What is Romani music?
Unless we use the circular definition of “music played by and/or attributed to Romani people,” there really is no musicological genre to encompass all of Romani or Gypsy music. The very divergent styles performed, historically shaped and constantly reshaped by Romanies include flamenco, jazz Manouche, Russian “romances,” Balkan (not to mention Middle Eastern) music, Hungarian czardas, as well as fusions with jazz, hip hop, Western art music and numerous national “folk” genres. There is no “Gypsy scale,” rhythmic pattern, or harmonic structure that unites them all, and these musical styles often have less in common with each other than they do with the music of a given geographic region (e.g., “Hungarian Romani” vs. “Spanish Gitano” music).
Why, then, is the term “Gypsy music” so compelling to audiences, record stores, and to Romani people themselves? One answer lies in the ways Romani musicians tend to transform even the styles whose origins they had little or nothing to do with. This may be similar to the ways in which African-American artists worked with European styles when developing jazz. Virtuosity, rhythmic interest, tempo changes, altered scale degrees and more complex harmonic structure are among the elements that Roma and Sinti (German Romanies) often add to existing music. Just as importantly, Romani performers are masters of mixing historically separate genres, for reasons that go far beyond the oft-cited “Gypsy nomadism.” One thread through a number of Romani styles that can be traced back to the Indian subcontinent is the use of percussive vocables (“nonsense syllables”). In fact, “oral bass” or “oral percussion” is a hallmark of the style that is the most undeniably unique to Roma: Hungarian Vlax Romani music (e.g., Kali Yag).
Another practice that unites much of “Romani music” is dance, the elements of which can likewise often be traced to lands east of Europe. Even some Romani groups that appear to have had no contact with each other for hundreds of years (judging by differences in dialect, music, and beliefs) can find certain dance movements and Romani-language song texts in common.
Music composed, played, and danced to by Romani performers can be divided in several ways, of which the following is only one:
- Middle Eastern/Turkish Roma;Balkan brass band, zurla&tapan, and other genres
- Romanian Roma; Hungarian Roma, in a general group with Czech and Slovak Roma
- (Mostly) Hungarian Vlax Romani music
- Other Central European Roma
- Manouche/Sinti/Gypsy jazz, a.k.a. Gypsy or Gipsy swing
- Russian Roma (several subgroups)
- Music influenced by Latin and various other genres (modern jazz, gospel, Scandinavian,etc.)
Finally, and of increasing importance, there are artists who play “pan-Romani” repertoires, choosing between, mixing and reworking established styles of “Romani music.”
© 2012 Petra Gelbart