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Petra Gelbart

The Romani Anthem as a Microcosm of Diversity

Official symbols

The song titled ‘Gelem, gelem’ (also ‘Dželem, dželem’, among other variants) was institutionalised as the national or international Romani anthem in 1971 at the first World Romani Congress. Until then, the song ‘Gelem, gelem’ had been known as a folk song to a large number of Roma, primarily in the Balkans.

‘I sincerely do not believe that one day we will have our own country, but we must still look forward in order to achieve at least some self-respect and independence as a minority.’

Fred Hoffman, Sinto activist

After the congress, the song was gradually disseminated as an international, at times political ‘official’ anthem. The third and fourth verses were conceived more or less anew at the 1971 congress of the International Romani Union, along with the Romani flag, which usually accompanies the anthem in political contexts.

The adoption of these two symbols, as well as the organised events and structures that made it possible, launched a visible, audible, verbally proclaimed and enduring set of discourses collectively known as Romani nationalism.

unknown | Romani flag | photography | mus_01302

‘Opre Roma’ – ‘Arise, Roma’

The exact text of the Romani anthem varies from subgroup to subgroup and individual to individual, as do opinions regarding the song’s significance. Federico ‘Fred’ Hoffman, who emigrated from Germany to Costa Rica, wrote that:

‘By creating our symbols (Anthem and Flag) we are reacting, in order to show that we are not willing to accept the role of underdogs and outcasts any longer. It is only a reaction against the action of non-Roma, who have treated and still are treating us like some special kind of human race. I sincerely do not believe that one day we will have our own country, but we must still look forward in order to achieve at least some self-respect and independence as a minority. I am sure that being united worldwide will help us.’

Margaret Moon, an American Romani woman, noted that: ‘It is a national anthem of a people whose ethnic nation has no borders. I think the Roma have been accustomed to the double concept of a kind of patriotism for a long time now.’

There are still Romani people in the world who have never heard ‘Gelem, gelem’ or who do not consider it their anthem. Roma in Hungary, for example, have their own anthem. Sinti, many of whom have a strongly separate identity from Roma, may feel that the international anthem does not pertain to them. One Sinto member of a discussion wrote: ‘We are not interested in a Romani anthem because we are not the same people.’

For his part, the late Russian-Israeli Romani activist Valery Novoselsky summarised the significance of ‘Gelem, gelem’ as follows: ‘The Romani national anthem is important not only for our politicians and representation, but also for ordinary people. When non-Roma hear it, they can understand more of who we are.’

Musical diversity mirrors Romani diversity

The reasons for the anthem’s wide dissemination include the song’s adaptability to the range of musical styles favoured by Romani performers and audiences. The multiple existence of the anthem in a number of tempi and text versions and with varying ornamentation seems to work well for the aesthetic needs of different groups.

In fact, the Balkan-style rendition of ‘Gelem, gelem’ by the ‘king of Romani music,’ Saban Bajramovic, has a vocal line that takes motivic variation to an extreme. The anthem is more codified than most Romani songs, but its relative lack of standardisation nevertheless serves as a Romani identity marker thanks to the wide room for improvisation both in performances of ‘Gelem, gelem’ and within Romani cultural products in general.

As an anthem, ‘Gelem, gelem’ expresses Romani cultural uniqueness not only on a musical but also a linguistic and thematic level. Its listeners receive what they expect from Romani music but not what they imagine to be a national anthem of the kind heard at the Olympics.

Brigit Glaner outlines the aesthetic processes by which most non-European nations abandoned their ‘native music traditions’ in the composition of their national anthems in favour of the ‘progressiveness’ suggested by the styles disseminated by colonial powers. But the Romani anthem has not followed such a process. There are virtually no art-music orchestral or choral arrangements of ‘Gelem, gelem’.

In fact, many Roma would agree that the song’s proper vocal delivery depends not on any set standard but on the liberal infusion of timbres, gestures, facial expressions, vibrato and other elements read as highly emotional in the performance. With the textual, musical and affective specificity that defines the anthem rather than playing simply a secondary role, ‘Gelem, gelem’ makes a decidedly Romani impact on the soundscape of anthems in Europe and beyond.