Shifting Fortunes

What does the music of the Gypsy Kings and Taraf de Haidouks say about the life of contemporary Roma?

August 17, 2002

What does the music of the Gypsy Kings and Taraf de Haidouks say about the life of contemporary Roma?

Ask most people what comes to mind when they hear the word "Gypsy," and the predictable cliches come spilling out: "dirty," "poor," "thieves," "nomads," fortunetellers."

The terms become even nastier and more unflattering if you ask the average citizen of many Central and Southeastern European countries. There, racism towards the Romany people (who prefer this term to "Gypsy") is often quite pronounced.

The Roma have long been a persecuted population in Europe — most notably during the Second World War, when as many as 1.5 million Roma perished in concentration camps run by the Nazis and their allies.

Incidents in which Roma are subjected to discrimination — and even physical attack — are still frequent as the 21st century begins. One of the most outrageous episodes occurred in the Czech town of Usti nad Labem in 1999, when the town's government built a wall between the Roma who live there and their neighbors.

Public outcry — including criticism from Czech president and human rights icon Vaclav Havel — killed off the Usti nad Labem wall. But this incident underscores a major problem faced by Roma — a lack of concentrated political power.

Though as many as 8.6 million Roma live in Europe today, they are scattered throughout the continent. As minorities in the countries where they dwell, Roma lack a solid voting bloc that might create positive change in their living conditions as well as in societal opinion.

Debate on how to rectify this political deficit remains contentious within the Roma community. Some believe that working through the political system of their native countries is a key to rectifying the problem.

This would mean Roma-specific parties — or the assimilation into mainstream political movements. Other Roma favor banding together as a group across the continent — and the world — to fight for human rights and increased political influence.

Thus, institutions such as the International Romani Union (IRU) are seen as the best vehicle for calling attention to the problems of the Roma and rectifying them.

Amazingly, this political debate has some echoes in the approaches that two of the most popular Roma bands in the world — the Gypsy Kings and Taraf de Haidouks — have taken in making music.

It is, in essence, a tug of war between Roma assimilation into broader culture — and, alternatively, using Roma culture itself as a clarion call across borders.

This struggle is full of complexities and nuances — and even ironies. For instance, the Gypsy Kings (who are based in France) have become international superstars. Their songs — including such smash hits as "Bamboleo" — are staples in coffeehouses across Europe.

The Gypsy Kings' music has retained its robust "Roma" flavor, but it has added Latin and pop influences.

It also boasts all the expensive production values of any Europop band. It is music that has come from the village to the big city — and succeeded.

One could thus argue that the Gypsy Kings represent the side of assimilation. They have adapted their music and their public image to conform to the rules of international success.

Yet, the "Gypsy" in their names and the continuing influence also places them on the "internationalist" side. Their name — and the ever-present Roma touches remaining in their music — are a binding force across borders for the Romani people.

Another top Roma band, Taraf de Haidouks, is quite different from Gypsy Kings in its approach. Though they are a popular group around the world, it is Taraf's utter lack of conformity to the rules of international pop success that has made them popular.

Their music retains much of the feel of the villages in Romania where the group had its start as a wedding band.

Listening to Taraf de Haidouks 2001 album Band of Gypsies is a chance to be plunged into Roma music as it has been played for centuries.

Plaintive voices scrape against the bittersweet violins on songs such as "Absinth I Drink You, Absinth I Eat You." The ambling call and response on songs such as "Green Leaf, Clover Leaf" echo travels down long roads.

Hearing the fiercely intricate loops of flute and violin on "I'm A Gambling Man" is to be taken to a smoky dancehall.

Thus, it would seem that Taraf de Haidouks is on the internationalist side of the debate — embracing a purer and more authentic Roma sound that transcends national boundaries.

Yet this, too, is an oversimplification. Taraf de Haidouks has also excelled at embracing the Roma music of other cultures — and the complications that such an embrace raises.

In the liner notes to Band Of Gypsies, for instance, writer Marc Hollander notes that Taraf's musical collaboration with the Macedonian Roma brass band Kocani Orkester was not without difficulties.

He writes that the Slavic group's "Gypsy dialect is quite different from the one used by Taraf, whose main tongue is Romanian, a language with its origins in Latin."

The record (including a wonderfully frenzied collaboration on the song "A La Turk") demonstrates that the music triumphed over the linguistic difficulties.

But the encounter raises questions that echo the political tug of war in the Romani community: How universal is Roma culture? Is such unity possible across borders and languages.

In music, answers to such questions seem to come more easily than they do in politics. But somehow cutting the knot of local assimilation and collective power at a broader level will certainly prove crucial in helping Roma gain a place at the political table.

Perhaps the success of musicians who have learned to simultaneously embrace both assimilation and tradition can provide a clue as to how to do just that.