From grannies beating their drums to folk punk, from that same folk punk band wearing the pointiest hats in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest to a memetic saxophone player who returns with his band to claim third place, Moldova has a special reputation at the Song Contest.
With only a few exceptions, their entries have stood out for bringing the party without compromising on the region’s own strongly folk-influenced musical sound – and even when they do pick a more mainstream sound, the stage show is something else. As the Kirkorov-backed DoReDos prepare to take their infective brass riff and a very different kind of giant hat to Lisbon, lets take a look at one of my favourite Eurovision countries and examine how and why they acquired this reputation.
Chisinau greeting monument (Photographer: Gustav Flatabø)
A Little Bit Of Hawks’ Moldova
One of the poorest countries in Europe, landlocked Moldova sitting at the edge of the former USSR doesn’t often feature in Western European media. Tony Hawks’ 2000 book ‘Playing the Moldovans at Tennis‘ is a rare exception to this, when the comedian makes a bet based on knowing nothing about Moldova and the Moldovans and ends up falling in love with the country. But in general, aside from Eurovision, many Europeans would never think of Moldova. And this is key.
It’s well-known that the Eurovision Song Contest is a big deal to eastern and south-eastern European countries in a way it never is for the Big 5 or other Western nations suchas like Ireland, Norway, and Belgium. The Song Contest is a great opportunity to promote themselves and their music to a global audience, a chance that they’d rarely get on their own. An act qualifying for the Grand Final means they and their country get shown to an audience of well over one hundred million viewers.
And if they win, they get an international spotlight the following year, one that while hugely expensive, is far more practical than hosting many major international sporting events. Andy Warhol claimed we’d all get 5 minutes of fame, but for much of Europe, Eurovision is all about the three minutes of fame.
And Moldova is arguably one of the countries this is most true for.
Arriving Late And Starting The Party
Moldova were one of the last Eastern European countries to join the party, coming on board in 2005, but they didn’t so much climb a gangplank as swing from the rigging yelling as they went. Zdob și Zdub took the relatively short trip to Kiev in 2005 with a performance so memorable it got a reference in ‘Love Love Peace Peace‘ 11 years later.
The song ‘Boonika Bate Doba‘ (‘Grandmamma beats the drum’) was written about the owner of a guest house the band stayed at while on tour, and in a story that always makes me start crying when I drunkenly explain it to friends, when they got the first ever Moldovan Eurovision ticket, they invited the selfsame Boonika to come on stage with them – which involved some of the band doing a ‘Sad Tony’ to limit the performance to the EBU’s ‘six ‘people on stage’ limit. So when the ethno-punk band danced and sang around the Palace of Sports with a performance brimming with both energy and authenticity, the old woman in the rocking chair who stood up and, beaming, played her drum in front of Europe, was the same woman who inspired the song.
And we loved it.
Zdob și Zdub came 2nd in the notoriously tough single semi-final, beaten only by their neighbours from Romania, and ended up with 6th place in the final, only 10 points behind 3rd (which also went to Romania). Yet they succeeded beyond that – in the UK at least, the ‘Moldovan granny’ was the main memory of the contest, and suddenly, Moldova was in the consciousness of people in Birmingham, Bilbao, and Bielefeld. It was a fantastic start, something memetic but also true to Moldova.
Arsenium & Natalia Gordienko weren’t able to repeat that success in 2006. Hampered by a second-place draw in the running order but with a performance that was all but a low-energy Spanish entry, with nothing especially stand-out aside from possibly a giant sail, they sunk in Athens finishing 20th.
Natalia Barbu to the rescue! ‘Fight‘ is another of the Moldovan entries people still remember now with its Evanescence-style sound, violin riff, and vaguely goth-industrial bodysuit, bringing Moldova another top ten finish in Helsinki. Then Geta Burlacu didn’t make the Grand Ginal the next year with a slow jazz number with little especially memorable beyond her reclining on a sofa on stage holding a teddy bear.
Nelly Ciobanu came second to Zdob și Zdub in 2005 and she got her chance to represent her country in 2009, returning to the more ethnic sound. Trumpets, drums, and dancing all across the massive Moscow stage, she brought the party, with everything from the title and lyrics to the costumes and LEDs screaming ‘Moldova’. Even the chorus was clear:
Ra, he hei, he hei
Hai la hora, hai la hora din Moldova – (Come to the dance, come to the dance from Moldova)
Ra, he hei, he hei
Iute-i hora, iute-i hora în Moldova – (The dance is fast, the dance from Moldova is fast)
It qualified for the final and came fourteenth, and with memories of Zdob și Zdub’s grandmother still in people’s minds, Moldova began to acquire a reputation for this kind of music and show. But Nelly’s performance, while energetic, wasn’t memetic.
Enter Epic Sax Guy
Nobody saw SunStroke Project (with Olia Tira) breaking well beyond the Eurovision sphere and becoming internationally known. ‘Run Away’, a eurodance number featuring SunStroke’s trademark sax-violin combo, is certainly an upbeat and fun song, and the stage show beyond the famous part is flashy and active, but it only just qualified for the final in 2010 and then finished 22nd, ahead of Ireland, Belarus, and the UK. The stage was certainly set for the song becoming beloved of a certain kind of Eurofan but not making much of an impact beyond that, however something unexpected happened – it went viral.
