The Roma have brought upon themselves the fame of being talented musicians as, being nomads, they have long acted as wandering entertainers. In all the places Roma live—in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and northwest India— they have become known as entertainers. The long distances they have travelled have resulted in a multitude of musical influences.The basis of Indian roots, obviusly and adding Greek, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Slavic, Romanian, German, French, Spanish and Celtic touches.
Romani music is known to have vocals that tend to be passionate and declamatory, and the music often implies dramatic glissandi (slides) between notes. There is a wide variety of intstrumentation depending on the region the music comes from.
DNA evidence shows that Rroma people descended from indians and migrated westward in several waves, before the year of 1000 AD.Roma still live in India, in Rajasthan and other areas, and work in multiple castes. These include the puppeteer Bhat, snake charmer Sapera and juggler Kamad castes, as well as Bhopa, Langa and Manganiyar musicians. Rajasthani Roma instruments include the kemenche, a type of rebec, and khartal, a kind of castanets.
Music plays a very important part in Rroma culture in Central and Eastern Europe, notably in countries such as Hungary, Romania and the former Yugoslavia. The quintessentially Spanish flamenco is to a very large extent the music (and dance, or indeed the culture) of the Roma of Andalusia.
So what is, afterall, Gypsy (Rroma) music? Ever since the 18th century many people among which both scientists and musicians have tried to answer this question but only partially managed to enlighten us.
This seemingly innocuous question has fed quite an industry. What are the common points between Flamenco, Hungarian Gypsy Music and Balkan Wind Orchestras for example?Because even though all Roma have the same original country, India, speak the same language and have common laws and traditions, their music varies tremendously from region to region and from tribe to tribe, due to the influences from the country they have settled in.
As the music is different from one region to another, a general overview of various repertoires is necessary in order to find the common roots.Five main characteristics of Rroma music trancending the local musical traditions can be found. Some of these obvious, some more subjective which sometimes makes it hard to analyse them in a – let’s say - scientifical way. What are they?One can classify them as voices, timing, phraseology, harmonies and singing.
Voices: The foremost characteristic of Rroma music is the presence, in one way or another of three voices in every song, often in parts of them only . These voices can either be sung or be played by instruments. Russian Rroma traditionally sing these and use instruments only to provide the rhythm and harmonies. In the Balkan, quite the opposite is true. The instruments take this role ( wind orchestras of Macedonia and Bulgaria ) .
Even songs with a strong traditional heritage such as the ones sang within Lovara and Kelderara contain this element in which the usual repertoire consists only of ballads, sung by one or more vocals, with improvised text. In the chorus, when there is more than one singer, one almost always hears chords, that is, these three voices. Flamenco might be the exception to this "rule" even though it is a present element in the Cante Rondo.
Timing: This element is what allows you to recognise a Rrom playing in an orchestra, regardless the genre of music that is played or sung. It is the "attack" or beginning of the variations and song. Whereas in classical or, more generally, in Western music, a variation is always begun on the beat, Rroma have a tendency to wait. To clear things, they time their attack to start just after the beat, keeping the rhythm but at the same time inducing a rhythmic tension into the song.
Phraseology: This is the most subjective criteria considering Rroma music.One may fiind it extremely difficult to provide a precise description of what Rroma phraseology is but the point is that there is one!The best analogy is the one of waves. In Rroma culture music is sung or played with intonations and small rhythmic stretches and compressions that reminds one of the passing of a wave. Depending on the country, a variation, be it vocal or instrumental can either begin as a forte and then decrease or the other way around.
Harmonies: Harmonies is the subject that most expert texts regarding music are centred upon. They speak about Gypsy scales, special harmonies and the like.There is a quite simple explanation for this: when your musical mind and culture tells you to expect a major chord, Rroma usually replace them with a minor chord. Not to suggest that this is always the case but it is very present in every song or melody. To take a simplistic example, consider the progression Dm - G - C in Dm. Next, you'd expect a major chord. Typically, you'll get a minor such as Am.
Singing: Voices are the last element that Rroma music consists of. Again, it is not so much the technique of singing as the natural sound of the voices and the way it is used. Think about Flamenco and them listen to Russian Rroma or even better, to Lovara songs. You'll be astonished at the similarities in the sound of the voices and the way of singing.
So, is this what Rroma music consists of? Of course not. It just provides a thread by which one is able to work out what Rromanes truly is. Rroma have build an enclosed society in which a non Rrom, a gadjo, can difficultly enter. Rroma musicians, even though they have contacts with gadje – who they mostly play for afterall- will choose a different repertoire than the one they will play among themselves. This Rroma characteristic has biased many a study of Rroma music. Just look at what is nowadays (and almost always has been) marketed as Gypsy music: Hungarian restaurant music is perhaps the best example. This is a musical style which, even though it displays some of the charateristic elements displayed above, is what Rroma call gadjikani muzika, music for the non Rroma. It is Hungarian folk music played by Rroma, nothing more, nothing less, played with a lot of flair and only some specificities. This is a pervasive attitude. Russian Rroma have included Russian romances, Romanian Rroma play Romanian folk tunes and so on.
