By Donald Cohen

Gypsy-Voices-175My recent book on the subject of Roma (Gypsy) music was the most difficult of the three I’ve written, the first examining Portuguese fado, and the next dealing with tango from Argentina and around the world. The scope of the first two musical forms are limited; fado by the size of the country and its culturally limited relationship to Portugal, tango by its musical form, i.e its unique rhythm and that of the dance that it frequently accompanies.

Roma, or ‘Gypsy’ music, however, has no such limitations. It transcends both musical and geographical borders. The people who produce it, about ten million in Europe alone, and millions elsewhere, have no homeland and, until about a hundred years ago, no written language with which to pass down their music, their lyrics and their history.

It is so vast a subject, that I felt the need to limit the book itself to Eastern Europe and to narrow it down in this article to examining the music of two Balkan countries with large Roma populations and with a very rich musical heritage.

The Romani tribes, originating in central India, some say Rajasthan, began migrating from there in successive waves, reaching Europe around nine hundred years ago and arriving in the Balkans around the fourteenth century. In some areas the Romani tribes were tolerated or even accepted, in most they met with great hostility and discrimination which continues to this day.In Romania,the Romani population, after some generations of acceptance, were cruelly enslaved for centuries, not being emancipated until eighteen fifty-six.

During World War II the Romani of Europe were targeted by the Nazis and during the Holocaust,which the Roma poignantly call the Porrajmos (Devouring), between half and three-quarters of a million of them were exterminated in Hitler’s concentration camps. In spite of continuing persecution by various European nations in recent years, the Romani have made increasing strides to create a true national identity, adopting a flag, a national anthem, and achieving recognition by the United Nations.

There are, in fact, two different kinds of Romani music: that which they create for themselves and that created for their non-Roma audiences. This was true almost everywhere, but even more prevalent in Eastern Europe, and nowhere was this more true than in Hungary.

In mid-nineteenth century Hungary the music so endearing to the hearts of native Hungarians was the urban music created and performed by ‘Gypsy’ orchestras. This music, lauded and imitated by the non-Roma audiences and musicians alike, was referred to as style Hungrois. To be found everywhere, in bars and cafes, and at celebrations such as weddings, christenings and birthdays, this music, which included the popular songs and art compositions of both Roma and non-Roma musicians, was wildly popular not only with the poorer and middle classes but it often had the patronage of the local aristocracy.

In the late eighteenth century, when Hungary was part of the Hapsburg Empire, Roma ensembles were employed to create and perform a new dance music called verbunkos; both the dance and the music that accompanied it were specifically designed to stimulate the patriotism of Hungarian youth, thus luring them to enlist in the Emperor’s armies. The verbunkos began as a slow and rhythmic dance, gradually increasing in speed and intensity to quick, stirring, tempos. It is this musical form that developed in the mid-nineteenth century into the wildly popular czardas of Hungary’s bars and cafes.

The rural Hungarian Romani music, however, was very different, consisting of slow ballads describing the harsh realities of life as well as vibrant up tempo dance tunes. Although occasionally accompanied by musical instruments, lack of funds to buy them made this quite rare, and the songs were often performed a capella, accompanied by rhythmic grunts, drumming on boards or cans, sometimes by tapping spoons or sticks in a unique, seemingly improvised style call “oral bassing”. Songs of this nature were often referred to as “rolled songs”.

On the whole, urban Hungarian Roma music is characterized by being chiefly instrumental music. The Hungarian music historian Bálint Sárosi noted that a Roma musician once remarked “when Roma perform Hungarian music, they lose their tongues”.

Ando DromAmong the top Roma performance groups from Hungary are Kali Jag, this group performed several years ago at Royce Hall at UCLA, and is represented in my book Gypsy Voices: Songs from the Romani Soul, Ando Drom, and Parno Graszt. There is one more Roma performer that reminds me of earlier days. Many years ago, during a trip to Budapest, my wife and I invited a Hungarian couple that had befriended us to dinner at the celebrated cafe called in Austrian Matthiaskeller or Mátyás Pince, in Hungarian,where we were treated to the finest Hungarian Roma orchestra we’d ever heard. The prima violinist, Sandor Lakatos, we learned, was a legendary performer and orchestra leader, the second, nearly equally brilliant violinist was a boy of only about 12 or 13, who we learned years later, was his nephew Roby Lakatos, who now has taken his uncle’s place as one of Hungary’s greatest.