Eurovision songs had gone viral before – winners Lordi, Lithuania’s LT United, and of course Zdob și Zdub – but never to this extent. Epic Sax Guy (Sergey Stepanov)’s rhymthic thrusting while miming playing his saxophone was shared across the Internet, benefitting hugely from modern media, and became well-known in the United States, arguably a holy grail for Eurovision performances.
Although it was his sax riff and hips that grabbed the most attention, people coming across the song through memes across forums and social media often stayed for the whole song, ratcheting up a YouTube viewer count far beyond what its 22nd place finish would indicate. In fact, few of the 21 songs that beat it would endure in quite so strong a fashion, and while memes come and go, they tend to be fondly remembered. This would turn out to have strong repercussions 7 years later.
Maybe Moldova took this on board, as next year they send Zdob și Zdub back again with a performance all but tailor-made to be both memorable and memetic. ‘So Lucky‘ with the tall pointy hats and angelic unicylist carried the band’s trademark ethno-punk genre, albeit in a slightly heavier way than six years earlier. No matter. While not enduringly successful in the way SunStroke Project managed to be, Zdob și Zdub qualified and scored a respecteable 12th place finish in Düsseldorf, just outside the top ten.
Pasha Parfeny followed hot on their heels/wheels, bringing his trumpet-driven ‘Lăutar‘ to Baku, and dancing his way to 11th place with a slightly chaotic stage performance where at one point Pasha stands surrounded by three backing dancers spread across the floor pretending to run. ‘This trumpet makes you mine’ and it seemed to broadly work. Aliona Moon equaled Pasha’s result one year later, with an 11th place finish built on a memorable projection-based dress that transformed Aliona into an erupting volcano for the final chorus.
Moldova had achieved success with two kind of performance which sometimes overlapped – brass-driven folk party songs, and memorable stand-out staging. The most successful performances (certainly in the long run) achieved memetic status, and the country’s reputation was solidified.
A shame then that they lost their way for a few years. Cristina Scarlat’s ‘Wild Soul‘ didn’t meet either of the above critera and not only failed to qualify but scored Moldova their worst result yet on their 10th entry. Eduard Romanyuta’s gloriously trashy ‘I Want Your Love‘ with its dancing cops almost got Moldova into the final in 2015, but something did indeed ‘steal their thunder’. The ‘looks vaguely like the start of a porn film’ staging wasn’t enough.
Neither was Lidia Isac’s dancing, accreditation-lanyard-sporting, spaceman in Stockholm, a bizarre edition to the song that felt as if Moldova had remembered they were Moldova at the last minute and made a concession to their reputation, history, and past successes.
And then they rolled with their past successes, and returned the now-firmly-legendary SunStroke Project to Kiev.
With a hugely confident performance of ‘Hey Mama‘ acknowledging Epic Sax Guy’s memetic status but not relying on it, with a solid party song, Moldova put all their most successful elements together…and scored a podium finish, one not even the die-hard Eurovision betting community had seen coming, yet one which few felt unearned.
In the city where their Eurovision journey began in such an epic memetic fashion, Moldova triumphed. Yes, they were given a lot of promotion over Epic Sax Guy’s past, but this wasn’t unmerited, especially given how their 22nd place 2010 finish did not reflect the song’s enduring success. And Moldovans couldn’t have been prouder, with a grand reception for the homecoming trio outmatched only by winner Salvador’s in Portugal.
So we come to DoReDos. How will they do in Lisbon? The trumpet-driven, party song ‘My Lucky Day‘ definitely fits into the country’s tradition – many eurofans recognise this as a Moldovan entry at once – and DoReDos have brought immense energy on stage in their own national finals, only being pipped to the post by Lisa in 2016. Phillip Kirkorov’s involvement suggests a degree of confidence in the group and the song is popular among Eurofans this year, many acknowledging how it is once again true to the music from that part of the world. Will it go memetic? Unlikely but maybe if Marina brings that oversized hat from the video…
There’s More Than One Way To Win At Eurovision
Moldova has been far more successful at Eurovision than their size and 2014-2016 finishes would suggest. They have achieved this through both being true to themselves in a consistent way relatively few other Eurovision countries have, but also by creating memorable performances that have gone viral and achieved memetic status both within the Eurosphere and beyond.
This means Moldova stands out internationally in a way that no other country I can think of does. Musically, they are best known through memes. Their international success has been through utilising performances and songs that have stood out in a viral way – and this even precedes Eurovision. Because if I was to ask what Moldovan songs an average Brit might know, they might know SunStroke Project’s two entries, they might recall Zdob și Zdub, but (so long as they’re of a certain age) they’ll recall ‘Dragostea Din Tei‘, better known as ‘the Numa Numa Song’.
O-Zone’s 2004 international megahit didn’t quite reach ‘Gangnam Style’ levels of fame, but the dance tune with its earworm of a chorus achieved a great deal of radio airplay in the UK even before then going viral online with an early meme video of a man singing and dancing along (‘Numa Numa Guy‘ as he came to be known). O-Zone were often mistakenly reported as Romanian at the time, which might indicate the problems Moldova has had in making a name for itself, but those who looked a bit further realised and started to pay attention to Chisinau, just before the Grandmamma beat her drumma into Eurovision history.
Not to say there isn’t a great deal of Moldovan music that isn’t memetic and is still fantastic (Alternosfera, Gândul Mâței, Che-MD), but it’s the ‘Epic’s which have broken beyond the banks of the River Dniester and enchanted Europe and the world.
All hail Moldova, the true memelords.