2. The Roma as mediators of culture: tradition and innovation in music.


More than an ethnic group that can be further divided in sub-ethnic groups, the Roma are a cast of artisans and outsiders who act as specialists in the interpretation of traditions - be they Turkish, Albanian, Serbian, Macedonian, and still others - and cultural mediators. This point may well evoke a continuity between the populations that left India in the Middle Ages and the present groups of European and Near and Middle Eastern Gypsies. The Roma have probably contributed to the formation of the present cultural heritage of the areas in which they have settled, and particularly to what one might call its 'Islamic' components. As a result of their origins, and their professional musical activities in all territories subject to Turkish domination, the Roma have exerted a considerable influence on musical life (10). I believe that these specialised interpreters of traditions (and specifically of musical traditions) played a considerable role in the importing into Western Europe of instruments and musical forms of Near and Middle Eastern origin, a role that is much more significant, in my view, than modern organology has acknowledged thus far. This point is especially relevant to the repertoires and to the objects of both ritual and domestic music.

As far as ceremonial and military repertoires are concerned, together with the trumpets and the drums with which these are played, theories that relate their diffusion into the West to the Crusades and to the military conflict between Islam and Christianity seem credible. On the other hand, this explanation appears much less convincing with regard to other musical instruments and forms of expression that still today are the attributes of some Gypsy groups (11). It should also be noticed that the areas which have acted as a filter for the introduction into the West of musical forms and instruments do correspond only occasionally with the borderline between Islam and Christianity. These include areas that are heavily populated by Gypsies, particularly in the south of Spain and the Balkans. The constant renovation of the instruments of the Roma tradition, as well as the quick distribution within their community of state-of-the-art technology, clearly indicate the current vitality of the cultural role of the Roma Khorakhané.

Tambourin and voice (.wav file 191 kb)

Tambourin player, Palermo - Photo N. Staiti

Cellular phones, VCRs, and satellite antennae are the new instruments of an ancient orality. Likewise, saxophones, drum-sets, and electronic keyboards have substituted almost completely the surle and the daouli, the oboes and the two-skin drums that the Roma themselves once spread across the Balkans (see Brandl 1996; Pettan 1996; Silverman 1996; Rice 1982). While visiting some of the families that reside in Italy I have often had the opportunity to witness the video recording of a party that took place in the home of some relative who had remained in Yugoslavia. In these parties, the dances were frequently accompanied by surle and daouli.

Khorakhané modern orchestra at wedding. St.Caterina Camp, Bologna - Photo: N. Staiti

The derogatory and ironic comment which is frequently heard in this case is that some kind of 'peasant celebration' is taking place, although it was very clear both to them and myself that the 'peasants' in question are in fact the Roma and their relatives. The reason for this comment is that the celebration is considered to be consist of 'the old stuff', by people who oppose change and who are ignorant of the ways of the world, i.e., like peasants. More recently introduced instruments (and here I exclude the accordion, which became common in Kosovo and Montenegro at the beginning of the twentieth century) represent in some way a restoration of tradition and a coherent, dynamic innovation of its codes, not a complete departure from them.

Electronic keyboards, allowing for non-diatonic scales, permit the performance of traditional Eastern European melodic patterns.

Keyboard: Dance music
mov file 443 kb) wav file 154 kb)

The glissando obtainable with the manual changer of pitch allows the imitation of the slight changes of tuning that the player produces on the surle with his lips, and can do so employing a far wider range than the old instrument would permit (12), thus emphasising the peculiarities of this musical language (see Pettan 1992).

The extremely tight membranes of two small drums of the drum-set imitate perfectly the sound of the darabouk, i.e., the goblet drum that is still used, sometimes, as a portable substitute for the drum-kit.

Drums: Baró Khoró - Great Dance (.wav file 156 kb)

The handy keyboard of the synthesiser, the sticks andthe elastic and strong synthetic membranes of the drum-kit, the system of keys on the saxophone, the mixer, the microphones, and the amplifiers allow a speed of phrasing, a precision of execution, a volume and a balance among the various voices of the orchestra that used to be unthinkable.

Saxophone: fragment of Taskim - (.wav file 190 kb)

All these factors enrich and renew the language of tradition in a most striking way. Some fundamental aspects of this language however are preserved, such as modes, rhythmic structures, phrasing, melodic materials, the relationship between fixed structures and improvisation, and the formulaic character of the repertory. Most important, the traditional openness to innovation and to the mixing of forms and material is preserved.

This attitude has always been a distinct character of the Roma people, one that particularly stands out in a world which is essentially agricultural and pastoral, and generally conservative. Today the Roma people continue to play the same role of mediators of culture that centuries ago led them to contribute to the importation into the Balkans, from South and East, of surle, daouli, darabouk, tambourines, and long-necked lutes, as well as to contribute probably to the diffusion of the violin among Eastern European peasants.

The use of these instruments today is, ironically, considered 'peasant-like', although it is still remembered and practiced on some occasions. In general, though, keyboards replace oboes, precisely because the Roma remain faithful to their role as mediators.

Dassikhané violin player. Sasso Marconi, Bologna
Photo N. Staiti

Therefore, we can identify the specific character of Roma culture in their manner of interpretation and in their role of bearers and preservers of tradition, rather than in distinct traditions that belong exclusively to them. The one significant exception of the language seems to underline further, rather than to negate, their particular role as outcasts and, simultaneously, as bearers of culture within the wider society.

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