Nelu Stratone Private Musical Records Collection
The Nelu Stratone collection is one of the most impressive collections of rock, jazz, and folk records created in communist Romania, as a result of the happy combination between its owner’s exceptional passion for alternative music and his ability to acquire records that were not imported officially. The collection is important not only for its size, but even more for the significant number of albums of Western provenance, which were unavailable in shops in Romania but could nevertheless be obtained due to the existence of an alternative market for such products. The creation and preservation of such a collection were activities regarded with suspicion by the communist authorities in Romania, because they proved the younger generation’s fascination with Western cultural products, in contravention of the spirit of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Theses of July 1971.
București Strada Sfântul Ștefan 21, Romania 030167
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Name of collection
- Nelu Stratone Private Musical Records Collection
Provenance and cultural activities
Collecting records of foreign music was not a forbidden activity but a tolerated one, in spite of the fact that the records were not officially acquired from shops, and moreover, included genres of Western music, such as rock, folk, and jazz, which the Ceauşescu regime only grudgingly permitted in the public space. Western music, like any other cultural product of Western provenance, was in contradiction to the ideas of the Theses of July 1971, in which Ceauşescu vehemently criticized the idea of seeking inspiration in foreign cultural models. As long as the record collection remained private, it was not a problem for the communist regime. At the same time, the very existence of such a collection testifies to the fascination of young people with a music that was forbidden to them, with “a ‘provocative and cosmopolitan culture’ [which] they tasted with great pleasure also because the regime had taken the stupid decision to isolate them from their contemporaries in Europe. […] The principal protest message of rock music in the socialist camp [… was] the expression of young people who felt themselves to be citizens of the world (or at least of Europe) and who wanted to be connected to this world,” as Béla Kamocsa, one of the founding members of the band Phoenix, a group which became a veritable legend in communist Romania, puts it concisely and penetratingly (Stratone 2016, 21).
To understand the beginnings of this collection of records requires a long excursion into the past of the collection’s owner, Nelu Stratone. The records that he gathered in impressive quantities were, in fact, an external manifestation of a longstanding and complex passion for music. The moments that triggered this attachment to music are connected to a number of significant objects: a radio set, a record player, and later a tape recorder. The paradox of the beginning of this passion for alternative music lies in the fact that his father was a model worker for the communist regime, with the result that Nelu Stratone had these items from early childhood, at a time when they were not yet a normal part of the contents of people’s homes, at least not in sovietised Europe. At the same time, he used this advantage in a direction contrary to that desired by the regime, seeing these objects not as a reward for obedience and conformism, but as springboards towards a horizon of knowledge beyond what was permitted by the regime. “From when I was very small, we had a radio set, and a record player, and a TV. It was something very rare at that time. My father worked at the Electronica factory, and basically he got them from there. I was, from this point of view, one of the privileged of that early period of Romanian communism. He was a ‘leader in production’ and they gave him everything. I listened to a lot of radio. First of all, radio from our country – I was educated, I might say, for a significant period by the ‘Grigoriu brothers.’ Later I came upon a Serbian radio station – here they were broadcasting American music. And in fact it all began from there. It was then, I might say, that I fell prey to the influence of capitalism, especially the influence of musical capitalism. That was when I was six or seven. And of course it continued for a long time after, along the same line,’ recalls Nelu Stratone.
Born due to his privileged access to a type of music that was inaccessible in the 1960s to the majority of the population, who were dependent on the official broadcasts of communist Romania, Nelu Stratone’s passion later developed towards an interest in musical technology as well as in music itself. The fact that in addition to the radio and TV he also came to have a tape recorder was decisive for his later development towards being a collector of music that was very diverse and very popular among young people. This time it was musical knowledge acquired by his own efforts that helped him to further develop that passion triggered by listening to foreign music on a Serbian radio station: “At high school, in a ‘Who knows wins’ completion, I was a prize-winner. They gave you a paper with about twenty questions that you had to answer, very hard questions; the final, I remember, was at the Luceafărul Cinema, and the [second] prize, a tape recorder. To be precise, a Tesla B5 tape recorder, with five ORWO tapes. I was in the final together with a girl; we knew that each of us would win a prize; it remained to be decided who would come first and who second. At the last question, I said I couldn’t answer, although I knew the answer very well. I withdrew and got the tape recorder. We already had a TV [which was the first prize] at home. But not a tape recorder. Well this precious musical instrument for those times also counted a lot for my musical passion.”
