Romani Artistic Expressions
Federica Araco / Italy
Federica Araco / Italy
Although present in the region for about six hundred years, the Roma continue to live in conditions of strong marginality and social exclusion, and this hampers their participation in political and cultural life of the country.
The knowledge of this complex “world of worlds” is generally quite limited and incomplete at linguistical, historical, anthropological and artistical levels. Moreover, the few studies available, almost exclusively realized by non-Roma, often contribute to strengthening of stereotypes and prejudices; and by denouncing the extreme socio-economic hardship which still affects many people, risk to make it appear to be representative of the whole community.
But is there a “Roma art”? If so, what are its distinctive features? What are its main spheres of expression and authors of reference? What kind of cultural patterns emerge from it? Can the artistic creation be an instrument of liberation from social exclusion and discrimination that many still suffer throughout the world?
A silent cultural genocide
It is still a very widespread opinion that there are no forms of Romani artistic or cultural production. “But in reality a Roma culture exists and is alive, survived centuries of persecution and attempts of assimilation by majority groups. And there are many variations of it depending on the different settlement contexts”, says Santino Spinelli, a professor of languages and intercultural processes and Romani Language and Culture at the University of Chieti.
Spinelli, descending from the first Roma families that arrived in Abruzzo at the end of 1300, denounces the “silent but systematic cultural genocide” perpetrated against “his people” in an article last February. In Italy, he writes, “the Romani literature does not reach the library circuit and in the industrial system, Romani paintings and sculpture do not arrive to the big art galleries, films and documentaries by Roma do not arrive in the national film and television circuits, Romani music is always a niche, the Romani language is not taught in public schools and Roma children themselves do not speak it anymore in the family losing a large number of words that replace the terms they hear on TV”.
How can such an invisible culture survive, asks Spinelli, when millions of euros are squandered “to create vulgar welfarism and segregating camps that daily degrade the Romani culture itself?”.
Towards a romanipé 2.0
Nazzareno Guarnieri is the president of Romani Foundation Italy (FRI). Roma leader, an expert of cultural interaction processes, with his structure has promoted numerous initiatives for the active participation of the Romany community in the country.
“We have carried out several projects to raise awareness outside of our community about romanipé values, Romani cultural identity, which is the fundamental point of reference for all the people who proudly claim that ethnicity and culture”, he tells Babelmed.
There are many local traditions born from mutual contamination with the different cultural transit and settlement contexts, as well as common cross-cutting elements, says Guarnieri. “At the center of the Roma universe there is the people, whose wealth is measured by the social prestige and positive ascendant exercised on the community, and not on its physical assets. The extended family is the core of the Romani social system and the emotional bond to the community outweighs the individual interests. Several families live together, providing help and protection to their members, and the elderly have the respect of all”.
There is also a clear difference between the roles of man and woman, “the head of the family plays the role of representing it", he says, "while the woman is responsible of household chores, care and education of children, carrying out the internal management of the expanded core”.
From the religious point of view, the Roma usually adopt the belief of the context in which they live: they are Muslims, Protestants, Orthodox, Catholics and in recent years many adhere to the Evangelical Church.
Excluded, marginalized, persecuted and often victims of exaggerated hostility, Romani groups for centuries have confronted the dramatic decision of abandoning their culture to be assimilated into the surrounding context or “gypsyizing” cultural elements of others making them their own. “In general, these communities have developed a deep sense of defense against their cultural identity practicing a kind of ostracism of any outside intervention”, says Guarnieri. “This decision has reinforced the tendency to see the Roma universe, thèmromano, as radically different from that of non-Roma, Gadje, fueling a deep fracture and a dual vision of reality”.
According to his long experience in the field, “It is not easy to promote the art and culture of a people without these efforts being supported by a clear political strategy”. The current process of identitary transformation of these communities requires the identification of effective strategies to launch an active, purposeful and critical cultural exchange, which allows a new dimension of being Roma and being a minority. “It requires today a path to emancipation and modernization to realize the transition from a tribal state into a political organization” he concludes. “You have to develop a new 'romanipé 2.0', to identify specific proposals, based on the concept of law as a culture of rights and on the model of active participation of the Roma in the context in which they live”.
