1. The identity of a Gypsy community


The Gypsies are the descendants of populations originating in Northern India (see Fraser 1992, and De Vaux De Foletier 1990: 37-40) who, around the 1000 AD, were forced out by an expanding Islam, and, possibly, periods of famine (see Colocci 1889: 9-32, and Puxon 1979: 6-11). The Romani, which is the language spoken by most Gypsies in countless local dialects, is an Indic language that was modified by external influences of various provenance. Indeed, these influences indicate the paths they followed in their emigration to the West. In some regions of Northern India, especially in Rajasthan, there are still blacksmiths, players, dancers, jugglers, animal trainers, ambulants, beggars of low rank, whose names (such as Lohar, Kanjar, Beria) and occupations are to be found amongst Gypsy groups in Europe. During the emigration to the West, some groups settled in Persia, Turkey, and Greece (see De Vaux De Foletier 1990: 41-45), whereas others spread across the Slavic regions and settled in several areas of Western Europe, such as Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Belgium, Sweden and Finland (see De Vaux De Foletier 1990: 46-65).

The Gitanos, or Cales, living in Andalusia, in Northern Spain and in Southern France; the Manouches, or Sinti, living in France, Germany, Austria, as well as in the Italian regions of Piedmont, Veneto, and Emilia; the Cales, living in Northern Europe; the Roma of ex-Yugoslavia; the Roma and Sinti from Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece; and the Roma of Southern Italy (see Karpati 1994) all have cultural horizons, mythological and religious systems, daily habits and dialects that are quite different from one another.

Some are nomads or have been so until the relatively recent past; others are ambulants (2), whilst others are sedentary. All these groups have selectively absorbed the cultural habits of the populations of the area where they have settled or in which they have travelled. The only substantial difference between the Roma and the neighbouring populations lies, it would appear, in the language: the majority of the Gypsy groups know and make use of variants of Romani, even though they also speak the local languages, and in some cases these have completely replaced Romani.

Even the names that distinguish the various Gypsy groups bear witness to their proximity to a culture that is nonetheless different from their own. There is a certain confusion about the ethnonyms (either self-attributed or imposed from the outside) applied to Gypsy groups (see Salo 1979 and Liégeois 1994: 29-31). It is difficult to label each group in a simple and straightforward way: the various groups identify themselves or may be identified by others (i.e., by other Gypsy groups, or by the non-Gypsy populations who live on the same territory) by using names which overlap, or may mix, and, above all, follow non-homogeneous classificatory patterns (see De Vaux De Foletier 1990: 19-24). Roma, the general term with which many Gypsy groups define themselves in their totality (especially in the Balkans) is the plural of Rom ("man"), and simply means "people". Manouche, the self-denomination of the French Sinti groups, means "person". Calé (or Cales), the self-denomination of both the Andalusian Gitans and Northern European groups, means "black" — thus takes origin from a pigment of the skin darker than the local populations. The denominations of some Balcanic groups, such as Kalderashi, Ursari, and Lautari, refer to the prevalent occupation within each group (such as coppersmiths, bear-trainers, and musicians). Cergashi (orCergari) refers to groups of nomads who come for the most part from the ex-Yugoslavia. The term means "those of the tents," in opposition to permanent groups. The terms Harvati, Slovenska, Shiptari are used in Croat, Slovenian, and Albanian languages to indicate the place of provenance of, respectively, Croat, Slovenian, and Albanian groups. Obviously, these are names that were attributed to them by Gypsy groups coming from other areas, since they do not distinguish the Roma from the Croat, Slovenian, and Albanian populations who live in the same territory. For example, the Albanian Roma are called Shiptari by the Roma Harvati, or even by the Cergari; for the Albanians, they are simply Gabrdýn (i.e., 'Gypsies'), and call themselves simply Roma, or even Roma Khorakhané, meaning 'Muslim Roma'. Each group, then, may know a variety of names that are either imposed from the outside, or self-given; each of these names emphasises a different element of distinction from the other groups: area of provenance, activity, religion, nomadic life-style, and so forth. Every ethnonym, therefore, circumscribes a whole that intersects with others.

Music for St. Nicolaus Day at the Dassikhané camp, Sasso Marconi, Bologna
Photo N. Staiti

Names distinguishing Christian-Orthodox and Muslim Gypsies in the former Yugoslavia clearly show the close proximity of these two distinct Gypsy groups to the surrounding dominant culture. At the same time, however, these names also point to what it is that distinguishes these groups from one another.

'Dasikhané' (the name for the Christian-Orthodox) means 'in the fashion of the Serbs', whereas 'Khorakhané' (the name for the Muslims), means 'in the way of the Koran', i.e. of Islam. Thus, religious affiliation is such an important element that it is taken as a distinctive feature (3). But it is important to stress that these terms do not simply mean 'Muslim' or 'Christian', but rather 'in the fashion' of Muslims and Christian Serbs. Indeed, Christian Roma of Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro are commonly distinguished from Muslims by the term Gajekhané, meaning 'in the way of the gaje', i.e., of those who are not Roma, thus emphasising the fact that these groups are supposedly or actually more integrated in the wider society.

