Gypsy Music Festival - Part 2 (1995)

(Read part 1 here)

The first (and possibly only) International Gypsy Music Festival in Switzerland in August 1995 brought together over one hundred Rom musicians from eight different countries, from Rajasthan to Spain, Egypt to Hungary, Macedonia to Switzerland. They seemed eager to forget differences and meet those they considered their distant relations, attending each other's performances and knowledgeably clapping and shouting when the going got good.

The Egyptian contingent improvised beautifully on the bowed instrument called rababah. Even though they appeared in Latcho Drom, I wasn't certain that Les Musiciens du Nil are actually Gypsies. (Officially, There Are No Gypsies In Egypt.) But the street music they play is clearly a branch of the Gypsy musical tree. A double-headed drum like a small tupan accompanied a trio of reed pipes, known variously as zurna or zurla or shawm - I'm not sure what they call them in Egypt. This zurna-tupan combination exists in lots of places the Gypsies have travelled, from Egypt to Rajasthan via Turkey, Armenia and Macedonia, and it's just about the loudest sound an unamplified human can produce.

The accompanying rhythm to the rababah was provided by the tabla - the single-head hourglass-shaped drum known elsewhere as a doumbek or darbuka, instrument of choice among Gypsy musicians throughout the southern Balkans and Turkey. Occasionally the tabla was joined by the bendir or tar, the simple ancient frame drum originally used to winnow grain.

When the tabla player struck up the baladi rhythm, a male dancer tied a scarf low around his hips and took the floor. He set the musicians laughing by parodying women's traditional Egyptian folk dance, and he set the audience laughing by inviting a hapless young woman up front to dance with him. She did great, though, and the crowd was with her all the way. Then he performed complicated balancing feats involving long poles, pencil points and a lit cigarette, dancing all the while with the solid, earthy hip movements of baladi.

I remembered seeing the very same act, also starring a bottle of beer, in a Luxor cafe over ten years ago. I figured out that these guys were probably the very same musicians who were playing that night, before they got famous. That night was memorable because I was the young woman invited to dance with the juggler, and because I then sat up until very late by the edge of the Nile talking philosophy and swapping songs with the café owner, an unthreatening older guy. One of the songs he taught me was `Mustafa', now a popular cocek tune in Macedonia, and he wrote the lyrics in my notebook along with his name: Josef Mazan. I found out much, much later that Josef is the head of the Gypsy tribe in Upper Egypt, so the musicians in his cafe were Gypsies after all.

After our scorching Saturday night session with Kocani Orkestar (see Part One), we made friends with Dzelal Alieski, a Macedonian Muslim who used to play and dance professionally with several Balkan ensembles. Resident in Lucerne since the early eighties, he belonged to a performing ensemble here, too, but as he explained with visible sorrow, political tensions springing from the current Balkan war had forced the group to disband. Dzelal was delighted by the presence in his adopted town of so many Gypsies from so many different parts of the world, and waxed lyrical about music and dance bringing all peoples together, transcending the politics and religion which try to drive them apart. He saw himself as an ambassador for the Macedonian people in all his interactions, which explained his impeccable manners and genuinely helpful nature. Before we left, he made us a videotape full of Gypsy and Macedonian music and dance, including home movies of him dancing at his brother's wedding in Struga.

Dzelal also brought us to the Gypsy hotel in Lucerne in search of a party. We found the Rumanian and Manouche musicians trying to jam together in the hotel lobby, into which six strong men had somehow transported an ancient cimbalom nearly the size of my bed. The player was relatively young, but the instrument looked and sounded as though it hadn't been tuned since before the war. Undeterred, another Rumanian and five or six flamenco greats painstakingly tuned their guitars to match the wildly off-key sound of the hammered dulcimer, and away they went, with the cimbalom player teaching them a simple tune and the guitarists taking it away as soon as they got the hang of it.

Meanwhile, the night porter's world was falling apart at the seams: Gypsies in his hotel, his hotel full of Gypsies, Gypsies everywhere! He hid quaking behind his desk, from anger or fear or both, and only surfaced from time to time to scream at the Rom to take their filthy music out in the street where it belonged.

