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Michal Shapiro explores the music of the Roma

A groundswell of attention for Gypsy music has built slowly over the last few years. Ethnomusicologists have always been fascinated by Roma, but the public has only recently caught the fever. Although we have subliminal markers in our culture ("gypsy cab," "gypsy moth," "Gypsy Rose Lee" and the ubiquitous "gypped") the Gypsy as a real and breathing person is only now emerging.

cd cover
from the film Latcho Drom
The Gipsy Kings have topped the charts for years, but it wasn�t until Tony Gatliff�s film Latcho Drom (The Good Road) was released that this remarkable surge of interest really developed. His travelogue of stunning visuals and arresting music developed a significant cult following, proving that there was a real demand; one that labels quickly responded to fill. There are now more well-recorded CDs and CD compilations available to the public than ever before. Network Median has released two compilations which are good surveys of what�s out there and who is performing: Road of the Gypsies (Network 24.756) and Gypsy Queens (Network32.843). There is another compilation on Alula Records, The Gypsy Road, and the soundtrack to Latcho Drom (72438 392492 9) was also released as a CD by Virgin France. All are selling briskly. As if to bolster the public consciousness of the Gypsy contribution, CDs of the jazz great Django Reinhardt have been re-issued.

courtesy Sounds True


The 1999 Gypsy Caravan tour sponsored by The World Music Institute was composed of those ensembles who have been in the forefront of concertizing in Europe: Musafir, representing the "proto-Gypsies," Taraf de Haidouks, the Romanian multi-generational review, Kali Jag, the pioneers of Rom musical identity in Hungary, Antonio el Pipa�s Flamenco Company, The Kolpakov Trio, masters of the Russian seven string guitar, and Yuri Yunakov, formerly of the Ivo Papasov band, representing the cutting edge of Bulgarian/Rom electrified wedding music.


Tsiganes, Zigeuners, Gitanos, Bohemians, Egyptians, Gypsies; Roma: A Case Of Mistaken Identity... Or, Who Are They, Anyway?

On a recent nationwide broadcast of a popular television show (best left unnamed), the intrepid hero was shot down from his purloined MIG, and was forced to parachute into a bucolic sector of Mother Russia. He was in luck for who should be passing by, but two Gypsies, a brother and sister, in a covered horse-drawn wagon. The brother had an unruly temper. The sister was sultry, with large earrings, a shirt that barely covered her shoulders and breasts, and she sat with her skirt hitched up above her knees, her legs provocatively wide apart; a wild and sensuous creature. Throughout the show, she had psychic visions, which proved to be accurate by the time the final credits rolled.

This was prime time television!

It is a wonder that Roma did not converge on the network�s corporate headquarters demanding retractions and reparations, but that has never been their way. Historically, Roma have not shown much inclination to explain themselves to the gadjé, (their term for non-Roma) preferring to obscure the truth as a survival mechanism, and manipulating the mysteries that this strategy creates. This has worked to their advantage at times, and to their extreme disadvantage at others. In Europe in the Middle Ages, many Roma women did make a living by fortune telling, as their exoticism and mystery made this trade credible; but eventually the gadjé came to believe Roma were in league with the devil, and forbade them to settle anywhere, creating yet another stereotype; Roma as happy freewheeling wanderers held down by nothing and free of moral codes. In reality, it turned what probably started as a travelling trading existence into a kind of forced march.

The stereotype of the sexually loose, larcenous, and free Gypsy has endured, probably because as Jorge Luis Borges might say, like the unicorn, we need it. We still need to imagine people and lives that are not as confined and predictable as our own...frequently even as we denegrate them for being different.

The Roma are people, no more, no less. Let us admire their achievements and appreciate their sufferings, but let�s keep it real.

Galician Gypsy girls-UK
Children with Fiddles
Barnet, Herts, UK, September 1921
courtesy of University of Liverpool
We know from the study of linguistics that Gypsies (Roma) were originally from North Central India. Their migration is approximated as starting around 300 BC, when they moved to North Western India, and from there to Persia, which they reached "some time before 100 AD*" and from there on to Europe. The designation "Gypsy" emerged in the 1400�s when these dark-skinned strangers were thought to come from Egypt.