It should be clear that the differences between the nuptial rites and the music of the Khorakhané Shiptari and those of the Dasikhané are important, along with the more general cultural differences between the two groups. The rites of these two groups are virtually identical to those of the non-Roma people who live in the same territory: the Albanians from the Kosovo and Montenegro regions, who live alongside the Khorakhané, and the Serbs, who host several communities of Dasikhané. Music and dance for both Khorakhané and Dasikhané(at least the music performed by professional orchestras at feasts; the domestic situation is quite different), are closely connected to those of their non-Roma neighbours. The musicians are predominantly Roma, since professional and semi-professional musical activities are widespread among both the Dasikhané and the Khorakhané. They lend their skills indifferently to both Roma and Gaje. Thus, the music and the nuptial rites of the Khorakhané are virtually identical to those of the non-Roma Albanians, and the same is true for the Dasikhané and the local Serbs. As I will show below, the difference between the Roma rituals and those of the agrarian-pastoral communities who live in the same area lies in the way in which they are performed and interpreted, rather than in their structure.

The Roma share their religious practices, relationships and judicial systems, traditional costumes, everyday food and rituals, family and social rites, music and dances with these agrarian-pastoral communities. The texts of the songs, even those for ceremonies within the Roma community, are mostly in either Albanian or Serbian, not in Romani. They are, however, extremely conscious of their 'Gypsyness' (4) and are careful to emphasise the difference - however subtle and vague it may be - between themselves and others. At the same time, the Khorakhané Shiptari are strongly aware of the difference between themselves and the other Roma groups, or, in the case of Italy, between themselves and the Sinti: each one of these is, for the others, a 'Gypsy', i.e., a savage (5). However, despite the fact that the differences between various Roma groups are visibly and forcefully stressed, and although some are always 'Gypsies' to the others, the awareness of a supranational Gypsy identity (other than Roma) is also very strong: Slavonic Khorakhané and Dasikhané, but also French Manouches, Spanish Gitani, Italian Sinti, and even the nomads of Rajastan feel an affinity and believe that they share a common culture despite enormous cultural distances. The strength and the depth of this sense of belonging to an overarching cultural unity make it difficult to consider it as a recent development.

The Roma Khorakhané Shiptari, then, like most Gypsies, display a strong sense of distinct social identity but share the cultural horizons of the wider community to which they belong. This group distinguishes itself from the rest of the community through the use of Romani (which exists alongside, but does not substitute the local language), and also in part through their professional activities, as well as what could be defined as a way of interpreting local traditions. Indeed, the Roma Khorakhané Shiptari play a particular role in the varied and layered society to which they belong. Gypsies are normally (or have until recently been) horse breeders and traders, blacksmiths (then metal junk collectors and automobile-wreckers), beggars, musicians, dancers, jugglers, horse trainers, circus people, and itinerant side-show workers.

Khorakhané girl at the luna-park, Palermo - Photo N. Staiti

They define themselves primarily through what makes them different from the other social groups (6). Perhaps they might best be described as 'non-peasants', that is to say, not tied to the land and landlord, seasons, and a sedentary life. Their different ethnic origins are no doubt historically relevant for the purposes of determining the role that the Gypsies actually play within the larger society in which they live and interact. However, the ethnic element seems to be only one of a number of components of their identity, as far as it is perceived by themselves and by other groups (7).

The Khorakhané Shiptari, although consisting mainly of non-nomads, have traditionally also carried out activities of an itinerant nature. This fact explains, moreover, why the exodus towards the west by Serbian, Bosnian and Albanian populations as a result of the war in the former Yugoslavia affected primarily the Roma people, and did so with an intensity that reminds us of the expulsion of the 'Gypsies' of North-India by an expanding Islam in the Middle ages, an expulsion that, even then, was to scatter them westward. These 'non-peasants' have acquired a specialisation as professional or semi-professional interpreters of local traditions. In short, one could paradoxically say that today the Roma Khorakhané, as far as traditions go, are more Albanian than the Albanians, and it is just here that their specific character lies. They do not possess music or dances that distinguish them categorically from others, but as a general rule the best Albanian musicians and dancers are Roma. They read the coffee residues like the Albanians, but the most clever interpreters, as well as the great 'shamans' (8), are almost always Roma. Moreover, the community is not protected by a rigid endogamy, but by a rigorous patrilineal and patrilocal system. The son assumes the social identity and the cultural inheritance of the father's family, with whom he remains in case of separation or death of one of the parents, whether he be a Roma or an Albanian gaje. The wife too assumes the identity of the husband: she becomes a Romnì (i. e. a Roma woman) if she marries a Rom (a Roma man), and an Albanian if she marries an Albanian. It is therefore the women, in a special way, who become the intermediaries of tradition between the various groups. The differences, therefore, are not perceived as racial, as much as a matter of social roles and cultural specialisation (see interview and comments in note 9).

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