Central Europe


Tess Lulu Orban

Romani Music in Hungary

Historical background

Romani music is as diverse as the various Romani cultures. Hungarian Romani music is no exception, and even within the genre there are many variations. Most Hungarian Roma are subdivided into the Romungro, Lovari, and Boyash groups.

Partly as a result of prejudice and racist policies, many Roma in Hungary – particularly Romungre and Boyash – do not speak Romani, but rather Hungarian. In 1783 Emperor Joseph II decreed a blanket prohibition on the use of the Romani language, under penalty of 24 cane strokes, as part of a larger and draconian law aimed at breaking up and assimilating Romani families. Some Roma in Hungary, however, speak a mixture of Hungarian, Romani, and/or other languages, such as the Beás (Boyash) dialect of Romanian.

Vlax Roma

While the popular image of Hungarian Romani music is that of a band or string orchestra, older traditional Romani music – or rather Romani music that had been subject to less influence from the country in which the musicians lived – was mostly vocal and employed clapping, tongue-clicking and other percussive techniques. “Oral bass” and oral percussion (akin to Indian drum syllables) are still very common, and it could be argued that they are a unique feature of Romani music, especially among Hungarian Lovara and other Vlax Roma. Most songs are sung in Hungarian and/or Romani and sometimes even in a sort of para-Romani dialect that is unique to Hungarian Roma.


An example of oral bass from the EtnoRom ensemble

Musical training

Hungarian Romani music, which has come under varying degrees of influence from – and confluence with – ethnic Hungarian styles, is performed with the same scales as other Central European music, although at times Romani musicians are more likely to use a modified harmonic minor mode with an additional augmented second interval. According to established musicological terminology in the Romani language, Romani songs fall into two categories: loke gila (slow songs or chachi vorba [true speech] – some Romungre call such music “árva nóta,” [orphan song]) and khelimaske gila (dance songs or, in Hungarian, “pattogós”).

Many amateur Romungro and Lovari musicians play by ear and do not necessarily know how to read music, which may cause them to be looked down upon by non-Romani musicians, who have often studied at a conservatory. However, a good number of Romani vocalists and instrumentalists who are professional musicians have had formal musical training. These performers are adept at reading musical notation and verbalising music theory, having attended some of the country’s major musical institutions, such as the Liszt Academy in Budapest.

Since the 1990s, many Romani bands and orchestras have been adapting music from other Romani subgroups, as well as creating completely new styles of music, such Romani hip-hop (e.g. the group Fekete Vonat).

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