Therefore, besides the elements that have already been presented, there's the other component, the repertoire. It is something that cannot be as easily explained. What is truly old, authentically Rrom and what is not? As time passes by, with every year that Rroma stay in a given region, their music gains new influenced and they, in turn, influence the local folklore. This accounts for the variety of styles, rhythms and musical traditions among Rroma: In the Balkan, the Turkish presence can be felt through oriental rhythms (7/9, 9/11 or 9/13), Flamenco partly reflects the Arabic culture that still existed in Spain after the arrival of the first Rroma.
The common ground in their music is represented by all the Rroma songs which are just ballads, without rhythmic component and which are almost always improvised. The best example of what this could have been is reflected in the Lovara traditions, more specific in the ones that can be heard when seated at a table with several of them. When they improvise on a theme, a toast or any other topic. This is sustained by the fact that this part of the Rroma repertoire can be found from North to South and East to West. Ask any old Rrom to sing you something, you'll get at least one of these.
Anyway, one must not think that some of the other songs are not an authentic Rroma heritage. Some of them have quite ancient roots, in Russia, for example, through literature. In some places, unfortunately, through political procedures, archives or documentation on the subject is nowhere to be found. In those cases, one has to rely on one's ears and soul to decide if that particular tune is old or new. Not very satisfactory but it nevertheless works, provided a bit of experience, of course!
The richness of Rroma music comes from its numerous and everchanging forms - being a music which is continuously evolving. You can listen to many groups and song and still find something new, something which you hadn't heard before. Unfortunately, few people really know that music, even among Rroma themselves. The old Rroma generations are slowly disappearing and with them, an entire part of Rroma culture vanishes.
A simple example of this is the case of the Sinti. Their music is currently the one created by Django Reinhardt in the 1930's as a blend of New Orleans Jazz and Blues and Sinti music. Who remembers nowadays what the Sinti used to sing and play before?This is a tragic event as in order to realise a successful blend - as Django did - one needs to have strong roots in his original culture. Otherwise,the new blend just becomes a plagiat.Traditional, authentic Rroma music must be presented to the pubilc, for only through success - in front of gadje - can these European musical traditions have a chance to survive, to plant seeds of future musical styles, to influence other cultures’ music on their turn.
In the Balkan Rroma music obviously has poweful influences due to the Turkish occupation of the region for at least 500 years.Nevertheless, there is a variety of musical styles depending on the region.
Brass Orchestras: These orchestra initially played at weddings and funerals and can be found in Serbia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. They are beautifully imortalised in various movies of Kusturica.
Zurna and other wind Instruments: The zurna is a type of clarinette in wood that was used by the Turkish army as a battlefield signal.Most people would usually play the instrument. Many Rroma played it to entertain Ottoman armies and have kept this instrument. Nowadays, it has mainly been replaced by the clarinette and the saxophone. Percussions were originally (and still often are) represented by a Turkish drum called Tepan.
Authentic Carpathian Rroma music is probably the closest to what people often think is Rroma music, the main instruments being the violin, the bass and the cymbalom. In Hungary, it is known as restaurant music, a mix of classical "schlagers" and more Rroma themes.In the Czech and Slovak republics, it is still sung in Rromanes.
The three basic musical styles among the nordic Rroma groups are Flamenco, Gypsy Jazz and Russian Rroma Music. The common link between the three is the guitar in and, with the exception of Gypsy Jazz, an important role is given to voices and dance. In fact, Russian Rroma music and Flamenco are often mistaken with one another due to the similarities between them.
Gypsy Jazz, created by Django Reinhardt in the 1930's is different. While distinctively Gypsy, it is nevertheless a innovative style, predominantly played among Sinti.
As well as the Nordic, Vlax Rroma includes several styles, each one with its distinct characteristics. Firstly, there is the Romanian so called "lautari" music, with cymbalum, violin, etc. prevalent in Romania and Transilvania.Secondly, the music of the Vojvodina, in which the basic elements are the 4 stringed guitars, and finally the Hungarian Vlax Rroma music, with guitar and oral bass as main instruments.
The Albanian Rroma Music
In both Albania and Kosovo, Rroma orchestras use accordions, clarinets and also Bouzoukis. Their musical style is a combination between Turkish and Greek music. From songs with one main voice, reminding of Arabic music, musicians can go to pieces with powerfull instrumental parts, which are almost sirtakis.
