Long stereotyped as itinerant tricksters and thieves, the Gypsy, or Roma, people have for centuries been seeking tolerance and respect. Even their name is the result of a misunderstanding, the erroneous belief that they came from Egypt (it was, in fact, India). But while Gypsies’ struggle for civil rights continues, they’ve recently won some respect for their wildly energetic, heavily improvised, and deeply passionate music.
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Perhaps the most identifiable characteristic of much Gypsy music is its defiance of category. Because they’ve scattered around the globe and absorbed so many different cultural influences, Gypsy musicians play in a wide range of styles. Two relatively recent CD compilations–The Gypsy Road (Alula) and Gypsy Caravan (Putumayo)–provide an introduction to the breadth of the Gypsy diaspora.
Musicologists are now trying to determine which strains might be deemed authentically Gypsy and which are syntheses and appropriations. But while they untangle history, rest assured that Gypsies have enhanced virtually all of the music they’ve touched.
Many French Gypsies play jazz manouche, a form combining bagpipe-like musette melodies, swing jazz, and traditional Gypsy music. Spanish Gypsies are the most famous purveyors, if not inventors, of flamenco. The list of styles goes on and on, culminating most recently with some strange mutations. In Bucharest, Romania, Adrian the Wonder Boy plays a tepid light pop known as urban Gypsy music, while Los Angeles guitarist Danny Fender boasts a signature California style that blends Gypsy sounds with Ventures-style surf music.
A tour called the Gypsy Caravan recently visited more than a dozen U.S. cities with its own broad cross section of Gypsy talent. Maharaja, a heavily rhythmic dance-and-music troupe from Rajasthan, India, original homeland of the Gypsies, represents the music’s ancient roots. Its seldom-seen feminine face is embodied by the “Queen of the Gypsies,” the forceful-voiced diva Esma Redzepova. The 10-man brass band Fanfare Ciocârlia plays in a dazzling, but dying, Romanian style that originated in the Turkish military, while the Antonio El Pipa Flamenco Ensemble showcases Andalusian flamenco music, complete with dancers. (For information on the tour, see www.heartheworld.org/touring.)
Contrary to popular myth, few Gypsies are nomads anymore, and in fact some Eastern European villages are longtime Gypsy centers. A couple of recent albums showcase the professional bands whose marathon performances mark every stage of life in these communities. Band of Gypsies (Nonesuch) by Taraf de Haïdouks captures the often frenetic pace and skittering rhythms of this earthy music from Clejani, Romania, in a live concert recording. The Road to Kesan (Traditional Crossroads), by an ensemble fronted by clarinetist Selim Sesler, is a richly detailed aural tour of the Thrace region of western Turkey, with Sesler’s snaky clarinet lines leading the way.
Some of the most exciting and innovative Gypsy-based music is made by artists who inject Roma rhythms and forms with a jazz sensibility–a natural fusion for a music in which complex time signatures are common and improvisational wizardry is prized. No artist exemplifies this jazz connection better than the great guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-1953), who was born in a Gypsy caravan near Charleroi, Belgium. Django, as he is known to fans, fused the music of his people with American swing in Paris’ famous Hot Club de France, and forever changed the face of European jazz.
Today there are entire labels–Hot Club Records is one–devoted to Gypsy jazz, and the Gypsy Jazz Festival is held annually in England. Several clubs in Paris cater heavily to fans of the form, and one band, Hot Club de Norvege, has perpetuated the style from its unlikely base in Norway for more than two decades.
Two of the most arresting contemporary Gypsy jazz artists are horn players. Saxophonist Yuri Yunakov, a Bulgarian-turned-New Yorker who plays an eclectic style known as “wedding music,” which mixes elements of Turkish, Arabic, Indian, jazz, and rock music. His new album, Roma Variations (Traditional Crossroads), surges with vitality as he and fleet-fingered accordionist Ivan Milev trade tumbles of notes against a bristling backdrop of percussion, keyboards, and clarinet. Clarinetist Hüsnü Selendirici and his band, Laço Tayfa, play tunes based on Turkish Roma songs while blending Indian, North African, and Arabic sounds. Laço Tayfa’s latest recording, Çiftetelli (Traditional Crossroads), is a world music wonder, a highly varied set that blows away musical borders.
None of these artists have yet managed to gain the sort of wide popularity enjoyed by France’s Gipsy Kings, who have sold millions of records with their rumba-rock adaptations of flamenco tunes. Although their presence has faded a bit since the single “Bamboleo” went big in 1987, they still stand as the reigning Gypsy pop stars.
But for a people whose history is full of turmoil, the musical successes are remarkable. And beyond these recent releases and the touring Gypsy Caravan, things may be looking up politically as well. The European Committee on Romani Emancipation has begun a program to help European Gypsies replace musical instruments that they were forced to sell in order to survive. That’s a program every music lover can support.
To contribute to the European Roma musical instrument program, visit www.romaniworld.com/music.htm.
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