I Was a DJ in Communist Romania

But my career ended when I told the dictator's son to piss off out of my booth.

Sorin Lupaşcu (Photo by Mihai Sibianu, Studio Martin)

Westerners tend to imagine cities under communist control as bleak, grey concrete expanses, where the only form of entertainment revolved around watching your toenails grow through the holes in your socks. In some cases, that actually isn't too far from the truth. However, in communist Romania, there were plenty of other pursuits to remind young people that they were young, like embroidery or woodwork, or – if you lived in the right place – dance parties, complete with DJs and disco balls.

I recently got in touch with Sorin Lupaşcu to talk about Romanian nightlife under communist rule. The 57-year-old now coaches aikido, a Japanese martial art, but worked as a DJ in Romania from 1974, through the fall of communism in 1989 and up to 1996.

"Before the 1980s, the only parties that would last till the morning were the private ones," he told me. "Marian, the local police officer – a young fellow who ogled all the girls desperately – used to say, 'Comrade Lupaşcu, what can we do to make sure there won't be any trouble tonight?' I'd say, 'Well, Marian, how about you come by and dance a little?' I'll give you some civilian clothes and you can tell the girls you're my buddy.'”

A small part of Sorin's musical archive.

The first night Sorin organised was in 1974 at a school in his hometown of Iaşi. He pushed the tables and chairs to the sides of the room and borrowed a cassette player and some bootleg tapes of bands like Deep Purple, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. Besides Dave Gilmour and friends ("nobody danced to them"), the music went down a storm.  

Following the success of what was essentially a glorified school disco, Sorin decided to carry on putting on nights – but, to do that, he had to get his own cassette player. The best source of income was working the local tram lines, which the young promoter did for three months, until he had enough money to buy a tape player from some Romanian workers on their way home from Libya. "It was big and heavy, with two speakers – not just one, like most people had during those times," he said. "If you kicked it, it would hurt your foot. Having it was the crowning achievement of my life.”

The next thing to get his hands on were some tapes of his own, which – in the mid-70s – were pretty hard to come by, and the only music available on the radio – local folk, easy listening and regional communist songs – weren't exactly the type of tunes he wanted to play at his nights. In fact, he could only find "good music" on Radio Luxembourg and Radio Veronica, two early pirate radio stations based in Western Europe. Later on, like most young Romanians, he got into Radio Free Europe – an anti-communist broadcaster that, in its early days, received funding from the CIA.

By the late 70s, music made specifically to dance to – like Giorgio Moroder's productions for Donna Summer – was being played on the radio, which led to the building of the first local nightclubs in Romania and a radical overhaul of how dance nights operated. Until then, there were no rooms built especially for dancing, which meant – as a DJ – Sorin had previously had to bring his own equipment to whatever venue he was booked to play.

Before the parties – which, at this point, were still mostly being held at local high schools – he and a friend would lug his speakers, record player and records around on the bus. Afterwards, he'd carry it all home alone – two speakers, two magnetic tape recorders and a backpack filled with a stack of tapes, records, cables, a microphone and a mixer. "If you saw me on the street, you would have thought I was crazy,” he laughed.

Sometimes, Sorin would accidentally leave something behind – a cable, a microphone, his "Birdie Song" tape. "They would come to me and say, 'Do you have the "Birdie Song"? No? Then you don't have shit!' That's what it was like – it was harsh," Sorin chuckled. "If you needed lights on stage you had to know somebody at the railroad company who could lend you a signal light and a railway stop, or have a friend working at some theatre where the technicians could loan you some coloured foil. Colour lights were rare."

In 1979, disco exploded. ABBA, Boney. M and Bad Boys Blue were all huge, and German synthpop duo Modern Talking were apparently "laying down the law". Sorin already had hundreds of tapes and over 300 mixes by this point, buying cheap blank cassettes in Bucharest and recording songs off the radio. Every tape was named "Disco Set List" and they were all numbered.

Later on, when he "figured out that magnetic tape was the future", Sorin would buy recordings from people who'd travelled outside of Romania and copied foreign music on to tape. He still has the receipts for the packages; "I did some calculations and figured out I was spending enough money to buy three Dacia cars every year," he said. "Some of the first magnetic recordings I bought were Kraftwerk's Autobahn and 'Das Model'."

Sorin at Disco CH, 1979

By this point, Sorin basically had enough music to play a week of consecutive nights without any repeats – all he needed now was a room to do it in. Although he was a electromechanical engineering student at the local polytechnic, Iaşi's chemistry college allowed Sorin to set up his equipment in their P1 and P2 dorms, a space that he dubbed Disco CH.  

There was only one key to the disco, and Sorin hung on to it. He painted the walls, re-wired the place, bought a cabinet to keep all of his records safe and invested in some speakers put together for him by an electrical engineering major. They were badly made, but Sorin and his team put them up on the walls anyway and used them until they burnt out. Then they made some more. Later, he built a metre-wide disco-ball, sticking each mirrored panel on by hand. 

After everything was set up, Sorin asked the local police whether the disco could keep its electricity on all night, despite the fact power was shut off throughout the rest of the city from 10PM to 6AM. "We'd say, 'Chief, we've got girls here – what if one of them gets sick?'" Sorin recalled. His ploy worked; the disco – which ran every night from Thursday to Sunday – was allowed to stay open from 9PM to midnight. Admission cost 3 Leu (about 50p), the fee going to the college's student union and paying for repairs and new dorms.

