Gypsy Music Festival - Part 1 (1995)

For seven days this August a Gypsy Music Festival took place in Lucerne, as a sort of 'fringe' to Lucerne's prestigious classical International Music Festival. More than one hundred Gypsy musicians, plus family and friends, came from places all along the great Rom migration route: from Egypt and Spain via France, Hungary, Rumania, Macedonia and even Switzerland, to Rajasthan whence the Rom people originally embarked a thousand years ago.

Even in Switzerland, 700-year-old Lucerne is considered wealthy and conservative. Its old town is largely pedestrianised, lined with old guild halls, houses, churches and market buildings gaily painted in pastel tones. Lucerne is often likened to a permanent Disneyland. Although Swiss folklore has its dark side, on the surface they tend to like everything bright, happy and spotlessly clean.

Despite all that money, nothing appeared to have been spent on advertising the Gypsy festival. As a result, this unprecedented gathering of so many different groups of Gypsy musicians was a well-kept secret. Andy and I only heard about it because we happened to be in Switzerland the week before the festival, and when a friend mentioned it we pulled out all the stops to be able to come. Beginning, as it did, after the Koprivshtitsa festival in Bulgaria, I expected to see hordes of North American folk enthusiasts stopping off on their way home. But maybe nobody over there knew about it either. Luckily, word-of-mouth swelled the initially scant crowds from mere dozens at the beginning of the week, to many hundreds by the end.

The other major drawback of the festival was that it was hard to find out who was actually appearing, for the simple reason that nobody seemed to know. Unfortunately, we never learned the names of some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful singers and musicians, especially those from Northern Spain who featured in the first event of the Gypsy festival, Flamenco-Rumba-Nacht. This happening, in a nightclub converted from the old stables on the edge of town, brought us a wealth of virtuoso performers singing, dancing and partying simultaneously indoors and outdoors.

Although May Bittel and Dorado Schmitt play the Manouche music specific to Southern France, they were billed as representing Switzerland - perhaps because the Manouches (or sinto-manush ) Gypsies still travel a great deal, mainly between France, Italy, and Germany. Other Manouche musicians included Los Canasteros and Tekameli, both from Perpignan. Tekameli, composed of members of the Espinas family, combine voices, guitars, and palmas in the particular style of irresistible rumba characteristic of Catalan Gitans. (If you saw the film Latcho Drom, you saw them playing in the crypt in honour of the Black Madonna, Ste Sara-la-Kali.)

Among the several flamenco artists from northern Spain, the most exquisite pleasure came from listening to El Nino Josele, an astonishing young guitarist. El Nino, who played solo and with his father Josele, is the latest of five generations of Gypsy flamenco guitarists in his family, representing the Chanca / Pescaderia neighbourhood of Almeria, in remote eastern Andalusia.

Most of the musicians only played a short set, but luckily, they all played again the following afternoon at the opening of an exhibition titled 'Gypsy Families and their Music', put together by Denis Mercier. Mercier was the cinematographer for Latcho Drom, and he created a lush and loving testimony to the Roma, hanging the walls richly with images, textiles and objects from daily Gypsy life, and drawing on many of his images from the film. His contacts, too, had evidently served the festival organisers well, since five or six of the groups which appeared in Latcho Drom were performing here also.

Kek Lang, for instance, appeared in the railway station scene in the film, playing the Hungarian Gypsy street music known as Olah (made famous by the better-known group Kalyi Jag, source of the music for the dances Ketri Ketri, Rumelaj and Mori Shej). Every song opened with one woman leading, and the whole family following, in an improvised outpouring of heartfelt truths. As Isabel Fonseca remarks in her new book, Gypsies save their sentiment for song. The mournful polyphony exploded finally into infectious dance rhythms accompanied by guitars, violins, mouth music, the sharp tap of tin spoons, young men's muffled bootheels thudding on bare boards, and the cavernous enclosed echo of milk-jug percussion. And how they danced! The men leapt, twirled, stamped, kicked and slapped their boots and bodies, taking turns in a mock dance-duel. The women's steps were simple and familiar, identical to the Ciganytanc I'd learned years ago from Stephan & Susan Kotansky. These joyous thick-bodied grandmothers were alight with the exuberant fire of dance and song, from their nylon headscarves to their cheap plastic pumps and fuzzy slippers bearing Levi's slogans. I was amazed that even in such ludicrously incongruous shoes, their feet danced so tenderly on the ground, sprinkling tiny quick steps upon it like kisses. Each step illustrated, effortlessly, that somehow lightness itself can dance in that space between foot and floor, no matter what the footwear.

