Princes Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians

      By Garth Cartwright

      (Serpent's Tail)


It makes a certain amount of sense that the first survey to be written about Gypsy musicians across Europe would come from an outsider (although given that there's no real "inside" to the Roma diaspora, it's almost an inevitability). Garth Cartwright, a New Zealander living in London, describes himself as a "refugee from Auckland's disembodied suburbs"  --  not exactly a political exile, but still a scribe with a feeling of separation from the motherland and a clear empathy for the generations of Gypsy homelessness. He's shamelessly a stranger in a strange land, devoted to his subject.


But Cartwright is driven more by a love of Gypsy music than any ethnic agenda, and his book is a sort of fairy tale for musicicology obsessives. Without much more to go on than a CD collection, Cartwright traveled through the Balkans in 2003, searching for the sources of the compelling rhythms and driving horns of their music. He traipsed through Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgarian and Romania, talking to (and drinking with) musicians and learning about the joys of their craft and the hardships of their people. It's not an academic tract but a travelogue, filled with details of everyday life (bars "stuffed with men intent upon using alcohol as amnesia, liquor absolving the uncertainty and frustration of being a Serb in the twenty-first century"), festivals (the Guca festival attracts some 250,000 people and stretches for three days of brass bands hoping to win the prestigious Golden Trumpet award, or at least get booked for another concert) and weddings, the best gig even for the most popular of musicians, with a full week of parties and events that require musical accompaniment.


His status as an outsider informs his prose, and keeps his English-language audience in touch with the passions of the music. Of a trip through Macedonia with a CD by the celebrated saxophonist Ferus Mustafov blaring on the car stereo, he writes "Suddenly, it's all too much for me, I'm overwhelmed, gasping for air, imagining orkestar's as wild and terrifying as Ferus's accompanying Ottoman armies into battle, bringing noise, breaking minds.... Forget Albert Ayler and late Coltrane and all that other leaden free jazz junk; here, encapsulated in a mad ruckus, this beautiful, silvery, dissonant rush, is a sound both elemental and majestic, truly transcendent music."


Cartwright's main interest is traditional music, but he does give nod to the new generation, in the flamboyant form of Azis, king of the chalga movement of electronic dance music> Azis is a sort of Bulgarian George Michael who knows how to cause a sensation, and Cartwright is open enough to admit liking the cheesy synth-pop. The singer turns out to be one of his livelier subjects, a singer who not only bleaches his hair but his beard and eyebrows and performs in drag with burly male dancers.


What saves the book is that it's not a wide-eyed parachuter account of the music and the people. Cartwright shows a deep respect for the the Gypsy people. Some things he learns on his journey he says he cannot relate, as it is information that "can only be passed from mouth to ear." Other details, however, are fascinating, such as the evening jam sessions he attends in Romania that only unmarried people can attend.


Much of the book is divided into short sections focusing on individual musicians and groups, which might lead readers less familiar with the music to wander, although his prose is engaging throughout and an companion CD is available separately Journeys with Gypsy Musicians, released by Honest Jons). But Cartwright also wisely includes a few short historical sections, stopping himself to take on a dignified tone and briefly discuss the centuries of oppression. He likens the Roma to blacks in America before the civil rights struggle, pointing out a 2004 EU move proposed by the Head of the EC Delegation to Slovakia that Gypsy children be separated from their parents to finally end the "Roma problem."  These interludes give context for the music  --  the background needed to understand the gravity with which Chico Iliev says "There is no Gypsy existence without music. We have such a heavy life and if we didn't have the music we would kill ourselves. The music is our medicine. Our opium." But these passages also free the author to speak of the joys of the music without parenthetical backdrops.


An ancient Roma myth has it that Kaloome the Gypsy overslept the day God was parceling out the earth. With no land left to give Kaloome, God instead gave him music and dance. Cartwright does an engaging, evocative job at capturing the culture of the wandering people.


Kurt Gottschalk