Everybody assumes the people most refer to as Gypsies, who prefer the name Roma, are travellers. In fact the common stereotype we have of the Roma is that they travel around in caravans stealing from regular hardworking folk like ourselves. Since most decent hardworking folk tend to spit on the Roma as soon as look at them, their opinions and views, on the whole, can probably be safely disregarded. Even the one part of the picture they manage to get partially right doesn’t even begin to tell the story of these people. For, if they are such wanderers by choice, why are there permanent Roma settlements throughout Eastern Europe?
The people we call the Roma are descendants of folk who left the Rajasthan province of Northern India some time during the early part of the first millennium. The best guess is that their migrations began around the same time the Mogul Empire began its expansion into Northern India from Persia. Maybe they were simply fleeing the fighting, or maybe they had no wish to live under the rule of this new Empire, we’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that they began to make the long trek West following the Silk Road through the Middle East and eventually made their way into Europe following the Danube River. A wonderful documentary movie, Latcho Drom, retraces the route they took through visits with musicians in each of the countries the Roma have settled in.
As with any diaspora, not everybody left, and there are still many in Rajasthan who are the descendants of those who didn’t make the migration. However, as their role in the history of the Roma has been a relatively recent discovery for the world at large, we still know only a very little about the people and their culture. Aside from the movie mentioned above, their music was also featured in the film When The Road Bends: Tales Of A Gypsy Caravan, a documentary which followed the North American tour of Roma musicians from all over the world. Unfortunately both movies only offered samples of the type of music on offer from the people of Rajasthan, and releases by individual bands from the region were scarce and hard to come by.
Thankfully that situation looks like it’s beginning to improve. While there might be something slightly cynical about talking about a few-thousand-year-old culture being “discovered”, a benefit is the increased availability of music from the region. One such example is a new disc out on the very good international music label, World Village Music, from the French based Rajasthan band, Dhoad: Gypsies Of Rajasthan, called Roots Travellers. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, the review copy I received didn’t contain the DVD included with the CD as a bonus feature. However judging by some of the stills you can see of them performing at their website, both dancing and fire breathing appear to play a role, and it has the potential for being quite the spectacular.
Dhoad are now the third or fourth group of musicians I’ve heard from this region of India and my experience this time was no different from the previous occasions. The difficulty faced by Western audiences listening to music from India is that we are so unfamiliar with both the scale in use and the sound of the instruments, no matter what region it’s from, that initially, it all sounds the same. So don’t be surprised if Dhoad, in spite of the word Gypsy included in their name, at first listen sound little or nothing like Roma music from the West and a whole lot like most everything else from Southeast Asia.
However as you start to pick out individual instruments within the mix you’ll begin to hear patterns in both the instrumental work and vocal stylings that have things in common with bands in Romania and other European communities. The first of the disc’s 10 tracks, “Banno”, is a good example of this as what catches your attention are the vocals and the multilayered rhythm of the tabla. The vocals have the high-pitched, almost falsetto, nasal quality I’ve come to associate with male singers of a certain style from India, and the tabla is being played in a time signature my body, raised on the basic syncopation of the West—everything a multiple of two or three—just can’t recognize. Yet, when a break occurs and the vocals and tabla fall away leaving only the sound of the harmonium-type instrument, all of a sudden there’s a note of familiarity. In it I can hear the accordions of the bands from Eastern and Western Europe. It’s not just the way the instrument sounds that is familiar, but the way it is being used. Both the tempo it is being played at and the quality it is adding to the music are identical to the contribution made by its Western counterpart.
When the second set of vocals kicks in on the same track, anybody familiar with other Roma bands will hear startling similarities between this singer’s voice and vocalists in those other bands. It might have been just my imagination, but there was even something about the way the language sounded that seemed similar to what I’ve heard sung by some Romanian Roma.
There are other songs on the disc where Dhoad are deliberately sounding like other musicians. “Rajasthani Reggae” starts off with an obvious nod in the direction of Jamaica—which doesn’t really have much to do with Roma music no matter how you look at it, but is in keeping with the disc’s title of Roots Travellers. They might not be the first band from outside the Caribbean to take a stab at a reggae tune, but theirs is one of the most original ventures into that genre you’ll ever hear.
One of the most difficult things about listening to the music of another culture is avoiding the trap of interpreting what you hear based on the criteria you would use when judging music you’re more familiar with. We tend to make decisions about someone’s emotional state based on the sound of their voice. In most cases, even in the instance of listening to a song in another language like French or Spanish, we would be completely justified in our efforts as we share many vocal indicators in common with most Western languages. In the case of this recording though, all of those preconceived notions have to be discarded as the vocal clues given off by the singers aren’t ones we’re going to be familiar with. In fact if we judged them by our standards it would sound like all of the songs were plaintive appeals dealing with grief of one kind or another.
Listening to this disc is an adventure, a real journey into unknown territory. If you approach it with an open mind you will find ways to appreciate the music you hear for what it is, not what you anticipate music should be. Listen for the interplay of melody and rhythm, the intricate patterns made by the weaving together of the vocalists’ harmonies, the tabla, and other instruments to create a tapestry of sound both rich and colourful. While those who have an understanding of the music of Southeast Asia will obviously get more out of this disc than others, there’s still plenty for the rest of us to enjoy. Don’t think of this disc as a door that’s closed to you; rather think of it as an opportunity to begin opening a door to a new world. You might feel a little lost at times, but you’ll soon develop your own map for finding your way around.