Entertainment as Survival: Jazz and the Gypsies

by Nate Cibik on April 23, 2015

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The Romani musical tradition finally met its match in Paris in the 1930s, when Gypsy musician Django Reinhardt became exposed to foreign recordings of American jazz. Records from players like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington inspired him to turn the guitar into a solo instrument, and play a new style of jazz with a more typically Gypsy instrumental ensemble and melodic ornamentation that would be posthumously deemed Gypsy jazz. Django’s ability to improvise soulful melodies with a distinct Romani voice earned him great respect in the genre which inspired him, and it is not by mere coincidence that a Gypsy musician should find such a comfortable fit in the world of jazz. Jazz and Romani music bear many similarities: a stress on the second and fourth beat, embellishment of pre-existing folk song structures with more complex harmonic sequences, and fast, virtuosic melodic improvisation using altered scales. But besides these formal similarities, it seems also that these two musical legacies share the historical function of cultural preservation and advancement for displaced, persecuted ethnic groups, namely the Gypsies in Europe and the African Americans in the United States, through establishment of a desirable artistic subculture which allowed them to achieve some degree of cultural integration through the acquisition of respect and admiration from the dominant cultures among which they found themselves.

Of all the dislocated populations of the world, the Gypsies are so far removed from their roots historians can only speculate their origin as being descendant from a tribe of musicians extracted as slaves from northern India in the fifth century by Persian king What is known is that as the Gypsies spread throughout Europe, they began to establish a widespread identity as exotic, supernaturally talented performers and entertainers. Anna Piotrowska affirms that by the eleventh and twelfth centuries, “Gypsies were already noted for their talents in public performance.” She continues, “over time, the image of Gypsies as magic conjurers would be joined by associations with fortune-telling, acrobatics, and street music.” Piotrowska argues that in the formation of these stereotypes, the Gypsies managed to create for themselves a relatively stable, marketable cultural identity through which they could sustain themselves and their culture, regardless of disenfranchised they might be in their situation.[2] One group of Romani enslaved by the Romanians during the thirteenth century calling themselves Lautari gained social mobility by forming improvisational bands called taraf, which in a similar fashion to Romani musical groups that spread to other parts of Europe, would draw from regional music to create more complex, faster interpretations over which they could perform virtuosic improvisation on lead instruments such as pan flutes and violins. A contemporary example of this tradition is the Taraf de Haidouks. Piotrowski asserts that such performances would foster two effects on their relationships with dominant cultures: the first being a cultural association of the Gypsies with “entertainment, with having a good time, and…debauchery,” and the second being a medium through which trust and cultural integration could be gained.[3]

This sort of cultural mobility through performance art is functionally similar to that achieved by African Americans in the United States, a process which started with minstrelsy and progressed all the way to the hiring of an African American as a director for the first jazz program at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. Minstrelsy, while fundamentally derogatory in nature, reveals even in its earliest stages the White association of African Americans with natural predispositions toward favorable talents such as comedy, dance, and musical performance. These cultural stereotypes would ultimately become the avenue through which a number of individuals, such as Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong, would find social and economic mobility. The cultural exposure gained for African Americans through figures like these would lead them to be evaluated as real artists rather than mere spectacles, initiating a progression toward cultural legitimization which, as Herman Gray illustrates in his book, culminates in the symbolic appointment of Wynton Marsalis by the Lincoln Center in 1991 to direct the nation’s first jazz program at a major institution.[4]

The sense of kinship felt between Louis Armstrong and Django Reinhardt may have extended to the subconscious awareness that they had each become ambassadors for survivor cultures. Both the African Americans in the United States and the Romani people of Europe have avoided cultural deletion through the crystallization of themselves in new art forms for which they could establish themselves as harbingers.

[1] Piotrowska, Anna G, Gypsy Music in European Culture: From the Late Eighteenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2013), ProQuest ebrary, 4.

[2] Ibid., 5-6.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Gray, Herman, Cultural Moves: African Americans and the Politics of Representation (Berkeley: University of California Press), Google Books, 34.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Miles Brown April 30, 2015 at 5:34 pm

This is a very interesting article. The similarities between the plight of the African and Gypsy people and how they interact in their societies is a eye-opening perspective on historically oppressed groups. Using art as a means to rise above stands as a testament to the positive and creative side of humanity.

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