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'Gypsy' No More: Romani Music Festival Combats Stereotypes 

Wednesday, Apr 29 2015
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Romani culture is often romanticized and stereotyped; depicted on reality TV shows, news reports, and movies as either carefree traveling musicians or untrustworthy criminals, Roma are rarely given the opportunity to present their culture to the public on their own terms.

"For too long people have just danced and thought, 'Oh, these happy Gypsies,' well, it's actually quite the opposite," Carol Silverman, professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon and board member of Voice of Roma, said. "This music grows out of discrimination. It grows out of a long history of marginalization, and we're lucky Roma have preserved, and adapted, and brought their culture through the centuries for us to enjoy — but it's up to us understand Romani history and music in context."

Voice of Roma, a human rights advocacy organization dedicated to the promotion of Romani cultural arts and traditions, holds its 18th annual Herdeljezi festival Saturday, May 2. The one-day-only spring holiday of renewal and fertility aims to put the music of the Romani people in its historical and cultural context by emphasizing the musicians' biographies.

Rom — or the plural Roma — comes from the Romani-language word for "man" or "human being," and is the term most Roma prefer since the word "Gypsy" is based on the misconception that Roma originated in Egypt. In fact, the linguistic and historical evidence proves they left northwestern India around 1100 (probably due to conflict in the region caused by Muslim invaders, but there are still competing theories on why exactly the group left). Much like the term "Indian" for Native Americans, the Roma were misidentified a long time ago, and due to general ignorance on the topic, they have been unable to rid themselves of the improper exonym.

Festivals such as Voice of Roma aim to provide a little clarity — not to mention entertainment. It will feature live music from New York's Sazet Band — a traditional Macedonian Roma ensemble that infuses jazz and funk influences into its music. Musicians interested in learning about the stylings of Romani music can attend Roma-led workshops for singers and musicians. For the casual attendee, there will be traditional food, goods, and a dance class before a live-music party, so everyone will have an opportunity to learn the line dance steps before the Sazet Band performs.

It's all part of the organization's bigger plan to use music, a profession to which the Roma have historically been relegated — and in some ways confined — for centuries as a medium to educate outsiders about the plight of the culture.

In her writing, Silverman points to a 2009 Madonna performance in which the singer was booed for pointing out discrimination against Gypsies. It was a prime example of the paradox that Roma, loved for their music, are often hated as people.

"You like to be entertained but don't want to talk about real issues. It's important we talk about those blind spots (that's what I call them) because the culture is suffering enormously because of these stereotypes," Voice of Roma's founder, Sani Rifati, said, comparing the situation to black Americans. "We love to watch NBA, and sports, and when they are singing — but we don't want to talk about the prison industrial complex in America."

Rifati spent much of the '80s touring Yugoslavia with his band, playing weddings, baptisms, and circumcisions. According to him, Roma in Yugoslavia had more human rights before the collapse of the Soviet Union — but he still faced bureaucratic discrimination (Rifati has a master's in chemistry but was never hired as a chemist). Upon immigrating to the U.S. in 1993, he founded Voice of Roma to help foster a sense of community, and to assist refugees from Yugoslavia. Settling in Sebastopol, Rifati didn't feel the same bureaucratic discrimination as he did in the Balkans (although there are still police departments in the U.S. that have "Gypsy crime" units), but he did feel like his culture was being romanticized, appropriated, and exploited.

"California is obsessed with political correctness, but everyone still wants to be a 'gypsy' and be not lectured about the real culture. Even people on the left say, 'Oh, I love the gypsy part of me,'" Rifati said of our reality-TV-shaped perception of his culture. "Even in California people are using the phrase 'I got gyped' and no one dares to correct each other."

The festival is Rifati and his 200 volunteer's way of showing misinformed outsiders the true Roma culture: the one that saw up to one fourth of its entire population perish in the Holocaust, was forced to play in Nazi orchestras, and only very recently, after years of lobbying, was given a memorial day to commemorate those who died in concentration camps. The culture that has survived for centuries without a nation, army, or war despite a toxic European political environment plagued with xenophobic parties, "Roma Patrols" in Eastern Europe, and mass deportations. And the one for which Rifati is very proud to be a part of; an attitude, he hopes, will inspire more Roma in America to acknowledge their heritage.

"We have so many young Roma coming out of closet when they attend our festival. Many Roma are hiding their roots and origins, because of these stereotypes," Rifati said. "We have Roma who are doctors, and engineers, and other professions — but these educated Roma don't reveal their ethnicity. We have been quite successful bringing people out of the closet and building activists. It's not just all about music and having fun."

According to Silverman, there are non-Roma-Americans playing in up to 20 "gypsy music" bands in the Bay Area, under subgenres titles like "gypsy punk." In her book, Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora (2012), Silverman argues that there is no one unifying root of Romani music, instead each different geographical population of Roma have distinct styles, all united by their focus on improvisation and a willingness to incorporate local sounds. The Balkan Roma sound — the most popular Roma music in the U.S. — is one the Sazet Band, whose family history traces back to Macedonia, excels in. The group's complex rhythms and time signatures are punctuated by the technical skills of its members, including those of Sal Mamudoski, the band's clarinet player who can bring his instrument (which he first picked up at 11) up to the fourth octave.

"It's traditional wedding music, but we try to change it a little. We play a New York style because we're from New York, but it's like a mixture of funk and jazz incorporated with traditional music," Mamudoski, 26, born and raised in New York said. "Playing Voice of Roma is really big for us, because we're a community band. I'm making a CD, a tribute to Voice of Roma, to have at the festival."

Rifati and the rest of Voice of Roma hope that the festival, and continued efforts by the community to combat stereotypes, will increase the general population's understanding of the estimated 1 million Roma living in the United States.

"'Roma' is how we preferred to be called. It means 'human being,' but the first thing that comes to people's minds is roma tomatoes. Or roaming. Or the city of Rome. Or Romania. Or the Roman Empire," Rifati said. "We are talking at a high institutional level. I've lectured at USF, in Chicago, Boston, New York — really most of the time students don't know so much about this. There's very little knowledge about our culture, and that's what we are trying to change."

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About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

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Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.

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