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.



Music: Historical Lifeblood of a Culture

The one who does not know how to play does not eat.
The musician awakens what's human in the human being.
Music was given to the Roma by God.

These old Romany proverbs show how central music is to Roma culture.

Romany musical talent, famous all over the world, may have ancient origins. Some historians have suggested that the Indian ancestors of the European Roma made their living by entertaining and playing music. Whatever country the Roma have gone to, they seem to have captured the essence of the local folk music and blended it with their own particular temperament and passion.

'Gypsy-music' therefore is a very broad term, ranging from the well-known art of Flamenco, performed by Gypsies (Gitanos) in Andalucia, Spain, to the much less known Gypsy music of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Russia.

Slovakia has a particularly rich tradition and history of Romany music. The instruments mostly associated with a traditional Gypsy orchestra in Slovakia and Hungary are violins, double bass, clarinet and dulcimer. At present, the guitar is more frequently used in the countryside as well as in the more modern genre of 'pop-rom'.

The oldest report of Romany musicians in Hungary (present Slovakia) is from 1489. During the following centuries several different categories of Romany musicians emerged.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, music was a complementary way of making a living for many Roma in the countryside. Gypsy music was a much appreciated and indispensable part of weddings and feasts. In many cases these Gypsy musicians became the actual carriers of the Slovak musical folklore.

Another significant group of Romany musicians during these times were the ones who played at the Hungarian aristocratic courts, such as the female violinist Cinka Panna (1711-1772) and her band. Another legendary violinist was János Biháry (1764-1827) who spellbound the composer Franz Liszt with his music and played at all the empirical festivities in Vienna. The families of these musicians often lived on the estates of the courts and enjoyed many privileges in return for their music.

In the beginning of the 20th century, a third category of Gypsy musicians emerged, the 'café musicians'. These were professional Romany orchestras who played in cafés, hotels and wine bars in the cities. During this time, practically every café in Bratislava had its own Gypsy band. The urban Roma adapted to city life and were generally respected by the inhabitants. Since they put great emphasis on education, many representatives of the current Romany intelligentsia come from these musician families.

Other than a source of income, music was, and still is, a way of life for many Roma. It has great importance in their lives, not only at occasions such as weddings, christenings, and funerals but also in every day life.

There are two main Roma groups in present Slovakia: the long settled and sedentary Rumungro Roma (the word Rumungro means Hungarian Roma) and the Olah or Wallachian Roma who remained nomadic in the former Czechoslovakia until the 60's. The Wallachian Roma preserved their ancient songs and what distinguished them from the Rumungros is that they didn't use any instruments. Their singing and dancing was accompanied with hand-claps and rhythmical beating on various metal objects or stamping on the floor.

Presently, we can speak of two categories of Romany music in Slovakia: phurikane gil'a (ancient songs) which are made up of the so called halgató (slow songs) and csardasz (dance songs); and neve gil'a (new songs), also called 'pop-rom'. This genre typically blends traditional Romany music and more modern tones such as pop and jazz. The Czech Romany performers Věra Bíla and Ida Kelarová are great representatives of this new genre.

- Andrea Chalupa


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

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