My Big Fat love of Gypsy music

In just over 3 months, the most popular post on the blog so far is clementine cake. I’m thrilled – re-discovering baking to complete the 30×30 list has been a joy, especially as others seem to like it. But sometimes even something that’s fun is really procrastination, taking away energy from one of the things I love the most: music.

If you live in the UK you’ve probably read and heard some of the debate around the Channel 4 show My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. A lot of it centres around whether the show represents the Traveller community in a poor light by focusing on big wedding dresses and over-sized cakes.

There’s an interesting piece in the Guardian here as well as a discussion between a Traveller and one of the series producers.

Whilst I can’t claim to have a particularly in-depth knowledge of the issues faced by Travellers and Gypsies, I do have a longstanding love of gypsy music, particularly Balkan, which has led to a curiosity about the rich culture that produces it. Naturally I watched the first series with anticipation.

I’m ambivalent about whether it’s necessarily voyeuristic to watch something about a community you are already interested in. However, now into Series 2 (there’s been 1 full series and some one-off specials), it is starting to feel over-simplified. For example, the only regular non-Traveller talking head is a dressmaker, so obviously only sees those who seek out her business. That the show continues to focus on weddings and holy communion – celebrations which don’t necessarily represent anyone’s every day life – sprinkling in some more ‘serious issues’ between dress fittings.

There’s been little about Roma Gypsies in the show – something which The Guardian questioned last year.

Billy Welch, a spokesman for Roma Gypsies, says that while Channel 4 should be praised for at least differentiating between Irish Travellers and Roma Gypsies, the first three episodes have in fact focused exclusively on Irish Travellers and their traditions: “They called the show Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and you’ve yet to see a Romany Gypsy in it,” he says.

So far in series 2, the only Roma Gypsy has been a non-speaking appearance by a girl who wins a beauty contest, so I’ll be keen to see if this changes.

There are Gypsy communities all over Europe. Delores (in the photo above) has travelled round Spain – she and her friends are shown hanging out on the beach in Barcelona; whilst the last thing I’d like to do would be to conflate Gypsy communities, it would have been an ideal opportunity to explore the Gypsy communities of Spain, whose flamenco music and dance must surely have influenced the ruffles at the bottom of Delores’s palm tree dress, and to delve deeper into the breadth of the Roma community outside of the UK.

Slightly disappointed by the lack of variation within the show, I wanted to share my love of gypsy music with anyone curious enough to read this post…

Here are five of my all-time favourite gypsy acts. They’re from all over the world, showing a diversity and richness that defies categorisation.

Fanfare Ciocarlia

From a village in Romania, I first heard this incredible 200bpm brass 12-piece live when stood outside their sold-out concert in the snow in Berlin. Even from outside they sounded terrific, and when I finally saw them last year in a soundclash with Boban & Marco Marcovic Orkestar they didn’t disappoint. If you’ve watched Borat you might have heard them on the soundtrack (no, they’re not actually from Kazakhstan). This is the DJ Shantel remix, but it’s great and from a highly recommended compilation.

Django Reinhardt

Minor Swing is one of the most famous jazz standards of all time. There’s an entire festival in France dedicated to him (and several in the US). He was one of the most incredible guitarists and, following a fire in his caravan, only had the use of two fingers on his left hand.

Pata Negra

A modern flamenco duo of brothers from Seville. Unlike some of the cheesy stuff you might hear in tourist bars this stuff is bluesy and raw.

Taraf de Haidouks

Another Romanian band, but strings-based rather than brass. There’s a wonderful melancholia to their sound which has lent itself well to remixes by the likes of Tuung, DJ Dolores and DJ Shantel of Bucovina Club. Their fans include Johnny Depp and Cate Blanchett.

Esma Redzepova

A powerful and incredible voice, this prolific Macedonian has made over 500 recordings and fostered 47 children. Here’s a live performance, I think from the excellent film Gypsy Caravan.

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