Alex Simu

“”There is always someone better than you. If you don’t take this into consideration, you risk losing the opportunity to improve, because it is only that someone who is better who can help you improve, push you to see the next step, the next door you need to open.” “
Alex Simu is a young Romanian musician (clarinet and composer) with a lot of love for the country he left many years ago. You can feel that in all his compositions, interpreted by his quartet (together with a German, Greek and a Dutch-Turk). ARIFA is very successful and already a presence on the jazz stages in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Hungary, UK, China and, of course, Romania. In 2016 Alex Simu won the award for the best film music in the Netherlands. A Gouden Kalf– Golden Veal – for the music in „Beyond Sleep”, directed by Boudewijn Koole. And he had a good start in 2018: “Improvisie’ is the new CD recorded together with the Dutch pianist Folkert Oosting.

What brought you to the Netherlands?

The study of saxophone and of jazz music, in 2003. I wanted to study the saxophone and these two areas of music, jazz and classic. I came here through a one-year Erasmus exchange-program [n.b., an excellence program financed by the EU to stimulate the development of young talent], at the Music Academy in Groningen. The first year as an exchange student and then normal study. It was my wish to be able to study in a school that had information on both jazz and saxophone, but the choices were limited. The exchange programs were offered in about 10 countries in Europe, of which more than half didn’t have interesting enough jazz or saxophone programs. England and France had very good programs in English and they were my first choice, but they were far too expensive and the selection, done in Bucharest, was still based on friendships and influence. I was left with Finland and the Netherlands; Finland seemed much too gloomy for me and too far away. So, the Netherlands turned out to be the best choice. It was an exchange program with New York, teachers from New York, and the Groningen music academy was in the top five in the world.

The graduates here won all the possible awards in the jazz world. All those who graduated in the last ten years performing on all the world scenes and at the most important festivals in the world. I strive to do the same!


You have already won important prizes in the Netherlands. What does this mean for you?

Personally, I don’t take too much pride in these awards. Awards are a tool through which an artist or an individual, no matter the field of work, can get some professional recognition. I have a rather long list of awards, starting, at age six, at the Romanian National Music Festival [n.b., Cântarea României]. I was always stimulated to refine my skills and my musical abilities.

Every competition gathers highly talented people and you’re always going through a battle, sometimes you get some bruises… but the scars get healed and your skin gets thicker. There were many competitions where I didn’t win any prize, but I learned a lot from them. I’ve gained the most from the relationships and friendships I made on these occasions.

I still join competitions and the taste of victory is sweet… but, there’s a certain degree of subjectivity in art. After all, we are all good, everybody deserves to win and you get a bitter taste when you see that your friends, colleagues lose. The one who invests the best of energy deserves, probably, to win.


How do you explain it to people in Romania that it is not necessary to win in order to be a winner?

In the Netherlands, everything starts very early, from the education you get in your family. Children are stimulated to progress, they are given a degree of freedom that looks somewhat dangerous to Eastern European eyes, but this freedom helps develop own will. Parents try to challenge their children, to see that they do their best. I’ve learned this talking to my Dutch friends, of the same age. When I met them, they appeared as a threat to me, they had very well developed skills and abilities. I tried to understand where this gap came from. Well, learning about the things that really matter to you and that match your inner passion get stronger and more solid, they crystallize inside an individual. The education that comes afterward generates a beneficial environment for taking on challenges that lead to evolution, development, and creativity. This is the gap between the two music conservatories. In Bucharest, for every action I wished to initiate, the challenge was to get over bureaucracy and paperwork. In the Netherlands, you are first asked what you need to turn your idea into practice.

In Romania, with a few exceptions, competitions were also very much lacking. There is a need for clear criteria and rules, for a very transparent jury. The quality of the artistic act must be more important than the friendships between those who compete and the members of the jury. I have tried my best, over the years, to improve the quality of competitions in Romania, and to make recommendations on how to stimulate participants to join more competitions. I’ve also seen progress, but there is still a lot of work to be done. People are relatively reluctant to change. You need to create a critical mass before change happens.


How do you feel in the Dutch society?

The first word that comes to mind is excellent. This doesn’t mean I have a carefree life. The Netherlands is a society that you either love or leave because you can’t cope with it. This was my first impression. Later, I realized that many Dutch people also have issues coping with it and they leave, pretty often, although they do return to it later. So this helped me to find a balance that allows me to enjoy all the wonderful things that this country provides. Including the weather and the food. The rest of the challenges must be taken as such because they appear in every society in the world.

For me, as a Romanian, the first challenge will always stay forever: the weather! The lack of seasons, or the seasons that are difficult to separate, leads to a monotonous mood that I have to consciously fight against.