Centrality of language and research on the origins
Another important aspect is the use of a common language, the Romany (or Romani, or Roman), whose study has shed light on the origins and the history of these groups that arrived in the current European territory at the end of the fourteenth century .
“For a long time the Romani language was deemed jargon, fabricated to not being understood and to better deceive the others”, wrote Roberto Sacco in Zingari  “[...] In the eighteenth century first studies came up with the development of philology and linguistics [...]. Thus was noted an analogy [...] (with) some Indian languages and Sanskrit and the presence of many words and grammatical forms derived from Armenian, Persian, Greek-Byzantine and all languages spoken in places [...] allegedly crossed. So, thanks to linguistic studies, it was possible to formulate new hypotheses on the areas of origin [...] and draw a reliable map of migration from Asia that would take them [...] (to) Europe” .
Many researchers agree in assuming that Romani groups originate from Northwestern India. “It was a settled and very large people, divided into different groups”, Santino Spinelli tells Babelmed, who in his book Rom. Genti libere traces their journey from South Asia through the Middle East to the current European territory, comparing sources with elements of historical musicology, and comparative linguistics. “Words like kher (home), giukhel (dog), and Papini (turkey) refer to a sedentary and domestic lifestyle, therefore not nomadic”, says Spinelli.
“The exodus began probably when Afghan Sultan Mohammed Ghazni led seventeen military campaigns to conquer the present Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and the Sindh Valley. Between 1001 and 1027 all the villages in the region were looted and thousands of men were deported as slaves. Gagiò the word, that we use to refer to all non-Roma, is derived from the Sanskrit gavjo, which combines gav, village, and jo, man, so ‘man of the village’. Others, however, connect it to the name of Mohammed Ghazni, in the popular imagination has remained the archenemy”.
In ten centuries the Romani language has maintained an essentially oral structure and evolved into different variations as a result of interaction with other languages, while maintaining a common matrix. In some places it was banned, and this has contributed to a gradual drying up of vocabulary and, in some cases, to a complete abandonment.
In Italy, it still has not been given the legal status of a linguistic minority.
“Language is the main factor of unity and identity of a people, so its diffusion at all levels not only expresses an understandable need to communicate, but it is also an instrument of political and cultural recognition”, says Nazzareno Guarnieri who recently presented a bill to the parliament with the FRI to obtain formal recognition from the state.
“A standard language that we would like to establish with the help of linguists and academics is lacking, too”.
“This passage”, continues Guarnieri, “would act on two levels: for the Romani community it would be the most effective way to reach a unity inside itself, for the eyes of the rest of society, instead, it would constitute an important vehicle for cultural and political legitimacy”.
A culture that does not evolve dies, concludes the leader of the FRI. “The words 'history' and 'fable' are translated into Romani language with the same term: paramisi. The history is the narration of facts whose contents present issues that pose questions that should be responded appropriately. The fable, however, is a story whose narrative content is intended to convey a message that can be a moral teaching. We could say that the fable lets the history breath, allowing its evolution. We are bound to our past that allows us to better understand our present, but this does not authorize us to stand still passively accepting the status quo. The transition from orality to writing is, today, a fundamental element of development and integration”.
"If you want to know a people Know him through his music"
From Spanish flamenco to jazz of Django Reinhardt, from the brasses of the famous Kocani Orkestar up to the rhythms of rumba of the Gipsy Kings, the Romani music scene is a very vast and artistic one and perhaps the best known artistic expression in the world, even though cinema also offers important examples of famous actors and directors of Roma origin, like Tony Gatlif, Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth, Bob Hopkins and Michael Caine, to name a few.
“A sentence by Confucius says: if you want to know a people, know it through its music”, says Santino Spinelli, who combines his academic activities with a brilliant career as a musician and composer, under the name of 'Alexian’.
