Gypsy music: Genres of influence

April 23, 2015

gypsy-roma art about musicIn the last post — Music genres influencing Tresbear Music — we listed a few music genres that have influenced Tony Huber & Friends as well as Tresbear Music in general. We thought it would be both educational and interesting to take a closer look at some of these genres of music — their origins, their evolution from then to today, examples of the given music genre, and so on. This article, the first in a series, focuses on Gypsy-style music.

Gypsy music, aka gypsy style, refers to the manner in which East European music is often performed at small venues in European cities and elsewhere. Gypsy music is mainly instrumental and usually performed by classical guitar and fiddle with accompaniment often including a cimbalom, double bass, and sometimes brass and woodwind instruments.

Along the gypsy journey, they have come to embody a certain mystique of wandering people, adept as entertainers and tradesman, but most famously trained as musicians. But before we get into gypsy music, I thought we’d take a look at who the gypsies really were, and are today, by examining a bit of history and checking out some basic facts about these intriguing people.

Who are Gypsies?

Gypsy stereotypes & discrimination

gypsy-roma stereotypes

Gypsy stereotypes from pop culture

The word Gypsy originated with Anglo-Europeans who incorrectly assumed that the Roma people hailed from Egypt. When many of us in the West hear the term gypsy, one of several outdated stereotypes often comes to mind: a colorful caravan of traveling musicians, the fortune teller, or as a generally untrustworthy people. At least one film — Drag Me to Hell — featured a gypsy who was able to supernaturally curse those who wronged her. There have been many fictional representations of Romani people; however, the truth about gypsies is, of course, much more complex than these dated caricatures.

Although we have a few mostly-subtle Roma markers in our culture, the Gypsies as a real people are have only recently emerged in a substantial way. Cultural markers from the Gypsy/Roma world include gypsy moth, gypsy cab, and the negative term gypped which denotes a rip-off.

Gypsy in 2009 film Drag Me to Hell

According to the results of some surveys on attitudes, stereotypes, prejudices, etc. regarding ethnic and religious minorities, the Roma are the most rejected of all minority groups in all of Central and Eastern Europe (Csepeli, 2004).

I won’t play you a sad song on my violin. I do not have a bandana. I do not have a golden tooth. I do not have long hair or a golden hoop in my ear. I am just trying to speak up for my people…
(Source: Voice of Roma president Sani Rifati)

Gypsy population & migration

gypsy-roma art about music

Migration of the Roma people

Gypsies, known more politically correctly as the Roma (aka Romani, Romany, Romanes), number up to 12 million or so worldwide. They are members of an ethnic group who now live throughout Europe, the Middle East, Australia, and the Americas. The Roma are thought to have originated from the Indian subcontinent.

As they migrated, the traditionally nomadic Gypsies faced intense persecution and discrimination; these hardships probably peaked during the Holocaust. Because the Roma have been persecuted worldwide for much of their existence, they don’t typically trust outsiders and haven’t shared much of their story.

American Gypsies - National Gepgraphic Channel

Gypsies in popular culture: National
Geographic Channel’s American Gypsies

Increasingly, gypsies are speaking up today to help others better understand and appreciate their culture. TV shows like “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” and “American Gypsies” also aim to let us take a peek at their contemporary lives.

What is Gypsy music?

Romani music is nothing if not age old, and like much that is ancient, it originated in India; Gypsy music actually predates the diatonic musical scale (the traditional scale composed of seven distinct pitch classes) by 500 years. By the 16th century or so, Romani music could be heard in Egypt and across the Balkans, eventually spreading into the Middle East and Western Europe. During their centuries of journeying, Gypsies have learned and assimilated the musical styles of every culture they have experienced along their travels.

old-time gypsy musicians

Old-time gypsy musicians

Because the Romani people have lived and played in such diverse lands as India, Spain, Turkey, North Africa, the Middle East and all over Europe, it is difficult to come to a singular definition of what gypsy music is.