The reasons for the original migration are conjecture. Their persecutions, on the other hand, are a matter of record. For five hundred years they were slaves in Wallachia and Moldavia (which are now part of Romania) and were liberated only as recently as 1856. Even though their treatment in Eastern Europe was abominable, during that same time period in Western Europe, the flogging, branding, and in some cases hanging of Roma was encouraged. Possibly as many as a million were murdered in the holocaust. Today they live with continued harassment and marginalization in Eastern and Western Europe.
courtesy of Kuker, Bulgaria


For hundreds of years, Roma have lived by traditions that keep them separate from the gadjé, and practiced rituals and obeyed laws that keep the loyal in, and the "unclean" out. This notion of clean and unclean manifests itself in complex washing rituals for laundering, housecleaning, and bathing. And contrary to the myth that Gypsy women are "loose," there are very strict rules regarding modesty and chastity. Today, traditional Roma continue to hold their own courts, where disputes of all kinds are settled, and the ultimate punishment within these courts is to be branded marimé, or unclean, and expulsed from the community.

Over the centuries the Roma have managed to survive on their wits and their skills; horse trading, metal working, fortune telling, begging, and of course music are some of the traditional livelihoods of the various groups. They have adapted their skills according to the times, and those groups that were once horse-traders are likely to be car salesmen now.

Today, hardly any Roma are nomadic, and in the United States there is a sophisticated network of territories, and a good percentage of middle-class Roma. The situation in Europe however, remains grim, with most Roma living well below the poverty line, particularly in Eastern Europe where the traumatized economies are breeding grounds for old prejudices. In Macedonia, which once housed one of the more harmonious Rom communities (in Skopje), the influx of refugees from the 1999 NATO extravaganza has resurrected anti-Gypsy sentiment.

It is of course unwise to try to make blanket statements about a people whose diaspora is so widespread, and there are exceptions to every rule; we are talking about people, not modules. Some gypsies do not even answer to the name "Rom." For example, in Spain they are "Caló", in Germany and France they are "Sinto," and in Israel and Egypt they are "Nawar." Today�s globalization will inevitably have an impact on the Roma of the world, whether it be an increasing national pride and political activism or greater assimilation into the gadjé population.

* Mihaela E. Giurca , Linguistics Department University of Pittsburgh, from "The Romani linguistic minority in Romania: language maintenance and shift." (There are now many resources to learn about the history of Roma, and many viewpoints abound. A balanced view is more likely through reading a combination of works, rather than just one.)


So What Is Gypsy Music?

Hungarian Gypsy Music.....Turkish Gypsy Music..... Flamenco... Gypsy Jazz...Because the Roma have lived and played in such diverse lands, a bewilderingly wide assortment of music can all be lumped into the generic category of "Gypsy Music." For the new listener, a bit of explanation will make the searching and buying process clearer.

Roma are perhaps best known for their musical contributions. There are numerous historical references to Rom musicians holding royalty in thrall with their virtuousic renditions of local music, and among the common people of Eastern Europe the Gypsy has been the player of choice for most traditional celebrations. When the Hungarian ensemble Muzsikás went to study the roots music of Hungary back in the 1960�s, they went to Transylvania where the Roma were still playing it much the way Bartòk heard it in his famous field trips at the turn of the century. Later, when they researched Jewish music in their landmark CD The Lost Jewish Music of Transylvania (HNCD 1373) it was Roma who helped them to piece together the fragments of this nearly obliterated tradition. In these instances, the Roma have acted as repositories of endangered music. But is this music "Gypsy Music?" Is it enough simply for a Gypsy to play it, to claim that distinction?

Some experts hold the position that true Rom music must be that which the Roma play for themselves, sung in Romanes (The Rom language). But there are also those who say that there is no such thing as pure Rom music, because it has all been some kind of adaptation to a host culture...and yet other experts say that on the contrary, there is a distinctive musical style which can always be associated with a Rom player. Let�s take a look at all three of these controversial positions. Each has validity, but each has its limitations in attempting to create a usable definition.

1. The only real Rom music is the music that the Roma play for themselves, sung in Romanes. This would seem to be an easily held position. However, the varieties of music that come under this heading can be quite different from eachother. The recordings by the Romanian Ursari of Clejani that appear on Dumbala Dumba (Cramworld) certainly fits the definition of music "made by Roma for Roma, in Romanes." It is highly rhythmic, improvised a capella music accompanied by hand percussion. But compare this track to the Roma�s pentecostal choirs, or the pop music cassettes sold by Festival Records (mail order 213-737-3500) a label which caters to a Rom demographic, and there is no particular resemblance. While the Ursari track has raw folk power, the pop music is .....pop music. But if one goes by the above definition, it is all genuine Rom music. It is up to the individual listener to decide if it pleases their own personal taste.

