3. Sound Provocations: A Reconfiguration of Space Via Loudspeaker Competitions 


New Year’s Eve 2019, eleven years after Babo recorded his first videos with his mobile phone. Loudspeakers are no longer the exclusive property of musicians and are no longer limited to social events like weddings, christening, or birthdays. As I wander through the streets of the village my interlocutors sensitize me to what constitutes the specificity of the soundscape of the Roma streets in comparison with the sonic atmosphere of the streets inhabited by the Gadje (non-Roma), a neighborhood closer to the center of the municipality, Filipeștii de Pădure. Whereas the Gadje/Romanian houses are characterized by high fences, closed gates, and barking guard dogs, the țigănie is marked by the presence of families with small children on the side of the road, accompanied, in several places, by powerful loudspeakers. And although several Roma families are now settled in the streets of the Gadje, they keep, at least, one of these two distinctive features. This sonic atmosphere contributes to feeding an imaginary of the țigănie as a separate territory, an imaginary that my interlocutors know how to instrumentalize in order to intimidate, manipulate, or challenge their Gadje interlocutors – even if, like any reverse stigma, discriminatory practices are still prevalent in administrative or authoritative structures. In the same way as the bell towers of French villages, whose history was studied by historian Alain Corbin ([1994] 1998), these loudspeakers are territorial and social markers.


New Year’s Eve is of course an exceptional time, and both the loudness and the multilayered nature of the sonic content in the middle of the night here reached a level that piqued my attention, encouraging me to record these few images from my mother-in-law’s lot (I married into the community in 2012; see Larcher 2020). New Year’s Eve 2023 shifted these loudspeakers from the background to the main object of my listening.


While since the mid-2010s several young men have acquired sound systems similar to those of the musicians, my perspective mirrored that of the families with whom I lived: considering these loudspeakers competitions as sound provocations. Indeed, for part of the neighborhood, hearing and feeling the loudness of the music is experienced as problematic. Worse, the loudspeakers, installed on the stoop, facing the street (see the photograph above), and set to high volumes without anyone in the household dancing or seeming to listen – and thus outside of occasions like family celebrations where the curious assemble to evaluate the gathering or listen to the musicians (as in the first video) – seemed to be a matter of defiance, provocation and intimate enmity (dușmănie). While the increased acoustic power of these loudspeakers in the 2010s affects a growing number of people and fuels numerous conversations, in reality, this practice of playing loud music out of defiance is part of a continuing history of amplified music in Dițești. Similar uses in the 1990s were reported to me by my interlocutors, and I have been able to observe them since 2007. 


In December 2023, during the various celebrations marking the end of the year, several groups of young men (aged between 20 and 40) set up their combină muzicală in the courtyard or right in front of the gate and enjoy a drink and sometimes a barbecue while singing, shouting, or dancing in front of the impressive loudspeakers. The opposing loudspeakers face the road, meaning that passers-by can hear two completely different pieces of music in stereo. The “serendipitous sound mixes” (Feld 2002: 317) and the density of these “tuned spaces” correspond both to new aspects of the neighborhood soundscape and to the mutation of long-standing practices. In the 2000s, it was commonplace to see the men of the țigănie taking hi-fi systems, DVD players, and small loudspeakers out of their living rooms and setting them up in the courtyard or in front of the gate for Easter, Christmas, or New Year’s celebrations. Now, as then, these gatherings around a small table with bottles of alcohol bring together siblings or cousins, unaccompanied by wives and children. However, with the gradual acquisition of loudspeakers by several young men from the neighborhood, loudspeakers sometimes as powerful as those used by professional lăutari, the density of sounds has increased. What is more, the staging of these loudspeakers and the listening to amplified music are constantly the site of one-upmanship. In a community obsessed with the ideal of fraternity and equality between peers, these forms of competition are never verbalized.[10] Loudspeakers have gradually become ceremonial objects for the men of the țigănie (comparable to cars).


In everyday conversations between women, or in the domestic sphere, these convivial and exuberant uses of loudspeakers are keenly debated. Some of this background noise is tolerated as long as it is part of the celebration of the bond of parity and fraternity. However, unnecessarily aggressive use is also suspect – condemned and mocked when it is heard to function as a sound provocation. The interpretation of these sound signals vacillates – the absence of somebody from the household dancing or seeming to listen is an important factor. Because of this uncertainty in the attribution of intent, the use of loudspeakers can be the subject of particularly heated conversations that discuss and explain what is being heard and how to respond. Three forms of sound diffusion are particularly considered as sound provocations.


On several occasions Lucian used a set of speakers, that he also uses as a musician, to hide his conversation with his cousin Cristi from their neighbors. The necessity of the use of music to cover the conversational content is explained in part by the morphology of the land and houses. Divided between the different heirs over the generations, the plots became narrower and narrower to the point that the walls of the neighboring houses are only a few meters apart.[11] 


Therefore, although the view from one garden to another is sometimes concealed by a blind wall, everything can be heard; the configuration of the architecture makes disputes, gossip, and rumors perfectly audible. Loudspeakers have been used effectively to mitigate this.


