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Petra Gelbart

Is There Such a Thing as Romani Music?

Romani performers are masters of mixing historically separate genres, for reasons that go far beyond the oft-cited ’Gypsy nomadism’.

The zurna (a type of shawm), paired with the large drum called davul or tapan, is central to a type of music played almost exclusively by Roma.

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Unless we use the circular definition of ‘music played by and/or attributed to Romani people’, there is no musicological genre that encompasses all Romani music. The very divergent styles performed, historically shaped and constantly reshaped by Roma include flamenco, jazz manouche, Russian ‘romances’, Balkan (not to mention Middle Eastern) music, Hungarian czardas as well as fusions with jazz, hip hop, Western art music and numerous national ‘folk’ genres.

There is no ‘Gypsy scale’, rhythmic pattern or harmonic structure that unites them all, and these musical styles often have less in common with one another other than they do with the music of a given geographical region (e.g. Hungarian Romani vs Spanish Gitano music).

The cimbalom is a quintessential Romani instrument to be found in large parts of Eastern and Central Europe.

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Why, then, is the term ‘Gypsy music’ so compelling to audiences, record stores and even the Romani themselves? One answer lies in the ways Romani musicians tend to transform even the styles whose origins they had little or nothing to do with. This may be similar to the ways in which African-American artists worked with European styles when developing jazz. Virtuosity, rhythmic interest, tempo changes, altered scale degrees and more complex harmonic structures are among the elements that Roma and Sinti often add to existing music.

Just as important, Romani performers are masters of mixing historically separate genres, for reasons that go far beyond the oft-cited ‘Gypsy nomadism’. One thread running through a number of Romani styles that can be traced back to the Indian subcontinent is the use of percussive vocables (‘nonsense syllables’). In fact, ‘oral bass’ or ‘oral percussion’ is a hallmark of the style that is the most undeniably unique to Roma: namely, Hungarian Vlax Romani music (e.g. Kali Yag).

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Another practice that unites much of ‘Romani music’ is dance, some elements of which can likewise often be traced to lands east of Europe. Even some Romani groups that appear to have had no contact with one another for hundreds of years (judging by differences in dialect, music and beliefs) have certain dance movements and Romani-language song texts in common.

Finally, and of increasing importance, there are artists (such as the band Kale) that play ‘pan-Romani’ repertoires, choosing between, mixing and reworking established styles of Romani music.