Other shortcomings of this definition: Roma of Spain and parts of France call themselves Caló, and do not in the main, speak Romanes. And there is a vast repertoire of non-Rom music that the Roma play for themselves. Are we to discard all this music for the sake of this definition?

Yuri Yunakov
courtesy Traditional Crossroads


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Taraf de Haidouks
photo: C.Funald
2. There is no such thing as pure Rom music, it is all an adaptation of a host culture�s music. This view sees the Roma as musical bees, crosspollinating various forms across borders. As the Roma went from locality to locality, they learned the music of the people around them, in order to make a living. Thus the music that they absorbed in one country would then be blended with the music of the next country they occupied, giving it a unique and new feeling. There is no reason to disbelieve this, and the fact that music tends to cross borders anyway, regardless of the vehicle, re-enforces this idea. (There is even some evidence to suggest that the Roma who were deported from Portugal to Brazil played a part in the development of Samba!) In recent times, this kind of musical grafting is obvious in Bulgarian Wedding music. The music of Ivo Papasov, Yuri Yunakov, (and in Macedonia, Ferus Mustafov Globestyle CDORBD 089 ) is a wild blending of Turkish, Rom, Rock, Jazz and local elements. On a more acoustic, rootsy level, the Taraf de Haidouks (Cramworld) combine elements from the same sources with traditional Romanian forms. And in Serbia, Boban Markovic�s brass band has a saxophone in the lineup (Ellipsis Arts CD3570 or 3574), a typical Rom innovation.

Everywhere the Roma have played music, they have incorporated the local repertoire into their own. So if we listen to the "Gypsy music" of Hungary and compare it to the "Gypsy music" of Spain, one will seem to be Hungarian sounding, while the other will sound Spanish. But would they sound "more" Hungarian or "more" Spanish if played by non-Roma? This question leads us to:

3. There is a distinctive musical style which can always be associated with a Rom player. Here is a tantalizing statement, that invites us to listen to the breadth of Rom music and try to find common stylistic elements. For example, Roma have been credited with bringing the clarinet into the music of Greece, and there are many great players both Gypsy and non-Gypsy. It is possible, however, to tell the two apart. One has to listen for the exceptionally chromatic and fluid approach of the Rom player in the solos. A microtonal effect is achieved with the use of a very soft reed, and the phrasing is markedly free. There is a similar chromatic approach in the playing of Romanian Roma. This melismatic and free style could be a reference to the heritage of middle eastern or Indian music, with its microtones and lengthy improvisations, (improvisation plays an important role in Gypsy music) but there is no way to prove this. Other striking aspects of Rom music have to do with phrasing and vocal timbre. Roma tend to play behind the beat, creating a swinging "fat" feel, and to use chest voice rather than head tones. These elements certainly exist in other cultures, so again, there is no way to confidantly designate these as solely Gypsy attributes. One could just as easily describe these last two elements as "bluesey." And of course, we must mention the emotive aspect of "Gypsy music." Not all people respond to the abstract elements of music. They must have it "acted out" and to this end, the Roma have always obliged with plenty of drama and flash. It�s a living, after all.

After examining all three of these positions one may conclude that there is no conclusion. Perhaps there isn�t. It is always dangerous to try to formulate or categorize art. But the issues that these various viewpoints ask us to consider are fascinating, and serve to enrich our listening experience.


Artists and Music of Note

Perhaps the most important and influential of all Roma musicians in this century was Django Reinhardt, a Sinto. (In France these are also known as "Manouche.") It is not an exaggeration to say that Reinhardt transformed the guitar�s role in jazz. His collaborations with violinist Stephane Grapelli in the Hot Club of France produced some of the most elegant and enduring jazz of the time, and created an entire genre of music which is still played by the Roma of France, "Gypsy Jazz." Although we have no way of knowing what elements of Sinti music Reinhardt incorporated into his special style of jazz, its influence is acknowledged. It is possible that some of the harmonic concepts which were new and startling in his day were borrowings from his Sinti heritage. Django passed away in 1953, and there are still festivals and competitions held currently amongst Roma, in which guitarists of every age exhibit the same steel wristed swing and awesome velocity that were Reinhardt�s trademark. Indeed, any Rom music from France is likely to be "Gypsy Jazz." On the world stage, the best known player is Birelli Lagrene.