Nobody seemed bothered by the night porter's threats; the sight of a belligerent gadje face wasn't new. We saw some others that week, like the scrubbed blond policeman whose job it was to halt traffic for the great procession on Sunday. Instead of protecting them, this young Swiss in his immaculate uniform roughly hustled the musicians along as if they weren't Lucerne's honoured guests who had just finished playing the music for high holy mass. This was right in front of the cameras; he had no shame or self-consciousness about treating Gypsies this way. In a lesser manifestation of this attitude, one Swiss friend could understand our coming all the way from London for the classical music festival, which of course features the best orchestras in the world, but clearly didn't believe us when we said we had only come to hear the Gypsies.

The giant cimbalom made its public reappearance with the Taraf de Haidouks, a group of Lautari from Rumania. It was accompanied by several violins and accordions, double bass, the fluier or small wooden flute, a `small' cimbalom hung from a shoulder strap which was merely the size of my desk, and exciting shouted vocals, half mouth music and half calls to join the dance.

A taraf is a small band playing popular dance music, and there were two in Lucerne that week. The other, Taraf de Carancebes, played the accordion, double bass, ocarina, fluier, nai or pan-pipes, and an unbelievably antiquated, battered saxophone-clarinet hybrid called a taragot. Once popular in Hungary and Romania, the taragot is no longer manufactured, so the sound is rare and more often impersonated by the soprano sax.

I was delighted to discover how much the Rumanian Gypsy music resembled Jewish klezmer music in its wildness. Taraf de Carancebes even played Ane Maamin, a well-known Jewish tune, which was also played by Muszikas and Marta Sebestyen at their recent London concert of `The Lost Jewish Music of Transylvania.' With them was Arpad Toni, an ancient Gypsy cimbalom player who repertoire is one of the sole remaining sources of pre-war Jewish music. Anton Szalai and his Budapest string quartet also played some klezmer riffs and rhythms, notably the 3-time Hora and the faster Sirba.

In the shared soup of Gypsy, Jewish and Rumanian repertoires, it's hard to say which came first or who influenced whom. Before the Holocaust, both Jewish and Gypsy wandering musicians travelled around playing all different styles of music for all different people and occasions, in Rumania as in other parts of Eastern Europe. But while I'd read about this connection, it was another experience entirely to experience the obvious relationship in the music as it dipped, soared, honked and laughed and cried like klezmer.

Most of the performances we attended throughout the week took place in small indoor cafes or outdoor stages and pavillions, but twice we went to the Nordsaal of the Kunsthaus for the official scheduled Gypsy concerts. The Nordsaal is a small room for chamber music, completely inadequate for the hundreds who, by that time, had heard about the festival and had come from all over Switzerland only to find the concerts sold out. Our beautiful silver and white tickets were not torn upon entry, which allowed one of us to sneak out the side door in true Gypsy spirit to reuse a ticket for our friend Irene. Unnecessarily, as it turned out: in a typical feat of Swiss technology the staff swiftly removed the far wall so that the sounds could drift to the disappointed crowds in the foyer and on the stairs.

The best seats were planted with wealthy patrons of the IMF, expensively dressed, bejewelled and scented. Clearly they possessed season tickets to the classical festival, and I suspect they had fairly low expectations of music played by Gypsies, such was their insultingly audible astonishment at the virtuosity of the performers. I myself was astonished at the organisers' ambitions to present no less than twelve artists in a performance lasting a single hour. Incredibly, the Swiss managed to organise the unorganisable, and one group after another were whisked on and off the stage like clockwork for their five minutes of fame. At the end of the concert, in the Damen WC, I was amused to see Gypsy footprints on the toilet seat, and wondered what the festival patrons thought of that. I imagined a confrontation between a sitter and a squatter, their mutual disbelief and horror: You mean you actually put your feet on the toilet seat and squatted down...?! You mean you actually rested your naked thighs on that seat where who knows how many total strangers have also put their naked thighs...?!

I was reminded of the infamous Rumelaj controversy, which (in my view) was a simple case of culture clash. The whole story may be worth telling one day in these or other pages, but basically, non-Gypsies took offense over words in a Gypsy song, and I am not at all sure that what we gadje find insulting is necessarily intended as such by the Rom. It seems to me that our own culture might make perfect sense to itself, but when we unconditionally judge others from that perspective, we're missing a chance to learn something new about our fellow brothers and sisters in the human family - and thus about ourselves.

The musicians and singers of Rajasthan were an enchanting blend of chaos & order, profane & sacred: Qawwali masters meet the Bauls of Bengal. They balanced the raw power of folk music with an effortless, almost psychic understanding of the complicated rules of Indian classical ragas. Rhythmic cycles took off, soared aloft, circled round and round and landed home again. The three singers were in the cafe with all of us, yet also in another world. They sang, danced, implored with oustretched arms and upturned faces, making their inner landscape audible and visible to us.