The Bulgarian Rroma Music
Up until recently, the mere existence of Rroma in Bulgaria was almost denied. Officially, less than 50'000 Rroma had settled in all of Bulgaria before the fall of the communist regime. The truth is, however that about 800'000 Rroma live in Bulgaria, often in appalling conditions, in Ghettos and utter poverty.
While the Bulgarian Rroma culture is one of the oldest in Europe, dating back to the 12-13th century, not much is known about it. Several ethno-musicologists have claimed that there's a missing link in the development of European Rroma music, namely Bulgaria due to very little existing information on the matter.
Even nowadays, the Rroma themselves are not thoroughly informed about their own musical heritage. It is thus important to produce a record of Bulgarian Rroma music, that has been kept away from the Western influences (even Rap!) that are now found there.
The Bulgarian Rroma music shows five different styles, depending on the region and the ethnic group of the musicians.
• Lovara and Kelderara: The musical style of the two Rroma groups is mostly based on oral improvisations without any musical instruments.However their musical style is very specific.
• North West: The orchestras in the region of Din (along the northern Yugoslav border) are often composed entirely of brass instruments. This is a tradition which can be found in Macedonia as well.
• North East: A strong Romanian influence can be found in the region, both in the musical style as well in the instruments played, for example the presence of the cymbalum, which is more frequent in the Rroma of Romania.
• South West: There are many similarities between the music of Macedonia and Rroma music in this region. Zurnas, an instrument that was originally introduced by the Turks plays the most important part in the music of the area.
• South: In the southern part of the country one can fiind the most authentic bulgarian music. In fact, it is the kind of music that prevails among Rroma orchestras of Bulgaria nowadays, using clarinets, saxophones, accordeon, guitar, bass and percussions as instruments.A strong Middle Eastern influence can be found in this musical style.
Czech and Slovak Republics
In the Slovakian Rroma music there are very powerful influences from the Hungarian restaurant style.It is actually sometimes hard to distinguish the two. In the Czech Republic, there is very little information about original Rroma music.
The Hungarian Rroma Music
Authentic Rroma music in Hungary does not include playing violins, cymbalum or as a matter of fact, any instrument. Guitars and mandolins where added in the 19th century.However, the basic instruments are percussions and basses, both provided by the human voice and by milk cans (!) or spoons and tambourines.A singer usually sings the ballad, while the others sing basses and percussions. This music is basically closely related to the Kelderara and Lovara style which can be found throughout Europe.
Another style evolved besides the original music, along with the emigration of Rroma from Transylvania who settled in the country. This style, the so-called restaurant music, is the most popular in western areas. It is a mixture of Hungarian folk songs, Transylvanian influences with a touch of Viennese music. However this is not true Rroma music but rather music played by Rroma.
The Moldovan Rroma Music
In Moldavia, Rroma have developed a very particular style of music, with harmonies reminding of flamenco, oriental rhythms, while its way of playing and singing is Romanian -slow voices, fast instruments-. The songs are, however, very close to the simple Russian Rroma music.Everything blended in a totally unique style.
The Polish Rroma Music
The Rroma in Poland, even though having suffered enormous losses during World War II and the German occupation, have nevertheless been allowed to travel freely up untill the year of 1961. The freedom of travel and trade has maintained a relatively strong Rroma culture in this country which is reflected in their music. While it is obviously influenced by the Russian Rroma music, it has specific elements. To begin with, it is based on accordions and violin, possibly with a clarinet, and furthermore, its rhythms bear a strong Polish accent. Mazurkas, valses and even Polonaises are frequent in this folklore.Opposite to Russian music, Polish Rroma music is predominantly based on music than on voices. Choirs are not heard and there usually one singer only. The typical Rroma terces and quints are made with the help of instruments and not voices.
The Romanian Rroma Music
Despite many people think, Romanian Rroma music does not have an unique style. Actually, the most popular songs of the genre are actually folk songs played by Rroma. There are three main styles of Rroma music in Romania.
• Transylvania: Because this part of Romania was under Hungarian domination for a long time Transylvanian music and the so-called Hungarian music have many common elements. The music is based on the cymbalum, violins, bratsch and bases. The string instruments play in chords, almost like a unique instrument, while the violin plays the melody. From case to case, the cymbalum either takes the role of accompaniment either the one of soloist. Only a few of the pieces are sung. Rhythms and harmonies have a strong Hungarian accent and the rhythm is rather sedate.
• Romania: In the main part of the country the accordeon and flutes (a Romanian influence) come in addition to the basic orchestras. In contrast to Romanian folk songs, the Rroma rhythms are slower, but the instruments play at a fast tempo. This combination of slow voice and fast instruments is what really distinguishes the music from the one in Transylvania. Harmonies and rhythms have oriental influences. Some tunes have the characteristic 7/8 or 7/9 rhythms.