“The Romani sounds developed and enriched by mingling with native elements of the six geographical areas of the exodus. Each of these regions has given birth to different styles that over time have been fed into the local etno-phonic heritage. In the east we see many similar elements with Persian and Indian music: in this area the Roma, who did not know the harmonica, created songs accompanied by the ritmica, which were nothing else than the Indian tala and raga reactualized”, continues Spinelli.
“These elements in the Balkans mingled with modal structures on which chants and rhythmic details were grafted. In Russia prevailed instead the use of voice and Romani singers depopulated in royal courts. In Eastern Europe, czardas, a musical genre of typical Romani taverns that united a slow part with more a cheerful one with a frenetic pace, began to spread in the early nineteenth century”, explains Spinelli. “This alternation is the emblem of Romani character, swaying between despair and celebration, sadness and intense joy. When Brahms composed the Hungarian Dances, the title page of the first score indicated that the music was a reworking of some Roma czardas, but for editorial reasons this indication was removed from subsequent reprints”.
In Astro-Hungarian region, continues Spinelli, the 18th century verbunkos used for the recruitment of troops was tuned by Roma, Hungarian and janissary fanfare and influenced many compositions cultivated in the era, including the Turkish march by Mozart.
In the rest of Europe, Romani groups got to know the harmonica: "The complex eastern scales adapted to temperate Western ones, creating other styles, such as the extraordinary jazz manouche invented by a self-taught illiterate Roma, Django Reinhardt, whose name means “the one that knows”, he explains.
Bruno Morelli and the search for a Gypsy aesthetics
Born in Avezzano in 1958 to a family that arrived at the end of the eighteenth century, Bruno Morelli is a multifaceted creator, considered by many”"the best professional expression of Romani identity in art”. He has over the years produced numerous works, ranging from poetry to sculpture, from painting to academic nonfiction.
“A Roma art does not exist”, he tells Babelmed, “at least not in the classifications created by critics for educational purposes. The creative expressions of our communities have never been codified, although always existed with diverse forms, languages and styles, depending on the context. If, however, we consider art a simple expressive code, then a Gypsy will never make art because he made his own life a work of art, adopting a fully artistic modus vivendi, in the sense indicated by Benedetto Croce”.
But even if a “Romani art” does not exist, some common elements in the Romani creations may still be identified.
In his article The gypsy aesthetic. A myth in the myth, Morelli says that the Roma do not invent anything, but recreate, interpreting others' content and languages. “We are talking about people on the move, either because they are forced by local administrations or by itinerant jobs that they did: they could not, therefore, stop to structure an artistic reflection of their own, but were picking elements from the outside and reworking them with their creativity and sensitivity”. Improvising, he explains, is part of the changing nature of the world, where there's nothing stable: "Everything travels in a sweet contrast throbbing with vitality, a turbulent movement dominated by the human passion for life and nature”.
The gypsy aesthetic expresses many contrasts that characterize the thèm romanò.
“The pure and the impure, the good and the evil, the joy and the sorrow are identified as the day and the night, the sun and the moon, the beautiful and the ugly, the inside and the outside, the death and the life, being gagiò and being Roma in the allegory”. Unusual combinations are placed between these polarities: “In drafting of colours”, says the artist. “we see recurrent tones now lit, now tender, now languid, now dark and violent, in the continuous search for harmony that tends to be realized in the counterpoint of colour discrepancies”.
In pictorial iconography, he mentions, architectonic element is almost entirely absent, in favour of nature scenes and recurring motifs “such as the floral rhythm, the star, the horse and the tree”, which refer to the idea of travelling.
The religious theme is central and Morelli himself has made several works about it, such as the ‘Piccola Chiesa a Cielo Aperto’ dedicated to Beato Zeffirino, a Spanish Gypsy martyr, at the Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore in Rome. “It is a place of pilgrimage where every year thousands of Catholics gather in prayer. It is now a point of reference also for many Roma”.