The Romanian Revolution / Yaron Trax On the birth of the Minimal music scene in Israel
By Yaron Trax, Founder & Owner of the Block Club Tel Aviv
It will soon be four years since I heard Romanian Minimal music for the first time, and I can still remember the feeling as if it was yesterday. The sweet memory of secret sunrises at the Israeli Summer Of Love, the first wave of underground acid parties held at beaches and forests in the early 1990’s, shedding light on a brave new world opening up in front of a 22 year old kid who wanted to be a modern-classical composer, but realized a different calling awaits.
If you compare it to the music of those times (early European Techno and Trance), you will find that the BPM is considerably lower, the groove is totally different, and the sound is worlds apart, and yet, underneath all the layers of sound and time, something similar is hidden. Maybe it’s because both genres are mantra-based (sentences or segments that if repeated enough times, will bring you to enlightenment), maybe it is the similar harmonic concept, or maybe something in the general approach, something almost mystical that is hard to put your finger on.
Alongside the memories, another feeling emerged, the feeling of freshness and innovation, which in fact also brought back old times, because this was exactly what we felt back then – that something new is happening, something like never before. In a paradoxical way (that I still find hard to explain even to myself), I suddenly felt the same type of fresh feeling, so many years later. On top of the roots of the past, my ears identified a new formula that I didn’t hear before – something about the drum programming, especially the kick and hi-hat patterns, felt new and different. It reminded me of how important the word Fresh is, and should always be, for electronic music, like a beacon of light when we search for the way forward, just like the final words in the old classic ”In the beginning there was Jack” house acapella – “and this is fresh”.
But apart from the drum programming and sound innovations, there was something more, something about the general philosophy and aesthetics. I felt the air in the music, the space and serenity. My children were about a year old back then, and I immediately noticed I could play these tunes in the living room at high volume without scaring them. The sound filled the space with love, softness, pleasantness and elegance. Like a wind blowing from room to room. To me, it felt like a sort of miracle – a delicate, non-aggressive groove, restrained and patient, and at the same time so powerful, clubby, tribal and the most narcotic I could ever imagine. In my fantasy world you could call it the holy grail, and inside a musical scene that felt stagnant and unoriginal for some years now (at least for those who were there since the beginning of the 90s to this day), it sounded like a hint of revelation.
Later, Tal Cohen and I began watching YouTube clips from Romania, mainly from Sunwaves festival, and the sensation of a miracle intensified – how could it be? How can thousands of people dance to such low-key music? After all, everything we knew about festivals and huge parties pointed to the exact opposite – the larger the audience, the more extreme and aggressive the music should be, while here we saw something completely different happening. In the 2015 Tel Aviv scene it was unimaginable, and people who we showed the clips to suggested it is all about the types and doses of drugs the Romanians are consuming. Of course, later we’ve found out that Romanians do the same drugs as any other people, and many don’t do drugs at all, but at the time, the notion that so many people simply enjoy this type of music – without breaks, peaks and dramas – seemed inconceivable.
The deeper I delved into this sound, the stronger and clearer I felt that amidst all of the local aggression (which was something I was thinking a lot about at the time), this is exactly the antidote Tel Aviv needs right now, and furthermore, in the 21st century world of never-ending stimulation and crazy pace of changes, this is exactly what the world needs right now.
Later, when the first Romanian DJs landed in Tel Aviv and I found myself dancing to the new groove on The Block’s dancefloors, I noticed that not only my dance moves are changing, but also my communication with the people around me. The space between the sounds seemed to allow for an inviting zone where it’s more pleasant and calm to communicate, the level of tension drops and it is easier to accept each other and yourself. The music created a surprising and magical combination of peacefulness, calmness and an ongoing euphoria that could last for hours, free from stress and the familiar need for never-ending stimulations, or in other words – there’s no need for something new to happen every moment, in order for us to feel happier, because everything is perfectly fine the way it is now and we can go on like this forever. This was totally different from everything I knew up till then (and only later, reading about and practising Mindfulness meditation, I see the resemblance between this aesthetic and philosophical approach to Buddhism).
