The Music of Sinti and Roma
(Author: Bertino Rodmann, Rotary Magazin 02/14)
Arabesque melodies, Balkan music, Hungarian Çsardas, Jazz-Manouche or Gypsyjazz, French Valse Musette, Spanish flamenco – the music of the Sinti and Roma has many different colours, faces and influences, as variously as the different ethnic groups of the people of the „Sinti and Roma“ (which generally often are just called "Gypsies").
First of all, for a better understanding of the music of „Sinti and Roma“ it is absolutely helpful to clear up with a piece of widespread ignorance and to argue with certain prejudices is as important.
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Today the international civil rights movement of the "Gypsies" use only the term "Rom" or "Roma" (Romanes, for: „Man or Person“) as the main-term for both ethnic groups, while in Germany extensively since the early 1970s the differentiation and name "Sinti and Roma" has asserted itself. The german name "Zigeuner" (derived from the old german word „moving crooks“) is rejected today by the majority of the Sinti and Roma understandably as discriminating.
The word "Zigeuner" (german f. "Gypsy") still (or again?) is a mostly rather discriminating foreign name which, unfortunately, many people use in our german majority population or sometimes unfortunately also journalists (mostly unconsciously) use over and over again, sometimes also consciously.
About 10 millions Sinti and Roma live in Europe at the moment, the biggest part of them in Eastern-Europe, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and in former Yugoslavia. The first Sinti and Roma according to the first recordings immigrated from around the 14th to the 15th century into the German linguistic area.
The Roma that immigrated more than six centuries ago into Germany, Easter empire and the adjoining regions (Italy, Slovenia, Bohemia, Alsace / Lorraine) called themself "Sintis". There are theories that this was the name of the country of "Sindh" situated today in Pakistan. In France against that one speaks of "Manouches" or "Bohemians".
(Picture top left: Migration of the Sinti and Roma).
It was just in the 18th century when linguists discovered direct parallels between the old-indian "Sanskrit" and "Romenes" (or "Romanes") the language of the Sinti and Roma.
Today with this information and also by later investigations it became more or less securely valid that the „Sinti and Roma“ came from northwest India to Europe.
However, what brought these people at that time to leave her native country and to walk in the direction of Europe, is still not exactly known. The penetration of the Islam at that time was one of the possible causes. An other theory says that the Sinti and Roma have been kidnapped as slaves and brought in the direction of Europe to thousands, by military conquerors at that time as for example „Alexander - the great" during their conquests.
However, the background to them was no, unfortunately often (particularly at times of the Nazi pursuit) more subordinated ethnically reason of „nomadic travelling desire“. But they were more constrained to move by wars or pursuit , further expulsion or in addition also from purely economic need. Today many of them have settled long ago. The migration of the Sinti and Roma from India to Central Europe lasted more than 500 years.
The historical background of Sinti and Roma
Among the people of the Sinti and Roma there were always many different "professional guilds". The "Sinti" have been the musicians most of the time and first of all.But of course there were also more other professions like Businessmen (trader) or craft occupations like metalworkers (earlier also tinker or blacksmiths), wicker workers, carpenters (wooden workers), tailors uvm. , but also painter or storytellers (today one would call them author), artistes, jugglers as well as many other artistic occupations.
One important thing has contributed a lot to my own understanding of their music was the employment of the culture of the Sinti and Roma. How lived (and do live) Sinti & Roma and what kind of impact has had this on their music? Why is their music as it is - often very fast and loud, variously and sometimes impetuous, then again slowly, soft and caressing, melancholic or tragic. Often also just wonderful...
The Music of Sinti and Roma
In the western world mostly the east-eurpopean musicstyles have falsely became famous and known as "Gypsy- or Zigan-Music". Above all the Hungarian music is strongly marked by the musical tradition of the Sinti and Roma.
Already in the 15th century smaller Sinti bands played often at the courts of the Habsburger-monarchs at that time. These bands were made up from strings, clarinets and mostly a Cymbale (big zither) and were often lead by a violin playing soloist (Primás). Due to that fact this kind of hungarian "Gypsy music" has a long tradition, thus beeing strongly influenced by the Sintimusicans..
While beeing cast out for centuries and decades, characterized by slavery and rejection, the traveling families of the Sintis had to somehow feed their families. Though the Sintimusicians use to play whereever beeing invited in the countries they traveled by.
