Romani spiritual music

The thing that links Roma with time is music. As a form of artistic expression it can be traced back to the 3rd century. Some specialists in Romani history trace the name Rrom/i (the name Roma give to themselves in the Romani language) to the Dom people [1]. In India, this name was given to an ancient tribe of wandering musicians. What is undeniable is that music has been a vital part of Romani life since the time of the first historical documents making reference to them. Documentation of this had been found from the 9th century throughout Europe in the territories of the Empire of Constantinople [2]. Roma are ambassadors for Eastern music in Europe. They have preserved its Eastern roots while also introducing new autochthonous sounds, and in turn have shaped the music in which they have come into contact. Romani influences are noticeable in much of Balkan music, both classical and popular. Examples from classical music include Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms, while those from the popular realm include Klezmer, Czardas and the manele music style. In Spain, Romani influences are present in the work of Granados, Falla and Turina, and particularly in flamenco music.

Romani music, far from being limited to a static and unequivocal vision, continues to explore new forms of expression: Caló influences can be heard in today’s rock, pop, jazz, hip-hop, funk, minimal and techno music. One of the most fruitful and ignored forms of Romani music from the last five decades are Romani spiritual songs known as alabanzas. There are practically no bibliographical references about them and yet their influence on most Romani artists of recent decades is clear. They comprise an ignored genre that has had a silent influence on Spanish music. Much Romani, or Romani-influenced music from recent decades cannot be understood without an understanding of Romani spiritual music. Its influence is present in artists such as Los Chichos, Ray Heredia, El Zingaro, Niña Pastori, Ketama, Lole y Manuel, La Barbería del Sur, Parrita, Guadiana, Montse Cortés and many others. Not surprisingly many of these artists practice the evangelical religion and have interpreted and continue to interpret alabanzas.

HermanoSisquetoA very recent and media-orientated manifestation of this reality is David Barrull, the last winner of the TV game show La Voz broadcast on Telecinco. Even though the programme’s coaches insist on classifying his sound as flamenco, they are unaware that his musical origins go back to gospel and that he currently sings in a gospel choir. His way of making music has been forged in Romani churches and not in the flamenco venues known as tablaos. Not surprisingly, the song with which he had the courage and honesty to win the popular game show was made famous by Rocío Jurado, although it had been composed and performed by El Hermano Sisquetó as a Romani alabanza entitled Como las alas al viento.

The context in which this music emerged and was shaped goes back to the 1960s. The rural exodus experienced by Spanish society also occurred amongst the Romani population. The government’s response was the massive concentration of Roma in the outskirts of cities. The best-known result of this exclusion was the creation of ghetto districts, and the problems associated with them [4]Other changes also occurred within the Romani community. This historical period, like many others concerning Roma, is yet to be researched. The change that has and continues to produce the most consequences to the intra-Roma fabric has to do with the prevalence of religious beliefs. Devout Catholics have become fervent evangelists.

This change in faith has yet to be analysed [5], and it raises many questions. What is true is that the most significant collective movement in the history of the Romani people occurred in relation to this event. The Romani evangelical movement was launched in the late 1950s by Emiliano Jiménez Escudero, the son of nomadic Romani watchmakers  [6] .It would of course be an overgeneralisation to attribute the creation of the evangelical Romani movement to a single person. It was nonetheless started by a group of no more than twenty men and women. And we should remember that they did so in a historical period in which religious freedom was not permitted. This is why some evangelical pastors were imprisoned. Despite the difficulties and the initial reluctance of the authorities and many Roma, the number of conversions soon rose to the point that the Evangelical Church of Philadelphia was officially chartered [7].

Today it has more than 1,000 locations in Spain, making it the most significant collective movement within the Romani community. While it is true that not all Roma practice this religion, it is the predominant denomination amongst Spanish Roma. One of the keys to its success is that since its founding it has been managed and directed by and for Roma, without this meaning that ethnic criteria influence whether one will be accepted into the church. And it is within these churches that a new variety of Romani music has been developed. It is therefore a kind of music made by and for Roma.

In this regard Santino Spinelli and Paco Suárez [8], listed three essential spheres of Romani music: professional, entertainment and family. The first of these spheres is represented by the work of individuals who have earned popular recognition (Django Reinhardt, Demetrio Karman, Janos Bihari, Camarón). The sphere of entertainment includes the work of semi-professional bands who play in small venues. The sphere of the family is where Roma play music for themselves. Alabanzas are included within this classification, which is why they are considered to be music made by and for Roma. One could close the gap between these spheres and establish an analogy between contemporary Romani religious music and what some flamencologists have called the “hermetic” phase of flamenco.

