"Why?" I responded quizzically. The cobblestone street was full of interesting buildings from the past six or seven centuries, a maze of fruit vendors, bakeries and street performers interspersed between gothic, neoclassical and art nouveau architecture.
"That neighborhood here in Budapest is full of Gypsies. It is like your you know, black people. Beggars, pickpockets, thieves and worse."
Those words didnt come from a leather-jacketed skinhead. This fellow traveler was a preppy-looking student attending one of Pragues finest universities.
For centuries, the Gypsies (or Roma) have been among the most discriminated against and misunderstood groups in the world. Their roots go all the way back to Rajasthan in northern India. A thousand years ago, they began migrating westward, and ever since, they have made a profound impact on the musical fabric of the world.
This week, Ann Arbors University Musical Society celebrates that musical legacy by hosting a unique traveling festival called "The Gypsy Caravan," featuring music and dance from six of the worlds leading Roma ensembles: Musafir (India), Yuri Yunakov (Bulgaria), Kolpakov Trio (Russia), Taraf de Haïdouks (Romania), the Antonio Pipa Flamenco Ensemble (Spain) and Kalyi Jag (Hungary). Often portrayed in popular culture as nomads, fortune-tellers and circus performers, most Roma permanently settled in communities throughout Europe more than two centuries ago. In their journeys, the Roma brought elements of their language and music with them, incorporating them with local traditions. So, among such diverse styles as Spanish flamenco, Russian folk songs, Romanian drinking music or Bulgarian wedding tunes, you can hear common Gypsy threads, including vocal improvisations, rapid tempo changes and universal Roma stories of life on the road, tragedies of lost love and the dream of an era without discrimination.
Today, some of the largest Roma communities can be found in the former Eastern bloc states of Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and throughout the Balkans. A decade ago when the Berlin wall crumbled, signifying the end of communism, champagne corks were sent flying across the United States and many parts of Europe. However, for most of these Gypsy communities, it wasnt a cause for celebration. Not because most Gypsies are card-carrying members of the Communist Party, but because the social safety net set up by the former Soviet satellites had put on hold the deep-rooted discrimination in much of Europe.
"The situation today is horrific," explains accordionist Marius from Romanias Taraf de Haïdouks. "There is discrimination everywhere. We have no housing, no jobs, food, nothing. The schools and neighborhoods are completely segregated and when we are on the street, we are always being hassled and arrested by the police."
These comments come from a member of one of the worlds most recognized Gypsy bands, one that was recently signed to Warners prestigious Nonesuch label. For many Gypsies, music is not only an emotional escape, it has become one of the few financial avenues available for hundreds of families of professional musicians. Musically, Taraf de Haïdouks are simply mesmerizing. They improvise folk songs about love, travels, weddings and prison life. On stage, four violinists, three accordionists, cimbolom (large dulcimer) and bass players challenge each other in odd musical duels. While everyone in the band is virtuosic, no one can top the 70-plus-year-old fiddler Ione.
In most parts of the world, there are two ways to play the violin, either with a bow or by pizzicato plucking. Ione has a third way. Tied to one of the four strings is yet another string. As Ione pulls the string with his right hand, he adjusts the pitch with his left, creating an odd series of whines, laughs and whistles a true talking fiddle.
In neighboring Hungary, the social conditions for most Gypsies are reminiscent of those in Romania, but the music is remarkably different. Many of Hungarys top ensembles have also become active politically, too, to try and combat the new wave of social problems. Groups such as Ando Drom and Miskolc Romafolk are leading a movement to end segregated schools and housing, and Kalyi Jag performing at the festival Thursday has founded a cultural center in Budapest which has helped to launch the careers of more than 60 Roma ensembles.
While Kalyi Jags cultural center expands the publics notions of Romany culture, there isnt a style more associated with Gypsy culture and appropriately so than wedding music. Throughout the spring and summer in every Roma community in Eastern Europe, if it is a weekend and you hear music, you are probably near a wedding party. Yuri Yunakov is Bulgarias most renowned saxophonist. In the 1980s, he joined Ivo Papazovs band Trakija, which became legendary in its native land. Despite popular success, Yunakov was repeatedly harassed, fined and twice imprisoned for playing Roma and Turkish music, which were prohibited at the time under the socialist governments program to eliminate "foreign elements" in Bulgarian music. Yunakov was eventually forced to emigrate to New York City in 1994, where he now performs regularly and has recorded two albums for the Traditional Crossroads label.
Far from the streets of New York City and very near the heart of Romany culture, in Indias northwest, is the home of the supremely talented percussionist Hameed Khan, Rajasthans unofficial cultural ambassador. In 1984, Khan moved to Paris and began sharing his music in a wide array of projects that crossed stylistic and geographical boundaries, including recordings with Transglobal Underground, Natacha Atlas, Lakshmi Shankar, Thierry Robin and Lo Jo. The following year, he formed the group Musafir to showcase pure Rajasthani music and performance art for the first time before Western audiences. Imagine a combination of Gypsy folk songs, dazzling percussion and the booming voice of the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan that is the sound of Musafir.
Joining Musafir, Taraf de Haïdouks, Kalyi Jag and the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble for this unique festival of Gypsy music are the Antonio Pipa Flamenco Dance troupe and Russias Kolpakov Trio. The Roma have quite a different history in Russia, dating back to the 15th century. Roma choirs, which began surfacing around this time, reached their peak in the 19th century and continued until the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Their music has been described in the classic literature of Pushkin and Tolstoy, and following the revolution, Roma folk music became an integral part of the education at Moscows National Conservatory. Musically, the Kolpakov Trios sound is centered around the seven-stringed guitar, the primary instrument of Russian Gypsies since the 18th century, on which the extra seventh string allows for melodic bass lines.
So, as "The Gypsy Caravan" rolls into Ann Arbor this Thursday, with its 40 musicians, six ensembles and myriad dancers, its the musical history of many worlds that it carries in its wagon. Dan Rosenberg writes frequently about music for the Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org