The following quote of an article in the NY Times comes from another list,
but I thought some of you might find it interesting in the context of
ongoing discussions on this list regarding "authenticity." Also, it fits
with some of the "connections" that I have been discovering in recent
weeks. I have not tried to edit out the sections that do not deal directly
with the subject of primary interest.
April 1, 2001
Music: Pushing Gypsiness, Roma or Otherwise
By MICHAEL BECKERMAN
ON the winding roads of Arizona, near places like Kingman, the birthplace of
the cowboy comic Andy Devine, there are signs everywhere for "Indian
jewelry." People in the cities may speak of Native Americans, and for all I
know, the purveyors of turquoise and silver think of themselves as such. But
selling is selling, and the word "Indian" is considered more likely to pull
So, too, the word "Gypsy." For years, it has been clear that most members of
this group prefer to be called Roma (sometimes spelled Rroma, to ensure that
the "r" is rolled). But selling is selling, so the word "Gypsy" crops up,
whether in the trailer for the film "Latcho Drom," on the many CD's with a
"Caravan of the Gypsies" theme or at a local restaurant advertising its
Or in connection with events to take place this week and next at the 92nd
Street Y: two exciting programs titled "Familiar Strangers: The Gypsy
Musical Heritage." The first, on Thursday, offers music of Spain in
performances by Esperanza Fernandez, a vocalist, Miguel Angel Cortes and
Jose A. Camacho, guitarists, and Elena Andujar and Patro Soto, dancers. The
second, on April 12, features Hungarian musicians, including the Szaszcsavas
Band, Ferenc Santa Jr., a violinist, and Kalman Balogh, a cimbalom player.
Each event juxtaposes traditional music with examples of composed works
influenced by it, performed by the Perspectives Ensemble.
In structuring the programs, the organizers, Sato Moughalian, the ensemble's
artistic director, and Hanna Arie-Gaifman, the director of the Tisch Center
for the Arts at the 92nd Street Y, seem to have thought deeply about the
issues surrounding the music. Such consideration is important, for little is
self-evident in the realm of "Gypsy music," which may stand as a powerful
example of the slippery and even dangerous problems that arise when we begin
to articulate issues of ethnicity.
Some consider the word "Gypsy" tantamount to an ethnic slur: in effect, the
G- word. So here is an awkward twist: to bring in the crowds, the musicians
allow themselves to be advertised as something many would rather not be.
This is not an incidental point when we consider what is being offered under
the rubric "Gypsy music." Does a potential buyer encountering such a thing,
either in a concert hall or in a record store, expect a reflective, analytic
music marked by restraint and subtlety? Hardly, for although the players may
be Roma, and they may be playing Romany music, what is really being sold is
an imaginary Gypsiness.
Gypsiness fits in with the broader phenomenon we might call "light folks,
dark music." In this problematic cliché, lighter- skinned and higher-class
people look to "darker," lower-class music for elemental qualities
supposedly missing from their own lives. Whether we call it jazz, world beat
or Gypsy music, what audiences desire is pulse, an instinctive rather than a
reflective moment, and the sexiness of the exotic. (Lightness itself is
relative; in the film "Titanic," the below-deck Irish provided the charge.)
We also tend to expect an extraordinary degree of passionate engagement from
Indeed, Gypsiness in music may be represented by a mock formula, I + V = E.
In this equation, I stands for improvisation, which in this sense implies
that the performer has the ability and the "right" to change a design in
accordance with momentary impulses; the audience thus comes to assume that
choices are being made on the basis of pure life moods. V stands for
virtuosity, a sign of control, mastery and power. Together they create E,
emotion, the implication being that this combination of momentariness and
power are signs of deep passion.
