4. 9. - 6. 9. 1998
Dedicated to Gipsy culture
That Romany Feeling
Sixty years ago musicologists combed the cotton plantations of the American South, looking for Black bluesmen. Many of these unknown and uneducated musicians subsequently took their place in music history as self-taught geniuses, whose legacy permanently changed rock and roll. Something similar has been happening in Eastern Europe during the past decade. In his latest film, Gadjo Dilo, the final work in a "Gypsy trilogy", the French-Romany filmmaker Tony Gatlif tells the story of a young Frenchman who travels across Romania in search of a mysterious Romany singer. Gatlif's cinematic fiction has its real-life counterpart in the musical expeditions of some Belgian enthusiasts who likewise went to Romania seeking unknown music - and finally "discovered" the group Taraf de Haidouks.
Like the blues before it, authentic Romany music represents a raw, immediate yet expressively highly rich pole of the musical spectrum. Yet its emotional persuasiveness also makes it a dream-come-true for any music magnate. If mass-produced pop needs a "recharge" from time to time, where better to look than to still unexhausted musical genres? Thanks to this fact, music hitherto considered bizarre or exotic is beginning to make its way to audiences all over the world.
One New York producer told me that when she first heard the astonishingly breakneck and completely "un-Western" improvisations of the Romanian fiddlers, she thought it was something like what American bluegrass would sound like on LSD. The shock she felt was similar to what listeners from Central Europe might experience on encountering a Romany brass band from Macedonia, serving up incredibly funky Balkan rhythms instead of the stereotypical "oom-pah-pah" sound.
Lautari and Tinkers
Lautari - from the word lauta, or lute - was the name given to the elite caste of musicians who, in centuries past, served the Greek and Turkish courts in what is now Romania and Moldavia. Most of them were Romanies. As the aristocracy died out, the lautari retired to the countryside, where they formed extensive clans of musicians whose members still go around playing at weddings, funerals and other celebrations to this day. In Hungary, Romany musicians were hired by the army to play during enlistment. Among the instruments typically used by them were the violin, cimbalom and bass. Of course, the music of these virtuoso artists belongs to an entirely different tradition from that of the nomadic Romanies, who used to make their living as tinkers or circus performers. They usually get by with just their voices, tambourines and maybe a guitar - yet the emotional charge of their music is no less potent for that.
Whereas the local musicians of many countries in the Balkans or Eastern Europe have long since abandoned their musical traditions, Romany bands in the countryside are keeping them alive today. "You don't learn this job, you steal it. A true lautar is one who goes straight home when he hears a tune, and replays it from memory," says Taraf de Haidouks' 77-year-old violinist Nicolae Neac_u. The Belgian producer Michael Winter, a Hungarian Jew by origin, explains: "During the Ceau_escu era the old songs were forbidden. Ballads about kings could be interpreted as criticism of the government, and Romanians stopped playing folk music. Leaving aside the academic folklore produced for communist state radio, only the Romanies were left to play folk music."
Winter made his first journey to Romania before the revolution, in the summer of 1989. His destination was the village of Clejani south of Bucharest, renowned as the home of a number of musical Romany families. "We needed to pick out the best violinist and accordionist, and we sought out veteran musicians who played in the old style and remembered those beautiful ballads. But we also needed young players with a lot of energy," says Winter. The fruit of his expedition, the ensemble Taraf de Haidouks, caused a sensation at the 1991 WOMAD Festival, which was put on by rock musician Peter Gabriel. The word taraf comes from Arabic and designates a group of musicians, while a haidouk is the heroic bandit of Romanian legend.
We can encounter groups of Romany musicians in the Balkans as well as in Spain and southern France, or even here in the Czech Republic. Yet it cannot be said that all Romany groups play in the same style - rather, their music draws on the local traditions of whatever country they live in. As Béla Bartók proclaimed in 1933: "It is not accurate to speak of Gypsy music, for this is actually Hungarian music played by Gypsies." Today it is quite clear that Romanies play the styles they have absorbed in their own way, adding that typical Romany "feeling". Jenö Zsigó, leader of the Hungarian group Ando Drom, adds: "We Romanies live our music - others just write about it."
The Romany brass bands of southern Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and Moldavia occupy a special place on the musical map of Eastern Europe. The only thing they have in common with similar formations in Central Europe is their instrumentation. While in this country brass band music has earned the reputation of a decayed art form, one which has renounced any attempt at rhythmic invention, the kind of music brass bands from southeastern Europe play has rightly been labeled "Balkan funk". The common source of inspiration for all these groups were the Turkish military bands, which changed their Oriental drums and zurna reeds for European instruments beginning in the 19th century.
One of the most successful Eastern Europeans in the music business is Goran Bregovi_, who led the famous Yugoslav group Bijelo Dugme in the Seventies, and later went on to work with director Emir Kusturica. When Bregovi_ made use of Serbian brass band music in Kusturica's film Underground, it did not go unnoticed. On the contrary, a great demand arose for these distinctive Balkan bands, and Bregovi_ was offered work as a producer by leading singers from Greece and Turkey. Songs from Underground like "Kalashnikov" have since become part of the popular repertoire of many Eastern European brass bands, whose battered trumpets and tubas, which might have come straight from a military arsenal, contrast with their temperamental playing style. One of the tightest of all these bands is Ko_ani Orkestar from the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, which is home to a very large Romany minority. Altogether 50,000 Romanies live in _utka, a suburb of the capital city Skopje, where they have their own newspaper as well as radio and TV programs. A music festival is held there each year on May 6th, the feast of St. George.
A Musical Smorgasbord
Of course, the comparison between Romany music and American blues I made at the outset is valid only in part. While popular blues represented the self-expression of an individual musician, Romany music from Eastern Europe has maintained its traditional role as wedding entertainment. "I have to admit that we play mainly for the money," says Costica, another violinist from Taraf de Haidouks. Yet this does not make their music any less impressive. In May 1998 Taraf de Haidouks performed with the Kronos Quartet in London's Royal Festival Hall, and then played at the official opening of the World Exposition in Lisbon a few days later. All this attests to the fact that Romany music is continuing to rise in value - something which, however, usually heralds artistic compromise. Yet the experience of the seven years that have followed the group's first album seems to indicate that these once-impoverished rural musicians and their Belgian wards are not about to be taken in by show business.
Worried that contemporary pop is stagnating, that popular entertainment has given in to commercialism, and that the riotous atmosphere of the Sixties has long since vanished from rock? Well, all such worries are needless. On the contrary, audiences today find themselves in a privileged position: within reach is a wide range of the most diverse, exciting and exotic styles, which have never crossed the borders of their native region before. This is an opportunity not to be missed, since even this still fresh and vital music will, in the end, be swallowed up by the all-devouring entertainment industry, which will shear away everything original about it and prepare it for mass consumption.
The author is a music commentator