"Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves???” - The Real Music of the Roma
A simple whisper of their name sets imaginations on fire, visions of women in bright colored outfits with scarves twirling as they dance, images of vagabonds traveling from one quaint European village to the next in their old wooden wagons. Everyone has their own idea of what a gypsy is or looks like, whether it’s Disney’s Esmeralda from the Hunchback of Notre Dame or Cher on stage singing “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”. For centuries the Gypsies, or more accurately, the Roma, have been shrouded in mystery and romance, on the outskirts of society, never accepted, and with no place to call home. This mystery and misunderstanding has led to much persecution and mistreatment of the Roma over the many decades from the racial cleansing ordered by Adolph Hitler during the Second World War to the more resent issues with the French government and President Sarkozy in 2010. The trials the Roma have gone through have played a major part in shaping the musical culture of this group as it is an outlet for them to express themselves.
The story of the Roma begins in India in the 11th century. It was then that they were first forced to pack up and leave but most certainly not the last. From India the original Roma people traveled west, first to Egypt (where the term Gypsy first was used), and then on to Armenia, then into the Balkans and Greece. As they traveled their music came with them and blended and fused with all of the music that it came in contact with over the hundreds of years that it took the Roma to get to Turkey, Romania and the rest of Europe. The Romani music also left an impression on the music of the cultures it came in contact with as well, such as in the case of Franz Liszt a Romantic Era French composer. Liszt was greatly inspired by the Roma and looked to their music when composing his own. He felt that Romani music was raw and that “it is impossible to imagine a more complete fusion with nature than that of the Gypsy.” Romani music has not only been effected by travels but also by trials, most notably by the persecution it was forced to endure in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s as Hitler’s regime committed mass genocide with not only the commonly known and well documented Jewish people but with the Roma as well. DJELEM DJELEM, written by Zarko Jovanovic in 1969 and adopted as the official Romani anthem in 1971 hints at the nightmare of the Holocaust in it’s lyrics “Vi-man sas u bari familiya Tai mudardya la e kali legiya. (I too once had a large family, but the black legion murdered them)”. Even now, as recently as last summer, Roma people have faced more discouraging circumstances and upheaval in France and out of that has come music. A group by the name VAMA has a song titled “Sarkozy vs. The Gypsies” that infuses traditional Romani music with the mainstream European Pop of their generation.
As communication technology advances and spreads across the globe it has become mode and more difficult to find art that is solely from one culture or society, we have all began to glean inspiration, tools and ideas from the people that we come in contact with and our music and art evolves and morphs into something new and unique with hints of the places we have been and the things we have seen. The Roma experienced this with their music and culture long before any other tribe of people on account of the traveling they have done over the centuries. As slaves in Egypt music and dance evolved both because there were new influences and as a way to express the new general emotions and feelings of the people as a whole as the suffered as slaves.
As the Romani spent the next few hundred years leaving Egypt and making their way into Europe by way of Turkey and Romania and in time the rest of Europe their music continued to grow and change, molding it’s self into a new expression of those people at that moment in time while still honoring those who had come before. As the Roma were changed by others it was a two way street and they in turn inspired others. Franz Liszt, as most European composers of the 17 and 18 hundreds began as a young child and was recognized as a prodigy by the tender age of six. He was the inventor of the piano recital and was the first to play entirely from memory. He also was heavily inspired by the Roma and used their free form style of music as a muse to help him break away of the rigid structure he had previously known.
By the 20th century travels were no longer the primary force on the Roma culture and in turn, Romani music, by then it was the trials and persecution, or more intimately known as Adolph Hitler. “Like the Jews, the Rom Gypsies were chosen for total annihilation just because of their race. Even though Jews are defined by religion, Hitler saw the Jewish people as a race that he believed needed to be completely annihilated. The Rom Gypsies also were a nomadic people that were persecuted throughout history. Both groups were denied certain privileges in many European countries. The Nazis believed that both the Jews and Gypsies were racially inferior and degenerate and therefore worthless. Like the Jews, the Gypsies were also moved into special areas set up by the Nazis. Half a million Gypsies, almost the entire Eastern European Gypsy population, was wiped out during the Holocaust.” It was during this horrendous time in the history of the Roma and the world that they turned to music once again to express the pain of the hatred and racism that was destroying their lives and killing them and their families. On well know song in the Roma community to come out of the memory of this time is DJELEM DJELEM, written by Zarko Jovanovic in 1969. “Vi-man sas u bari familiya Tai mudardya la e kali legiya. (I too once had a large family, but the black legion murdered them)” . Most of the Roma in Europe were brutally hunted and slaughtered and this song is one of lament and a way for the survivors to honor the dead in the best way they know how, music. As time has past DJELEM DJELEM has now become the cultural anthem for these people.
“Sarkozy vs. The Gypsies” is a fairly new song by VAMA where they chant and sing of their anger and question. “Hey, Hey, Sarkozy, why do you hate the Gypsies?” I’m sure that this is a question that has been asked by many Roma and Gypsies, of many of people over many decades, yet it doesn’t seem that it is a question that has been answered. It is French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s belief that the Roma who are living in France are a hindrance to the economy of the nation and it seems he is buying into the stereotype that all they do is sit around and do nothing all day on cause problems. Because many, not all, but many of these people are still nomadic, or as nomadic as you can be in a developed nation, they are viewed as different and unfortunately much of the time different is misunderstood as dangerous.
To readily accept anything outside of mainstream seems to be a difficult and scary thing for humans as an entirety to do so hopes of the Roma to be embraced as they are, are probably unattainable for a while. So, for now, we still can hold on to that hope and have the assurance of many more musical evolutions to come.
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Sarkozy versus Gypsy. Perf. VAMA Feat. Ralflo. 2010. YouTube.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame . Dir. Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. Prod. Don Hahn. Perf. Tom Hulce and Demi Moore. Disney, 1996. Videocassette.
Quote. by Franz Liszt.