Flamenco music is probably Europe�s most famous folk music, and though many Spaniards may tell you that flamenco is NOT solely a Gypsy invention, their contribution is so formidable, that they have become synonymous with it. The Caló (or Gitanos) have produced some of the finest flamenco artists, notably Camaròn de la Isla. But there are many others, and if you have a jones for flamenco, there is a world of good stuff for you to explore. A taste for the classic masters can be whetted on Early Cante Flamenco (Arhoolie CD326), and for the feeling of a live "juerga" (jam session) check out Cante Gitano, on Nimbus Records. Of course, Spanish lables have a plethora of authentic flamenco in their catalogues. Here in the US, a very good overview of flamenco is provided in Angel Romero�s thoughtful compilation Duende on the Ellipsis Arts label.

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Gipsy Kings

The popularity of the Gipsy Kings gives them the distinction of being the most famous Roma in the world today. The band is made up of the sons and nephews of Jose Reyes, the great singer who collaborated for many years with Manitas de Plata. They have taken the impassioned vocals and driving guitars of flamenco, thrown in a healthy dash of rumba, and created a highly accessable and sellable product in the pop flamenco tradition. Ketama is another band that has pioneered the pop nuevo flamenco sound. Recently a band from Perpignan, Tekameli has been gaining popularity, and their CD on Sony Globetrotter is well worth checking out. The CD contains commercial recordings of music from the Evangelical church which has swept a multitude of Roma converts into its fold. In addition the guest shot by Khaled on one of the tracks is a chance to compare the Flamenco singing style with a north African style. For those who are particularly fascinated with the North African/Flamenco connection, Encuentros with Juan Pena Lebrijano on Globe Style Records is a chance to hear these interelationships at full tilt.

Although female children are encouraged to sing and dance, once they are of marrying age most Rom women are expected to be mothers and wives exclusively. A few have managed to carve out careers for themselves. Of these, the great diva of Gypsy music and the one who has gained the most widespread fame is the Macedonian Esma Redzepova. Her career started in the sixties, and she almost immediately became the darling of Europe through the efforts of her husband, Stevo Teodoievski, also from Macedonian, but of course, also because of her sweet, throaty voice and dramatic presentation. Esma continues to perform today and although her voice now has the rasp of age and use, she can still muster up plenty of power. Her delivery is hyperbolic, but at this point in time she is an institution. You can find her older recordings on Monitor records, which was recently bought out by Smithsonian. For more recent work, check out the fine compilation on Network Median, Gypsy Queens which also includes the singing of many other first-rate divas, including Dzansever in a rare appearence for a non-Turkish label.
Kalman Balogh
courtesy Rounder Records


The stereotypical musical image of the Gypsy is the Hungarian cafe violinist. The golden age of the Gypsy Orchestras of Budapest is long past, but it is important to note that never at any time did these ensembles play anything but Hungarian music. That is not to say that this music isn�t pleasant, good listening. The orchestras usually had a full compliment of violins and a cymbalom (another instrument that some have claimed the Roma disseminated), creating a beautiful lush sound. The repertoire drew from Hungarian folk and popular music, and was enjoyed by Rom and Gadjé alike. Some of these kinds of folk songs can be heard on Rom cymbalist Kálmán Balogh�s CD on Rounder.

The music that Hungarian Roma played while busking on the street, or in the country is quite different, entirely a capella, with the exception of hand clapping and milk-can percussion. A significant feature of the music in the rural areas is "oral-basing" in which the male voices sing highly rhythmic and syncopated bass lines. Hungaroton has re-issued a two CD set of field recordings, Gypsy Folksongs from Hungary which are the real deal.

Romanian Gypsies still play in tarafs (a word of Turkish origin meaning "bands") and the gypsies who make a living from music are known as lautari. (from the Romanian for "lute.") Right now though there are many excellent Gypsy tarafs in Romania, the most well known is the Taraf de Haidouks (Cramworld). The old state label Electrecorde also has an archive of great Gypsy music, and though they are at present a mail order business outside of Romania, one hopes that they will get international distribution soon. Meanwhile, even though a taraf can be either Rom or non-Rom, most CDs these days with the word "taraf" on it, are probably of Gypsy bands.
Fanfare Ciocarlia
courtesy Piranha Records, Germany


One of the most striking musical sounds one encounters in the areas of the former Yugoslavia is the brass band. The brass instruments were brought into the area during the Ottoman occupation, by the Janissaries, or military bands. After World War One, an entire repertoire sprang up to be played at celebrations. It is joyous and raucous stuff, though some bands have a smoother sound than others. The repertoire is mostly dance music, particularly the kolo, a circle dance of extraordary popularity. Bands nowadays can be both Rom or non-Rom, and often compete side by side in the annual brass band festival in Guca. Recordings of these bands exist, but very few are available outside the former Yugoslavia. However, Globestyle has a very fine recording of Jova Stojilkovic�s band (CDORBD 038) and the Macedonian brass band Kocani has several energetic recordings out (Cramworld), and the sound is quite similar. The brass band sound has also found its way into Romania (also considered a Balkan nation, although not a Slavic one) and Fanfare Ciocarlia on Piranha Records has become a real touring favorite in Europe.

