ART

The Roma and music

The art of sounds in Romani culture

Europe is a cultural mosaic and also a musical mosaic, and each of its people is the guardian of rhythms and styles that have been renewed over the centuries, also due to external Oriental and African American influences. Roma have also made their contribution to this rich European cultural mosaic with distinctive colours and forms ranging from the popular tradition of the Balkans to Spanish flamenco and French jazz manouche.

The Roma’s unmistakable way of making music with their own rhythms, forms and performances has drawn its sap from the geographic region and historical and social conditions in their host countries. The richness of Romani music rhythms, melodies and harmonies has been used by composers such as Liszt, Brahms, Schubert, Falla, Granados, Turina, Ravel, Debussy and Dvorak, but the merits of the Roma have never been fully recognised.

Always disconnected from the parameters of non-Roma life, the Roma experience their music as a profound expression of their existence, as a means of communicating ethical and cultural values, but also as a way of psychological easing, of release from the repressions of a deaf and inhospitable society. In his essay On Gypsies and Their Music in Hungary Liszt wrote:

…The art of music is for them a sublime language, a song mystic in itself though clear to the initiated, which they use to express what they want without being influenced by anything foreign to their desires. They have invented their music for their own use, to speak, to sing about themselves to themselves, to remain united, and they have invented the most touching monologues.

To understand Romani music you have to live it in the Romani way. Talking about Romani music means talking about Romani culture and its evolution, which follows the fortunes of a people wandering the world, scattered and oppressed, who in an extraordinary way has jealously guarded its essential characteristics in time and space. A people characterised by its destiny, by its terrible fatalism, by an eternal wandering to relieve the pain of living, by an eternal restart.

Romani music reflects the profound mood of a people that has made pain and instability into the hallmarks of its own artistic, moral and psychological virtuosity, and in it there must be elegiac, dissonant, melancholy and rebellious traits, and yet at the same time it is lively, courageous music, full of urgent rhythms, full of life. Romani performance is creative and characterised by improvisation resulting from personal knowledge matured over the course of life. The rhythmic richness, lyrical passages and adornments are typical traits inherited from the old oriental school and handed down from parents to children to our own day.

This intimate force which the Roma have flows from this Roma performance and is the secret of their survival in a hostile world. These brief images trace the main features of the practice of Romani performance: overcoming any rhythmic and metric rigidity (the famous rubato) by mimicry of natural flow; the melodic lines sustained by a constant effusive lyricism due to the experience of travelling and life in the open air, in contact with nature; expression of feelings and experiences through the free and subjective provision of the smallest dynamic nuances of rhythm and phrasing.

Romani sensitivity is involved in the features of musical language by using them in a characteristic way. The constant requirement of Roma to “rely” on musical elements that are new and strange to their own tradition hides the intimate need to survive, to revitalise oneself through the exchange of elements absorbed from one’s surroundings.

Romani musical language

Culture which is handed down orally contains more emotional weight and a greater popular flavour, and forms part of the inner life of the people that preserves it. Music in all the peoples of the world, even in the least civilized, produces union, enjoyment, harmonious coexistence. For the Roma, music has been helpful to “survive” and “free themselves” from external pressures. Exuberant, teasing, boastful, sensitive, passionate, exhibitionistic, self-centred, generous, the Roma always reveal their qualities and recondite inner culture whose meaning they can extract in external attitudes, but above all there is a value that the Roma reveal, constantly present in their music and which is the basis of their philosophy of life: freedom. The Rom is free like a wild horse.

To better understand Romani music, it has to be viewed in relation to music of Indian origin, and the latter in relation to Western music. In India music has retained its ritual and magic until recent times, in other words until social changes and the arrival of the mass media have altered Indian civilization. The time factors that regulate the structure of Western music have hardly any significance in India and so a song can last more than an hour.

The Western musician is very careful about clearness of form, immediacy of expression and originality. Indian and Eastern musicians in general like to improvise more; their music has no precise development and continues in a repetitive way without reaching a conclusion. The listener is entranced by the singers’ voices, the sound of the instruments and the incessant rhythms in an attitude of passive and static reception. These canons are widely found in the music of the Roma and particularly in the traditional music of central-eastern Europe and the Balkans. Bearing in mind also that Romani musicians are self-taught, cannot read music and use intervals (quarter tones) which are uncommon in Western harmonies, it is easy to see why their music may seem “strange” and “irregular” to European music experts.