There was a marked difference between the threadbare Hungarians and the well-groomed Swiss who'd come to hear them, crowding among tables laden with platters of canapes and filled glasses. Similarly, in the exhibition, the testament to poverty inscribed on most of the faces in the photographs contrasted sharply with the opulent interior of the 400-year-old town hall. Oriental carpets were laid thickly over the flagstone flooring, tall leaded windows overlooked the river Reuss with its two picturesque covered wooden bridges and the famous water tower dated 1300. The Spreuer Bridge, built in 1408, is decorated with 67 tableaux of the Dance of Death, which illustrates Death carrying off peasantry and nobility alike. More than 350 years old, the paintings still serve as a reminder that you can't take it with you, and we are all equal beyond the grave.

The second Hungarian group was as different from Kek Lang as could be. Indeed, unlike the other Gypsy groups who intermingled throughout the week, the members of these two ensembles notably did not speak to or socialise with each other at all. Antal Szalai and his band from Budapest fit right in among the Swiss in their expensive pastel suits, playing classical Gypsy violin music - what you might hear in a restaurant in Budapest. Szalai the primas and his three supporting musicians sizzled the strings furiously. The fierce concentration of the double bass player, his eyes glued to Szalai's flying fingers as his own flew to follow, revealed the intensely improvisational nature of their playing. Yehudi Menuhin, who lives nearby and who lent his diplomatically supportive presence throughout the entire festival, leapt up enthusiastically after the first number to seize the hand of the primas in wordless appreciation. Afterwards, we all ate and drank our fill, down to and including the fruit garnishes.

On Saturday night, the Hungarian and Manouche musicians played again in the atmospheric Rutli Saal, a dark-panelled high-ceilinged dining room in what used to be Lucerne's oldest, most famous hotel. A flash of brass in a dimly lit corridor had excited my hopes that some Macedonians or Serbians might show up, and sure enough, before long a Loud Noise began to make itself heard, emanating from somewhere downstairs. At the time, a Manouche trio was actually onstage, but as they were drowned out even before the nine-piece brass ensemble blasted its way through the doors, the guitarists gracefully conceded to force majeure and gave Kocani Orkestar the floor (they wouldn't fit on the stage).

Kocani Orkestar, from Macedonia, played Srpsko Kolo (U Sest), Elenino (Eleno Mome) in 7/8, and various coceci in 2/4, 6/8, 7/8, and 9/8. At last we could dance! Initially a few of us danced the solo improvised cocek, eventually gathering enough bodies for Snezhana, the singer, to form a line for the simple cocek we know and love.

How can I describe what it is like to dance with this music I love so well? First of all, it is loud. Dancing among three trubas, two saxophones, a clarinet, trumpet, cornet, accordion, tuba and tupan-plus-cymbals - all so loud nothing else can enter your eardrums - it's like being underwater. And for me, a good, long cocek experience is like a mythic journey by sea: the sheer volume and exuberance of the melody float it like a ship on deep buoyant waves. The soloist breaks free from the tune, smashes the oars, cuts the anchor, sinks the ship. Impossible notes splash and swim in all directions, survivors of the shipwreck with a will to live. Each one is abandoned: the waves of rhythm wash up irregularly, the drummer goes crazy, crashing tupan and cymbals like thunder and lightning: a storm at sea. We all give ourselves over to the drenching waves. Sweating, wet as any swimmer, the surviving dancers hold white-knuckled tight to the hands in the line. Strung together like the trumpet's solo notes, we gasp, our feet pound the sandy floor, we are drawn out by the riptide, barely able to breathe. At last the accordion returns. Slow jubilant chords rise from under the waves, calm and long like rafts to rescue the drowning notes of the solo sax. We too are rescued, and sail to shore. Ten or twenty minutes have passed. We all wash up together, thrilled, purified, exhilarated, clapping and shouting for more.

Not only is it loud, it is sexy. Exuberant brass tones slide like gold oil all over your body, awakening muscles you didn't remember you had, daring you to dance with them. I wasn't exactly dressed for it, due to the total lack of anything in my wardrobe resembling tight-skirt-and-high-heels, but I tried not to let that hold me back. Snezhana the singer, on the other hand, revealed her generous curves in a little white spray-on number, and concealed them again in a stylishly oversized denim jacket. And I will never know how she or anybody dances one single step in Those Shoes.

What I really like about being enticed to dance this way, is that nobody looks like they would even dream of hitting on you just because you're up there all night showing how beautiful and sexy you are, or dream of making any assumptions based on steamy duets on the dance floor. (And it gets pretty steamy. Okay, so we didn't see any artificial ejaculations involving beer-bottles like in Time of the Gypsies, but men were on their knees, bending over backwards on the floor, shimmying their shoulders and worshipping at the feet - or hips? - of their dance partners.) I can't think of many other public occasions where a woman can really express herself in her body, sexually and spiritually, and not fear dreadful consequences. Everybody should have this experience at least once before they die, it's worth years of therapy.