It was this quality, rather than any ethnographic precision, that led Liszt
to compose his Hungarian Rhapsodies as a fundamental argument against
Germanness, the opposing realm, in which improvisation, virtuosity and
emotion are, if not banished, carefully subordinated to the grand
intellectual design. The difference between Germanness and Gypsiness is
summed up in a letter Arnold Schoenberg wrote to the conductor Otto
Klemperer after hearing the Hungarian pianist Erwin Nyiregyhazi: "I have
never heard such a pianist before. He does not play in the style you and I
strive for. . . . What he plays is expression, in the older sense of the
word, nothing else."
But what does this notion of expression really mean? Does the great cimbalom
player Mr. Balogh really feel more deeply than you do when you play a Brahms
intermezzo? How much is performance tradition and artifice, and what is
reality? Should flamenco music somehow belong to some putative Romany music
because only the historic sufferings of the Roma could have created it? Or
was it a collaborative effort over time by many different types of
musicians, whose circumstances were not always completely determined by
The Hungarian context poses related questions. Whereas Liszt thought that
"Gypsy" music was the real Hungarian music, Bartok forcefully argued instead
that peasant music lay at the core of the Hungarian experience. Though
Bartok was a great man and a brilliant thinker, we may find some of his
ideas on the subject distasteful today. Unavoidably, in the process of
tunneling beneath the surface for authenticity and purity, much of the
removed dirt is cast on those whose sources may be a bit different. Bartok's
search for pure Hungarian music could be sustained only by comparing his
specimens with something impure, and for Bartok that ended up being music of
the Roma. In fact, the pursuit of a national music may sometimes appear like
ethnic cleansing rather than a harmless attempt to create a sonic world of
FOR this reason it is important that a Jewish organization like the 92nd
Street Y concerns itself with issues of race and ethnicity in regard to the
Roma. In his recent book, "The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies," Guenter
Lewy, after carefully considering a broad range of evidence, offers a
section titled, "The Persecution of Gypsies and Jews Compared."
Disturbingly, he writes, "I believe that we now have sufficient evidence to
resolve the question at issue and to reject the alleged parallelism."
One of the most troubling tendencies in the aftermath of the Holocaust has
been to belittle or marginalize the suffering of non-Jews. Indeed, these
post-Holocaust "spins" sometimes make historical writing about the Holocaust
almost as hard to stomach as confronting the atrocities committed at the
time. But one thing should be painfully obvious: if there were as many Roma
intellectuals per capita as Jewish ones, and if there were a country called
Romestan, no one would dream of dismissing the parallels between Roma and
Jews with such an aside.
Though our brains probably require that we make rather simple, broad
groupings to deal with reality, these can lead to bizarre and offensive
findings. Mr. Lewy writes, "Prejudice alone . . . is not a sufficient
explanation for the hostility directed at the Gypsies over the centuries."
There are also "negative behavioral traits" that are "reported not only by
their enemies but also by well-meaning observers." For example: "Gypsies
harbor a deep-seated suspicion of non-Gypsies, referred to as the gadze.
Hence to lie to a gadjo is perfectly acceptable behavior and carries no
All Roma lie to non-Roma? All the time? Everywhere? Imagine if someone had
written such a thing about Jews, lumping them together with a series of
stereotyped traits and saying that these negative behaviors were
acknowledged even by well-meaning observers.
This kind of blinkered approach to the Roma - whether intended to celebrate,
by Liszt; used to denigrate, by Bartok; or offered in a supposedly
dispassionate scholarly account, by Mr. Lewy - ignores what Bartok later
came to understand: purity in music is as impossible to achieve as purity in
any other sphere of existence. The styles we call flamenco or Hungarian
Gypsy music or, for that matter, Jewish music result from an almost infinite
number of interactions among groups. The law of the planet is the law of
To attract an audience, the 92nd Street Y speaks of Gypsies and may even
imply that musical Gypsiness is in the offing. But the organizers hope that
once inside the doors, the audience will mingle the ecstasy of musical
involvement with a passionate reconsideration of the issues that surround
Michael Beckerman is a music historian who teaches at the University of
California, Santa Barbara.