In the 1960s, the tape recorder was an essential object for young people’s socializing. It was in that period that the phenomenon of the so-called “teas” appeared, in essence a form of socializing in free time that was absolutely permitted to young people, students, high-school pupils, later even those at middle school. They listened to music, danced, ate cakes, sometimes drank tea, but later also more and more alcoholic drinks, which was not exactly permitted for those under eighteen, the official age of majority. Although drinking tea was far from being one of the focal points of these gatherings, and was not even very widespread in Romania, where coffee was always preferred due to the historical Turkish influence, these very popular dancing evenings were called – no one knows why – “teas.” Music and dancing were the fundamental way in which young people socialized at that time, as now, with the difference that then the preferred dance music, at least in urban circles, was Western music, which was not so easy to obtain. “With the tape recorder I didn’t just listen to music, I ‘delivered’ music,” Nelu Stratone recalls, in connection with an important episode of his adolescence. “At all the teas in the district, I was the one who came with the music. However this presupposed that I must also have music, that I should have what today we call a ‘playlist.’ The phenomenon of ‘teas’ was very important for social life, especially for that of young adults and teenagers. ‘Teas’ were private parties at which the participants were generally known to each other (it was more seldom that unknown faces appeared – so that control could be kept, albeit privately, over the participants). They were parties in which, as a rule, between six and twelve people participated, and which were most often held in the flat of one of those making up the group. […] At such a ‘tea,’ a tape recorder was a leading character, no doubt about that. For it, I needed music. Not just what I was listening to obsessively back then – progressive rock. But varied music.”
Already in his adolescence, the passion for music of the future collector of records also passed through the phase of developing his own musical activity: “At high school I also formed a band. I was active in it for about two years, and I took part with it in all sorts of music festivals for high-school pupils. The band was called Solaris after the [science fiction] novel by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. I was both bass and solo vocalist; and so my passion for music had begun to be more complex, to take on other organized forms. As a student too, I occasional performed for short spells in other bands. The fact of having a band is another important reference point for my passion for music. However my direct musical activity didn’t last very long. […] The forms that my passion for music later took were different, more behind the scenes, in the rear.”
Because he was involved in musical activity in various ways and because the sources for listening to and procuring music under communism were drastically limited, Nelu Stratone had to resort to the parallel systems through which these special products, which were in great demand but impossible to obtain through official channels, circulated. There were a number of ways, however, in which non-Romanian music, foreign in general and Western in particular, could be procured, although officially it was drastically filtered or even utterly forbidden. The story of these channels is a fascinating one in itself and at the same time may make up a chapter in the alternative history of communism. About these (semi-)clandestine informal channels and the ways in which someone might connect into them, Nelu Stratone recalls: “I had found some sources of music around here, in the district. When I was also performing, I used to ‘pull’ music from foreign radio stations directly on the tape recorder. Then I learned to play them, because I played some of them on stage. I also had a neighbour – an operator in a film studio – who had a lot of records and from whom I ‘pulled’ a lot of music. I had another source: in the area where I lived there was a very interesting house where, on the ground floor, there were two families of Chinese men married to Hungarian women. I don’t know how they got there; I don’t know how they came to know one another and to get married. I listened to foreign music there – and sometimes I managed to ‘pull’ it onto tapes. Hungarian music, music from China, from Russia; also Jewish music, because it was a district where a lot of Jews lived.” And he adds: “I also had classmates at university – and we were climbing over one another to ‘pull’ music. I went on doing this when I started work. I didn’t take risks; I went to safe people. I was working in a computing office, with a big salary, and I couldn’t afford to take risks. Because, I have to say, there was a certain fear of the system’s ‘boys’ [i.e. Securitate informers].” In fact the activity of recording music did not bother anyone as long as the music was only for personal use, but it could become problematic when it started to be used at gatherings, soirées, or “teas.” In this connection, Nelu Stratone recalls that in the end it all came down to bribing the representatives of the regime who were charged with maintaining public order: “I had little signals, little harassments, but not real problems, from the representatives of the regime. When I was starting out, when I went about with the tape recorder on me. On the other hand, there was a certain permissiveness, even if sometimes I was rather noisy when I ‘delivered’ music. The militia would come round, they would scold us, and then we would come to an arrangement with them. The could easily be bought with whisky, with fine foreign cigarettes. They were understanding.”