In the Balkans, in which Hungary and Romania are included, one interesting phenomenon is the relationship between the Roma performers and the local klezmer musicians. It was often the practice that, if a klezmer orchestra had an engagement to perform, perhaps at a wedding or bar mitzvah, and needed additional musicians to fill their ranks, the local Roma would join them; the Jewish musicians reciprocated when needed by the Roma performers.

As a result of this exchange, when the ranks of Jewish klezmer performers were decimated to near extinction during the Holocaust, it was sometimes those surviving Roma musicians who retained and reintroduced the melodies of the klezmer repertoire for the next generation of Jewish musicians. It was as a reflection of this relationship, perhaps, that some years back, Roby Lakatos released an album ‘Klezmer Karma” with Jewish vocalist Miryam Fuks.

In neighboring Romania, wonderful instrumental music: long accompanied ballads and wild, intense dances, is performed chiefly upon violin, accordion, cymbalom and double bass. Occasionally, as in earlier days one hears the cobza (a form of lute) and the pan flute. I even have an old recording of a wonderful orchestral performance with the soloist performing on a pear leaf. Even with this existing instrumental resource, however, vocal music, the haunting lặutari song, is an essential part of the Romanian Roma repertoire; I have often remarked in describing this music that, while it might be possible that there could be more beautiful music then the lăutari music of Romania, I have never heard any.

Music on the Gypsy Route - vol 2The word lăutari is derived from lăutar (lute) and is the name of a Roma tribe whose members are chiefly known and admired for their musical talents. These performers dominated the Romanian music scene, performing in small bands known as tarafuri (singular: taraf) in local taverns and cafes, as well in the towns and countryside at local celebrations e.g. weddings, birthdays, and other events.

One of the most celebrated examples of a lăutari Roma community, or settlement, known in Romales, the Romani tongue, as mahalas, was the little village of Clejani, from whose ranks came the celebrated Roma musical group, Taraf de Haïdouks (Band of Brigands) who made several recordings and toured very successfully worldwide, even performing several years ago in Royce Hall at UCLA.

Some additional great lặutari performers featured in Gypsy Voices are Gabi Lunca, Romica Puceanu, and The Gore Brothers. One non-Roma but very fine performer is Maria Tanase.

It’s important to remember that the music played by the lăutari, as was true of the Roma in Hungary, was not always a pure Romani creation. These Roma musicians, and, similarly, the incredibly talented Romani musicians everywhere, are great adapters of the music of their neighbors. They’ve also succeeded as professional musicians by playing the music their audiences wanted to hear, which is often the rural folk music or city music of the local population.

However, this leads us to one great debate that all the wonderful music produced and that preoccupied a number of prominent musicologists, particularly Gadje (non-Roma) scholars during the last century. It consisted of one question: are the Romani musicians who have produced this wonderful music creators or merely adaptors or imitators? So deeply imbedded into Hungarian music were Roma contributions (the same can easily be said of Romanian music) that Franz Liszt considered them the creators of the entire body of Hungarian ethnic music. Later scholars heatedly denied this and called them mere ‘sponges’ of local music, ‘merely decharacterizing’ and ‘gypsifying’ it.

Although modern scholars continue to be divided while acknowledging that the Romani’s greatest musical gifts lie in their ability to interpret, intensify and even reinvent the music of the surrounding culture, this in no way diminishes the truly remarkable level of talent and creativity and the Romani’s priceless musical legacy.

Shortlist of general background CDs:

Ando Drom: Phari Mamo, Network Medien, 1997

Music On the Gypsy Route vol 2 (compilation), Fremeaux and Associs, 2000

The Rough Guide to Gypsy Music (compilation), World Music Network, 2009

Donald Cohen's new book is entitled Gypsy Voices: Songs from the Romani Soul. His two earlier works are Fado Portugul’s: Songs from the Soul of Portugal and Tango Voices: Songs from the Soul of Buenos Aires and Beyond. They are available at