CHISINAU, Moldova — They stumble through the forest, towards light and sound. A woman is passed out on a gravel path; others with their backs to trees. Smart phones illuminate faces. Silhouettes sway.
Frenzied breakbeats blast from the stage. It’s all of it bugged-out and dead of night glitch.
They’ve been at it for two days.
Two weeks earlier, a few friends sit in a dilapidated villa in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, packing weed into a pipe. They’re watching YouTube videos of famous raves and festivals in Western Europe.
No one here can remember the last time they went to an alternative music festival.
“Sometimes,” says 33-year-old Victor Scemanenco, a breakcore DJ and vocalist in a local deathcore band, “you just feel that nothing is happening in this city that can bring you some joy.”
Scemanenco and his friends, all of them proactive musicians, are tired of Chisinau’s depleted nightlife; of watching gifted friends migrate abroad, in search of opportunity. They’re sick of always having to scramble.
The only alternative spot in town — called Spalatorie — has recently shut its doors. Another live music venue, Albion, is permanently closed, despite the sign outside the venue advertising that: “2017 will be our year.”
That leaves a scattering of clubs and bistros, even a local hostel’s courtyard, where they hold improvised gigs.
“We have some underground hip-hop projects, good metal bands, a few punk and hardcore bands,” says Scemanenco. “And underground DJs; styles like breakcore, hardcore techno.”
So, he and his friends have decided to throw an alternative music festival. The guy whose family owns the villa, he is stumping up some €6,000 to finance it.
Over two days, people will have the chance to camp out and watch a range of bands, and get hammered in a forest on the edge of Chisinau’s Durlesti sector. That’s where this leafy city of half-a-million — a beautiful yet oft dispiriting Soviet sweep — gives way to expansive steppes.
“No one is doing something like this right now. It comes from the idea of bringing some diversity here,” he says, “and to promote local bands, to show that we have a lot of young talent here in Moldova.”
They’ve decided to call it, “In Da Wood”. It’s two weeks out. There’s much left to do.
Amid flora and fauna, the volunteers, all young adults, scrape their way through the forest, clutching pruning saws and clippers, clearing space for a campsite. They talk excitedly about assorted metal bands from abroad.
From a smartphone, a Spanish technical deathcore band called “Wormed” blares, to approving nods.
“This album is about this like demi-God travelling through a wormhole and saying what he sees,” says 18-year-old Constantin Vinnicenco, a lanky and affable kid with shoulder-length blond hair. “It is brutal shit.”
Opportunity is scant in isolated Moldova. Its annual per capita GDP of around $2,000 marks it as Europe’s poorest country. Around a third of the population lives abroad, with an estimated 100 people leaving the country each day — significant brain-drain.
“We want to help with the cultural development of our society,” says Vinnicenco. “We want to make Moldova a better place to live.”
Certainly, the festival gives these kids something to be proud of. Many of them say they volunteer whenever they can, trying to build their Resumes.
“Festivals mean meeting other people and cultures,” says another volunteer, Cristina Birladeanu (20). “And I think our population has to meet foreigners…to open up.”
With its trickle of foreign tourists, Moldova is among the least-visited countries in Europe.
The volunteers gather under a marquee, preparing a lunch of tomato, cucumber and BBQ chicken. Outsized bottles of beer are swooped upon. They still have to clear a space for the toilets, set-up lighting and some makeshift tables and figure out exactly where the stage is going to go.
Scemanenco, he looks at the trees stretched above.
“If we put sheets and strobe lights up there,” he says, “maybe it will look like lightning.”
One young volunteer she stumbles off and — as teens that drink too greedily are known for — projects a righteous stream of vomit into the woods.
The security guard at the National Library in downtown Chisinau doesn’t like youth loitering on his steps, with their beer bottles and cigarettes.
“It is our library too,” says 31-year-old Sergiu Rusu, before promising that only two or three people will sit there. In short time, an even dozen people have gathered.
Rusu, a former journalist, is doing press for the festival, now only a few days out.
They’re relying mostly on Facebook, partly because they don’t want to be associated with Moldova’s news media, which is highly politicized and much of it controlled by the powerful and ostensibly “pro-Western” oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc.
“We’re not a political movement and we don’t want to be somehow associated with some political organization,” says Rusu. “These bands, they have really strong social messages.”
It depends, says another media volunteer, Anastasia Costisanu, on whether they should “compromise” with such news organizations.
“If you want to be totally uncompromising, you just don’t go there at all,” she says. “If everyone just said no, they wouldn’t have content.”
Over two days, folk and indie bands will perform. There will be a heavy dose of grindcore, a popular nu-metal act, some progressive rock; several frantic DJs; and a talented young local rapper called Traian.
“Most of the time, I’m not thinking about making a song. I just enjoy writing wordplays and thoughts,” says Traian. “In general, it’s just about…the things I consider worth spitting; my rap is introspective.”
Life is bleak for Moldovan musicians. There is one small record shop, called Katana, but no large wholesale store for instruments — meaning musicians often have to purchase gear from abroad. That significantly eats into what little money people have.
Yet for many, performance music is a cathartic tool.
“You get all the brutal shit out of you,” says Stefan Barbara, the drummer in Abnormy N Defect, a local grindcore band. “Then it’s like: ok, I can be positive now.”
Moldova has, at various times, been an Ottoman vassal, a part of the Romanian Kingdom and a Soviet republic, creating multiple, complex layers of identity.
It is one of the unfortunate former Soviet countries torn between rival, expansionist political poles, with Russia and U.S. competing for influence here — and tearing society from two directions at once.
“People are polarized,” says Rusu. “And there is no third party saying that both are wrong.”
In many ways, healing social divisions is one of the festival’s goals.
“People in Moldova are building big walls around their houses…but we don’t want to build walls around us,” says Scemanenco. “We should bring people together.”
The young volunteer, he’s collapsed, having wrestled, cussing, with an earth auger the better part of 15 minutes, boring a hole into the soil for a makeshift bar.
The festival starts tomorrow.
A thumping sound system is here, so is the stage. There is an area for merchandise, a back-stage space for bands, and a “chill-out” zone with a set of turntables.
Artist and media passes have been printed, so have the admission strips to be wrapped around wrists. Hammocks stretch between towering trees, for rent. A food stall. Makeshift bars. Ice-cream vendors.
An entrepreneurial Durlesti resident has even pitched a champagne stand. Underground musicians from Romania and Ukraine — England and Germany — are en route.
Scemanenco says he hopes that about 1,000 people will come, flooding the woods. There is no entrance fee for foreigners.
“We want people from abroad to come here, to know that there is a place called Moldova.”
Dust kicks up from the mosh-pit. To rasping growls and distorted guitar riffs, bodies flail and heads bang.