Before 1989 in Romania, foreign music could be amassed in other ways too, for example, by recording productions in the genres from radio stations outside the country: “From the radio – I ‘pulled’ a lot from the foreign radio stations I could catch. There weren’t many, in fact. I ‘pulled’ music especially from Radio Novi Sad. Radio Luxembourg could also be heard quite well, and I ‘pulled’ some music from there too. It was on short wave and it could often be heard very clearly. I found out much later that it wasn’t actually broadcasting from Luxembourg, but it was a pirate radio station – of which there were a number during the Cold War period – that broadcast from a ship sailing in the North Sea. At least that’s what I heard…” As for the technology necessary to record music, Nelu Stratone mentions that, at least in his case, the operation was not a very complicated one: “ ‘Pulling’ music, as we called it, was quite simple: I had a good cable, made by my father, that connected the tape recorder to the radio. It took patience and care, and the music went onto the tapes of its own accord. So, I ‘pulled’ straight from the radio. The output from the radio by cable, not by loudspeaker, went into the tape recorder – and that’s how it was imprinted on the tapes. Of course it was quite costly,” adds Nelu Stratone, referring both to the time spent and the money invested. In order to record music on the tape recorder, and later to listen to it, tapes were necessary. In that period ORWO tapes in particular (made in the GDR) could be found, at a price of 60 lei. Later on, AGFA tapes (made in West Germany) appeared, at the higher price of 90 lei. At that time, average monthly wages were around 2,000 lei. An ORWO tape lasted for an hour: 30 minutes on each side. An AGFA tape, in keeping with the price difference, lasted 45 plus 45 minutes, in total an hour and a half. “It depended on the speed at which you ‘pulled’ them: 9 or 18. Or they could even by ‘pulled’ on four tracks – as I usually did. Which meant that you were multiplying by four the storage capacity of a tape,” explains Nelu Stratone.
In the view of Nelu Stratone, the story of his distant musical past, included references to certain pieces of musical equipment, to the ways in which music could be procured, and to other reference points that marked out this musical passion has a deep meaning: “All these details come together into a single point for me: I had got myself a musical education that I could call, with modesty, minimal. I knew what music was; I knew what was being listened to back then as ‘up-to-date’; I knew what was music for the masses, for consumption; I knew – more or less – what was, let’s call it, ‘alternative’ music. And I knew what I wanted with music.” The musical education to which Nelu Stratone refers was completed particularly in his student years, when Western music of the highest quality began to enter Romania, especially by way of concerts. This moment coincided with the Prague Spring and Romania’s unexpected gesture in relation to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR and other communist countries. This exception phase in his life is very much alive in the memory of Nelu Stratone: “When there was the intervention of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia, here there was an amazing opening [that lasted] until 1971: as far as music was concerned, bands came to the Palace Hall every two weeks. Big name bands, a lot of them from the USA. Louis Armstrong came twice then. A lot came in those years. I don’t think I missed a single concert. All my student grant back then generally went on concerts. It was 30 lei a ticket – two tickets for the price of a recording tape. But it was worth it to see them live.”
The musical feast of his student years was followed, in Nelu Stratone’s case, by an apparently banal professional career, but one that directly and decisively lay at the foundation of his activity as a collector of records. As a new graduate in economic studies, the future collector became an employee of CENTROCOOP (acronym of the National Union of Consumer Cooperatives). Before 1989, these cooperative units were considered the “capitalist” firms of a regime that despised consumers, investing in heavy industry at the expense of light and systematically neglecting the production of consumer goods. Implicitly, those employed in this system were regarded with a degree of envy for the independence that they enjoyed at that time. “The moment I was employed at CENTROCOOP was a defining one for my musical passion in an utterly pragmatic sense. In the first place, I began to earn a lot of money for that time, as I was also the inventor of an automated system for calculating salaries in consumer cooperatives, which was implemented in all the counties in the country and remained in operation until 1989, and that brought me regular dividends. Alongside my basic salary, I doubled or tripled my income every month, perfectly legally, as the beneficiary of this personal invention. They weren’t called ‘dividends’ in capitalist language – they were called premiums, often quarterly but sometimes monthly. And there was something else that added to my income: when I began to travel through the country, to implement the application in all the counties, I was given expenses, and basically I got everything for free; thus I could save considerable sums in terms of the levels of income in those times. A lot of the money I earned there I converted into music. This money was an important motor for that side of my passion in connection with music – I mean collecting records.
