National Geographic Channel’s American Gypsies takes us into the world of one prominent New York City Gypsy family. The Johns struggle to hold to their important Romani traditions while trying to live the American Dream. To most of us, the Romani culture is elusive. A closed society that the Romani have tried, for the most part, to stay within their community’s bounds, wary and distrustful of the American society they dwell within. So the culture remains to most Americans an enigma.
Probably the most identifiable feature of Romani culture is the music. Gypsy music has influenced world musical tastes for decades, from Jazz to folk and even rock and classical (think Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies). From the Hot Club of France and guitarist Django Reinhardt to the Gipsy Kings, the unique sound of Gypsy music continues to find an increasingly large audience in America.
But what is “Gypsy” or Romani music, anyway? Is it the Middle-Eastern flavor of Turkish melodies? Perhaps, intricate Spanish Flamenco guitar solos? Flamenco music, evoking images of ornate, staccato guitar echoed by the with the energetic staccato stomp dancers in bright costumes, originates in Southern Spain. Its roots are in Romani dance music of the region.
The melancholy wail of the Romanian doina, often played on a clarinet has it roots in Middle Eastern scales, but is distinctively Romanian, discovered in the early 20th Century by classical composer Bela Bartok, who embraced the music of the Romani. Similar melodies are also found in Klezmer music, and it’s not surprising to find similar melodies both in the Ukraine and in the Balkans.
More recently groups like The Gipsy Kings have fused their Romani musical roots with other regional music. The Southern Spanish Gipsy Kings blend Romani-flamenco with other Latin-influenced rhythms to create a unique dance music that is far from the Gypsy Horo, and closer to Salsa and Rhumba.
Jewish Klezmer music, which has also found its way into popular culture is often considered a close cousin of Romani music, which is no coincidence. In Europe, Klezmer and Gypsy musicians often played together—itinerant performers from two outcast peoples—a natural kinship. What we think of, as authentic Gypsy music is actually a rather staggering array of influences taken from wherever the Romani have dwelled over the years and imprinted with a specific, yet difficult-to-define “feel.”Continued on the next page