Around the same time I read an interview with DJ Koze where he talked about the future of electronic music and described the exact same idea:
“people are not able to concentrate longer than twenty seconds, and they need a climax. Otherwise, they are lost. We are so over-polluted and over-challenged. It’s like politics – in every medium, everybody’s screaming. It’s too much. Empty and slow music, where every sound has a function, is really modern. Our brain needs this break, for only a certain few elements to stick on. It is really refreshing.”
All of these new sensations raised some fascinating questions in me about the social and psychological effects new musical genres can have on the world and on the spiritual evolution of humanity. What really happens when we learn to move and communicate differently? When we learn to listen, and as a result – to think, a little different?
Gradually, I found myself exposed to a brave new world; A world of DJs with the best mixing technique I ever saw, sometimes playing four tracks simultaneously, using exotic names which sound like a series of rare Pokemons (and even just pronouncing these names rang like poetry to me – Priku, Arapu, Cezar, Rhadoo, Crihan, Raresh, Sublee, Dragutesku, Petre Inspirescu, Dubtil, Mihigh, Nu Zau, Sepp); A world of mythology and urban legends that move on like rumors in dark and smokey backstage rooms; of a rich and diverse sound with influences that pull from a giant wealth of sources – from early Trance music, Techno and House, through to Dub, Jazz and Acid House, to World music, Classical music, Experimental music and more; I found myself reading the comments in Soundcloud and Youtube to learn and feel, together with other people throughout the planet, the same excitement of something new being born; following curiously and with wonder after the growing numbers of listeners to sets, the Romanian stages that popped up like mushrooms after the rain in leading festivals, and the gigs in places like Australia, South America, Russia, The UK, Arab countries and more, that suddenly filled the yearly calendars of anonymous names from Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca (who hardly played outside of Romania up until then); I started talking to DJs, producers, promoters and clubbers from Romania and other countries, exchanging reports in real time on related parties and communities forming right now across the globe.
As more time passed, I noticed a few other unique phenomenons that further established my understanding that something unusual is happening, like the fact that most of the clubbers who started listening to this music found themselves, within months, not being able to dance to anything else anymore (something in the groove was almost reprogramming your brain and body into a different pattern that blocked access to previous ones), or the rapid growth rate of new Romanian DJs / producers. Unlike movements such as Detroit’s early techno (which began with the first wave of three pioneering founders and continued with a second and third wave, each of whom included a limited number of prominent artists), Romanian music seems to grow and expand exponentially in recent years, and after a first wave that was also founded by three pioneers, more waves arrived, grew and rapidly reached tens and hundreds of young new artists, expanding the movement to epic proportions that resemble an immense army of clones, although each one is a world in its own right, full of colours and nuances, some play full sets composed solely of original unreleased tracks, something unprecedented in such proportions in the history of electronic music.
All of this data seem to form one broad picture. Again, I sensed a feeling that I had felt more than two decades ago. I knew that feeling. This is how the outbreak of a global epidemic feels. I knew that such a thing doesn’t happen when just fashion changes, it happens when there is a real shift – a shift in perception, and I felt so grateful to experience it and be a part of it for the second time in my life. Just like then, this time to I felt the uncontrollable urge to spread the word.
But while Tal Cohen, myself and other music fans around the world felt as if we were touched by the light, the first years at The Block were less shiny. For a start, most of the international DJs that arrived at the club didn’t share our enthusiasm, especially the Germans seemed critical, maybe sensing a threat to their world hegemony and even worse – by the European underdogs (a couple of notable exceptions, both American veterans, were Dubfire, who told us that the best sets you can currently hear in Ibiza are the ones by Rhadoo in the small club “Underground”, and Danny Tenaglia, who appeared stunned when approaching Tal Cohen that played before him some Romanian music, asking “What is this crazy futuristic minimal s##t?” and writing down the names of all the last five tracks played by Tal). Also in the local scene, the new sound was received with suspicion and disrespect – partygoers remained indifferent and bored, leaving the dancefloors empty accordingly, some of the scene’s opinion leaders expressed criticism and disregard (“There is no innovation here, this genre started a decade ago and was already popular and diminished” / “This is commercial and inferior music” / “It’s an invention of The Block, this genre is of no interest to anyone in the world and certainly not in Israel”), and even in the immediate circle of The Block staff there was opposition and debates about the new musical direction the club decided to adopt.