Nelu Stratone began to buy records in 1972–1973. Year by year, over approximately two decades, he added hundreds of records to his collection. “I began to buy records. I went every Sunday to Obor, to the flea market, where there were people with records for sale, semi-clandestinely. They kept them under their arms. The precious records cost between 100 and 300 lei. Obviously they were more expensive than recorded tapes, and in terms of their status, they had more value, more power,” mentions Nelu Stratone. However the flea market where he acquired his first pieces was too small to satisfy the needs of his passion for music, so he sought other ways of acquiring records. The story of the networks by means of which records of foreign music could be procured is a fascinating one, and significant for the alternative history of communism in Romania. It is particularly interesting that Western products could be procured by way of exchanges with neighbouring countries, a detail that is very telling with regard to the differences between the various communist regimes in the Soviet bloc. According to Nelu Stratone’s experience: “Around the middle of the 1970s, our foreign trade society signed a contract with an Indian company that produced records of Western music, especially for Britain and the USA. By the hundreds. Well, we were a sort of nodal point in this business, and if you knew the right people, you could find – you could even find them to buy here. I knew someone at the Cocor shop – I would go into their warehouse and I would find hundreds of records there” – records which moreover were not for sale in the shop itself. Nelu Stratone’s professional career in the area of consumer cooperatives was of great help to him in the operation of gathering records in various ways. “Records also came to me another way – generally they were a sort of courtesy gift. When I went to Covasna, Mureş, and Harghita counties (to the County Unions of Consumer Cooperatives – UJCC), the people there had a barter arrangement with cooperatives in Hungary – and they got a lot of records of Western music from them. This was, let’s say, the ‘Hungarian connection’ by which I procured music. Every county had a UJCC, and they were all under the umbrella [in Bucharest] called CENTROCOOP. CENTROCOOP was a state within the state, with a lot of autonomy – and I came to the regions straight from Bucharest… So, the records there were either little gifts, or sometimes they were sold at a much lower price, with a considerable discount for ‘insiders’ like me. In Arad, Timiş, and Caraş-Severin, it was mutatis mutandis, the same story, but with cooperatives in what was then Yugoslavia. In the south, in the counties there, they had exchanges with the Bulgarians. In Iaşi, there was cooperation on the same lines with the Soviets. So we covered almost the whole of Eastern Europe, so to speak. It was what we might today call a sort of supply network. With quite a closed circuit, it’s true. I also, for a time, had a source who brought me Polish records for purchase,” recalls Nelu Stratone.
All this ample activity of collecting records was possible precisely because Nelu Stratone was not a person who entered in any way into conflict with the communist regime. He was a Party member, as were about four million other citizens of Romania, though this does not mean that he was a man of the regime. He himself evaluates the significance of his belonging to the Party as being rather the result of opportunism than of conviction. Furthermore, he acknowledges this option for what it was, unlike the greater number of people who have hidden it since 1989, and considers that his lifelong passion for rock was the only way in which he was in tacit disaccord with the communist regime. “I was a Party member. Otherwise I couldn’t have been given a management position in the field in which I worked. I don’t want to become very courageous, as some have done after 1989, and to say that I wasn’t a Party member. […] If I was a rebel against the regime, then the way in which this rebellion was manifested rather concerned my private space – through the music I listened to, through the friendships I cultivated. I wasn’t an open opponent. […] Rock was, in a way, a form of protest. As we would say now, it was something rather anti-system. But not a radical position-taking, a radical gesture.” Regarding the significance of his whole activity of collecting records, Nelu Stratone states clearly that he gathered music on records for his personal pleasure and for the joy of sharing it with friends. “I didn’t sell music. I bought the records for myself, for my pleasure. It was also a question of status, because back then records were quite highly valued. You had the feeling that you were in another world, in a better, freer, more decent world. You felt in a way more special. You got out of the conformism of those years.” In this sense, it is very significant that Nelu Stratone gathered these records assiduously until immediately after the fall of communism. After 1989, the transition period substantially modified the social relations created in a time in which people had more free time for themselves, their families, and their friends.
At the same time, the emergence from communism transformed record collecting into an activity that no longer had anything to do with nonconformism. Thus Nelu Stratone’s collection of records, gathered in the time of communism, no longer exists in the same form. First, the number of records in the collection was reduced by half at the time of his divorce from his first wife in 1982. “We got divorced, and my collection of records was halved in the division. But in a rather unusual way. For some reason, when the time came for her to choose, she went away with half of each of the complete sets of records that I had – not just disco but also rock. So be it. I don’t know if she was particularly interested in my rock music. The fact is that I managed to make up some of the sets later, but not the majority, because I no longer had the same supply ‘sources.’” Partially remade in the following years, the Nelu Stratone collection suffered further losses. After the divorce, which was “the first objective cause” that diminished the collection, there were other “objective causes” that gradually led to its complete transformation into a digital collection. “Technology and the associated progress intervened, and I began to move them onto more economical supports. At this moment, I have all the music on those records in electronic format – and, as is only normal, a lot more than was on the records. The storage space for this music is infinitely smaller than that implied by the space requirements of records as physical objects. The several thousand records that I had I gave to various people. But especially to a far-away friend who has lived for many years in the United States. I don’t know what he has done with them. I no longer have any trace of them, not even in any photograph. But my life is very much linked to what I heard on those records. I no longer have either a record player or a tape recorder. Time has converted the support that the music was on, but not, in my case, the passion for music. I still listen to my music, only not on records, but more simply, on a hard disk, on CDs, on the computer.” At present, out of the several thousand records that he owned, Nelu Stratone is no longer in possession of any. His record collection has metamorphosed into a digital collection. However this is a faithful reproduction of the collection that he amassed with much inventiveness and daring before 1989.