Franz Liszt himself showed this in his essay On Gypsies and Their Music in Hungary:

The learned musician is so surprised by the strangeness of the intervals of Romani music that he is willing to consider them as defects of execution; at the same time he is disoriented by the coarse modulations which clash with his sacred musical dogmas to the extent that if he could take them seriously he would be indignant and scandalised.” Yet Liszt also emphasises that “…a listener who is inexpert yet has good taste is struck at once by these new elements which impose on him and at the same time delight him. However unimpressionable he may be by the more expressive aspect, he will enjoy such music more than a professor, steeped in his scientific prejudices.

But what are these defects? In addition to the use of quarter tones and numerous ornamental flourishes, the inexactness consists of the freedom of modulations from one tone to another, the constant use of enharmonic passages. The Romani musician can thus start their performance as and when they want, starting from a main melodic line and concluding after infinite passages and endless inventions of contrasting musical phrases; every note, every phrasing, every pause tailored according to their taste to the final resolution. Even the rhythms are free in their enormous expressive wealth. Liszt underlines here how the rhythms elude any preset rule:

…they go from binary to ternary movement according to the requirement of tumultuous impressions or lethargy.

These melodies or main motifs and the way of playing, like the language or songs, have been handed down orally from generation to generation. There have been many non-Romani musicians who have tried to transcribe them on staves by “honing” elements that seemed “harsh” to them and thus emptying them of their original content. The melodies are based mainly on two imported Oriental scales. On the first in major, the second and sixth scales are lowered by a semi-tone: Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si-Do. On the other minor scale, the fourth and seventh increase by a semitone: La-Si-Do-Re # -Mi-Fa-Sol # -La. These scales are tailored to the taste of the Roma and used to create motifs which are sometimes glad and sometimes sad; rhythms which are sometimes very fast, at other times slow; sounds sometimes resonant, sometimes soft which continue and escape, leaving the impression of a fantastic race in a landscape oscillating with sound visions, like the fleeting images that pass before our eyes from the window of a moving train.

Once again the great Liszt enlightens us about this issue:

The sound of their instruments is second to none. The note of the violins emerges strident and clear; the vigour of their execution is amazing. The feverishly vibrant strings seem about to break at any time, in a paroxysm of sonorous tension.

This is the Romani music which has found an audience of great fans who are attracted by its bright melodies, irregular harmonic cadences, vibrant dissonances and frantic rhythms. The non-Roma’s astonishment is huge because they have a negative stereotype of the Roma and hence they find it extraordinary that Roma can do so much musically. With a refrain or a contrast, almost always taken from the local musical tradition, the Roma create precious musical gems that captivate sensitive souls. Imitation soon gives way to creation, and Romani sensitivity comes to bear on the dynamic, rhythmic and timbral aspects and brings variations to the melody, rhythm and modal structure. The way this happens represents the style of the artist, which in turn is determined by the time, the geographical area and the musical genre adopted, and obviously by their talent.

Liszt enlightens us again, and who can explain Romani musical language better than he who listened to the Roma repeatedly?

… The flourishes are simply musical filigree work, embroidery, an arabesque. Everything that fantasy could imagine of the sinuosity and zigzags through endless periphrasis and paraphrase, all this was used by Roma to adorn their music. Therefore the true artist is the one who takes the motif of the song or dance as a summary of a discourse or as the epigraph of a poem, and based on this original idea, of which he does not lose sight, improvises, wanders and rambles with a profusion of mediums, trills, scales, arpeggios, diatonic and chromatic passages, groups and scherzos. In this powerful blooming of sounds, often the melody is reduced to simple execution of the thread binding the garland, hidden and invisible under the attractive buds and dazzling petals; and the main phrase is glimpsed as a smiling sultana semi-hidden behind her veil, strewn with multiform and polychrome straws.

Roma music is still “hidden and invisible” to those who do not understand the Romani way; Liszt, however, knew the Romani environment, and hence the deep relationship between Roma and music, very well. In this too he was a great.

Writn by Paco Suárez and Santino Spinelli.

Uso de cookies

Este sitio web utiliza cookies para que usted tenga la mejor experiencia de usuario. Si continúa navegando está dando su consentimiento para la aceptación de las mencionadas cookies y la aceptación de nuestra política de cookies, pinche el enlace para mayor información. ACEPTAR

Aviso de cookies