‘We’re on the edge of cultures’
He’s been behind three of Moldova’s most eye-catching entries to the Eurovision Song Contest, including the country’s very first foray in 2003 and its most recent in 2022. But Zdob și Zdub’s front man Roman Iagupov took some persuading to make the trip to Turin for this year’s contest. ‘It was the third time,’ he recalls in a cafe near his home in the Moldovan capital Chișinău. ‘Rock music is my style, this is a pop song. But the team said “we must, we have to go! We have an opportunity”.’
It’s a neat illustration of the band’s trajectory from Nirvana-inspired hardcore rock to a song celebrating the railway between Chișinău and Bucharest. This year’s entry,‘Trenulețul’, is a collaboration with the Advahov Brothers. Like ‘So Lucky’, Zdob și Zdub’s twelfth-place 2011 Eurovision entry, the song defies the power-ballad format which triumphs more often than not among juries and the voting public. Instead it appeals to viewers in a unique combination of aggressive charm and familiar weirdness.
But ‘Trenulețul’ also does something which the band’s previous work had not: it captures something of Moldova’s national identity at a time when Moldovans feel increasingly precarious. It tells the story of a cross-border train journey to Romania – a journey which requires the entire train to be lifted into the air and its wheels replaced with a new set in the broader gauge pioneered under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. In so doing, the song pinpoints the internal conflict of a country on the precipice of East and West.
The song has been read by some observers as a call for Moldova to unify with Romania – but this, says Iagupov, was never the intention. ‘I understand [the lyrics] but I don’t understand how [other] people will understand [them],’ he says. Iagupov then begins to hum the first line of ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles. ‘It’s a story by Paul [McCartney], but I have another association [with it]. The important thing is that ‘Trenulețul’ is a song to unite people, for me not in a political sense. This is a positive energy. It was the rhythm, for me it’s a part of life.’
The idea for ‘Trenulețul’ came to Iagupov during the Covid-19 lockdown. ‘We had no concerts, we stayed here, we had no money, we were lost a little bit,’ he recalls. ‘And I said we must do something, we have time for creativity, we have time to create something. Because for all of my life we’ve had no time to create something new. And we met some traditional musicians, Vitalie and Vasile Advahov. They have a big orchestra, and we drank some wine and started to think about something to do together. Maybe some songs together, an album – why not? I proposed the idea to go into the mountains with guitars, with instruments, in Romania.’
It was a simple concept to begin with. ‘I had an idea this must be about a train. I set out some ideas about the train from Chișinău to Bucharest, because [the two countries] have a very interesting and complicated story. The Moldavian people were one tribe a lot of years ago, but for some period were disconnected. But we have the same tradition, language, same friends and relatives, and my idea was not like a special political song, no, no. It’s not my style.’
Nonetheless, style is something that Iagupov readily admits the band have had to adapt over time. The band formed at Iagupov’s high school and after releasing its first album Hardcore and playing extensively in clubs, Zdob și Zdub ‘reached a conclusion: hardcore music is music for big cities, big countries – America, Great Britain, I don’t know’. They decided to tone down from ‘Hardcore’ and incorporate elements of Moldova’s traditional folk music. ‘We decided to change our style to have expression on the stage, like American bands, but with roots.’ The new format adopted in the late 1990s included bagpipes, trumpets, trombones and flutes as well as the guitars, drums and synths which characterized the Zdubs’ early work.
‘Trenulețul’ is sung in Romanian, presenting an additional challenge for Iagupov whose first language, like that of many Moldovans, is Russian. ‘Here in Moldova it was like two worlds: Romanian, Balkan, Latin – and post-Soviet, Communist. And the changing of the wheels is a symbol of that. We’re on the edge of cultures.
‘There are moments of propaganda, “you’re the best”, “you’re number one” – no, one culture. If you understand different culture and languages you’re very rich. That's the way to understand the real truth. That’s all folks.’
Our September/October magazine asks ‘Whose railway is it anyway?’ The full magazine is available to buy from the Ethical Shop.
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