They played on marriages, festivities or other occations - just where they passed by and were hired for any gig - yet their great musiciality was already at that time very much distinctively and highly respected.
The great virtuosity of the Sintimusicians and the passion of their playing has made the music of the Sinti and Roma exceptionally popular all over Europe and worldwide.
Musicpieces with the addition "Gypsy" in their title are whitnesses of the great part of musical influence in the romantical instrumental- and classicalmusic. Most famous musical pieces are the operas "Zigeunerbaron" of Johann Strauss or "Zigeunerliebe" of Franz Lehár. Especially famous has become the very specific "Gypsy-scale", thus a scale very often used by Gypsies, which soon made it´s way into the classical music, e.g. with piano-compositions of Franz Liszt, who used this special scale in his paino-pieces as well as his "Rhapsodies".
Many people have over centuries been banned by the strong emotional approach of the music and the playing of Sinti and Roma. French Composer Claude Debussy for example once met the hungarian Roma-musician Bela Radics 1910 in Budapest and wrote about his playing in a small Café: "... he opens to the souls that special melancholia that we rarely are about to experience, he opens the inners and snatches the deepest secrets out of all of us - not even a Safe would be secure of his playing..."
But the ability to play certain things better than any local musician was their capital when the Sinti had to make their living on their travels. So it was not only important to play any instrument very well, but the more to know as many songs as possible from all the foreign countries they have traveled to.
That said it is about to explain the outstanding and impressing virtuosity of the Sinti & Roma on various instruments and their very often huge repertoire of songs.
And that is not only made from "god given musicality" or "natural inheritance", like very often guessed about them, but as well out of great dilligence and invested work which is nessesary for such virtuosity. Practising for hours is as well absolute obligatory - every musician who plays an instrument of course knows this...
(Image left: Stochelo Rosenberg, Fapy Lafertin and Lollo Meier)
Already very early the "musical apprenticeship" of their heritage established on their journeys.
Songs and certain musical tricks or skills were beeing transmitted merely oral, from the father to the son, from uncle to nephew. This has become tradition still until today; especially as just very few Sintimusicians know about writing or reading music or even want to learn it. But there was just no need for that...
Still music has had and still today has a very high impact on the Sinti-communities and good musicians always have a high respect amongst them, always beeing cherished and adored.
Whenever Sintis meet somewhere music will soon be played. Music functions as a medium for communication as well as for learning of each other or the lively exchange of their own stories and experiences.
In the early 16th century Sinti & Roma had wandered down until the andalusian South-Spain of which they as well absorbed the arabian influences of Flamenco into their own music as before the mid-east melodies of arabic countries, the hungarian Çsardas or as well as italian lovesongs or french Musette-waltzes - all the kind of music they have been taking over while travelling before. All these influences live on in their own music of Sinti and Roma and especially in the so called „Jazz-Manouche“ who combines all these kind of influences into one.
Jazz-Manouche, Sinti-Swing, Gypsy-Jazz – the first unique european style of Jazz
The so called „Jazz-Manouche“, „Sintiswing“, „Gypsyjazz“ or earlier "Zigan"-Jazz as well as the music of Sintis (especially the french heritage of "Manouches" or "Bohemians" (as Sintis are called in France) - this music has many names. But all together the music has a strong passion for guitar in it.
Released by the musical genius of Jean-Baptiste "Django" Reinhardt who was born in belgium and raised in the area around Paris, the story of Gypsyjazz is closely related to his name, the man who lead the Jazzguitar in european Jazz into what it is today - a wonderful Solo-instrument which it wasn´t before him. (Image left below: Django Reinhardt, 1951)
Born as Jean-Baptiste "Django" Reinhardt 23. January of 1910 in belgian village of Liberchies in the near of Charleroi, Django Reinhardt raised in the early 1920ies together with his mother „Negros“ and his younger brother Joseph "Nin-Nin" , mainly in the area of the french Metropol of Paris.
From his father, a well known and repected musician amongst Sintis, he learned to play the Banjo and, very quickly known for his great talent and virtuosity, at the age of 12 he soon played with famous Musette-Musicians like Vétese Guérino, on their apereances at the „Bal de Musettes“ around Paris.
Inspired by the american Jazzmusicians that used to play around the parisian Nightclubs, mostly soldiers that had come to europe in first worldwar and had stayed in Paris, Django Reinhardt soon changed over to play guitar a couple of years later.
