Garth Cartwright “A Little Bit Special” – Censorship and the Gypsy Musicians of Romania. Freemuse, Copenhagen, October 2001, ISSN 1601-2127 Garth Cartwright, a New Zealander now based in London, is the author of The Tower Guide To World Music (March 2000) and a freelance journalist. He was awarded the Guardian/Stop Press Journalism Award: Best Music Writer 1996.
The people of Romania have experienced a radical upheaval in their way of life since the revolution, which toppled the totalitarian regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989. While former communists still run Romania’s government it is now a free market economy, albeit one of Europe’s poorest and least efficient.
If the economy remains stagnant Romanians’ now finally have the opportunity to express themselves both politically and artistically without undue fear of censorship and/or persecution. This has lead to Western rock and pop bands touring Romania – unthinkable in Ceausescu’s time – and Romanians’ leading their own pop, metal and hip-hop outfits.
In this sense, Romania is not a nation that suffers unduly from musical censorship – the same debates and controversies tackled in Western nations over the image/language/attitude of rock and hip-hop stars can be found there. Yet 11% of Romania’s population is of Gypsy ethnicity. Western European readers will be well aware of the controversies surrounding the large scale migration of Romanian Gypsies across the last decade – especially over the last two years – towards Germany, France and the UK. Many of these migrants refer to themselves as refugees and ask for political asylum when reaching Western European shores.
For the Gypsy community it appears that life under the post-Ceausescu regimes has got worse, not better. This involves everything from discrimination in the work place, through police brutality to fiery pogroms intended to ethnically cleanse entire Gypsy communities. It is these incidents – alongside the terrible state of the Romanian economy – that has driven tens of thousands of Romanian Gypsies to embark on an arduous, dangerous and often futile journey of migration.
Yet what of Romania’s Gypsy musicians? In all of Central and Eastern Europe no country posits a greater wealth of traditional musics than that of Romania. And most of Romania’s traditional music is now played by Gypsy musicians.
This report aims to look at how Romania’s Gypsy musical culture is surviving today. With the international success (on the world music circuit) of Taraf De Haidouks, Romanian Gypsy music has its highest international profile ever. Yet the success of the Taraf is not reflected back in Romania where their Gypsy status still lends them a degree of pariah status.
As I try and show in this report, although Gypsies have lived within Romania’s borders for at least eight hundred years they are still regarded by the majority of Romanians as little more than squatters. This is heard in a common sentiment of “we are Romanians, they are Gypsies and should go back to where they came from.”
This peasant mentality alongside an aversion to dark skinned individuals – and Gypsies often, due to their Asian origins, possess darker skin and features than European Romanians – means the Gypsy community as a whole suffers from discrimination. Romania, I should note, is by no means the only European community to persecute its Gypsy citizens. Indeed, other human rights reports (Helsinki Watch, Index On Censorship, The Patrin Web Journal) note that the situation in Slovakia and The Czech Republic is even worse than Romania’s. While the governments of Spain, France, Greece and the UK have all been criticised for less than fair dealings with their Gypsy citizens.
Yet Romania remains the focus of this report simply because it has an active and organic Gypsy musical culture of greater vitality than anywhere else in Europe. Ironically, Romania’s Gypsy musicians often fare better than other members of the Gypsy community due to their skills being in demand by the non-Gypsy community. In a sense, Taraf De Haidouks and the more prosperous Gypsy musicians occupy a niche similar to what Louis Armstrong (and other African-American musicians) did in the US pre-Civil Rights.
I look at whether this demand will enable the music to survive or whether it simply turns it into a museum piece so offering the same relationship to Romania’s Gypsy community as jazz/blues/soul does to the contemporary African-American community.
Romania’s politicians and governing bodies are little concerned with the nation’s Gypsy music. Instead of attempting to ban it they treat the music with an indifference bordering on contempt, offering little (or no) support for the musicians both in Romania and when they venture abroad (Gypsies are not seen as suitable ambassadors for Romania). In this sense, Romania’s Gypsy musicians are struggling to exist in a society hostile to them. Can they and their music survive in the 21st Century? If Romania can build a civil society then the answer is yes; if not then like klezmer the great sounds that have echoed across Romania for centuries could soon be silenced.
This report concludes with a number of recommendations intended to counteract the effects of discrimination – and thus censorship – upon Romania’s Gypsy communities.