Romanian pop star a 'Wonder Child'

MAMAIA, Romania (AP) --Adrian Simionescu, 4 feet, 7 inches tall, is a giant in the world of Romanian pop.

Now 27, he began singing when he was 9. And his sheer energy and drive has made him a household name -- Adrian the Wonder Child -- despite being a Gypsy, a big stigma in Romania.

Simionescu gets top billing at concerts along the popular Black Sea coast and at festivals in the Carpathian Mountains.

Fresh from a performance at an international music festival in Transylvania, Simionescu traveled 375 miles to the Black Sea recently for a gig at an open-air theater called the Albatross. He performed in a typically vivid get-up -- a blood-red American designer shirt, white pants and scarlet sneakers.

Four tunes into his set, the adoring crowd showered him with white gladioli, red roses -- and gratitude.

"He is a simple guy who didn't forget his roots," said 27-year-old Ionica Anghel, who paid the equivalent of $10 -- a tenth of the average monthly salary in Romania -- on a single red rose for the man called the king of Gypsy pop. "He expresses what we all feel in our hearts."

Zipping down the coastal highway at high speeds later in one of his seven cars, Simionescu and his driver, manager and confidant, Gicu Constantin, hummed melodies en route to his next concert, where he was greeted with yet another eruption of adoration.

"Who loves Gypsy pop?" he yelled.

A roar of approval rolled around the amphitheater, and Simionescu hit them with his most famous song "Oh, My Life," skipping around the stage and pumping his arms in the air.

"He sings beautifully," said 10-year-old fan Dumitru Gelu, swaying to the beat.

"I like the rhythm of Gypsy pop," said Ion Ciprian, a 32-year-old fan. "Some of the verses touch the heart."

But as popular as he's become, Adrian the Wonder Child is not adored by all.

Some resent the huge sums of money he commands in this impoverished country where the average monthly salary is $100. And the Culture Ministry, alarmed at Gypsy pop's rising popularity, last year proposed banning the music, fearing it threatened traditional folk music. Gypsies are an embattled minority, often suffering abuse, harassment and discrimination; still, the ministry, stung by accusations of censorship, backed off the proposal.

Born near the capital, Bucharest, Simionescu was raised by his mother after his parents split up when he was a toddler. Although he has a musical ear and can sing live for hours, he's never had any formal training.

Catapulted to national fame two years ago with his album "No Competition," the Wonder Child retained his childhood nickname because of his height -- a glandular problem stunted his growth.

Simionescu has sold millions of CDs and his songs are played in Turkey and Yugoslavia. He has sung at weddings, performed concerts in the United States, France and Germany.

Yet he is not invited to perform at Romania's two major pop festivals, and is not broadcast on national television. His melodies rarely are played on the radio, although many Romanians know his songs by heart.

Amid great secrecy, he is invited to sing at the weddings of government advisers, police and army generals, where he can earn up to $15,000 a night.

"Gypsy pop is like a secret lover. People like it but they don't admit it," Simionescu said between concerts, sipping cool bottled water to keep his vocal cords lubricated.

Gypsy pop, with its simple lyrics and complex melodies, has replaced folk music at many Romanian weddings. Other singers perform Simionescu's songs through the night at weddings which last until dawn.

Sometime partner Costi Ionita, 24, who also sings on the "No Competition" album, believes many Romanians love the music because it's unpretentious -- and because it's usually performed live and sung from the heart.

"We are not as lyrical as Shakespeare," he said, "but our songs are accessible for everyone."

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