Just mentioning the term “gypsy,” or “gipsy” can often be like throwing a match to gasoline; it can fire up sentiments as quickly as it stirs people to jump up and dance.
Most people who refer to gypsies are talking about Romani Gypsies. An ancient people, whose leaders called themselves “Lords of Little Egypt,” and migrated from India to Europe, where they primarily remain, but with a worldwide diaspora.
The shortened name, “gyps” became a bit of a slur and is still considered so by some. More often referred to as “Roma,” or sometimes as “Travellers” or “New Age Travellers,” gypsies were mentioned as early as 400AD as an itinerant people with many talents. Noted for their skills at training animals, acrobatics, metalworking and many modes of trading, they became part of many societies from the Ottoman Empire and onwards. Four gypsies even accompanied Columbus on his third voyage.
The music gypsy people have produced over the centuries is now considered a true art form. Although mostly folk-based in origin, it goes far beyond folk music in terms of complexity and its use of minor chords. It has also diversified over the centuries through many nations and musical variants, but still retains certain elements and instruments that are common throughout the world.
Having spent much of my adult life in Chicago, USA, I was exposed to a high variety of ethnic music in a city that prides itself as being a broad cultural “melting pot.” I attended many World Music Festivals at Millennium Park, along the city’s splendid lakefront, where thousands would gather to dance along to musicians playing and grooving on the Pritzger Pavillion stage. Other places I swooned at gypsy-infused tunes included the Grant Park shows, with different stages featuring music from various nations; the Old Town School of Folk Music, featuring every type of music from Ottmar Liebert’s flamenco styling to Ana Moura’s fado liltings, which some liken to gypsy music. Then, of course, there were the city’s ubiquitous bars and restaurants, showcasing singers like Yasmin Levy, with a Judeo-Spanish mix that definitely flirts with gypsy stylizing.
Gypsy music’s influences include Serbian, Slavic, Russian, Romanian, Arabic, Greek, Persian, German, French, Yiddish, Spanish and Czech, among many others. Indeed, the tunes are played by musicians in so many nations that claim it to be their own that it’s hard to pin down one nation as the source.
Well known Hungarian gypsy violinist Roby Lakatos, who has played a range of gypsy music around the world, notes that the music focuses around primary instruments in each country. “There’s a Hungarian gypsy music, a Romanian gypsy music, of course, Balkan and Russian music…it’s all different,” he says. In Russia, the first thing is the guitar, not violin. In Balkan music, it’s the accordion that is very important, and the tamboura. But, the violin, real ‘gypsy violin’, it’s from Hungary, because the tradition was that this music was played in the restaurants, and the cafes.
Lakatos was one of those who set out to popularize gypsy music on stage and in concert halls. To do this, he adapted into the traditional formula a confluence of jazz (already present, to some degree), classical and other modes of musical styling. As with his playing, like virtually all gypsy music, there is an ornamentation of the Oriental, with so many embellished twists and turns that the original tune becomes lost as you follow the path it takes.
To my great enjoyment, having always loved the variety of instruments in a full classical orchestra – gypsy music also boasts a variety of instrumentation, which is added to the violin. The cimbalom is very common – steel strings hammered by two beaters and usually played in arpeggio, adding a rapid tinkling that can speed up or highlight slower melodies. A double bass, or stand-up bass, often rounds out and supports tunes, which can be achieved more lightly using a viola. I prefer the bass, myself, bababoom! The panflute (called “naï” in Romanian) is highly featured in Romanian Gypsy music, often replacing the violin and bouncing between musical hues and speeds. Piano is a featured instrument in some larger gypsy bands, or can be used as a single add-in instrument. Finally, the clarinet is an often-featured, lively guest.
Music wrapped in gypsy style and improvisation has spread with the internet and led to more performances by musicians all over the planet. Romanian people, in particular, the Vlach Gypsies, provide a great ethnic cauldron of musical talent and the people of this large and talented group now infuse many cultures, be it British, Welsh, Arabic, or other gypsy peoples across the globe. Romanians are singularly proud of their most famous Romani musicians, the Lăutari, who play at funerals, weddings and other such traditional events. Flamenco is Spanish Romani music, and the Gitanos its people – the gypsies of Spain. If you can sit still while listening to the wildest Flamenco music, you are probably dead. Then, of course, there’s Russia’s famous Sokolovsky Gypsy Choir, known for its dulcet yet powerful performances of gypsy music at Moscow’s Yar Restaurant.
For the experience of a lifetime and the thrill of hearing some of the most unique and vibrant music on our spinning globe, seek out a gypsy music performance where ever you may roam. And whatever you do… don’t sit still.
Experience the Diversity
Gypsy music is now a global phenomenon. To experience the diversity and eclecticism of the gypsy music genre, make your way to one of the countries below in the next few months to seek out some traditional and contemporary performances.
- Prague’s “Roma Festival Khamoro Praque” takes place from 26-31 May and features a colourful and breathtaking mix of cultural events. Dancers, Roma and gypsy jazz performances, artistic and dance workshops and fashion shows run throughout. SaSazu, an exciting club in the recent spotlight, will feature a gala concert to finish.
- If you plan to be in New York from 21-22 June, book ahead to see “Improvisaol” the new show by the amazing “Farruquito” (also known as Juan Manuel Fernandez Montoya), from the famed Los Farruco flamenco dance dynasty. His “flamenco puro” stage skills are stunning and not to be missed. And, I’ve seen dozens of flamenco dancers, at a distance and from the first row, so I should know.
- Get to the heart of the Roma world and its music form 2-9 August at the International Gypsy Fest, World Roma Festival, Bratislava, Slovak Republic. Artists from at least 13 countries from around the world have performed in past shows, and this year will be no exception. Educational, interactive projects will top amazing music and dance performances.
- In Turkey, Romani musicians bring life to almost any tavern or “meyhane” with their unique blend of “fasil” music accompanying meals, drinking and even belly-dancing. Go to the old (65 years to be precise) customs building in Istanbul’s Kumkapi that holds the meyhane called Kör Agop, and you’ll see the best musicians playing from 8pm until the drink and fish soup is gone.