Music: Pushing Gypsiness, Roma or Otherwise

On the winding roads of Arizona, near places like Kingman, the birthplace of the cowboy comic Andy Devine, there are signs everywhere for "Indian jewelry." People in the cities may speak of Native Americans, and for all I know, the purveyors of turquoise and silver think of themselves as such. But selling is selling, and the word "Indian" is considered more likely to pull in traffic.

So, too, the word "Gypsy." For years, it has been clear that most members of this group prefer to be called Roma (sometimes spelled Rroma, to ensure that the "r" is rolled). But selling is selling, so the word "Gypsy" crops up, whether in the trailer for the film "Latcho Drom," on the many CD's with a "Caravan of the Gypsies" theme or at a local restaurant advertising its romantic violinist.

Or in connection with events to take place this week and next at the 92nd Street Y: two exciting programs titled "Familiar Strangers: The Gypsy Musical Heritage." The first, on Thursday, offers music of Spain in performances by Esperanza Fernandez, a vocalist, Miguel Angel Cortes and Jose A. Camacho, guitarists, and Elena Andujar and Patro Soto, dancers. The second, on April 12, features Hungarian musicians, including the Szaszcsavas Band, Ferenc Santa Jr., a violinist, and Kalman Balogh, a cimbalom player. Each event juxtaposes traditional music with examples of composed works influenced by it, performed by the Perspectives Ensemble.

In structuring the programs, the organizers, Sato Moughalian, the ensemble's artistic director, and Hanna Arie-Gaifman, the director of the Tisch Center for the Arts at the 92nd Street Y, seem to have thought deeply about the issues surrounding the music. Such consideration is important, for little is self-evident in the realm of "Gypsy music," which may stand as a powerful example of the slippery and even dangerous problems that arise when we begin to articulate issues of ethnicity.

Some consider the word "Gypsy" tantamount to an ethnic slur: in effect, the G- word. So here is an awkward twist: to bring in the crowds, the musicians allow themselves to be advertised as something many would rather not be. This is not an incidental point when we consider what is being offered under the rubric "Gypsy music." Does a potential buyer encountering such a thing, either in a concert hall or in a record store, expect a reflective, analytic music marked by restraint and subtlety? Hardly, for although the players may be Roma, and they may be playing Romany music, what is really being sold is an imaginary Gypsiness.

Gypsiness fits in with the broader phenomenon we might call "light folks, dark music." In this problematic cliché, lighter- skinned and higher-class people look to "darker," lower-class music for elemental qualities supposedly missing from their own lives. Whether we call it jazz, world beat or Gypsy music, what audiences desire is pulse, an instinctive rather than a reflective moment, and the sexiness of the exotic. (Lightness itself is relative; in the film "Titanic," the below-deck Irish provided the charge.) We also tend to expect an extraordinary degree of passionate engagement from the performer.

Indeed, Gypsiness in music may be represented by a mock formula, I + V = E. In this equation, I stands for improvisation, which in this sense implies that the performer has the ability and the "right" to change a design in accordance with momentary impulses; the audience thus comes to assume that choices are being made on the basis of pure life moods. V stands for virtuosity, a sign of control, mastery and power. Together they create E, emotion, the implication being that this combination of momentariness and power are signs of deep passion.

It was this quality, rather than any ethnographic precision, that led Liszt to compose his Hungarian Rhapsodies as a fundamental argument against Germanness, the opposing realm, in which improvisation, virtuosity and emotion are, if not banished, carefully subordinated to the grand intellectual design. The difference between Germanness and Gypsiness is summed up in a letter Arnold Schoenberg wrote to the conductor Otto Klemperer after hearing the Hungarian pianist Erwin Nyiregyhazi: "I have never heard such a pianist before. He does not play in the style you and I strive for. . . . What he plays is expression, in the older sense of the word, nothing else."

But what does this notion of expression really mean? Does the great cimbalom player Mr. Balogh really feel more deeply than you do when you play a Brahms intermezzo? How much is performance tradition and artifice, and what is reality? Should flamenco music somehow belong to some putative Romany music because only the historic sufferings of the Roma could have created it? Or was it a collaborative effort over time by many different types of musicians, whose circumstances were not always completely determined by their ethnicity?

The Hungarian context poses related questions. Whereas Liszt thought that "Gypsy" music was the real Hungarian music, Bartok forcefully argued instead that peasant music lay at the core of the Hungarian experience. Though Bartok was a great man and a brilliant thinker, we may find some of his ideas on the subject distasteful today. Unavoidably, in the process of tunneling beneath the surface for authenticity and purity, much of the removed dirt is cast on those whose sources may be a bit different. Bartok's search for pure Hungarian music could be sustained only by comparing his specimens with something impure, and for Bartok that ended up being music of the Roma. In fact, the pursuit of a national music may sometimes appear like ethnic cleansing rather than a harmless attempt to create a sonic world of local color.

FOR this reason it is important that a Jewish organization like the 92nd Street Y concerns itself with issues of race and ethnicity in regard to the Roma. In his recent book, "The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies," Guenter Lewy, after carefully considering a broad range of evidence, offers a section titled, "The Persecution of Gypsies and Jews Compared." Disturbingly, he writes, "I believe that we now have sufficient evidence to resolve the question at issue and to reject the alleged parallelism."

One of the most troubling tendencies in the aftermath of the Holocaust has been to belittle or marginalize the suffering of non-Jews. Indeed, these post-Holocaust "spins" sometimes make historical writing about the Holocaust almost as hard to stomach as confronting the atrocities committed at the time. But one thing should be painfully obvious: if there were as many Roma intellectuals per capita as Jewish ones, and if there were a country called Romestan, no one would dream of dismissing the parallels between Roma and Jews with such an aside.

Though our brains probably require that we make rather simple, broad groupings to deal with reality, these can lead to bizarre and offensive findings. Mr. Lewy writes, "Prejudice alone . . . is not a sufficient explanation for the hostility directed at the Gypsies over the centuries." There are also "negative behavioral traits" that are "reported not only by their enemies but also by well-meaning observers." For example: "Gypsies harbor a deep-seated suspicion of non-Gypsies, referred to as the gadze. Hence to lie to a gadjo is perfectly acceptable behavior and carries no stigma."

All Roma lie to non-Roma? All the time? Everywhere? Imagine if someone had written such a thing about Jews, lumping them together with a series of stereotyped traits and saying that these negative behaviors were acknowledged even by well-meaning observers.

This kind of blinkered approach to the Roma - whether intended to celebrate, by Liszt; used to denigrate, by Bartok; or offered in a supposedly dispassionate scholarly account, by Mr. Lewy - ignores what Bartok later came to understand: purity in music is as impossible to achieve as purity in any other sphere of existence. The styles we call flamenco or Hungarian Gypsy music or, for that matter, Jewish music result from an almost infinite number of interactions among groups. The law of the planet is the law of taint.

To attract an audience, the 92nd Street Y speaks of Gypsies and may even imply that musical Gypsiness is in the offing. But the organizers hope that once inside the doors, the audience will mingle the ecstasy of musical involvement with a passionate reconsideration of the issues that surround it.

Michael Beckerman is a music historian who teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company