All the musicians seemed variously able to sing and play different instruments including the stringed sarangi, the satara or double flute, the pungi or double clarinet, and the oboe-like shanai. Gazi Khan Manghaniyar, the great diva of the desert, sang and also played the khartal, two pairs of polished wooden oblongs, rounded and dark, which slipped and clicked smoothly between his fingers. My friend Travis brought similar ones, made of stone, back from Uzbekistan, just a little ways north of the Gypsy trail into Turkmenistan. It's not inconceivable that Gypsies brought the khartal up there at some point during the last thousand years. I think they took them all the way to Spain, too, and turned them into castanets.

Gazi Khan, dark eyes alive and white teeth glinting in the smile of his knowing lips, is the one who, in Latcho Drom, sang the seductive invitation under the flame-filled tree: `I have made my bed in a delicious place, for you alone...'. He held the slim unjoined shapes of the khartal loosely but confidently. His hands would flash out like lightning for an explosion of syncopation, or stay quietly in his lap, clattering along like hoofbeats while the story was told. I imagined a journey being sung, at these times. Though the Rajasthanis are nomadic, they are also the first Gypsies, the ones who stayed behind.

The clacking together of smooth hardwood also tells the story of the tension of the opposites, contained, controlled and dynamically channelled. Conflict is held literally in the palm of the hand, and each hand masters the powerful explosion of opposing forces meeting. I find this significant. The Gypsies have been dealing in conflict all their lives, on all their roads, managing to thrive in a state of perpetual antagonism with the settled folk whose lands they pass through. Psychology claims that schizophrenia results from an inability to tolerate the simultaneous pressure of opposing forces, or mixed messages. So who is really crazy, us or the Gypsies? I think they know something that we need to learn.

You might also remember the young Rajasthani dancer at the beginning of Latcho Drom. Watching her spin in a cafe in Lucerne, I felt she too contained the tension of the opposites as she whirled with legs and hips vertical, and her spine and head nearly horizontal. Her spiral dance perfectly balanced the two axes of the ancient pre-Christian symbol, the cross. A shallower version of this barrel turn shows up in flamenco, right at the other end of the Gypsy trail, and even more subtly in the whirling of the Mevlevi dervishes, who tilt the spine very slightly off the vertical axis.

At first glance, Gypsies and Sufis might seem as far apart as possible in both the musical and the mystical. And yet, the Manghaniyars sing about the solitude of a woman waiting for her beloved, as did the great Sufi saints and poets. Equally balanced between sacred and secular, this concept of love and longing, within and beyond the body, is linked to mysticism. The Manghaniyars also remember the epic geneological stories of the ancient bards. They know their roots.

Gypsies were in Persia during the last millenium, throughout the time of the flowering of Sufism. There are many tales of mystics who, like the Gypsies, have one wandering foot in both worlds, fully at home in neither. I like to think that there is a hidden connection between these two groups who shun the world of appearances. As Sufis and Gypsies both might say, nothing is ever what it seems, and everything always contains the seeds of its own opposite.

Lalla was a 14th-century Kashmiri mystic who wandered naked, danced and sang her own poetry. She says:

There are those sleeping who are awake,
and others awake who are sound asleep.

Some of those bathing in sacred pools
will never get clean.

And there are others
doing household chores
who are free from any action.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not romanticising the Gypsies. (Well, not too much, I hope.) I don't long for their way of life. I do think it significant that some of the things they hold sacred are those things most reviled by sedentary society, and I wonder whether they are in some way carriers of more than just the music of many peoples of the world - as if that weren't enough - but also of some spiritual truths mostly lost to us now.

Whatever it is, I have a passion for Gypsy music and dance that will not let me loose. When Josef Mazan gave me his blessing and wished me well on my travels, did he foresee that I would end up, like Dzelal, a kind of ambassador for Gypsy music and dance?

Attending the festival, I felt like a guest at a Gypsy wedding, on the grandest possible scale. Each different musical style was like a relative, distant or near, and one could see resemblances and make connections among `people' who might not seem related at all, were they not all brought together for the big party. I also felt I was watching the river of time flow past me, carrying many images from the past, present and, I hope, the future. I feel blessed by this river, and completely grateful that I got my feet wet.