The Song of the Gypsy Rover

Before I turned 10, my family had migrated between continents three times. No wonder I’m so accustomed to traveling vast distances several times a year! My parents shuffled us around the world for professional reasons. Yet I began doing so for the pure joy of it, sure that I’d caught the gypsy spirit somewhere along the way.

So when I came upon the opportunity to study music and dance with the Roma people, the true cultural gypsies who once hailed from India and now live all over the world, I could not resist. Thanks to the Internet, I found the Amala Music School, a summer school for international students that is located in rural Serbia. I packed my violin and some dancing skirts and set off to immerse myself for a week in the culture of a people about whom I have always felt curiosity and affinity.

We five students attended the small school in a family home. Our days were structured and full, with breaks sufficient for me to take a luxurious, daily siesta. Classes in dance, violin, accordion, singing and Romani language were our focus, interspersed with animated meals in multiple languages that took place around the kitchen table.

The mingling of languages was hilarious. In dance class, for example, the teacher, Rita, from Kosovo, spoke almost no English. To instruct us she spoke in Serbian to our Macedonian helper, Ramiz, who translated the instructions into German, which Ingried, the Quebequoise, in turn translated into French, which fortunately the rest us understood. Otherwise, the English translation would have been next in line.

When Ramiz was not there, which was most of the time, we did our best to understand Serbian. In context the words began to make sense: “levo pro” meant “left leg,” “to” expressed “that’s it!” Learning the dance rhythms, we quickly picked up the Romani numbers: yek, duy, trin, sctar, pandj, incredibly similar to the numbers in Hindi: ek, do, tin, char, panch. The links to India, dating back an entire millennium, are still clearly audible. Ingried, a brilliant linguist who speaks French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Hebrew, understood an astounding amount of Serbian as the days progressed. She soon became the class translator. In the evenings we taught the teachers English and as the days went by, Rita’s vocabulary expanded. “Jena, no jumping” she learned to say as we bounded around the class.

We learned two types of dancing: traditional folk dancing and belly dancing. The folk dancing took me back in time. Its base of fairly easy, rhythmic footwork and hand-in-hand circle dance, is designed to bring people together in a shared experience. I plan to try to teach it to my family one day!

As for belly dancing, my first and only previous belly dance lesson was about six years ago. Since then I have been faking it on dance floors, thinking I was doing a good job. Apparently not! Rita was highly amused by my attempts at the moves. Moving hips, chest and shoulders independently is a true feat that makes patting your head and rubbing your belly look easy. When done well however, it is breathtaking, and so I resolved to keep practicing this sensuous art until I master it.

The dance classes took place in a covered outdoor space that overlooked a garden abounding in fruit-laden plum trees. Most of the fruits were too hard or too sour to eat. But during breaks I would scale fences and prop myself up on high branches to reach the delicious, sweet, juicy ones, as though stealing my way back into Eden.

In the afternoon my violin lessons took place. My teacher was Dushan Ristic, the founder of the school, an accomplished violinist whose father, grandfather and great grandfather were all professional violinists. Music courses in his blood. Dushan taught me by ear, playing the songs to me line by line until I had memorized them. Then he would ornament them with trills and rolls that give the already striking melodies an even more exotic gypsy feel.

For me, playing my violin is like making love. The tones the bow draws from the strings pour directly into my heart and fill me with tender and passionate emotions. The violin makes my spirit soar and my body arch in pleasure, each note penetrating my soul like a meticulously placed touch. This love affair will last a lifetime.

Throughout the day the gypsy house overflowed with music. If it wasn’t the violin, it was the accordion, if not the singers, then music for the dance classes. Strains of soulful, stirring songs in haunting minor scales filled the air at every hour. The love of music and our desire to be instruments of its magic united the students and teachers beyond language barriers.

Grasping the opportunity to learn all about the gypsies from their own lips, I was full of questions.

“Do the Roma still travel?” I asked, a pertinent question since we were staying in a three-storey brick house that was certainly not on wheels.

“My family has been in this village for several generations. But the children of these neighbors” Dushan explained as he pointed to the nearby homes “have gone to Germany, those to France, those there to Austria and theses others Italy, and I now live in America!”

“How many Roma are there?”

“12 million, all around the world, including one million in the United States.”

“Were you conscripted during the recent wars?”

“Yes, the government tried, but when they came to our houses the families said their sons were away in another country. Whether it was true or not, the government believed them. Because we identify as Roma, and not with the country we are living in, we do not believe in fighting their wars.”

The highlight of each day was “band practice,” when we came together in the evening to practice the songs we were learning. The sounds of voice, violin and accordion mingled, creating enchanting music that made us sway with delight. Playing music together we felt like real gypsies. We were our own entertainment par excellence.

Unfortunately, the tradition of sitting around together and making music is dying in the gypsy community, albeit it a slower rate than it has in other Western cultures. With the advent and proliferation of CDs and entertainment technology there is less drive to play instruments, learn songs, and create music. Sadly, the most recent generation is not carrying on the gypsy’s full musical legacy. What a shame that technology sometimes thrives at the expense of more intimate art!

Each night the sound of the music danced in my head as I went to sleep. The catchy gypsy melodies permeated my psyche and carried me into the dream world. The other students reported the same phenomenon the music had captivated us all.

The final evening we performed our own mini concert, giving it every ounce of our heart and soul. The five students, the violin and singing teacher, the accordion teacher, the dance teacher, our helper, and the mother of the house, all joined in together for a moving rendition of our entire repertoire. As we played the official gypsy anthem, “Gelem, Gelem,” I was moved to tears by the passion the Roma poured into this song that recounts the trials their people have been through over the ages: the hardships of traveling without a homeland for centuries on end and more recently, mass genocide alongside the Jews in the Nazi concentration camps. The mood, however, was of celebration, not sadness. In a glorious conclusion of our week of study, the music went on for hours.

Our gypsy week complete, Ingried and I set off to Belgrade to experience Serbia’s capital city for a night. After checking into a modest hotel we set out of foot to Kalemegdan, a vast ancient fortress amidst a huge park overlooking the spectacular confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. It was Sunday and the park buzzed with life. Smiling, celebratory people danced hand in hand in the circle style we had learned, accompanied by an accordion and a double bass. The park, flowers, ruined castle, the dancers and rivers, made for quite an enchanted scene.

Throughout the city, decadent architecture and domed roofs of the dramatic Orthodox Christian temples caught our eye, the mood rich and ancient. That night, which happened to be my birthday, we dined at “Bohemian Street,” a cobbled pedestrian street lined with flowers and restaurants, each more charming than the last.

Midway through our dinner a violinist and three guitarists surrounded our table and serenaded us. Live musicians, candlelight, cobbled stones underfoot the setting exuded pure romance. When they took a break Ingried told them in Serbian that we had been studying gypsy music. Without her even mentioning that I played violin, the violinist promptly handed me his instrument! I stood up and to the surprise of the whole restaurant, played a gypsy song accompanied by Ingried and the singing guitarists. Afterwards, cheeks flushed and applause ringing in my ears, I took my seat and toasted the Roma. Long live the gypsies and long live their music!

pixelstats trackingpixel
Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search