He used to play and copy all the Jazz-tunes that heared at that time, imitating their sound, as well as beeing inspired of the music of his own culture, but as well as of classical composers like Bach, Debussy or Grieg (whose music he really adored).
All that he connected into his own melange of music with great virtuosity into the sound of Jazz-Manouche.
Due to his heavy injuries of his left hand that he received by the inferno of his burning caravan at the age of 18 which he survived in last second, Django wasn´t able to well move the pinky of his left hand. Additionally his ringfinger wasn´t able to move very well without pains. It seems that after a time he was able to play some certain chords with them partly but not use the two for soloing (see photo right, Django´s left hand).
It seems that all these disablities kept Django Reinhardt from playing normal major- or minor-barré chords. Instead he developed his very own and unique playtechniques not only for these chord-voicings but as well for soloing ... some passages of his solos Django played just with his two left over healthy fingers (Pointer and middlefinger)!
All his special techniques, including his chordvoicings and solotechniques left his deep footsteps in the Jazz-Manouche until today. Later on these newly created voicings and chordchanges were copied and taken over by other Jazz-Guitarrists and musicians, entering today´s Jazzguitar-playing styles and techniques.
His great influence leads deeply into modern Rock and Jazzmusic. Famous guitarrists like Charly Christian, Barney Kessel, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheney, Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Gary Moore, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass (a.m.m.) and of course many of todays Sinti-heritage and guitarrists call Django Reinhardt as their "main-influence" of their own guitarplaying.
The sound of Jazz-Manouche and the instruments
So as explained earlier the Sound of Jazz-Manouche is strongly influenced by the playingstyle of Django Reinhardt as well as the many french guitarrists of that time like the brothers Ferré, Henri Crolla or Marcel Bianci and many more.
They all played on specially designed guitars that created this special sound as well as their players. These acoustic Jazzguitars were built from the early 1930ies to 1950ies by the Selmer-company, which still exists today but furthermore only focuses on building Saxophones and Clarinetts.
(Image left: Advertising poster of Selmer in 1933, Django with a D-hole Selmer)
In the early 1920ies Mario Maccaferri, an italian luthier who immigrated to Paris/France, working for the Selmer-company in 1932-33, designed these special guitars on special demand of guitarrists of that time.
The specialty of these guitars is their unique making with a big D-shaped soundhole and a special sound-chamber inside the body which was supposed to give some kind of additional volume (compareable like a subwoofer). By that these guitars were much louder than common acoustic guitars of that time. By their special making these guitars have a very midranged, nosy and as well very assertive sound.
Some years later, around 1936 shortly before he left the company, Maccaferri developed another guitarmodel on order of Selmer. As the D-hole-models still weren´t loud enough to compete with the strong dominance of brass-sections in the Jazzbands of that time, Macafferri developed the so called O-hole Selmer-model "Jazz". This guitar was made famous by Django Reinhardt who played these until his sudden death in 1953.
(Image right: Selmer-O-hole copy 2012, Matthias Voigt, Leipzig)
This guitar again has a very special making inside, using different bracings, while thru the O-hole the sound is beeing "pressed outside" , thus the guitars beeing even louder than the D-hole models, so they are suited especially well as solo guitars.
Django Reinhardt et le Quintette du Hot Club de France
The "Quintette du Hot Club de France" founded in 1933 is mentioned by Jazz-Historians as one of the most successful european Jazzbands.
In 1932/33 Django Reinhardt is playing inside „Hotel Claridge“ in Paris. At one of these gigs Django Reinhardt meets violonist Stéphane Grappelli, Roger Chaput (Git.) and Louis Vola (Bs.). All these four musicians play, together with Django´s younger brother Joseph, as dance-musicians in this hotel. While not allowed at sets, they jam on their favoured jazz-tunes in the freetime of their breaks in a backroom of the hotel.
One day the two Jazzfans Pierre Nourry and Charles Delaunay of the french association "Hot Club de Jazz" get to be whitnesses of one of these jamsessions, excited they emmidiately organize the first recording-sessions for the label "Ultraphone" in Dezember 1934. Charles Delaunay will become the Manager and Mentor of the Band later on.
The Band "Quintette du Hot Club de France" was to become worldfamous in the later 1930-50ies, as well off their recordings as of live-performances. The Sound of this group, mainly made up from string-instruments (guitars, violin, doublebass) stamped the term „String-Jazz“, which means the style of Jazz-Manouche, becoming one of the only unique styles of Jazz created in Europe.
