During my childhood, my mother used to tell me stories and folklores from different countries. I remember the word “Gypsy” mentioned many times in such stories. Over these decades, I grew up with the notion of Gypsies as wanderer tribes, sorcerers and street magicians: poor people with good souls, eternal wanderers.
Only incidentally did I pick up the book, fascinated by its subtitle. Hardly did I think that my notions about Gypsies is about to change.: especially Gypsy musicians. “Princes Amongst Men” by Garth Cartwright is a journey into the heart and soul of Gypsy musicians of Eastern Europe. This book acquainted me with the fascinating world of Gypsies and the brass bands.
Tsingani. Egyptian. Cingano. Gypsy. Cikan. Sipsiwn. Cigani, Ziegeuner. Gitano. Cingene. Yiftos. The Roma (Gypsies) are known by so many different sounding names. The gypsies know themselves as Roma. Rom/Roma is Sanskrit for ‘man’ or ‘husband’.
Lango Drom (The long journey)
Northern India, the arse end of what Europe’s calling the first millennium, reels as warrior tribes from north-west Asia invade, fuelled by the new religion of Islam. Convert or die? Or flee. And so the migration began and a people (the Roma) were forcibly born out of war, flight, adversity.
The approximate time frame the Roma began their migration is ascertained to be some time between the sixth and eleventh centuries ACE (After Christian Era) when large numbers of people from north-west India marched across West Asia into North Africa and Europe. They carried tools, utensils, food, wood and yes, musical instruments. As these migrations occurred over several decades, possibly centuries, communities put down roots in different places — Egypt and the Caucasus are both home to the long-resident Romani speaking communities.
For centuries it was believed these migrants had arrived in Europe from Egypt – thus the (E)Gypsies. An easy mistake: India was more than a fable — think of Columbus’ misguided attempts to reach India in 1492 — while Egypt was associated with the occult and divination; when the Roma are first noted in Constantinople in 1068 it was written that they were ‘notorious for soothsaying and sorcery’.
And the Roma are all too familiar with evil forces: from Vlad Dracul to Corneliu Vadim Tudor, Balkan slave traders to Hitler’s SS. they have constantly encountered Europeans intent on oppressing, exploiting, even exterminating them. Suffering. The music of the Roma, its eerie intensity and savage resonance, arises from this hurt, music offering from a form of soul-making, and possibly redemption. For centuries music has been the way Roma have carried forth their culture, myths and language.
Gypsy legend has it that Kaloome, the Gypsy having overslept, arriving too late when God was giving out everything on earth. God couldn’t change the destiny of these people he’s condemned to eternal wandering, so he gave them music and dance. Since time immemorial music has been Roma’s gift to the world. Today it remains their CNN, a cultural statement second to none.
Cartwright also introduces us to several Gypsy singers in various countries he travels: Saban Bajramovic and Boban Markovic of Serbia, Esma Redzepova in Macedonia, are a remarkable few. I would also inscribe my gratitude to Cartwright who gave me the permission to quote some remarkable passages from this incredible book. I would also like to thank my dear friend Dorina from Romania, who sent me some incredible pieces of music to provide me a real feel of the eerie intensity of Roma music.