These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Unearthing Buried Musical Treasures

By Andrea Chalupa

 Photo: Courtesy Jana belišová

Slovak ethnologist Jana Belišová collects ancient Romany songs in Eastern Slovak settlements in order to preserve the unique Romany musical heritage.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók travelled and collected Slovak folk songs, which led to the preservation of an important part of Slovak folklore. Some 100 years later, Belišová, 38, has made the first, significant contribution to a project aimed at doing the same thing for the Roma.

In the span of nearly a year, she collected and recorded ancient Romany songs from 37 Romany settlements in Slovakia. The best songs have recently been released on the CD called Phurikane Gil'a - Ancient Romany Songs. Belišová and photographer Daniela Rusnoková have also published two books with the same name: a travelogue illustrated with beautiful colour-photographs, describing their experiences as well as a complete book of notes and lyrics of the songs.

"Some people pay lots of money to go on exotic vacations in Africa", says Belišová. "And yet, similar exoticism can be found just a few kilometres from their homes, right in the heart of Europe."

Her fascination with Romany music started at an early age. As a child, she used to visit her grandmother in Eastern Slovakia every summer. In the evenings she would hear music and singing from the Gypsy settlement next to the village. In the foreword to the book, she recalls how she would play in secret with the Gypsy children but since her hair was often full of lice when she returned from vacation, her mother didn't have much sympathy for her passion.

Her interest prevailed nevertheless and turned into a profession and a life-long pursuit.

Having studied ethnology and musicology at the Philosophical Faculty in Bratislava, Belišová has studied and written about Romany music for more than 14 years.

"What's unique about it is that it's different in each country and yet, it still remains Romany music," she says. "The Roma are very sensitive musicians with an excellent ear. They learn new melodies, play new instruments very easily. So, their music always reflects something of the local folk-lore in every country."

Travelling in Eastern Slovakia proved to be a multifaceted exercise. Belišová visited 37 Romany settlements and recorded some 130 songs. Sometimes, she travelled with photographer Rusnoková as well as social workers from the Department of Romany Studies at the University of Nitra. They usually had a Romany friend travelling with them who knew somebody in the village, but often they just went without any contacts.

"When you enter a typical settlement in the Spiš or Prešov region, you are struck by the incredible poverty there" she says. "On top of that, there is the awareness of the complexity of this problem and solutions to it. I often had a feeling of powerlessness. On the other hand, I was enchanted by the heartiness and spontaneity of many people we met there."

Most of the time, Belišová and her companions were greeted with generosity and hospitality although there was often suspicion at first.

"Sometimes, people refused to sing or they wanted money for it," she says. "When we explained that only the best songs would be recorded on the CD, they would usually co-operate. Women, young people, and children were generally the most helpful."

In fact, Belišová particularly looked for old women during the research-trips since the primary aim of the project was to record the ancient songs: slow, sorrowfull songs named halgató, the ones that are now in danger of dying out.

"The actual recording was often very emotional since the people literally put their heart and soul and destiny into the singing," she says.

The result is a moving collection of 28 soulful, authentic songs: some slow and others more up-tempo. There are songs that breathe sorrow, grief and pain but there is also extraordinary joyfulness and life. The sounds in the background are not created in a studio but real sounds of Romany house-holds: hand-claps, children's screams, laughter. It is a document of unique, natural talent and sense of rhythm.

"In Slovakia there are lots of talented Romany musicians, excellent singers who are ordinary people and don't perform for an audience" she says. "Most people know only about Gypsy bands who play professionally and this is often regarded as the "real" Gypsy music. But real, authentic Gypsy music is something quite different. It's intimate music and it exists in the poorest Romany settlements. It's hidden and not very easily found. Few non-Roma break the taboo of entering these territories. This is why this music is unknown, not only to people abroad, but also to most Slovaks."

In the book, the writers often record the difficult feeling of undoubtedly and ultimately disappointing young Roma who hope for a better life by making music.

"When it comes to helping these talented people, it's usually very difficult" she says. "First of all, there are lot of talented Roma. Not all can make a living doing music. We would need an excellent manager and without the help of a foundation or NGO, the chances seem to be minimal even for the most talented ones."

Currently, Belišová works in the organisation Zudro where she is working on a documentary film project about ancient Romany songs in Slovakia. Another ongoing project is a recording of Romany songs sung at Christmas and New Year's holidays. Working hard - in spite of financial difficulties - to preserve and spread Romany music, she remains optimistic.

"I believe there will come a time when this rich Romany musical treasure will enter public awareness and the Slovaks will be proud of the music of their Roma."

The CD, notebook and travelogue Phurikane Giľa can be bought as a single package as well as separately at many Bratislava book and music shops. The texts and lyrics of the songs are in Slovak and Romany. A translation into English has been made and is expected to be available by December 2003. Contact Jana Belišová at:

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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