Steph Kretowicz visits Bucharest to meet the men and women behind the thriving underground re-interpretation of reggae in the high Carpathians.
It’s another stinking hot day in the middle of a Romanian heatwave. On the outskirts of Bucharest at B’estfest Summer Camp, organisers have an eye for drawing some much-needed tourism to the region’s only festival of its kind. But what’s more interesting to foreign senses than the likes of Garbage, Pulp and Royksopp headlining is those little elements with a distinctly local flavour. Across the yellow-green grass of the festival lot –past the smoke-grilled mititei and the shirtless middle-aged man pumping soda water for wine Spritz –billows the soothing balm of an unmistakable dub bass line. Security guards, in the form of black-clad commandoes, suspiciously amble through the small gathering, enveloped by the bodily rumble of a pyramid of speakers more than a human high. Because if anyone’s going to be smoking weed, it’ll be here; where, people languorously sway, throw a frisbee or just watch MCs and producers play a curious mix of samples swathed, fragmented and dislodged from their Caribbean roots by Eastern folk, Indian vocals, even drum n bass mash ups, to generate a sound both familiar and alien.
“At first it was kind of a joke. I started this website jah-army.net when I was in high school and it grew and now it’s the biggest reggae community in Romania,” says Cornel Moraru, a philosophy graduate, reggae lover and founder of the Jah Army online community-cum-events promoter and record label.
With the organisation in its eighth year, the main focus for Cornel – who also performs under the moniker Chesarion – has been Blazing Vibez. A free weekly event, running every Wednesday night in the heart of Bucharest, local emcees and producers are given the opportunity to perform their distinct interpretations of reggae.
“At first it was a different concept from Blazing Vibez called Burn Babylon and it was monthly, not weekly. It was really nice but after this whole economical crisis came, we couldn’t afford reggae concerts, because with big bands there are lots of costs, so we started this Blazing Vibez concept based on the sound system model and it all worked out fine.”
‘Fine’ is one way of putting it, considering Romania was under strict Soviet censorship during the 80s and only just beginning to open up again to outside influence when Cornel started Jah Army in high school.
“In Romania, reggae music was [at] ground zero. Only my father or some older people knew classic reggae artists… Bob Marley played in my father’s tape recorder but the youths my age didn’t know anything about it.”
Now, though, Cornel is just one of many dreadlocked locals congregating around the Blazing Vibez tent to absorb endless renditions of dub, roots reggae, new roots and dancehall played by the likes of Sistah RastaFairy (below), Irie Warriors Sound and, of course, Chesarion.
“When I start growing my dreads it was kind of funny because there were only a few guys having dreads in Bucharest, not to mention other cities in Romania who were completely alien to this. People looked at me with wonder. They started asking questions but not badly intended, they just wanted to find out more about this.”
For anyone drawn to reggae through an entry-level appreciation of its DIY hybrids like Peaking Lights or Sun Araw’s FRKWYS release with The Congos what is most fascinating about the Romanian style is its own unique cross-cultural interpretation.
“I really think that reggae music is made in Jamaica or made by Jamaicans. I don’t know why but reggae music that is produced by others, Europeans or Asians, it sounds different, it’s another feeling, another colour,” Cornel says, “If you listen to one tune from Bob Marley and one tune from [Romanian band] East Roots. You feel a difference. Naturally, it’s a difference of talent, no doubt,” he adds chuckling, “but you feel a difference of sound and feeling, which the music brings to it.”
With reggae music being such visceral, almost physical form of musical expression, there’s no escaping the fact that context has everything to do with the outcome.
“When I listen to Jamaican reggae, I always picture myself on the beach. It doesn’t matter if it’s dancehall and it’s like a wild club party on the beach or it’s roots on the beach with nobody near you. But when I listen to Romanian reggae I just picture hills, you know? It’s different.”
Not only that but when you consider the folk-influences on live bands like East Roots, the electro-reggae of El Negro or the bizarre contrast between Jamaican born resident Lennox Buppy Brown’s patois and its Romanian corruption by Zuza Boys in Jah Army release Jam Row, there are countless renderings of the style to be discovered world wide.
“We can’t compare ourselves with countries that have great reggae cultures like France or Germany and we cant compare ourselves even with Hungarians but there’s still a flavour that the public likes. Reggae starts to grow and I hope that in five or six years we’ll be at the level where countries like Italy, for example, are now”.
And don’t let the dreads fool you either. While Cornel can appreciate the sentiment behind Rastafarian culture, as an inquisitive student of philosophy, he wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s a whole-hearted believer.
“It’s a tough question because Rasta teachings, with philosophy, is kind of a conflict. I love philosophy more than Rasta culture so, I could say I’m a Rasta, but I won’t say that because I love philosophy more,” Cornel chuckles, revealing his appropriation of a culture several countries and an ocean away is a very considered one.
“Within Rasta culture there is a growing doctrine, you know. Although they say it’s not a straightforward doctrine, like Orthodoxy or Catholicism, it’s still a doctrine and I just want to think free, that’s all.”
Whatever Cornel and his colleagues choose to take away from reggae music and the culture that surrounds it, there’s no doubt that when Lennox Buppy Brown and Zuza Boys as they howl “every reggae party, unification!” it’s a sentiment that resonates with many.
“That’s what the Jah Army is all about. I consider that at some point in every culture we must have diversity because this is what it’s all about. We have to be open to all possibilities.”