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What Was It Like Being a DJ in Communist Romania?

Sorin Lupaşcu began DJing in 1974, when he had to record dance music off the radio and hold parties at local high schools, and worked his way up to manning the decks at Eastern Europe's biggest open-air disco.
May 12, 2014, 4:00pm

Sorin Lupaşcu (Photo by Mihai Sibianu, Studio Martin)

Westerners tend to imagine cities under communist control as being bleak gray 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, but in communist Romania there were plenty of 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.

Sorin Lupaşcu was one of those DJs. The 57-year-old now coaches aikido, but from 1974 to 1996 he organized and provided the soundtrack to countless Romanian parties, which means he manned turntables before, during, and after the 1989 revolution.

"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 music collection

The first night Sorin organized, in 1974, was 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. Except for Floyd ("nobody danced to them," Sorin said), everyone loved the music.

Following the success of what was essentially a glorified school disco, Sorin decided to continued holding events—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 Romanians 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 he needed were some tapes of his own, which in the mid 70s were pretty hard to come by. The only music playing on the radio was local folk, easy listening, and regional communist songs—not exactly the type of tunes he wanted to play at his parties. In fact he could only find "good music" on Radio Luxembourg and Radio Veronica, two 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 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 all that gear home alone: two speakers, two magnetic tape recorders, and a backpack filled with 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 theater where the technicians could loan you some colored foil. Color lights were rare."

In 1979, disco exploded. ABBA, Boney. M, and Bad Boys Blue were all huge, and German synthpop duo Modern Talking were "laying down the law," according to Sorin. By then, the DJ already had hundreds of tapes and over 300 mixes; he'd buy cheap blank cassettes in Bucharest and record 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 traveled 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 in 1979

Sorin, who by then was an electromechanical engineering student, now had enough music to play a week of consecutive nights without any repeats—all he needed now was a room to do it in. Iaşi's chemistry college allowed Sorin to set up his equipment in their P1 and P2 dorms, a space he dubbed Disco CH.

There was only one key to the disco, and Sorin hung on to it. He painted the walls, rewired 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 burned out. Then they made some more. Later, he built a disco ball a yard wide, 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, even though power was shut off throughout the rest of the city from 10 PM to 6 AM. "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 9 PM to midnight. Admission cost 3 leu (about $1), which went to the college's student union and paid for repairs and new dorms.

The 1981 freshmen ball at Disco CH

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 melancholy; if it was warm, he'd play something chilled 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 neighboring dorms would faint.”

A DJ during that era in Romania's history had roughly the same social standing a professional athlete does today. People would point at Sorin in the street and lose their shit every time he released a new mixtape. He also enjoyed some personal privileges in the student halls: His clothes would be washed for free and technicians would come to help him out as soon as he called them, which is a rarity even today. In exchange, he'd invite whoever assited him and their friends to his next disco night. 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 said.

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 doing—he once sat in the same contorted position for four hours to keep a cable twisted a certain way so the disco didn't lose power.

The 1986 freshmen ball at Disco CH

In 1982, the Youth Tourism Bureau, which represented the Communist Youth Tourism Committee, started organizing 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 salaries." And if he did it off the books, Sorin could earn almost 1,000 Leu (around $300) a show—usually at a wedding or a birthday party or a high-school prom, where the cops were often forced to turn a blind eye, since it was their sons turning 18 or their sisters getting married.

The same year that Sorin got his DJ qualifications, Communist Party officials decided that Romanian music needed to be promoted, meaning for a disco to function DJ's were legally obliged to play local music and have their set lists 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 later. "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 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. Sorin said Yamaha sound system was "mega professional," brought in from Germany and tuned by German technicians.

Sorin never allowed anyone into his booth, though 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 named 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 said. "Being a DJ was my lifestyle—my reason to breathe."

After the fall of communism in 1989, Sorin went back to DJing for another six years. Now he'll only play sets on request, and he winds up at all sorts of events—some, like a conference on laparoscopic surgery, have been stranger than others. Even at that conference, he told me, he 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 said 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.

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