While this first form of sound interference is not subject to specific moral judgements, two other forms of sound production are clearly categorized as disturbances, as my interlocutors told me: “It nags at you” (te sâcâie la cap). In short, they are rubbish sounds. In a social space, saturated with debts, familial and sibling solidarities, but also intimate enmities, loudspeakers are also used to provoke the intimate enemies (a face necaz la dușmani), even if the latter are never named. These markings of enmity between neighbors are as frequent as the reasons for disagreement. I have already witnessed such brawls. In 2010, offended by Cristi’s comments during a reception in her garden, Lucian’s mother-in-law had retaliated the next morning by turning on the hi-fi system very early, deliberately directing the speakers in his direction. In Dițești, music and background noise are considered to be a “relational force” (Thompson 2017). In response to these sound provocations, many families use various sound masking techniques. As soon as their neighbor puts his loudspeakers on during the winter with nobody outside listening, Mădălina and her daughters close all the interior doors and turn up the sound of the music on the television in the heated room (to the point where they can no longer hear the telephone ring). During New Year’s Eve, Zoica’s family, who were not in the best of moods due to deaths and serious illnesses among their relatives, gathered at the back of the courtyard (as far away from the street as possible), surrounded by loudspeakers and listening to a completely different repertoire than their neighbor, enough to create their own sonic environment without going overboard. These sound masking techniques are primarily communal rather than individual – such as noise cancelling headphones – and part of a desire to control and customize the sonic environment; as Mack Hagood has shown, these techniques “fight sound with sound to pacify space for beleaguered subjects” (Hagood 2019: 6).


But loudspeakers are also used as a show of strength, the third form of sound interference in Dițești. Drawing on the inherent characteristics of the musical genres listened to, which make abundant use of delay and reverberation (Stoichiță 2013), several young people from families deemed to be “more deprived” (mai amarâti), and whose property is narrow, literally invade the space adjacent to their house for hours. As long as the reverb is sufficient, there is not always a particular attachment of the owners of these loudspeakers to the sonic content: all musical genres are worth listening to. The music and preaching of evangelical Christians can also be played by young people – married or unmarried, more deprived or not – who do not even attend (or no longer attend) the local Pentecostal church. These practices are undisturbed by any kind of noise: clipping, feedback, distortion, YouTube advertisements, interruptions due to a phone call (loudspeakers being most of the time connected to a phone or computer through Bluetooth). The music is already conceived as a parasite, “an abusive guest, an unavoidable animal, a break in a message” (Serres [1980] 2007: 8). Although these loudspeaker sessions are sometimes interpreted as sound provocations from the user’s point of audition, they are not built around distinct (particularly religious) repertoires or routine timelines as observed in other urban environments marked by the sound density of loudspeakers (Oosterbaan 2009; Larkin 2014). The young men involved in this practice are constantly changing musical genres, volume, hours, and days of listening; the unpredictable nature of these sounds significantly contributes to neighbors perceiving them as a sonic stranglehold and a claim to power.[12]


All this would not be possible without a certain tolerance among the inhabitants of the Roma streets. The first explanation is perceptual in nature: the diffusion of low frequencies over long distances makes it difficult for distant neighbors to locate – and direct their annoyance at – the source of the music in a neighborhood with such a high density of dwellings. In addition to this acousmatic quality of the loudspeakers, this relative tolerance is also explained by the tacitly agreed upon limits of this “intimate enmity.” While it can engender rumors and insults, it very rarely leads to further action, and it is theoretically inconceivable to call in the police to solve a problem between “We, Our Gypsies” (Noi, Țigani noștri) – the emic expression used by my interlocutors to mark the boundaries of the community. In practice, it does happen that someone, presumably exhausted, calls the police, and one of their patrols comes to the village to issue a fine. But the complaints that lead to the arrival of a police car are never made public. What emerges is rumor and gossip to guess which (supposedly elderly) person might has “ratted” (a dat în primire). 


While not identical in intensity to the context of loudspeaker-mediated religious and ethnic contests in Nigeria that anthropologist Brian Larkin describes as “both oppositional and intensely conflictual, while being broadly accepted at the same time” (Larkin 2014: 998 and 1006), Dițești’s sonic atmospheres can also be described as disputed. The habits of oblique listening – formed through attending family celebrations with live performances – in which the listener at least seems to be unaffected by loudness, reinforce the reluctance to take direct action against troublemakers or, worse, to turn to the police. These loudspeaker competitions cause disturbances that become the subject of numerous conversations. Sound provocations, inattentive listening, and conversational accusations and rumors thus make perceptible the social and generational divisions that run through and organize the life and geography of the village. If daily discussions focus so much on these new ways of using loudspeakers – shifting from acceptable background noise to a major source of annoyance – it is not just because of the loudspeaker volume; the inhabitants of Dițești know how to make use of a wide range of tactics that encompass both sonic masking and deliberate inattention when faced with powerful sounds. These forms of soundscape disputes and loudspeakers competitions push to the limit the “combination of radical individuality and egalitarian hypersensitivity” (Stewart 1997: 92) that is both specific to the Dițești community and shared with many Romani societies (see Larcher 2020). The sound of the loudspeakers thus draws an “affective geography” (Voegelin 2014) – judged by the Gadje as a vast brouhaha, or rubbish sound – whereas for the locals it is an integral part of shaping a territory where being interconnected is the community’s obsession.

Viorel (right) pauses with neighbors in front of a loudspeaker and an amplifier connected to a cassette player in the courtyard of his house, just off the road. He played the guitar. Photo, taken on 6 June 1992, from Maria’s family album, scanned and reproduced with her kind permission. (Photographer unknown.)

December 2023: Gelu’s house, home to several generations, including his son Bogdanică, who has become, with his seven loudspeakers playing from the balcony, a key figure of the new “sound provocations” (Pecqueux 2012) in Dițești.