• Banat: Since this region is located near the Yugoslav-Transylvanian -Bulgarian borders there are strong influences of all these regions in the music. The orchestras mostly play with brass instruments, plus a cymbalum, while at the same time playing a music similar to the one characteristic to the Transylvanian region.
The Russian Rroma music
As old Russian documents sustain, Rroma first arrived in Russia in the 15th century. As musical instruments were banned in Russia between the 14th and 17th century, the Russian Rroma based their music on choirs, as the Russians did themselves,
A unique instrument appeared among Russian Rroma people in the 18th century: the seven string guitar. Until very recently, this was almost the only instrument they played at. The guitar was tuned in G-major, allowed for melodic bass lines as well as harmonies similar to the ones heard in jazz. Percussions were, of course, always present, be they resulted fron kitchen utensils such as spoons and pots, tambourine or "body-percussions" such as steps, snaps and hand claps.
The phenomenon of Rroma choirs reached the top of the wave in the 19th century and continued until the beggining of the revolution. Cabarets featuring Rroma musicians, such as the "Yar" in Moscow were renowned, and have been described in Russian literature, (i.e. Pushkin). During that period, the Russian Rroma co-opted the Russian style of musical romances. The violin appeared amongst Russian Rroma musicians, imported from the Balkan who were attracted to Russia by the popularity of Rroma music.
Old songs were played at home, in ad-hoc formations and only among Rroma in addition of this style which was more known among ordinary people. In spite of revolution, wars, famines or emigration the Rroma musical heritage survived.
The Ukrainian Rroma Music
In Ukraine the music has nearly survived until today and has mainly been replaced by Russian Rroma music.The main instrumental role is played by the cymbalum and is close to the Moldavian style.
The Western European Music
• Gypsy Jazz: A Rroma musical style created by Django Reinhardt along with Stéphane Grapelli in the 1930's. It is a mixture of Jazz and the traditional Rroma music heard among Kelderara and Lovara. It is often heard in northern France and Germany.
• Flamenco: A description of this is hardly necessary, except perhaps that while still played mostly by Rroma, it is sung in Spanish since Rromanes was forbidden after the fall of the Muslim kingdoms in Spain.
Rroma Music from the Ex-Yugoslavia
• Vojvodina Music: The Rroma music from the Vojvodina emerged from a mixture of different styles as it follows: as Vojvodina used to be a border region to the Ottoman Empire, Turkish harmonies and rhythms are a powerful presence in this musical style, and having been a part of Hungary, strong Hungarian influences exist. This music was at its begginings as dance and party music in Rroma camps and is mainly played and sung by men. The violin is the basic instrument, a bit like a "Balletmeister". What is more, violin players who sing and play by themselves for small gatherings in villages can still be seen nowadays.
Besides the violin, tamburitsas can also be heard. This instrument, present in Austria's Burgenland as well, is basically a four string guitar tuned in quart. In a typical formation from the Vojvodina there are supposed to be three such tamburitsas, one lead, which plays the terce to the violin's variations, one for rhythm, and the third alto which takes the lower quint and melodic bass lines. A bass usually completes such orchestras.
In opposition to the Serbia Rroma music, the rhythm is rather slow but full of syncopes. A lead singer, usually the violinist sings the melody, often alone, while the rhythmic part who sing the bass and second voice provide the rythm.
One style of this music has already been described above. There are, however, several different Rroma musical styles among the ex-Yugoslavian territories.
• Serbian Music: The accordeon is the predominant instrument in this music, along with the violin. In contrast with the music from the Vojvodina, the rhythms are much more oriental;
• Macedonia: There are two different kinds of music that coexist in this country. Firstly, brass orchestras, usually used for weddings and funerals (as illustrated in Kusturitsa's movies). An older version of this kind of music exists, where all brass instruments are replaced by zurnas, a Turkish instrument similar to the clarinet. The other style is reminiscent of Flamenco. Brass instruments are still used in this case, but from the harmonies, it can be mistaken with music from Andalusia.
• Kosovo: See Albania.
• In Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia, there is a mixture between all the musical styles that succesfully coexist. It is hard to say what the original music was, especially since the majority of the groups now play with electrical instruments.
There is a large number of true Rroma musicians that take up a diversity of genres is long... Here is a selection of the most relevant artists in all styles and countries.
Balkan Rroma Music
Czech and Slovak Rroma Music
Hungarian Rroma Music
Russian Rroma Music
Aliocha and Valia Dimitrievitch
Les Tsiganes Ivanovitch
Romanian Rroma Music
Taraf de Hajdouk
Taraful din Baia
Toni Iordache (also spelled sometimes Lordache)
Serbian Rroma Music
Natacha et Nuits de Princes
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