Django Reinhardt dies at †16.May 1953 in Samois-sur-Seine at the age of only 42 years by an apoplectic stroke. Read more on -> Django - the Guitar-Maestro
In the early 1960-70ies the Sound of Jazz-Manouche get popular also in germany inspired by great Sinti-musicians like Schnuckenack Reinhardt, Hännsche and Lulu Weiss or Titi Winterstein, becoming famous and highly accepted. In the following years the heritage of french Manouches of the Reinhardt-family is taken up again. Most famous players of this music today are Stochelo Rosenberg, Fapy Lafertin, Bireli Lagrene, Romane, Angelo DeBarre, Dorado und Tschawolo Schmitt, Lollo Meier, Wawau Adler a.m.m.
There is a very active and living Jazz-Scene of Sinti- and Non-Sinti-Musicians (Gadjos) which still play the sound of Django Reinhardts and the "Quintette du Hot Club de France" even modernizing and developing it further.
Respect, tolerance and understanding
When it comes to music since centuries Sinti-Musicians have always been welcome guests about everywhere, just no personal contact is wanted. When they have played they should leave the better for good and go back on their trail. "Mama get the laundry in, the gypsies are coming..." - like that thought and regrettably event today still think some people.
Antiziganism and sublimal racism contains ressentiments and prejudices against Sinti and Roma, building up on imaginary images of gypsies that were and still are unconciously projected on these people without thinking about it at all.
Our knowledge about the life of Sinti and Roma was always limited in the past, as there are no written sources of them at all. Most of the informations that we have about them today were collected and compiled by non-Sinti.
Also in germany there still is a kind of rejection against these so called „Zigeuner“ (Gypsies) - the people of Sinti and Roma. The tolerance in western societies is barely small and the common prejudices are widely spread. Actually one may recognize this by the again raised discussion about "indigence immigration" in several european countries.
Actually prejudices never tell something about the people that are it´s victims as on those who use them! Discrimination already starts by thinking badly about other human beeings...
When in the early 1980ies i had my first personal contacts with Sintis and some relatives of the famous Reinhardt-family in south Germany, where we played for them very often, i didn´t have a clue about the rules or regulations and traditions amongst the Sintis. Thru my personal contact and many experiences in this time and later on my respect grew and a different understanding increased for them.
My own prejudices and things i had sceptical or rejecting meaning about, changed and developed into greater understanding and perception about a culture that has been marked by antiquated opinions, expulsion and refusal.
The fact that a culture like those of the Sinti and Roma cuts itself off and stays amongst themselfes hence on account of the centuries of experienced negative, is just more than normal and clear to understand...
A great part of missunderstanding and mutual rejection of our people has to do with ignorance, with people "often not wanting to know better", as well as with missing common human respect and tolerance against each other.
For myself i mostly found that Sintis were almost always hospitable and friendly to me - but as you name it, you´ll get it back - if you are not friendly to others, who will wonder if they aren´t to you?
Surely as a "Gadjo" that i am (Romanes f. Non-Gypsy) i am as well often not sympathetic with some negative aspects in the culture of Sinti and Romas, maybe i just dont understand them. And also i had to make my negative experiences with some of them sometimes. Well: there are good and bad people in all countries and mankind all over the planet, as in mine as well...
Let´s take the music to build bridges of understanding and appreciation, because music is an international language that every one understands, no matter what colour, race or nationality one may ever be.
Maybe one day it will arise more understanding and tolerance for each other, as for Sinti and Roma so they might be accepted in our own society as normal human beeings, beeing treated with the nessesary respect and dignity that everyone of us should receive in this world.
Think of it: in the universe we all are strangers no matter where we come from!
Article "Musik der Sinti & Roma" written by Bertino Rodmann for the Rotary Magazine, issue 02/2014 ©2014 Rotary Magazine
- Michel Dregni - „Django – the life and music of a gypsy legend“
Rights for images ©:
- Völkerwanderung - Roma News Society
- Django Reinhardt 1951 + Django´s Hand – Baro Winterstein
- Matthias Voigt Selmer Kopie + Samois 2010 (Sintimusiker) – Bertino Rodmann
- Django Reinhardt Memorial – Hotclubnews.de
- Photos Bertino Rodmann – © Bertino Rodmann
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