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The manele can be divided into "classical manele" and "modern manele". The "classical manele" are a Turkish-derived genre performed by lăutari in a lăutărească manner, while the "modern manele" are a mixture of Turkish, Greek and Arabic elements, generally using modern (electronic) instruments and beats.
Similar music styles are also present in other Balkan areas, like Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia, Greece and Turkey and with expatriates and emigrants originally from these regions. Related genres are Bulgarian Chalga (manele brought by Romanian visitors to Bulgaria is referred to as "Romanian chalga"), Greek modern Laïko and Serbian Turbo-folk, being a mixture of local folk Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian influences over a pop tune each one.
Early references to the terms manea and manele appear in Romanian texts from the late 18th and early 19th century, during the period of Turkish suzerainty over the Romanian principalities, as a genre of dance music brought by Phanariotes from Istanbul. This dance had no text. Some of these classical manele have been adapted during the ages.
In the 1960s a type of lăutarească manea appeared, by adding texts to the geampara, a type of lăutaresc genre of Turkish origin.
The modern manele originated in the 1980s and early 1990s as underground translations and imitations of Turkish and Arabic songs. A well known Romanian manele singer, Adrian Copilul Minune traces it to a genre known as "turceasca" (Turkish), .
The genre has been rocked by accusations of plagiarism a number of times, with manele singers adapting popular songs from Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey, without giving due credit. The accusations increased especially after the hit "De ce mă minţi" ("Why are you lying to me?") proved to be a mere cover of Despina Vandi's song "M'agapas"/"Ah kardoula mou". Further plagiarism accusations surrounded a well known manele singer's "Supărat"("Upset") song which was proven by third parties to be plagiarized from a Croatian song (Umoran by Jasmin Stavros). Although this song was not technically a manea, it furthered the controversy surrounding this music genre and Romania's image. Most radio and television channels or media boycott manele music.
Manele is a mixture of "oriental" Romanian folk and contemporary pop music with bases on Balkan influences The lyrics usually refer to themes of love, enemies, money, alcoholism and difficulties of life in general, or some of the songs are specifically dedicated to parties, weddings, funerals e.t.c. Manele style contains objections to music primitiveness and low performance.
Manele are widely criticized for their lyrical content, which often consists of boasts about the singer's supposed sex appeal, intellect, wealth, social status, and superiority over so-called "enemies". Many singers use bad grammar, repetitive and simplistic rhymes suitable for chanting and are sometimes vulgar and/or misogynistic. Singers sometimes make trilling or yelling sounds during instrumental parts of their songs, an aspect that has been parodied many times.
Some manele also have music videos, of which many are of poor quality while others are recorded in nightclubs or during private parties.
Manele composers and players also use the term "oriental music" or "party music" for their creation, and consider their music a sub-genre of traditional, folk Roma music.
Traditional Roma music is usually played on classical instruments by a live band (taraf) of lăutari and has classical lyrics, while manele is usually sung by only one performer using modern instruments (generally synthesizers) as backup. Most manele are recorded in small recording studios, owned by the singer himself or by a group of singers, since major recording labels refuse to contract them. However, there are some exceptions: for example, Stana Izbaşa and Nicu Paleru sing live, often with traditional instruments.
The word "manea" is of Turkish origin: mâni is a form of Turkish folk song, in form of quatrains. The word "manea" is the singular form and it refers to the musical piece itself, as belonging to Manele genre. The accent is on the second syllable: manéa.
The plural version, more commonly used, manele, refers to:
The adjective form of the word is manelist, which is sometimes used in Romanian with a pejorative figurative form.
The Romanian present participle is manelizat that always has a pejorative connotation, giving a sense of "rough".
Manelists have created a distinct image on the Romanian music scene, by showing their own fashion style. Many of the manelists use luxurious and casual, even underground styles combined altogether to form the specific manele fashion. Typical manele apparel includes flashy jewelry and affordable luxury clothing brands (such as Versace, Armani or Dolce & Gabbana) or certain sport brands (especially Nike). Such brands are an important part of manele culture, and they are even featured sometimes in lyrics. .
Manele are a strongly disputed genre in Romania, with many representatives of Romanian upper-middle and intellectual class opposing this musical movement (and its popularization) mostly because of its usage of faulty grammar, overly simplistic or childish lyrics and subject matter and/or encouragement of demeaning behaviours towards other people, as well as an antisocial overall message. The fact that manele lyrics are considered by many to be rude and of poor taste, coupled with widespread racist feelings against Roma ethnics (Tigani/Gypsies), who account for the bulk of manele performers, has led to increasing hostility between fans and opponents. This has generated frequent conflicts between the two, often in the form of internet flame wars.
In the media, manele have been repeatedly called by journalists and academics (such as the literary critic George Pruteanu) "pseudo-music", "pure stupidity, inculture and blah-blah" or even "society's bed-wetter". C. Tepercea, a National Audio-visual Board member who did a study on the genre for the board considered it "the genre for the mentally challenged" in an interview. Even proposals to ban this type of music have been voiced.
Romani-Romanian classical musician and politician Mădălin Voicu distinguishes between the original genre and today's interpreters, calling their work "kitsch and bad taste", "bad merchandise, easy to sing, and only sold to fools at a high price", but considers them to be "harmful", "simple music and brain damaging", "a representation of the lack of musical culture in society" and "a fad that is poised to vanish in the future".
Romanian-American professor Cezar Giosan further compares the genre in an article in Dilema Veche with the early stages of rock-and-roll (and Elvis), early rap and reggaeton, music starting out from the outcast classes of society, being shunned by the higher classes for the simple reason of its origin, only to explode into mainstream later on. The same professor considers the genre as being a form of originality coming from below, with the singers having a genuine (albeit rough and uneducated) talent in music, with the lyrics being just a reflection of basic, simple human needs. In a similar vein, Sorin Adam Matei, an Associate Professor of Communication at Purdue University, USA affirmed in an opinion piece for Evenimentul Zilei that manele are a creole genre, a simple, but lively music, spawned by the meeting of many cultures, that has a chance to succeed as a cultural style if it is polished and "cleaned up". Both consider that manele is a valuable representation of Romanian popular culture, and would like it encouraged. Famous Romani-Romanian violin player Florin Niculescu said that manele singers are talented, but lack musical education.
On Romanian television stations, manele performers and music are particularly seen on specialized manele television stations, such as Taraf TV or Manele TV. While mainstream radio stations do not air manele, a lot of smaller stations do, especially in Romania's capital, Bucharest. Occasionally, manele interpreters appear on New Year's Eve programs on television stations.
The manele was prohibited in some cities of Romania in public transport, taxis or festivals. The prohibition of Manele music can be understood as a part of a larger tendency for antiziganism in contemporary Romania.