As a business that has to pay the bills at the end of each month, we couldn’t afford to continue supporting something that can’t prove itself on the dancefloor and generate profit, so towards the end of 2016, after ten months of trying, we were very close to giving up.
They say the darkest hour is just before dawn, and our first ray of light came on a gloomy Friday night in the beginning of December 2016, when Romanian producer and DJ Adrian Niculae aka Priku, landed for the first time in Israel and played a groundbreaking 4-hour set on The Block’s main floor, re-assembling all the rules we knew up till then. It was either our ears were adjusting to the new sound, or his phenomenal ability to drive a dancefloor, or both – something finally clicked. That night in December marked the birth of the minimal local community, and from there on, slowly but surely, organically and gradually, it evolved. Week after week, month after month, more and more new friends joined the family, boys and girls with sparks in their eyes, talking among themselves about the embrace and warmth they feel from the music, the desire to hear more and more from this new beauty that they just discovered and the growing difficulty to dance to other grooves. I knew there was no turning back from here. Criticism and scepticism continued, but I knew – and also told anyone who was willing to listen – that the die has been cast.
From ten Israelis in Sunwaves Festival in 2016, it became 300 in 2019; from half-empty dancefloors at The Block and The Squat, It became fully packed yards lasting up to 12:30 or even 14:30 PM, with a crowd of regulars, super aware and updated, knowing exactly what they are after; From hardly one DJ it became tens of local DJs playing this music, in Tel Aviv and in other cities (Hello Jerusalem!), some became residents of the club, some started producing amazing original music (influenced by what’s going on in Romania but with an added unique local touch) that the Romanians play in their sets.
Social and professional relationships, based on love and mutual appreciation began to form between Bucharest and Cluj Napoca to Tel Aviv – collaborative work on original studio music, back to back DJ sets, visits, vacations, friendships and shared experiences. An intercultural, underground, real and exciting connection was made.
Over time, alongside the forming community, a gradual change in the collective consciousness of the general public occurred. The combination of the transformations in the international scene and our stubborn persistence at the Block (every week – Main Floor / Squat / Lounge or Yard), plus the genre’s leakage to other clubs in the city and other cities, led to a process of gradual infiltration into the collective subconscious of the scene. Because that’s what happens when the body is repeatedly exposed to the same thing – whether you want to or not, it doesn’t matter if you listen to Soundcloud for a living, or if you have no idea who is currently playing and what is the genre, something begins to seep and assimilate. In the bloodstream, in the legs, in the bones. What felt so foreign three and a half years ago, turned into something natural that everyone is already moving to, as if it had always been here. The body has adapted itself to the dance movements that went from dancer to dancer, through vision, through sound, through what we learned at the festivals in Romania, through the collective memories of the trance dance of past years, through YouTube clips. A new common language was formed.
The change could also be felt among the international DJs who came to The Block, some of whom were exposed to the genre for the first time when we sat them in the office to hear the latest unreleased tracks we received from the Romanian producers, or when we dragged them to the yard to feel the vibe after finishing their set on the main floor. The initial suspicion was replaced by appreciation and curiosity, and the result can be heard today in sets by DJs like the German collective Giegling, Resident Advisor’s Label of the year, in the sound of Techno legends like Italian genius Donato Dozzy (who when supposed to play at The Block asked that we place him next to Romanian DJ Barac instead of other Techno DJs) and in special minimal sets by musical legends such as Roman Flugel at the urban yard, and soon (here’s a scoop) you will be able to listen to the Burning Man’s shaman Acid Pauli himself playing a minimal set he prepared especially for the yard, inspired by the hour he spent with us there, after completing his set on the main stage last October. And it’s not because we asked, it was his request. He also insisted the slot will be before and after the Romanian DJs.
