Descendants of nomadic people from the northern Indian province of Rajasthan, the Romani, commonly and erroneously referred to as Gypsies, began their western migration into Europe around 1100AD. (The word gypsy comes from the Greek word Aigyptoi and comes from the story given out by the Romani that they were exiled from Egypt for sheltering the baby Jesus.) In spite of being predominantly Christian, some were Islamic, they have been persecuted to an extent only equal to that suffered by Jews, since their arrival.
While a good deal of the prejudice against the Romani stems from their nomadic lifestyle marking them as notably different from the majority population, the darker complexion of their heritage is also a contributing factor. However, in spite of, and maybe because of, this persecution, a sentimental and romantic image of "The Gypsy" has developed in the West. Somehow Romani men are all passionate, and slightly dangerous, lovers, while the women are fiery and gorgeous seductresses. All of them, no matter what their gender, dance the Flamenco to the sounds of a wild violin around a roaring fire.
Now while it is true that the Romani from Spain, specifically Seville and the Catalonia region, were responsible for the development of flamenco music, that represents only one segment of their population. Music and culture changes from country to country, and even from region to region within a country, and as the Romani have travelled throughout Asia and Europe, their music has come to reflect the variety of cultural influences they have brushed against. Like everyone else they too have felt the impact of technology upon their lives, and new generations of Romani musicians, like their contemporaries the world over, are making use of it to help generate their music.
A new release from the World Music Network, The Rough Guide To Gypsy Music (Second Edition), attempts to show the diversity of music played by the Romani people as the fourteen tracks range from the expected flamenco guitar, brass band ensembles, and the sounds of northern India. While a couple of the groups represented on this disc have managed to reach international audiences in the past, Fanfare Ciocarlia and Taraf de Haidouks are probably the best known, very few of the other names will be familiar to many people.
If there is one complaint to make about the disc, aside from the title – isn't it about time labels stopped using Gypsy and began using Romani – it's the fact that its focus is a little too narrow. Sure they have an adequate representation of the various styles of music, but there is a tendency to lean towards horn dominated groups with some of the other styles not as adequately represented. That's not to say to say you won't hear violins, guitars, and the other instruments that are traditionally associated with Romani music, but on a causal listen those tracks where there isn't a horn playing stand out in sharp relief. I can understand their desire to get away from the stereotypical "gypsy violin", but there's more to the music than horns as well.
Two of the groups that do stand out because of their noticeable differences from the rest represent on the one hand the easternmost area of the Romani's range and on the other nearly their westernmost point in Europe. Son De La Frontera are from the birthplace of Flamenco, Seville Spain, while Musafir are a group of musicians playing the music of Rajasthan, India. Both groups have built upon the traditional music of their predecessors to develop a sound that is both familiar and new at the same time.
Listening to Son De La Frontera play "Un Compromiso" one hears not only the expected sounds of vibrant flamenco, but the sounds of Cuba mixed in as well. All that is stirring and inspiring about flamenco is still there, but they've also added the element of the Cuban steel string tres that gives the sound a harder edge than you'd normally expect. While the additional guitar might give it some extra spice, it's still the power of flamenco that makes this track so moving. These five performers are as powerful as any I've heard before as their voices soar in stirring harmonies and the music stomps fire into your veins; you hear this one song and you're going to want to hear more.
While the performers in Musafir aren't actually members of the tribal group who are the ancestors of today's European Romani, and wouldn't probably play together if they lived in Rajasthan, they do play music that is representative of the region. While some of the influences on their music – Indian film music and Arabic pop music – wouldn't have been around to influence those who migrated into the west, they would have been hearing the classical music of Northern India and the Islamic devotional music that also makes up Musafir's sound.
Listening to their song, "Barish" you hear elements of classical Indian music; the steady beat of the tabla, the buzzing sound of a string instruments sympathetic strings resonating as it's strummed, and the familiar vocalizations, blending seamlessly with the more modern influences. It's an ear catching sound that at first attracts your attention because of its novelty, and then successfully holds it because of its energy and beauty.
The Rough Guide To Gypsy Music Vol. 2 contains music by obviously skilled performers who share a passion and a love for the music they play. While it goes a long way to dispelling the myth that Romani music consists solely of wild violins, and includes music representing many of the geographical regions they inhabit, it still felt like they hadn't cast their net wide enough. There are just a few too many songs by bands that sound too much alike for it to be an excellent disc instead of merely a good one. As a bonus, World Music Net is throwing in a previously released disc Introducing Bela Lakatos & The Gypsy Youth Project, a dynamic collection of Hungarian Romani music originally released in 2006.