And speaking of sex, I was relieved that the tupan (clear plastic on one side, twice-patched skin on the other, cymbals attached to the top) was free of the usual garish Gypsy garnish of pornographic photographs. I can't imagine how the Swiss would have handled that. Actually, I'm not entirely sure how to handle it either. Why do they do it, I wonder? Why paste pictures of nude women on the drum, of all places? Does it show, as one of my dance teachers once posited, that Gypsies experience the rhythms of music and dance as basically sexual energy? Maybe so, and maybe there is a little more to it than that. Despite my distaste, I feel compelled to try to look at this from another point of view, and not to judge others by the standards appropriate to my own culture. I remember the sacred yoni symbol omnipresent in India, which according to Denis Mercier is also drawn for protection and prayer in Gypsy encampments throughout the world, on cradles, in houses and, yes, on musical instruments. It would not unsettle me to see this familiar symbol, or its more quotidian disguise the triangle, inscribed on a tupan. Rather, I would feel honoured, appreciating that Shakti, Prakriti, the energy for life, music, and creativity, is seen as basically sexual and feminine, a force to be revered and respected. Thus, the most charitable interpretation I can come up with for pasting photographs of nude women on a tupan is that they are the contemporary, Westernised equivalent of the sacred yoni symbol of India, still deserving the place of honour at the heart of the rhythm of life. Perhaps the divine feminine is understood by these Gypsies as being a little more incarnated, a little more accessible, than the remote concepts of divinity with which we gadje are comfortable.

This was certainly the impression we had on Sunday morning when we braved Mass in the High Cathedral because it promised to feature 'religious Gypsy music'. I had no idea what to expect, but when the service began with Kocani Orkestar blasting out a slow cocek, I thought I'd died and gone to Heaven. Several other Gypsy groups offered their musical prayers, including Tekameli who, as it turned out, specialise in les cantiques gitans: sacred rumba music. The gitan canticles are danceable hymns drawing equally on Andalusian & Cuban music and a particular brand of evangelical Catholicism popular among Gypsies in France since the 1960s. If you can imagine early Gypsy Kings minus the electrics, with lyrics largely consisting of padre, senor, and ayudame, you get a pretty good idea of the Tekameli sound.

Their musical appeal to God was moving. Some of the gadje with cameras, however, whose flash photography caused Jerome Espinas to glare fiercely at each secular interruption of their sung prayer, clearly felt themselves to be more spectators than fellow congregants. And the Church clearly was not used to having singers on the altar, as such copious quantities of frankincense and myrrh were ignited immediately behind Moise, the singer, that at times he vanished completely in billows of acrid smoke.

Fortunately the censer-swingers had left the altar by the time two women and a man took it in turn to sing a plaintive invocation, facing and gesturing directly to the immense crucifix behind the altar. They made their heartfelt insistent pleas with their backs to us, as if to say that the priests, in facing the congregation, turn their backs to God. The younger woman who sang / spoke / sighed / sobbed this gut-wrenching prayer, whose name I believe is La Macanita, was truly extraordinary. Her voice is husky, hidden, tragic, then unexpectedly radiant, a ray of clear burnished sunlight pouring through a room full of smoke.

As if deliberately to highlight the tensions between Swiss and Gypsy cultures, all of these incredible invocations from the Gypsies were schizophrenically interspersed with the hymns, readings, recitations, and the standing up and sitting down rituals of the regular church service. But afterwards the whole congregation poured out the vast cathedral doors together and down through the town. Even groups who had not featured in the church service - Rumanians, Egyptians, Rajasthanis - were suddenly present, and the great procession from the Hofkirche to the Kornmarkt became a movable feast of spontaneous collaboration among different Gypsy groups.

Kocani Orkestar led the crowd through the streets of Lucerne. Close behind, the Manouche and flamenco lot clapped along, offering the syncopated support of palmas to the cocek tune. I have a photo of one of the singers, dancing to music provided jointly by members of Kocani and a Rumanian taraf. At other times, Kocani forged ahead while the flamenco group reduced their pace, allowing the older, respected dancers slow moments to shine in the heart of their family's encouraging shouts and palmas. The older, heavier women had such dignity in their contained, smouldering steps, exuding rich sensuality at an age where that is denied to most women in our own culture. Everyone watched, whistled, cheered and clapped. The Egyptians caught up and joined in the dancing, welcomed with admiring glances. Rumanian and Andalusian guitarists ambled together down the street. And when we finally reached the crowded Kornmarkt, Kek Lang succeeded in dragging Swiss spectators into the dance with them, first in couples and then a circle, and that image of well-heeled Swiss dancing their hearts out with well-oiled Roma will stay with me forever. The whole procession was a rare and joyous symbiosis of different or not-so-different musical languages - a French kiss of Gypsy tongues.

These people call themselves Manouche, Rom, Gitan, Tsigane, Sinti; they speak French, Spanish, Catalan, Hungarian, Rumanian, Macedonian, Turkish, Arabic, Romanes, English, German, the strangely antiquated Manouche French dialect, Andalusian musical argot cloaked in Spanish but concealing a heart of secret words, and of course all the musical idioms which they managed to melt together for a common song. A common musical language: they might not have known they had it, but they found it. And we heard it.

(Read part 2 here)