The folk-punk band behind Moldova's Eurovision entry may have bitten off more than it can choo-choo.
Zdob si Zdub's (ZsZ) song about a train route across Moldova's shared border with Romania is the third time it's represented its impoverished post-Soviet homeland in Europe's gaudiest musical event.
But the band is already facing a backlash after it appeared to hit the brakes on some of the lyrics highlighting Moldova and Romania's shared history and culture.
Based on our experience, if we want to participate in Eurovision, we adapt the songs."-- ZsZ producer Igor Danga
A possible union between Moldova and its bigger, EU-member neighbor has been a topic of persistent and often fiery debate since Moldova gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
It is animated in part by whether to call their common language "Moldovan" or "Romanian," as Moldova's Constitutional Court ruled nearly a decade ago.
Moreover, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) that has organized the Eurovision Song Contest for decades expressly demands that songs remain "nonpolitical," and as recently as last year kicked countries out for crossing that line.
State broadcaster TRM on January 29 chose The Train, ZsZ's whimsical collaboration with folk band Fratii Advahov, to represent Moldova after a planned national competition was scrapped due to the worsening COVID-19 crisis.
Ties That Bind
The song is a celebration of a Chisinau-to-Bucharest rail route known as "Prietenia," or Friendship.
But alert fans noticed that in the Eurovision selection process, references to an "old country [and] new country" that "separately, together" is "like two -- it's one" in the original version had been replaced with blander lyrics about a train that "doesn't look big anymore/because it has no borders."
let's be honest, it didn't win through the genius of the melody line, the monumental production, and the unparalleled virtuosity, but through the message, interpretive mood, and story."The changes sparked accusations of censorship, a touchy topic given most Moldovans' experiences under Soviet rule.
Let's be honest, it didn't win through the genius of the melody line, the monumental production, and the unparalleled virtuosity, but through the message, interpretive mood, and story."-- Journalist and former lawmaker Angela Arama
"When you have such a subtle text, which is replaced by one that doesn't create so much empathy and shifts the emphases, it's natural for people to start discussing and assuming all sorts of things," journalist Victoria Cusnir, one of five expert judges in the selection process, told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service. "But what really matters is what actually happened."
ZsZ is led by founding members Roman Iagupov and Mihai Gincu.
Speaking this week to RFE/RL, the song's authors rejected speculation that there was "censorship" or any other outside pressure on the band to amend the lyrics ahead of the Eurovision bid.
Poet and lyricist Vsevolod Ciornei said he had been asked by Iagupov to give him multiple variations on the lyrics, seemingly in part to respect organizers' desire for "nonpolitical" songs.
"There was no ill will on the part of Roman Iagupov," Ciornei told RFE/RL. "It was a kind of caution, perhaps somewhat exaggerated, in the face of the rigors imposed by Eurovision regulations. He told me that there are rules...that forbid political allusions and, just in case, to give him more neutral options."
Iagupov has some Eurovision experience to guide him.
ZsZ led Moldova to its first ever Eurovision final in 2005, finishing sixth with the high-energy tune Grandma Beats The Drum, which featured kindly looking, gray-haired women waving flags from all over the world.
ZsZ returned in 2011 to finish 12th in the finals with a rollicking, circus-like performance of a song called So Lucky.
But listeners expressed disappointment at the substitution in The Train in January.
"With a text like this, patchy, the song will lose all its charm," journalist and former lawmaker Angela Arama said of the change, "because, let's be honest, it didn't win through the genius of the melody line, the monumental production, and the unparalleled virtuosity, but through the message, interpretive mood, and story."
On February 1, ZsZ producer Igor Danga told RFE/RL that the substitution had been an experiment.
"The act wasn't [originally] made for Eurovision," Danga said, adding that they only decided last month to enter The Train in the national contest.
He said that "based on our experience, if we want to participate in Eurovision, we adapt the songs."
"It was an improvisation by Roman -- he tried different lyrics, but that wasn't a final version," he added. "But we've seen from the reactions that people are for the original text, so it's clear that we'll use this text. Everything will be alright."
Overt politics is a so-called third rail of the Eurovision competition.
Belarus was disqualified by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) from last year's Eurovision after failing -- twice -- to avoid it. Within days of its selection by the Belarusian state broadcaster for Alyaksandr Lukashenka's embattled regime, the EBU said Ya Nauchu Tebya (I'll Teach You) "puts the nonpolitical nature of the contest in question."
Then, after an extension to submit a new entry, the EBU excluded Belarus from the competition because the innocuously named submission Pesnya Pro Zaytsa (Song About Hares) was "also in breach of the rules of the competition that ensure the Contest is not instrumentalized or brought into disrepute."
Belarus's embarrassment came six months into a brutal crackdown against anti-government protests that featured tens of thousands of arrests, attacks on independent and foreign media, and other abuses.
Historical South Caucasus foes Armenia and Azerbaijan have seen their participation affected on multiple occasions, with Yerevan suspected of including messages about the recognition of the Armenian genocide in 2015 and occupied Azerbaijani territory in 2016.
2016's eventual winner, Ukraine's Jamala, was allowed to compete despite accusations by Russia that references to the deportation of Crimean Tatars in her song, 1944, were a barely veiled reminder of Moscow's occupation of Crimea in 2014.
But Moldova's Eurovision hopeful this year might face obstacles other than politics.
William Lee Adams, presenter of the youth-news program BBC Minute and founder of the popular Eurovision blog Wiwibloggs, called The Train performance "very folk-wedding."
In a scathing YouTube reaction video posted on January 31, he called it "a mess."
"Let me tell you," Adams added, "It ain't going to the final."