[Gypsy music is] something that is hard to label, let alone define. “There is no music called Gypsy music,” insists DJ Shantel. “You can only talk about traditional music from different regions in south-eastern Europe.” Even “Balkan music” is misleading because the Balkans excludes Romania. Though the geography is confusing, the sound is unmistakable. Music from this part of the world combines brawling energy with unfathomable sadness. It could be the sound of a wedding or a wake. “This is very emotional music,” says Shantel. “It’s something you cannot really compromise on.” (Source: There is no such thing as Gypsy music – The Guardian)

modern gypsy musicians

Modern gypsy/Roma musicians

Popularity of Gypsy music

Gypsy music artists, Roma wedding music bands, and Romani musical traditions in general are enjoying a resurgence in popularity after building up over the last couple of decades. Ethnomusicologists have always been fascinated by Roma, but the public has only recently caught the fever. The rise of Gypsy music has been exceptional true since 1993 when Tony Gatlif’s film Latcho Drom (The Good Road) was released. The groundbreaking documentary film features the journey of the Roma or Gypsy people through the eyes of musicians and dancers of India, Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France, and Spain. Gatlif’s travelogue of stunning visuals and arresting music developed significant cult popularity followed by a real demand for Gypsy music — a vacuum which various music labels began to fill.

Contemporary Gypsy-style artists, bands

modern gypsy musicians

Modern gypsy/Roma musicians

Although the French group Gipsy Kings have frequented the top spots in the Roma music genre for some time, there are now more well-recorded CDs and CD compilations available to the public than ever before. There are too many gypsy-style bands to list here, but a few artists in this genre (in no particular order) include:

  • Django Reinhardt
  • Gipsy Kings
  • Musafir
  • The Incredible Istanbul Gipsy Band
  • Kali Jag
  • Gogol Bordello
  • The Kolpakov Trio
  • Laver Bariu
  • Antonio El Pipa Flamenco Company

modern gypsy musicians

Contemporary Gypsy-style musicians

“Gypsy jazz” musician Django Reinhardt is regarded by many as one of the greatest, most influential guitarists of all time; he was the first important European jazz musician who made major contributions to the development of the guitar genre. Django created a completely new style of jazz guitar — a technique sometimes called ‘hot’ jazz guitar — which has become a tradition in the Gypsy-style music culture.

Django was a Belgian-born Roma who played much of his career in Paris… Around the world, hundreds of Django-inspired festivals and concerts are being held to summon the gypsy’s spirit… According to Michael Dregni’s recent New York Times best seller on his life, Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend (Oxford University Press), Django grew up in gypsy caravans… When he was 18, his left hand was crippled in a caravan fire, leaving him with use of only two fingers on that hand… Yet it was with those two fingers that he fingered his scorching arpeggios and chord melodies… (Source: Resurgence of a gypsy spirit – Philly.com)

In Spain, gypsy music evolved into Flamenco; the guitars, castanets, and dancing evolved, but Roma music’s foundations and instrumentation made it all the way from Rajasthan to Granada.

In many ways the Roma people have acted as repositories of endangered music, preserving art and traditions that would otherwise have been lost. Even more amazing is the fact that they have been extremely successful at preserving their own unique culture and legacy while absorbing the influences of those around them.

Instruments used in traditional Gypsy music

Cimbalom

The cimbalom is a concert hammered dulcimer: a type of chordophone composed of a large, trapezoidal box with metal strings stretched across its top. It is a musical instrument commonly found in Hungary and throughout the group of Central-Eastern European nations and cultures which composed Austria-Hungary (1867–1918), namely contemporary Belarus, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It is also popular in Greece. The cimbalom is (typically) played by striking two beaters against the strings. The steel treble strings are arranged in groups of 4 and are tuned in unison. The bass strings which are over-spun with copper, are arranged in groups of 3 and are also tuned in unison.

Pan flute

Pan flutes (also panflute) are a group of musical instruments based on the principle of the closed tube, consisting of multiple pipes of gradually increasing length (and occasionally girth). Multiple varieties of panflutes have long been popular as folk instruments. They are considered to be the first mouth organ, ancestor of both the pipe organ and the harmonica[citation needed]. The pipes are typically made from bamboo, giant cane, or local reeds. Other materials include wood, plastic, metal and ivory.

Resources — Gypsy music: Music genres influencing Tresbear Music

Gypsy history & culture

Gypsies in pop culture

Instruments of gypsy-style music

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