The society, in its structure, presented many challenges to me, especially in the beginning, because I had to change the way I functioned as a human being. I had to choose if I wished to adopt these new elements and organization types, inner values, aesthetic or moral, or keep those that I had and was raised with. I wasn’t a bad person, but I did have other principles and values.

For instance, giving your word or making a promise. It is very clear that, in the Dutch society, a verbal agreement implicitly leads to completing the agreed action, completing means actually done, all I’s dotted and all the t’s crossed and that’s it! There’s no doubt and you don’t need to persuade that person again in relation to the respective action.

Then, predictability. I had to make changes here as well. It is a very complex internal process. This capacity to conceptualize things upfront, long before they happen, I didn’t have it and I haven’t seen it either broadly used in Eastern Europe. This leads to the next factor: trust.

Trust in everything that happens around you, that things are meant to be where and how they are, we count on this. Of course, not 100%. But this is a very important element, because it encourages starting actions, with the knowledge they will be realized and finalized. In the Romanian society, if I started a project with someone, I could very easily give it up halfway. It wasn’t considered something awful or seen in a bad light by the others. Here, this means unprofessional behavior and leads to losing your credibility.

Fortunately, I have enjoyed a certain degree of tolerance from the Dutch society. At first, I was told that I had to adapt, later I was summoned to do so and I understood that it was about time I gave up a certain flexibility, that I needed to stick to my appointments, finish my actions.


What was the success to you before you left Romania and what does it mean now?

I looked at success very differently when I was still living in Romania. In general, I would say that every country defines success differently. To me, success was strictly connected to what I saw around me. I had a rather open education and intellectual parents who traveled the world and who tried to import as many universal values as possible. However, I was under the influence of what I saw around me. Success involved certain achievements, it was very flat: to play an instrument very well, to have the acknowledgment of your peers, and to win substantial amounts of money.

In the Netherlands, I’ve noticed many more ideas for success in life and career. At first, I was shocked. Most people value financial success very little. Spiritual success, emotional success, I started to see them in a new light. These are models of success that appear everywhere, but are, nevertheless, not that popular in many places. Slowly, slowly, my ideals started to shift. At first, my first success was to graduate the music academy, a short-term success. I’ve understood, through my interactions with teachers and with people who had their share of success in life, that success can be looked at and split into different levels: short, medium, for a lifetime. Then, your goals simply derive from this.

I’ve realized that the financial reward for anything we offer to society comes automatically when what we do has value and is triggered by an inner desire to do it.

In Romania, we still miss role-models to inspire the young generation about long-term success, and the explanation and the plan to motivate them for such an enterprise. These models are, unfortunately, very few, and there is a certain fear to import these models from other societies. Dutch people lack this fear. It is fascinating to see how Dutch import all success stories, all positive models and share them with people not to bring them down, but to trigger them, to challenge them, to offer them a strategy to achieve even bigger achievements.

The most dangerous factor is the lack of a long-term strategy. Most of the people I’ve worked with, well-known artists and teachers, confirmed the same to me: there is always someone better than you. If you don’t take this into consideration, you risk losing the opportunity to improve, because it is only that someone who is better who can help you improve, push you to see the next step, the next door you need to open. It is very self-indulgent to say, for a second, to yourself: ah, I’m really good! For a while, maybe, but when this feeling sets in and becomes a rule, we risk losing our chance to evolve.

What’s your relation to the Romanian community in the Netherlands?

Travelling across the world, I have also observed other Romanian communities. I can say, with pride, that in the Netherlands, this community is one of the best interconnected, best organized, with cultural and social activities. It is true that ours is a very small community, we are very few in comparison with the thousand hundreds of Romanians in other countries, but somehow we have found each other and we’re not afraid to get closer.

I believe this is a very important element that helps preserve the values that we took with us when leaving Romania, and also helps improve the transition process from one environment to another; we can regain the elements we were born and raised with, and that has for us not only sentimental but also a moral value. Together, we can become role-models or offer solutions to other communities, and even to our original community in Romania.


What’s your advice for those who would like to relocate to the Netherlands?

My advice may be too generic, but I think it is the most suitable I can offer to them: to have the courage to try, and to apply that courage to those actions that are relevant to them. The Netherlands is a country with plenty of benefits, but also downsides, like any other country. The inner dose of courage applied to our own desires can be fruitful.

Before anything, it is good to know exactly what courage is and how it can be applied to their own most ardent desires. Without courage, it is challenging to be successful in such a developed and fast-paced society, especially one set in motion by the inner courage of the people who inhabit this country. Dutch people are very brave.


Interview by Claudia Marcu and Alexandru Iosup

translation by Alina Mărginean, editing by Alexandru Iosup

Photo-portrait by Cristian Călin –

photos from the personal archive, edited by Alexandru Matei.