The creative genesis that led from siguiriya music to the alabanzas should be understood as a tragic tension between the need to move away from flamenco and the impossibility of doing so. For religious reasons, the music that was played at Romani celebrations had to distance itself from the flamenco flavour [9]. This is due to the differentiation drawn by this religious congregation between the profane and the sacred. Flamenco belongs to the profane, meaning “in the world”. This does not mean that evangelical Roma would easily renounce flamenco but that they would have to play a new kind of music in religious places. This need gave rise to a tension between the flamenco heritage and the need to find new forms of expression.

The excesses of flamenco were gradually harmonised by Christian performers. The piercing cry of the cantaor found its audience. In this musical genre, the desperate depth of the quejío intersects with the verticality of its hope. This twistedness has given rise to a new Romani musical genre: Romani spiritual compositions, or “alabanzas, as they are called by members of the congregation. This genre was born of Romani flamenco; it is Romani but no longer flamenco, even though its sounds incessantly evoke that genre. This is evident in the early alabanzas, where the dejos and mannerisms are absolutely flamenco while the singing is basically done by a soloist with guitar accompaniment [10].

The establishment of the evangelical movement also saw the formation of choirs in churches, and alabanzas subsequently began to separate from flamenco and claim their own creative space. The first choirs began to form in the 1980s, composed of men and women and the inclusion of backing bands. Guitars, pianos, violins, flutes, drums and basses were amongst the instruments accompanying the voices of the choirs. The choirs of the Romani churches have been and are the school where several generations of musicians have been trained and continue their musical education.

This Romani genre reached its maturity in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the emergence of groups and singers such as La Hermana Tabita, El Coro de Sevilla, La Hermana Loli de Canarias, El Hermano Rayo, El Chango, El Sisquetó, El Hermano Julio, El Bernabé, Antonio Rebló, Salomón Motos and Frasquito Rodríguez. This creative effervescence normalised an exceptional phenomenon: that of the Romani singer-songwriter.

Romani spiritual music is built around the way celebrations are conducted. Romani liturgy draws a distinction between three phases: participation, introspection and teaching-learning. In Romani worship services this is the usual sequence, although this scheme may be subject to change, depending on how congregation members interpret the free will of the Holy Spirit. Each of the three phases corresponds to three states which the Romani liturgy attempts to inspire: action-participation, introspection and teaching-learning [11].

During the phase that I have called participation, an attempt is made to seek the active involvement of all members of the congregation. Everyone sings, everyone palm claps, everyone prays, everyone says Hallelujah! This moment usually occurs at the beginning and end of worship services, although it may occur from start to finish. The second phase I have mentioned, that of introspection, occurs when a climate exists where the faithful go into a state of inner reflection and communication with the divine. This phase is the most unruly of the three. It may occur at any time during services or not at all. In regards to the third phase, which I have called teaching-learning, the teaching is that which the pastors transmit to members of their congregations by means of daily sermons. And during all of these phases music is present. From the choir come the Romani alabanzas, which find ways to represent and assist the three mentioned phases. On this basis I can establish the next classification within types of Romani alabanzas: those of joy, adoration and teaching.

Joyful alabanzas aim to involve the participation of the entire congregation through music [12]. Those of adoration are usually performed by a soloist or with the accompaniment of a choir during the refrains [13]. The intention of these alabanzas is to contribute to the creation of a climate of inner contemplation. The alabanzas of teaching are those whose lyrics seek to convey a moral lesson. This kind of alabanza is usually sung by a solo artist, a trend which has spawned a whole generation of singer-songwriters [14]. To these alabanza types we must add a new emerging type, the alabanza for dancing. The introduction of dance to celebrations is an extension of the also incipient Romani religious drama. Both of these are too recent for us to have gained a proper perspective on them. But it is pertinent to take note of this new type of alabanza to underscore the vitality of this genre.

The vitality and vigour of this musical genre is evident in the continuous creation of musical records, which has resulted in an incipient professionalisation of the internal market. Although the quality of these musical productions is highly variable, the best in Romani music can now be found as much in churches as at tablao venues, if not to say that such musical ability has merely returned to the churches.

  • Cantón Delgado, Manuela: Gitanos Pentescotanles, Sevilla: Sigantura Demos 2004
  • De Vaux de Foletier F. Mil años de Historia de los Gitanos. Barcelona: Plaza y Janes, 1974
  • Jiménez Escudero, Emilio: Memorias, Barcelona: RTV amistad 2005
  • Kenrick, Donald: Los Gitanos de la India al Mediterráneo. Madrid: Interface. 1995
  • San Román Espinosa, Teresa: La diferencia inquietante, Barcelona: Siglo XXI 2001
  • Spinelli, Santino / Suárez, Paco: Los gitanos y la música. Barcelona: Rev. I Tchatchipen nº 36 Pág.40-47 -2001
Written by Isaac Motos.