Moreover, my initial feelings about the impact of this groove on the aggression level at the club (which has always been a sensitive spot for me) have been proven, and compared to the other rooms, the amount of events that require the security interventions at the yard and the squat during minimal parties is almost nonexistent. Whole evenings go by without a need for the security guards. No violence, no harassment, everything just flows.
As of 2019, the epidemic has spread throughout the planet. This music is no longer being produced only in Bucharest or Cluj Napoca, and beyond Romania, there are currently minimal scenes of parties / festivals / DJs and local musical producers also in the UK, France, Russia, the Netherlands, Israel, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ukraine, Tunisia , Albania, Colombia, Argentina, Greece, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, Japan, Italy, Australia, Vietnam, and the United States, and if you look at the calendar of DJs such as Priku for example, who skipped between no less than 28 countries in the first half of the year, you can add to the list of countries who book Romanian DJs – Turkey, Georgia, Belgium, Hungary, Slovenia, China, Austria, Serbia, in Valeria, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Brazil (and this is definitely a partial list).
Times they are a-changin’, as Bob Dylan once sang.
Looking back on all my years in the nightlife (which is quite a lot), I feel that what has happened here in recent years is the most exciting and satisfying process I have ever experienced. I feel we are fulfilling our destiny as a club community. Not only do we spread the gospel in Israel and throughout the world, but we also contribute to it and become part of it ourselves, and to feel the social and creative connection between us and another nation is inspiring.
For me, Minimal, Rominimal, or whatever it is going to be called in the future, is not Techno, nor House, and not something in between. It is the third groove, the third branch, alongside Techno and House, on the tree of modern club music, or like French DJ and producer Varhat once told me:
“It is a new way of listening to music”.
The influence of this new branch on the world of clubbing specifically and on culture, in general, will be (and already is) far-reaching, and therefore what happened in recent years in Bucharest is as important as what happened in Chicago in the 80s with the birth of house music and as important as what happened in Detroit with the birth of Techno, and I am curious as a child to hear where will it evolve to in coming years.
Just before I sum things up, it seems like you cannot write a post like this without addressing the question of why Romania of all places? Although this is one of the most frequently asked questions and despite dozens of conversations I have had with the Romanians on this subject, there is no one clear answer. What we do know is that a history of hardship and suffering was, and always will be, a fertile ground to great art and breakthroughs, just like the birth of Techno in the dying Detroit, the gay and Latino community in NYC during the Paradise Garage era, or the black slaves and Jazz. The Romanians, who have lived for many years under brutal dictatorship and poverty, are very familiar with pain and suffering, and the fall of that regime, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, has led to a sense of liberation and freedom that created optimal conditions for artistic expression. In addition, as the eternal underdogs of Europe, the Romanians seem to have managed to maintain a basic and deep level of modesty and work ethic, alongside with original and independent thought and a strong respect for art. It is also interesting to note that the artistic renaissance that has taken place in Romania in recent years does not only amount to electronic music, but also the video art, which has developed hand in hand with the development of music, is currently the most advanced in the world and, as I have been told, Romanian cinema, dance and choreography are groundbreaking as well.
If you’ve come all this way through this long post and still can’t feel the vibe or just getting a slight taste of the genre for the first time, I would like to say that feeling a new groove could be a time-consuming process, but at its end, a huge gift awaits. Groove is something that needs to be absorbed in the bloodstream until it flows naturally, and if you want to experience something new, you need to look (or listen) from a new angle. If you look for something you’re used to finding in something you liked before, you definitely won’t find it, but if you let your curiosity lead you through unpaved grounds, you may find a wonderful new world (and in the meanwhile, if you want to practice, you’re invited to listen to one of the sets in the first comment).
Finally, to all of the urban yard clowns and the tent dancers of Sunwaves festivals, to all the local minimal heads wherever they are – thank you for building this community together, thanks for the love and the passion. It’s so much fun to be part of this beautiful thing, together.
The Block Tel Aviv – Main Room