The music of Roma people, often regarded as Gypsy music, is not only one of their most important legacies, but a significant component of our wider European cultural heritage. For centuries it has influenced some of our most important composers such as Haydn, Brahms, Liszt, Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Cecile Sharp and many more.
Gypsy music and Roma musicians in general were always sought after for both village weddings and royal courts. The huge demand for the services of Roma musicians created many different genres of Gypsy music such as Flamenco, Magyar Nóta (Hungarian Song) or Gypsy Jazz to name a few.
Roma musicians are regarded as extremely technical, skillful and creative players, who’s unique style of playing is unparalleled. But what is behind such influence, knowledge and talent that often makes people say, “it’s in the blood”? To understand this, we need to look into the history of Roma people.
A history of music amongst subgroups of Roma people
Since their arrival from India about a millennia ago, Roma people were regularly subjected to ethnic cleansing, forced labour and slavery, resulting in their constant migration in search for a better life. Continued prejudice and racism against communities results in movement and maltreatment that we still see even today.
Over the centuries Roma people formed numerous subgroups as they slowly settled around Europe. The first wave of Roma people reached Britain in the 16th century and are known as Romani Gypsies or Romanichals. In every country Roma people adopted the local cultures and traditions, mixing it with their own unique heritage such as language, music, arts and crafts.
Britain already had its indegonous nomadic travellers when Roma people arrived and over time their cultures have merged. Any Indian roots these early arrivals might have had in their music vanished over the centuries, and the music of Britain’s earliest Roma settlers merged seamlessly with local traditions and trends.
In the music traditions of some of Hungary’s Roma communities we can still find remote connections to their Indian roots. Their style of music and dance is very rhythmical and shows remote connections to the Indian Konnakol traditions. In this Roma tradition, dancers are accompanied by drumming using a kanna (milk jug), rhythmic chanting called szájbőgő (mouth bass) and singing.
Outside of this style the traditional music of Roma people became increasingly influenced by the local traditions where they settled, and the music that made Roma people so influential was mostly created to entertain mainstream societies from villages to capitals.
Music was the craft that enabled Roma people to shine
All over Europe, Roma people had to form strong communities that are often centered around professions that they could practice while on the road to survive. This is well documented in the names of Roma subgroups or surnames: Lakatos - locksmith, Lovasz - horsemen, Kalderash - bucket maker/tinsmith, Ursari - bear trainers, Lautari - musicians, etc.
As these professions meant the survival of Roma communities, they focused on mastering their craft through lifelong training that would start in childhood and be passed down directly from the older masters of the trade. This unique way of focusing one’s training solely on developing a specific skill set, indeed nurtured outstanding masters of these crafts.
Amongst all these, music was the craft that enabled Roma people to shine in some of the most esteemed roles in towns, cities and villages across Europe supporting the acceptance of Roma culture and people into the wider society.
Throughout the centuries large dynasties and communities of Roma musicians formed all over Europe. In England, Wales and Scotland, Gypsy fiddlers or Boshamengros such as Horsery Grey, Tite Smith or Abram Woods were entertaining people at weddings, fairs, and public houses.
The song of the fiddle player James MacPherson – who was accused and hanged for sheep rustling sang a song whilst taken to the gallows showing the importance of music to his life – was later commemorated by Robert Burns in one of his poems:
“…O, there’s some come here to see me hung And some to buy my fiddle, Before I would pairt wi’ her I’d brak her through the middle. I took my fiddle in both my hands And broke her ower a stone; There’s nae anither will play on thee When I am dead and gone…”
In Scotland, clans of musicians such as the Stewarts emerged who've been passing stories and songs down from generations to generations. Sheila Stewart the legendary singer and storyteller who sadly passed away in 2014 was the last of this long line of traditional traveller musicians.
A legacy to cherish and nurture
In Britain Gypsy music was not adopted and supported by the elite as it was in Eastern-Europe, where many Roma musicians rose to world fame and became well respected members of both Roma and non Roma communities.
During the 19th and early 20th century at least 70 Gypsy music groups were operating and employing minimum four to six musicians full-time in Budapest alone. Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli formed Quintette du Hot Club de France, making Gypsy Jazz popular and even during the communist era of the 20th century state supported orchestras were established and tourism kept Gypsy music and Roma musicians engaged in Eastern-Europe.
These are just a few examples from the haydays of Gypsy music, but it is easy to see how such a demand and interest in the talent and services of Roma musicians encouraged and supported their creativity, skills and development; resulting in a legacy that we should all cherish and nurture as an essential part of our European cultural heritage.
While in modern days the traditional Gypsy music of Britain seems to largely survive through archives and collections, there are a number of GRT musicians such as musician/dancer Kerieva Mccormick or multi instrumentalist Ciaran Ryan to name a few who are active on the scene creating outstanding projects.
Britain is now also home to a large number of newly arrived Roma people since the borders of Eastern-Europe opened up, who’s music remains largely hidden from the public eye and often seen as buskers playing pop songs to a backing track on the streets of bigger cities. However Ando Glaso works closely with a large number of Roma people supporting their development and presence on the mainstream cultural scene including talented Roma musicians such as János Kállai, Remus Stana, Sonia Michalewicz and many others.
Revealing the truth of our past and shaping our future
In modern days, the opportunities for Roma people to practice their traditional crafts have mostly vanished and rich Gypsy music traditions are being replaced by more modern trends such as Manele.
Even now, Roma people remain largely marginalized, often living in segregated ghettos and are a target for populist media and politics. We see similar trends in the UK and Roma people’s rich cultural heritage often remains an uncharted territory for Roma empowerment and inclusion.
At Ando Glaso we see the vicious circle of marginalisation and ghettoisation of Roma communities causing social and cultural deprivation that affects important aspects of Roma people’s lives from mental to financial wellbeing.
We are aware of the important role that our own Roma heritage plays in revealing the truth of our past and shaping our future – we believe nurturing and showcasing this heritage is the key for our communities in the UK and beyond to flourish. To celebrate the GRT History Month, Ando Glaso has prepared a series of exciting events including a film screening, live concert and the launch of our creative Roma cultural online platform.
For more details see Ando Glaso’s website.