle” is located), the mystique of the legend is ever-present around Transylvania as well.
Despite the persistence of the legend, I didn’t see a single vampire or hear any songs about vampires during my small town travels and time in the larger city of Cluj-Napoc; however, the folkloric local music did exude a sense of mystical darkness in its brooding and melancholic tone. Maybe it was the weather, the recent departure of communism resulting in an undefined cultural identity, or perhaps my own expectations of Transylvania that gave me this impression. Whatever the reason, I decided I need to explore.
Cluj-Napoca (or just Cluj), in Northwestern Romania, is the unofficial capital of the Transylvania region. The city is full of buildings dressed in pastel colors, funky green parks and lots of little streams and brooks running through town. It’s absolutely pastoral and beautiful for a city of its size, (approximately 400,000), yet despite all its vibrant hues, the music was more reflective of the mythic, dark tones previously mentioned.
One of the first shows I saw was at Form Space, a vampire-meets-alien style concert hall that was sleekly dressed in black except for a few purple lights. The artist performing was Alexandrina.The show a perfect match for the mysterious and shadowy atmosphere I’d expected from Transylvania. Alexandrina and her band had a somber, velvety quality from song to song. The trumpeter played long, lonesome tones that wrapped the band in a kind of folkloric fog while Alexandrina played piano and sang ghostly, ethereal melodies. Though many of the tunes were more upbeat and lively, the general tone would have fit in perfectly at a Halloween party.
Form Space in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Photo by Mike Long.
Flying Circus, another venue in the center of town, had a similar black-on-black color scheme. The door on the street led immediately to a series of staircases painted black which led into a series of various-sized black rooms. The Romanian locals were generally friendly, though they had a subterranean vibe that perfectly matched their choice in music.
Metal Band Dordeduh @ Flying Circus, Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Photo by Mike Long.
As I played foosball waiting for a local metal band called Dordeduh to begin, I laughed as they yowled, grunted, and shrieked into their microphones for the sound-check. When the band finally began to play, their sound was much like you would expect from any metal band But the five players had a well-practiced stage-trick of head-banging in perfect unison, sending their long black hair whipping out at the audience in sync. While it might seem like a cliche (and it certainly doesn’t have its roots in Romania), the adherence to the otherworldly, mystical and “dark” Romanian music was reinforced by the show.
Some audience members argued that the band’s hair-whipping is more than just a gimmick; it’s a way of getting in touch with something primal and pagan. Flying Circus is home to a host of shows in this vein, and it’s telling that in these small Romanian communities there is so much emphasis around bands like Dordeduh.
Furthering the case for the haunting, borderline “occult” vibe of Transylvanian music was a local venue called “The Shelter.” I was advised to check it out by the owner of a local record shop, “Dusty Records.” Shelter had been a leader in cultivating local “Stoner” metal, a genre typified by long, rough, dark riffs and repetition. Again this penchant for mysterious, almost entrancing music fit with the puzzle I had been piecing together. The shop owner was interested to know my feelings on the venue, since “things had changed.”
Daniel Piper, Dusty Sounds Records. Photo by Mike Long.
Dusty Sounds Records
Str. Eroilor no. 31, 400129,
+40 743 750 444
When I asked what he meant by that and why things had changed he told me about recent tragedy at the venue “Colectiv” in Bucharest. In October of 2015, a pyrotechnic malfunction killed 64 and injured over a hundred audience members. The incident had far-reaching implications including, the resignation of the Prime Minister and a sweeping shut-down of many music venues in Romania that were not up to code.
To a certain degree, he said, this major incident led to the atrophy of local music in cities all over the country, including the city of Cluj.
Alexandrina peforming at Form Space, Cluj, Romania. Photo by Mike Long.
This tragedy gave some shape to the music I had been seeing and I now understood why concerts and street performers were not available in high volumes like they were in other cities. Daniel walked me through the aftermath of the tragedy. He said that as venues closed, many bands hung up their instruments as they no longer had spaces to perform. Thankfully, it appears they are on the verge of a resurgence.
As increasing amounts of people visit Romania (which, in this author’s opinion more people should) this nascent music world will continue to evolve. For travelers and melomaniacs with a penchant for getting a little spooky, Transylvania has a lot to offer. As cities like Cluj recover their footing, the dark and translucent sounds of music will continue to create a culture that would make Dracula proud.
Exploring the Hanging Art in Timişoara, Romania. Photo by Mike Long.
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