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Hazel Marsh

Romani/Traveller Music in the UK and Ireland

Romani/Traveller groups

The UK and Ireland are home to several ethnic Romani/Traveller groups, including Pavees (Ireland), Nawkens (Scotland), Kale (Wales), Romanichals (England), Bargees, Fairground/Circus Travellers and Roma. The impact of these groups on British and Irish society is rarely acknowledged, except when they are considered to pose a social problem,

Yet in 1906, Cecil Sharp – the founding father of the English folk revival – wrote “the finest ... bit of singing I had ever heard was that of a Romanichal, Betsy Holland. In the 1950s, the eminent folklorist Hamish Henderson remarked that collecting traditional songs from Scottish Travellers was “like holding a can under Niagara Falls in order to catch water”.

“Gypsy music” as performed at UK music festivals may not reflect local Traveller/Romanichal identity.

Musical tradition and invention

Masters of innovation and flexibility, Travellers and Romanichals have traditionally selected and adapted songs from mainstream genres, and transmitted these orally to subsequent generations. Their distinct historical and cultural experience leads them to approach music and song differently from the majority Gorja (Anglo-Romani for non-Traveller or non-Romanichal) population.

Not bound by the same conventions as Gorjas, Travellers and Romanichals deliberately vary harmony and metre with every rendition of a song. Singing styles are traditionally solo, dramatic, slow-paced and loud (to carry outdoors), while music is played on portable instruments – the fiddle, the Jew’s harp, the melodeon or spoons.

As cultural anthropologist Carol Silverman has pointed out, music and dance provide one of the few arenas available to Roma for the positive articulation of public identity. However, like other oppressed and marginalised groups, Travellers and Romanichals have little control over how they are represented by others.

Festival politics

The exotic portrayal of “Gypsies” as innately musical, wild and passionate reinforces commonplace ideas about “authenticity” that may lead to Travellers and Romanichals in the UK and Ireland being dismissed as “not real Gypsies”.

Indeed, ‘Gypsy music’ as performed at UK music festivals may not reflect local Traveller/Romanichal identity. For example, “The 1,000 Year Journey” festival held at the Barbican in London in 2000 was billed as an event to “Get in touch with your inner gypsy [sic] ... Come and feel the heat of a Gypsy fire”.

Organised by experts in world music, the festival featured predominantly East European and Flamenco music genres. According to the Romani journalist Jake Bowers, no local Romani/Traveller groups were consulted; the organisers fell into the trap of “exoticism”, representing “Gypsies” as belonging to another place and time.

The exotic portrayal of “Gypsies” at such festivals as innately musical, wild and passionate reinforces commonplace ideas about “authenticity” that may lead to Travellers and Romanichals in the UK and Ireland being dismissed as “not real Gypsies”. This can have serious consequences. As Professor of Romani Studies Thomas Acton has observed, racism towards Travellers and Romanichals is frequently rooted in the perception that these groups do not match mythical stereotypes of the “true Gypsy” closely enough.

Songs performed by Irish and Scottish Travellers and British Romanichals may not be “easy listening” for most Gorjas. But they are, according to English folk singer and collector Shirley Collins, “totally fascinating”.

English folk artist Martin Carthy wrote in the sleeve notes to his CD Signs of Life (1998) that Mike Yates’s 1974 field recordings of English Romanichal Levi Smith “confronted everything I had thought made musical sense, and changed it”.

English folk singer Norma Waterson is an admirer of the singing of the Brazils, Wiggy Smith, Duncan Williamson, Jasper, Minty and Levi Smith, Mary Ann Haynes, Phoebe Smith, and Belle Stewart, to name but a few of the Travellers and Romanichals recorded by Mike Yates and other collectors.

It is ironic that ethnic groups so frequently excluded from official representations of British and Irish life became the carriers of a folk tradition that urbanisation, industrialisation and modernisation virtually extinguished in the Gorja population.