In 2005 a group of Central and Eastern European countries initiated the The Decade Of Roma Inclusion, a ten year program aimed at improving conditions for the regions ten to twelve million Romani, more commonly known as Gypsies. Its aim was to tackle the educational and social disadvantages faced by Roma communities, and initial signatories included Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Serbia-Montenegro, and Slovakia. These eight countries combined account for over half of Europe's Roma population, which led to hopes that after centuries of persecution perhaps the Roma might finally know some acceptance.
Four years later an Amnesty International report on conditions among the Roma of Europe found the following: they were being denied proper education in the Czech Republic and Slovakia; discrimination in Italy; anit-Roma sentiment on the rise in Hungary; forced evictions in Serbia; refusal of adequate housing in Romania; and Roma being forcibly returned to Kosovo, from which they fled to escape persecution, by countries all over Europe. Five of the countries who supposedly were going to work to improve conditions for Roma showing up in an Amnesty International report on discrimination against the Roma is not what you would call heartening or is it bound to inspire confidence in this, or any, program's chances of success.
Of course with countries' economies reeling from the great "slowdown" everybody's looking for a scapegoat and the Roma and Jews have always run neck and neck for the title of favourite for that distinction in Europe. In fact, if anything, the situation is worse than it sounds. Amnesty's report of anti-Roma sentiment in Hungary is a genteel way of describing arson, murder, and rallies by the extreme right against what they call "Roma Crime" In a country which doesn't keep crime statistics based on ethnicity it's amazing how all of a sudden a minority population is responsible for an increase in crime.
While the political will in Europe just doesn't seem to be strong enough to bring about any real change in the lives of the Roma, other organizations have taken it upon themselves to try different approaches. One such effort was a tour of North America by Roma musicians from Spain, Romania, Macedonia, and India organized by the World Music Institute and documented on film and DVD in the movie Where The Road Bends: Tales Of A Gypsy Caravan. Directed by Jasmine Dellal the film not only joins the tour across North America, but spends time with each of the performers in their home countries introducing us to their lives. The hope was through the combination of the tour and the movie that people will get to know the Roma beyond the stereotypes perpetrated by racists and start to see them as humans as well as giving those involved an opportunity to tell their stories to a wider audience.
The two bands from Romania, Taraf De Haidouks and Fanfare Ciocarlia might be stars on the road and be garnering international attention, but at home they still live in villages with minimal amenities. Both bands are the main sources of income for their villages and it seems that in both cases a new generation of band members is being prepared to replace the current ones as they age. Seeing the people ploughing their fields behind teams of horses, and heating their homes with brush wood, it's hard to remember that this was being filmed in 2006. It looks like nothing has changed in hundreds of years, save for the naked electric light bulbs strung in public places.
Obviously the two Romanian bands had much in common, but one of the amazing things about the movie was watching how these groups from around the world without any language in common were able to connect with each other through their music. While all of the bands were fascinated with the group from India, Maharaja, as they represented the origins of the Roma, it was the Spanish flamenco duo of Antonio El Pipa and his aunt Juana la del Pipa who connected with them the most. By the end of the tour they had even managed to work out a performance piece called Tango Maharaja, where the two bands joined forces to dance and sing together. It was really quite extraordinary watcing how they found common ground without being able to talk to each other except through smiles, hand signals, and their music.
Esma Redzepova from Macedonia is recognized globally as the Queen Of The Gypsies, an honour bestowed on her by then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. Aside from being a dynamic performer for over forty years, Esma, has also been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her political work on behalf of the Roma. Unable to have children of her own she and her late husband adopted forty-seven children and trained them to earn their livings playing music. As Roma go she is well off, but although she might appear to be a diva when on stage, off is another matter as can be seen from her interaction with the other performers on the tour. Even if there were some trace elements of diva that did shine through, after watching her perform you could forgive her anything.
Of course it's the music that is the most compelling part of the movie. From the all out assault of Fanfare Ciocarlia, the raw, fiery passion of Antonio and Juana singing and dancing flamenco, the eerie and beautiful music of Maharaja and their amazing dancers, the wild strings of Taraf De Haidouks, to the magnificence of Esma Redzepova, its an experience that has to be witnessed to be believed. Life, love, joy, sadness, sorrow, but never self-pity, pour from their songs and their dances like lava from a volcano.
You can't help but wonder what these people do that allows them to experience life so fully that they can perform and share this with us to such an extent. After being spat on for hundreds of years, and still being spat on and treated like dirt to this day, they somehow find inside themselves the strength to not only continue living, but to play music that is far more life affirming than anything you'll hear from almost any other source.
It strikes me as one of the world's supreme ironies that these musicians were paraded around like this in an attempt to garner wider acceptance of the Roma among the world at large, when they should be giving the rest of us lessons on how to live. We should be grateful that the Roma are still willing to even make an effort to reach out to us instead of picking up weapons to fight back and protect themselves from our world.
If you know nothing about the Roma, this movie will not only introduce you to their music but give you a peek into their lives and an overview of their history as a people since they left India over a thousand years ago to travel west. Perhaps you'll come to understand that you have nothing to fear from them except the chance of your heart being broken.
(Originally posted July 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.