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Gypsies sing the blues

The West seems to devote more energy to celebrating Gypsy culture than protecting the rights of this increasingly persecuted minority

By Goran Gocic in London

A Gypsy brass orchestra strides off into a garden, hotly pursued by cheering revelers. City girls transform into oriental belly dancers, a crowd jumps to its feet, shouting approval.

Ten years ago, scenes like these were strictly reserved for debauched Balkan weddings, cattle fairs and drunken parties in restaurants, which elsewhere in Europe would almost certainly end in arrests. These days, the venue is London's prestigious Barbican Centre, where a season called "1000 Year Long Journey", dubbed the UK's biggest celebration of Gypsy music and arts, took place on stages usually occupied by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Gypsy music has always enjoyed an international audience - witness the enduring popularity of the most famous Roma musician of all, Django Rheinhardt or Flamenco, from Paco de Lucia to MTV-groomed global stars, The Gypsy Kings. Today, however, the Global village is turning its gaze towards eastern Europe. Almost every country of the region has its own Gypsy music stars - the biggest are those from the Balkans. Romania's Taraf de Ha´douks ("Band of Brigands") and Yugoslavia's Goran Bregovic played to packed audiences during the recent Barbican season. Taraf de Ha´douks released its first American album last year and tours the world. Goran Bregovic became known internationally through his film scores, notably for Emir Kusturica's Time of the Gypsies, but he is also a huge European music star in his own right.

Why this sudden craze for Roma art? One obvious answer is that the fall of the iron curtain opened a whole new vista for enterprising producers, so-called "World Music" afficionados were bound to discover Gypsy performers sooner or later. But as a few Gypsies become ever hotter property in the international music and cinema scene, day-to-day life for their communities becomes ever more cruel and bleak.

The collapse in living standards and rise in unemployment which followed the fall of communism hit Roma particularly hard, while the end of authoritarianism offered free reign to prejudices which had previously been held in check. In the Balkans, where half of Europe's 8 million Gypsies live, conditions are particularly dire. Penal institutions in Bulgaria are full of Roma children rounded up from the streets by police. Attacks on Gypsy villages have taken place in Romania. The Roma of Kosovo were branded Serb collaborators and subject to revenge lynchings. Even in traditionally tolerant Macedonia and Montenegro, Gypsy refugees from Kosovo are only given short-stay visas - even though they have nowhere to go. Most European countries refuse visas for Roma. In Canada, skinheads organised demonstrations against Gypsy refugees. Even in Britain, they have become a soft target, as the tabloids pedal stories of an invading army of rogues and beggars.

It is sad that the current fashion for Gypsy music, interest in Gypsy folklore and dramatic depiction of the Gypsy soul has not translated into some kind of concern for Roma suffering. Beyond rousing applause for their musicians, Gypsies need substantial support from the West. They lack just about everything, from housing to education, to basic human rights.

Of course, the "art of the oppressed" is nothing new. Cultural adoration and political discrimination have often walked hand in hand, the most obvious example of this being the popularisation of blues music at a time of acute African American suffering. Little wonder then that some have dubbed Gypsy music from the Balkans "European blues".

Just as Third World cultures are disappearing, Third World art, music and cinema are increasingly sought after. Renewed interest in the culture of some ethnic group or other often means that it's in deep trouble. While Gypsies have become a hip accessory for stars such as Johnny Depp, who reportedly paid a six-figure sum to Taraf de Ha´douks to play at his party in Los Angeles, none of the artists cashing in on the Gypsy fad ever mention the general plight of Gypsies. Nor do Roma artists themselves - attaching oneself to an already lost cause is not exactly a good career move.

Gypsies in the Balkans could do with a celebrity to champion their cause and improve their chances for survival - probably more badly than Tibetans need Richard Gere or Amazonian Indians need Sting. But sadly, no one has yet volunteered for such a thankless task.

Goran Gocic is an IWPR contributor

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting


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