One of the hardest tasks facing any small cultural group surrounded by bigger and more influential societies is preserving their own identity. In these days of mass transmission of information you can’t isolate yourself from what surrounds you anymore in order to maintain your traditions. Instead you have to come up with ways that will interest the younger generations enough so they will want to take part in helping preserve aspects of their community’s life.
It has been especially difficult for small minorities who have also faced persecution over the years. In the countries of Eastern Europe, few communities, aside from the Jewish population in World War II, have faced as severe a persecution as the Roma, or gypsies. They were rounded up and exterminated in numbers equivalent on a per capita basis as the Jewish people during the Nazi pogrom of the 1940’s, depleting their small numbers even further.
Post war Europe, especially in the East under the Communist Bloc rule, found them not much better off than they were under the rule of the Nazis. If they were no longer being rounded up and killed, they still faced persecution and continued treatment as a second-class people. Like Jewish people, the closed nature of their society has them looked upon with suspicion by majority populations.
They have also faced a threat to their culture in another way — the dilution of its essence to something more palatable to the mainstream. The music played by so-called gypsy bands in restaurants or other tourist attractions has been augmented with instruments that were not utilized by the people themselves when playing for themselves.
How do they compete against the glamour and economic opportunity offered to play music that way? For the Roma population of Hungary, the answer has come in the form of a project dedicated to preserving the traditional rural folk music that is played inside the community. Bela Lakatos and Gusztav Varga gathered together a group of young Romany who still spoke the native language fluently in 1989, and formed Bela Lakatos and The Gypsy Youth Project.
They have traveled up and down through the countryside learning the old songs to preserve them for future generations. While Hungarian music has always been heavily influenced by the Roma, very little of this, the most traditional style, has been preserved because it was of no interest to the outsiders with the influence and facilities to record it.
In addition to learning this material, the group must also take steps to preserve it so that more than just they can enjoy the benefits of their labours. Of course it is also hoped that the more people to hear this music the more they will be inclined to learn about it and play it instead of its more glamorous cousin.
All of this is very noble and is enough reason on its own to make recordings of this music; it’s a tragedy whenever something is allowed to die out that has been a vital part of a community for hundreds of years. Whatever the reasons behind these recordings coming into existence, we should all be grateful for the simple reason that they are amazing to listen to.
Like all Roma music, it has a certain raw vitality; a passion for life, love, and death that is missing from so much contemporary music. This is enhanced by the minimalist nature of this style: predominantly vocal, with only guitar, mandolin, and accordion as melodic accompaniment; in place of drums and such for percussion, spoons and sticks are utilized along with vocalizations to pick out a rhythm.
Like a lot of rural folk music, the world over the subject matter of the songs is about the stuff of their reality: cabbage cooking, grinding poverty, blood feuds between families, unlooked for good fortune found on the road, and love. Introducing Bela Lakatos & The Gypsy Youth Project is the band’s first international recording and it shows off the music and their abilities to the utmost.
Not knowing a single word of Roma aside from the word Drom (road), the only way I could guess at the content of a song was the manner it was being sung by the performer and the emotional pull it created within me. For a band to be able to communicate across the barrier of language takes clarity of focus and intent that is truly amazing.
Maybe it’s due to the nature of the songs combined with the talents of the band members, but there wasn’t a song on this disc that didn’t leave me feeling one emotion or another. Although they are only five in number, The Gypsy Youth Project packs the wallop of an ensemble twice their size.
Each song builds itself around a central motif that either starts at high octane or builds amidst a whirling of vocal sounds, lyrics, guitar and mandolin, and the high ringing sound of sticks being tapped together or on found objects. It will either stay at this zenith for the songs duration or gradually descend back down to the mortal plane.
This disc is a wild ride through the varied and unpredictable lives of the Roma in Eastern Europe, specifically the huge community in Hungary. The tame music that one hears being played in most public venues, the music we’re told is Gypsy, is only a pale imitation of what is found here. It is the equivalent of having listened to Pat Boone singing the music of Black rock and rollers for years and then finally hearing the real thing.
I don’t think I have heard such wonderfully wild energy as is on display in the music of this CD. They have stripped the music down to the basic essentials and exposed the heart that lays beating at its core. For anyone who has an interest in the music of the Roma or an interest in the Roma themselves, your collection will not be complete without this disc.
Introducing Bella Lakatos & The Gypsy Youth Project is not only the culmination of a worthwhile project, it is truly an amazing recording. I never thought I’d see the day when I’d find a band to compare to Taruff de Haduks for passion, integrity, and talent, but these guys are it.