For a more sinuous and hypnotically gorgeous Balkan music, check out Laver Bariu, Songs from the City of Roses which contains instrumental and vocal magic from Albania.

Yuri Yunakov
Bulgaria�s hottest Rom export is "Wedding Music." It is a distinctive super eclectic hybrid that arose as a populist response to State musical control. Try playing this stuff for a jazz musician and watch the fun when they try to figure out where "one" is! The music goes by at a dizzying pace, racing through irregular meters, and the playing is invariably fleet-fingered. The best known player here in the West is Ivo Papasov, whose recordings on Hannibal led to tours worldwide as well as appearances on network television. Recently, his saxophonist, Yuri Yunakov has moved to the US and has two CDs out on Traditional Crossroads. The most distinctive Rom contribution to the dance repertoire of the Balkans is the cocek, so if you see this dance named on the tracks of a CD you are in doubt about, it�s worth the gamble.

The highest concentration of Roma in Greece is in Epirus. However, finding Greek Rom music is a touchy business. The status of the Gypsies is so low that even though there are well known Rom players in Greece, (and the US) it is very rare to find one that will officially admit being one. (Roma are often referred to as "blacks" all over Europe, calling to mind many interesting parallels between the history of the Roma in Europe and the Africans in America.) Recordings are available, but don�t expect the liner notes to state that the player is a Gypsy. This prejudice runs extremely deep, so even if you ask the proprietor in a Greek music store, you may not get a straight answer. The clarinettist Yiorgos Mangas has several releases out, and seems to be one of the only Rom musicians willing to declare himself.
Barbaros Erkose
courtesy Golden Horn


This stigma seems to lessen in Turkey, and you should have no trouble identifying recordings of Roma, particularly cifteteli, or belly dance music, should you have a savvy world music buyer in your local import store. If you are going to a large chain store, bands like Istanbul Oriental Ensemble or the Erkose brothers are Roma, and their CDs are widely available. The German import The Incredible Istanbul Gipsy Band, is another impressive entry from Feuer und Eis, Germany.

Recently there has been a lot of interest in "proto-gypsies" with several fascinating releases of music from Rajasthan in India and the Sind in Pakistan. This is the music of peoples who have many of the same traits as the Roma, but to which there is no conclusive connection. It is just an educated guess that the music they play is related to what the Roma in pre-diaspora times might have played. In that genre, Musafir, the ensemble that thrilled the audiences at the Gypsy Caravan concerts, has just released a CD on Sounds True Records. For a less calculated sound, try The Baluchi Ensemble of Karachi on Shanachie Records, or Sufi music of the Sindh on Wergo.

Other Sources:

Tangentially, Unblocked (CD3570) a compilation of Eastern European music on the Ellipsis Arts label has six tracks of Rom music, several not available anywhere outside of their homeland, including a track of possibly the greatest cymbalist ever, Toni Iordache, a man who never played a note he didn�t mean.
Rromano Centar
courtesy of Opre, Switzerland


Opre Records, in Switzerland, is a label that is entirely dedicated to Rom music. Their stated goal is to "preserve the authenticity and diversity of Roma music, as well as to further its development." Opre�s two current releases, one of Russian Rom music (The Kolpakov Trio) and Tamburitza music from Vojvodina, the farmland that stretches between Hungary and the former Yugoslavia (Rromano Centar, Pera Petrovic) are available internationally.

Zingari, is a compilation of European Rom music on New Earth Records, made up of the recordings of Deben Battacharya, a pioneer of fieldwork since the 50's. While they may not have the fidelity we are used to these days, the music is as real as it gets.


  • Latcho Drom
  • "The Time of the Gypsies" with music arranged by Goran Brecovic contains some very striking tracks, in particular "Ederlezi" which along with "Djelem Djelem" has become an anthem of sorts for Roma.
  • "Gypsy Summer: Tales of Surviving"
    Soundtrack, featuring Karandila Brass Orchestra
    Well worth checking out, with a good sampling of styles both instrumental and vocal.
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