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Music Review: Various Performers – The Rough Guide To The Music Of Hungarian Gypsies

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The one time I travelled in Europe, I remember being struck at how close all the countries were to each other. The province in Canada that I live in, Ontario, is so big that it takes thirty-six hours to get to its Western border by train – and that is starting from near the centre. Compare that to taking nine hours by train to travel from Germany, via Belgium and France, and across the English Channel by boat to get to Victoria Station in London.

That's something I always try to keep in mind when I consider the patterns of immigration people followed across Europe in early history. Early European man wandered quite a lot looking for safe places to settle. Each of these people would bring with them their own traditions, and would add new flavours to the areas they settled in. In this way the countries we now know gradually developed and grew out of the various peoples that had settled in the regions.

When exactly the Roma left Northern India and began their migrations west into Europe isn't exactly known for sure, but it is agreed upon by most experts that the bulk of the migrations took place in the 11th century AD as a result of the first Mogul invasions of Northern India. From India the Roma people began to trek the Silk road backwards towards Europe, leaving communities behind them on each step of the way. The migration path can be traced today simply by noting which countries have gypsy populations to this day.

While there are still communities in Egypt and Turkey today, the majority of the population continued to move west and eventually in the 1300s settled in the countries in Eastern Europe that we associate them with the most; Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. Like the other migratory ethnic group that came late to these countries, the Jews, the Roma have strict rules designed to preserve their culture that tend to keep them isolated from host country populations.
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As the Jewish population found out, this desire for privacy, and the mystery that it generates, creates suspicion and bigotry. Throughout their history the Roma/gypsies have faced persecution and resentment in Eastern Europe that culminated in mass executions in the Nazi death camps. Yet, like the Jews, the Roma are survivors and they still have thriving communities in Eastern Europe today, and their cultural influence – especially music – can not be underestimated.

According to information supplied on the enhanced data segment of the CD The Rough Guide To The Music Of Hungarian Gypsies, when Hungarian composer Bela Bartok sought out "Hungarian" music to create his compositions based on folk music, it was the music of the Roma that influenced him most. He also found that there was more than one type of "Hungarian" Gypsy music, and a good deal of it was to be actually found across the border in the Romanian state of Transylvania.

Bartok found gypsies in the city centres played the music we have come to associate with them today, heavy on violins and their version of the hammered dulcimer, the cimbalom and music played in rural communities was substantially different. Probably because they couldn't afford instruments, a good many of the bands outside of the major population areas, while utilizing household goods like milk cans for instruments, mainly relied on what they could create vocally for their music. This "discovery" led to the erroneous conclusion that the music being played in urban centres wasn't authentic, and was merely being performed for commercial reasons.

What's made very clear from listening to the tracks on the World Music Net's Rough Guide To Hungarian Gypsies is while Bartok was right about there being differences between the city and the country, things are never really as cut and dried as anyone likes to think. For instance track seven on the disc is performed by Fanfare Ciocarlia who are best known as a brass band (and their amazing version of "Born To Be Wild") who use neither strings nor the elaborate vocal machinations of so called "authentic" Hungarian Gypsy music from Romania.

While there are fourteen different bands that perform on this Rough Guide disc, it's interesting to note how they cross-pollinate with musicians like Bela Lakatos appearing under his own name (on a track taken from another World Music Net disc Introducing The Gypsy Youth Orchestra) and with the group Romanyi Rota. The other thing you quickly realize is how many of these groups are either extended families or made up of people from the same village.
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The style of music represented on this disc does place more emphasis on vocals than what most of us are accustomed to hearing from gypsy music. Where we might be used to hearing violins in groups from Romania, or flamenco guitar in groups from Spain and France, the voices now carry the melody and provide the beat. The result is some incredibly elaborate vocal harmonies, where three or four parts are being sung to the accompaniment of maybe a guitar and a violin, but more likely percussion or wind instruments.

While Fanfare Ciocarlia sometimes bill themselves as the fastest band alive, they are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the style of music predominate in Hungary. Aside from the fact that the majority of bands don't utilize band instruments to the same extent as Fanfare, they also play a far less frenetic style of music. That's not to say they are sedate, but you don't get the same impression of continually being on the verge of a massive train wreck that you do while listening to Fanfare.

The reality is, and The Rough Guide To The Music Of Hungarian Gypsies makes this clear from the selection of music included, is that there is not one particular style that can be nailed down as Hungarian Gypsy music. Circumstances, living in remote rural areas, had forced them to rely on improvised instruments and vocal dexterity to create music in the past, and are still prominent characteristics of some music today. Yet the music that was once maligned as being touristy, or restaurant music, for urban dwellers only, is as much Hungarian Gypsy music as anything else is.

The Roma didn't just carry physical possessions with them when they crossed Asia and Europe, they brought with them musical styles from almost every country they passed through. Listen to one gypsy band and you might hear a trace of Turkey, another India, and another Egypt. The people that settled in the area around modern Hungary carried all of that with them as well as being influenced by what the environment they found themselves in.

The Rough Guide To The Music Of Hungarian Gypsies does a fine job of not only representing that diversity of sound, it also shows how the music evolved in this particular circumstance. For those of you not as familiar with the music of Eastern European Gypsies this is a great introduction, and a good way to discover some great bands.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Bailey Leanord

    this really didnt help me find any information i need for my school work, but otherwise it was a good paprer just to read for fun.