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Kindred Spirits

The overlapping musical traditions of the Roma and the Jews

Alexander Gelfand
November 26, 2008

If I were to ask you to name a group of people who were expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century, persecuted across Europe for the next 500 years, and methodically slaughtered during World War II, you’d say .few examples of Bessarabian klezmer and Romani music one after the other. Or check out Romashka and Ljova and the Kontraband, two groups that exploit the similarities between Romani music and klezmer by drawing on both.

While the paths of Jews and Roma have diverged considerably since the war—the latter are now Europe’s largest stateless minority, plagued by poverty and lack of education—parallels persist. The Roma have their own advocacy groups; they have struck a balance between integrating into their host nations and preserving their distinctive cultural identities; and like their Jewish counterparts, Roma musicians are finding ways to preserve their traditions while moving forward, marrying their repertoires, instruments, and playing styles with those of other ethnic groups, and with the vast spectrum of rock and pop.

All of these themes came together during a rare US tour this fall by Kal, a Romani band from Serbia. The tour was organized by Voice of Roma, a nonprofit organization that runs educational and charitable projects, from cultural exchange programs to humanitarian and legal assistance for Roma refugees in Kosovo. (The Roma have fared poorly in the former Yugoslavia, where they were among the many groups who fell prey to ethnic cleansing.)

I saw Kal give its final performance of the tour at Joe’s Pub in New York City, and they tore the place up, combining absurdly up-tempo Romani dance tunes with blues and rock, rap and reggae. The audience included a sizeable contingent of Serbian Roma, many of whom engaged in loud, friendly conversation with the band between songs; a few women gathered by the stage, dancing and waving their hands in stylized gestures. After a month on the road, the musicians seemed as happy to see their homies as their homies were to see them; they responded with one of the most energetic sets I’ve seen in a long time.

Kal’s lyrics can be both poignant and cutting. Frontman and electric guitarist Dragan Ristic explained that the song “Radio Romanistan,” for example, was named for an imaginary radio service in an equally imaginary Romani homeland. Actually, the phrase he used was “promised land,” strongly evoking the shared longing of Roma and Jews. Except that the Jews now have a homeland, while the Roma probably never will.

Several other songs addressed the fervent wish of many Roma to leave wherever they are, and their concomitant preoccupation with visas and work permits. “Ding Dang Dong,” for instance, tells the story of a young Serbian Roma whose flush uncle in Austria promises him a visa, but never delivers. The kid eventually gets his own papers, makes his way to Vienna and rings the bell at his uncle’s house, but the uncle never answers; he just peers through the peephole as his nephew rings and rings and rings. Ristic—bald, goateed, with the physique of a professional wrestler and the delivery of a standup comic—aptly described this callousness and lack of compassion as “the tragedy of our civilization . . . ‘Ding, Dang, F*cking Dong.’”

Sometimes, political and social commentary merge with lighter themes, like love and romance. “This is story of 21, 22-year-old Serbian Rom and middle-aged American woman, aged 45,” Ristic said as he introduced “Frutti Tutti.” “Subtitle of this song is, ‘Honey, Give Me Green Card.’”

And sometimes there were no words at all, just dizzyingly fast dance tunes with circular melodies and hiccupping rhythms, some of them in the odd time signatures typical of the Balkans. (The very first tune of the evening was in 9/8, its beats carved up into a pattern of 2 + 2 + 2 + 3.)

When I first heard Kal on their eponymous 2006 debut CD—a groovy studio recording with touches of tango, techno, and bhangra that climbed to the top of the European world music charts—I could hardly believe how expressive and virtuosic violinist Djordje Belkic and button accordionist Dragan Mitrovic, were. Seeing them live hasn’t made them any less unbelievable, but it has helped me understand why Sani Rifati, the Roma activist who leads Voice of Roma, is so opposed to the popular image of “the happy, dancing gypsy.”

In part, that’s because there’s nothing happy about the plight of the Roma. There’s been a rise in scapegoating lately; just last May, Naples played host to an honest-to-goodness, let’s-burn-down-their-houses anti-Roma pogrom, fueled by the wave of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment washing over large swathes of Western Europe. And in part, it’s because these people aren’t just entertainers; they’re artists. (“Kal” means black in Romanes, and the name is not a coincidence: in terms of popular stereotypes and institutional racism, Roma and African-Americans have much in common. The “happy, dancing gypsy” is kissing cousin to the “happy, dancing Negro.”)

There are believed to be anywhere from 4 to 12 million Roma living in Europe today; at the upper end, that’s almost as many Jews as there are worldwide. Yet while Jewish music and culture are thriving, Romani music and culture are far less widely understood and appreciated. (Ristic and his brother run an annual program, the Amala Summer School, that introduces non-Roma, or gadje, to Romani language, music and dance. It resembles the many Yiddish festivals that have sprung up like mushrooms across North America and Europe, but on a far smaller scale.) Kal’s American tour was meant to help remedy that situation by providing foreign audiences with a glimpse of vibrant, contemporary Romani culture.

After getting a taste of it myself, I can only hope they’re as successful as their Jewish colleagues.

Alexander Gelfand is a writer and sometime jazz pianist. His work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and The Forward.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.