The freshman's ball at Disco CH, 1981

Disco CH didn't even have a coat rack, let alone a bar, and smoking indoors was forbidden, so the entire focus was on the music and lighting. "I always thought that being a DJ meant loving both music and conversation," Sorin told me. "I never faded from one song to another without telling everybody the name of the band and the song. When you go to a disco, you go to a show. If the DJ gives you the music you want and he also makes a few jokes, then he did his job." 

If it was raining outside, Sorin would take that into account and play something melancholic; if it was warm, he'd play some chill-out; if the audience looked excitable, he'd make them "jump around"; and if nobody felt like dancing, he'd play games with them: "Everyone to the left, everyone to the right – that kind of thing." 

Sorin's disco would regularly attract around 400 students. “I made them all love Romanian music," he smiled. "I would get them dancing and jumping with "Life Is Life", then I would hit them with some Andri Popa [a Romanian folk ballad artist] and all 400 would sing along. And if I played the romantic song "Fata din Vis", the girls from the neighbouring dorms would faint.”

A DJ during that era of Romania's history had roughly the same social standing as a football player today. People would point at Sorin in the street and lose their shit every time he released a new mix-tape. He also enjoyed some personal privileges in the student halls; his clothes would be washed for free – on the same day, if he wanted – and technicians would come to his aid out as soon as he called them, which is a rarity even today. In exchange, he'd invite whoever helped him out – and a group of their friends – to his next disco. He used the same bartering technique to get his hands on some Russian and Polish cassette players. “They weren't quality goods, but they got the job done,” he told me. 

Sorin's team was made up of five people. Two walked around the room to make sure nobody was smoking or getting into fights; another sold the tickets; a karate or judo expert guarded the entrance; and the DJ's right-hand man handled the lights and anything else that needed sorting. He once sat in the same contorted position for four hours, trying to keep a cable twisted a certain way so the disco didn't lose power. 

Another Freshman's ball at Disco CH, 1986

In 1982, the Youth Tourism Bureau, which represented the Communist Youth Tourism Committee, started organising DJ courses. Sorin enrolled, "but didn't learn a thing, because I was already in the know”. The exam was part theoretical, which you had to take in front of a committee. But instead of putting pen to paper, Sorin talked the theory out with the adjudicators and they passed him there and then.

The practical part of the exam was a one-hour disco set at a club in the Costineşti student seaside resort. After the show, the committee's chairman apparently told Sorin, "You're the man!” before giving him an A. That qualification meant he started earning a decent wage as a DJ in a time when "DJs weren't the type of people who could make a living off their salary". And if he did it off the books, Sorin could earn almost 1,000 Leu (around £185) a show – usually at a wedding or a birthday party or a high-school prom, where militia police were often forced to turn a blind eye as it was their own sons turning 18 or their sisters getting married.

The same year that Sorin got his DJ qualifications, a meeting between high-ranking Communist Party members decided that the country was only to be represented by Romanian music, meaning – for a disco to function legally – DJ's were obliged to play local music and have their set list vetted by the County Cultural Commission's Council. ”I always tried to explain that I didn't know what music I'd be mixing beforehand, because I had to get a feel for the room," Sorin sighed, 30 years on. "But they didn't care.” 

Ultimately, however, the new rules didn't affect Iaşi's biggest name too much, as nobody ever came to check up on him.

Sorin at the Holiday Radio club in Costinești

In 1983, Sorin ended up working at the Ring disco in Costineşti – the largest open-air disco in Eastern Europe at the time. Entry was cheap and, at its peak, the place would pack in up to 3,000 people. The Yamaha sound-system was "mega professional", brought in from Germany and tuned by German technicians. 

Sorin never allowed anyone into his booth, despite the fact people would try to clamber up almost every night. And if anyone did make it in, he'd call for Marius – the local lifeguard and Ring's in-house security – to escort them away. 

Sorin in 1985

It was this policy that eventually led to Sorin being banished from communist Romania's DJ booths. In 1986 – when he was starting every set with Modern Talking's "You're My Heart, You're My Soul" – someone called Nicu Ceauşescu jumped behind his decks and tried to give him some mixing advice. Like everyone else who'd ever invaded his personal DJ area, Nicu was told to piss off. Unfortunately, Nicu turned out to be the son of then-Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu.

The following day, the 29-year-old Sorin was out of work. "I suffered a lot," he recalled. "Being a DJ was my lifestyle – my reason to breath."

After the 1989 fall of communism in Romania, Sorin went back to DJing for another six years. Now, he'll only play sets on request, ending up at all sorts of events – some, like a conference on keyhole surgery, stranger than others. However, even there, he told me, he still managed to rouse the audience up into a party train. He also promotes Romanian music on TV and the radio, and wants to help artists who are struggling to break into the mainstream, but says he doesn't like modern clubs. "DJs nowadays are like machines," he groaned. "They don't say a word, and they just play the same style of music over and over again. Besides that, everybody's smoking." 

For now, Sorin is perfectly happy coaching his aikido team. And when he takes the kids out for exercise on Saturday mornings, all the local residents line up in front of their windows to watch him at work – just like they did while he was behind the decks at Disco CH.

More stories from Romania:

You'll Never Forget Your First Time at One of Romania's Glamorous Fairgrounds

The Maddening Beauty of Romanian Living Rooms

Romanian Prisoners Don't Believe in Friendship