Description of content
The first record in the Nelu Stratone collection, which were not bought but were received as gifts, are emblematic for the content of the entire collection that their owner initiated and developed starting from this first impulse from outside: “With the records, it began like this: a neighbour of mine, a member of the national handball team – thus a person who had the chance to go abroad much earlier than other Romanians could have done – brought me five records at the same time from one of his trips. That was a turning point for me and for my passion in connection with collecting records. Both a turning point and a starting point. I can still remember to this day: there was one of Buddy Holly, one Bob Dylan, one Joan Baez, and two of Elvis Presley. All five were pure gold for me and for anyone in Romania back then. In a few weeks those records were ruined with being listened to so much.”
Nelu Stratone’s record collection began in 1972–1973, and grew, steadily and significantly, by around 150–200 records each year. At its height in the 1980s, the collection numbered over 3,500 records. “I invested in those records – some of them I received as gifts, as I said, but most of them I bought – I think the financial equivalent of at least two apartments, if not three, at Bucharest prices,” says Nelu Stratone. According to the number of rooms and the district, an apartment in the Romanian capital cost before 1989 between 70,000 and 200,000 lei, which represented between 35 and 100 times average monthly pay. If we take into account that between 1972 and 1989, Nelu Stratone received some 200 monthly salary payments, it is immediately clear that an investment in a sum equivalent to the price of two or three apartments was possible only thanks to his supplementary income, the premiums that he received for inventing the system of electronic calculation of salaries.
Rock was the species of music that predominated, affectively, in the collection of records amassed by Nelu Stratone: “More than a third, close to half the records were of rock music. Symphonic rock, progressive rock. I had begun also with bands that played ‘metal.’ My favourite groups. for almost all of which I had complete collections. For just about all the great rock groups in the West at that time I had complete sets of records. I also had a lot of jazz.” Apart from these musical genres, the collection also includes several hundred records of disco music. Following its owner’s preferences, the Nelu Stratone collection included the complete discography at that date of the following performers and groups: Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Gilbert Bécaud, Charles Aznavour, George Brassens, Dean Martin, Adriano Celentano, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, The Doors, Peter Gabriel, Jimi Hendrix, Gentle Giant, Pink Floyd, Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Led Zepellin, Iggy Pop, Judas Priest, Police, U2, Sex Pistols, AC/DC, Scorpions, Metallica, and Rammstein.
- music recordings: 1000-
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
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Creator(s) of content
Important events in the history of the collection
- visits by appointments
Nelu Stratone. 2016. Rock sub seceră și ciocan (Rock under hammer and sickle). Timișoara: Hyperliteratura.
Author(s) of this page
- Petrescu, Cristina
- Pătrăşconiu, Cristian Valeriu
Dylan, Bob. 2012. Suflare în vânt: 100 de poeme traduse de Mircea Cărtărescu (Blowing in the wind: 100 poems translated by Mircea Cărtărescu). Bucharest: Humanitas.
George, Cătălina. 2007. "Pittiș îi păcălea pe securiști," Evenimentul zilei, August 8. http://evz.ro/pittis-ii-pacalea-pe-securisti-455053.html?v=347635&page=2. Accessed June 12, 2018.
Ionescu, Doru. 2017. Timpul chitarelor – Florian Pittiş, Dorin Liviu Zaharia şi epoca Folk (Time of guitars – Florian Pittiş, Dorin Liviu Zaharia, and the Folk era). Cluj: Eikon.
Ionescu, Teodora. 2016. Folk pur și simplu (Folk pure and simple). Bucharest: EDITREX.
Petrescu, Dragoș. 2010. Explaining the Romanian Revolution of 1989: Culture, Structure, and Contingency. Bucharest: Editura Enciclopedică.
Stratone, Nelu. 2016. Rock sub seceră și ciocan (Rock under hammer and sickle). Timișoara: Hyperliteratura.
Ursa, Mihaela. 2016. ”Suflare în vânt.” PressOne Blog, October 16. https://pressone.ro/contributori/suflare-in-vant/ (accessed June 2, 2018).
Stratone, Nelu, interview by Pătrăşconiu, Cristian Valeriu , May 03, 2018. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection