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Working in America’s Romani Communities: A Q & A with Sani Rifati (Bridging Gaps, Vol. 2)

Rom activist Sani Rifati, president of Voice of Roma, is a dance teacher, international human rights monitor, and educator. asked Rifati to bring us up to speed on Romani communities in America as they relate to the world music scene.

1. With what ethnic group or cultural population are you most familiar?

Of course with Romani culture, given that I am Rom. I am familiar with many ethnic groups in the Balkans. Coming from Kosovo, in the former Yugoslavia, you get to interact with a lot of other ethnic groups, learn their languages, music, and culture too.

2. What North American cities/regions have the greatest population of this group?

Definitely Chicago and NYC; they have so many different cultures from around the world including Roma (Gypsies). In NYC alone, there are close to 50,000 Roma from the former Yugoslavia. What brought Roma to these cities? Simply the dream of a better life in America, the land of opportunity, and economics. Roma are a very communal people, and where some gather, a lot gather.

3. How would you describe the musical interests and musical "market" for live performance within these communities?

Romani music is very broad and versatile and too complex to describe in a few words, but I’ll do my best. When Roma gather, in general, around weddings, circumcision ceremonies, births, the first year (first haircut) ceremonies and other events, it is always with live music, never recorded. The bands that play at such events are often performing for hundreds of people, sometimes up to 500 people. Music is the most important and cherished aspect of Romani events, and the artists are showered with baksheesh (Turkish for tips). Artists can sometimes earn as much as $15,000 baksheesh for a single evening. The hall location, rental, decoration, etc. is insignificant compared to the importance of creating the best ambience by getting the best or hottest band and having abundant food. The sound (amplification) is always very loud and you can barely have any conversation, which is very different than most gatherings in the western world.

4. Are there particular venues that especially cater to this group?

Apart from the events put on within the Romani cultural community, there aren’t specific venues that cater to this group. There are, however, many Serbian and Macedonian churches that often employ Romani bands at their events. The World Music Institute is amongst leading venues that are sensitive to Romani artistry and culture. There are many Romani music aficionados in the U.S, as well as musicians, dancers, and cultural scholars who study, educate, appreciate and promote Romani music across the country. We also greatly appreciate the work of Rock Paper Scissors in promoting Romani music in the U.S.

5. What about record stores?

I live in California and the Down Home Music store in Berkeley is one of the best. Also, a local independent record shop in Sebastopol, Incredible Records, has a good inventory of Romani music. Traditional Crossroads, a record company, has been an important source of recorded music. More and more stores are increasing their variety of Romani music as part of their world music sections.

6. What are some of the major misconceptions that music professionals might have about this group that can make it a challenge for them to build bonds within this community? Any common faux pas?

Many, many faux pas exist in the U.S. As we know here, “the customer is always right” and the most important thing is how to market, and create an “image!” If you want to draw large audiences, you have to come up with very catchy titles, and the best and easiest way to do this for Romani groups is to use the clichéd/stereotyped language of “Gypsy Caravan,” Gypsy Kings/Queens, “exotic, ultra, fire-hot gypsy bellydance,” etc. The vast majority of North Americans only know about the romanticized part of the culture and stereotypes and think that every “gypsy” knows how to play music (please note that most journalists don’t even capitalize the “G” in “Gypsy”). Voice of Roma produces an annual music and dance festival (as a matter of fact we call it “Roma Festival”) with over 1,000 people attending in 2006. California Bay Area audiences, as well as folks from many other places in the U.S., know that Voice of Roma is producing events with some of the best Romani musicians in the world, such as Esma Redzepova, Yuri Yunakov, Ivo Papasov, Rumen Shopov, KAL, and we hope to bring many more. In addition to high caliber performers, we offer traditional foods, handcrafts made by Kosovo refugees, documentary films, music, dance, and educational workshops about the history and political situation of the Roma. We give audiences the whole package. We do not try to sell Romani culture, we give folks the real thing. Roma have contributed enormously to the field of music, all over the world and throughout history. Romani musicians inspired many world artists such as Franz Listz, Bartók, B.B. King, and many others; as well as creating and influencing musical genres: Flamenco, Czárdás, Russian folk music, Django Reinhart – style, etc…

7. What particular sensitivities should professionals in the field be aware of as it relates to this group?

“Ignorance” is a very dangerous thing. Education and open-mindedness combined with respect, that is what we want. Roma cannot afford to continually be exploited in terms of stereotypes and misinformation by concert producers, promoters and the like. We want to be who we really are and respected as human beings and musicians. Ultimately, it is everybody’s loss when this happens, first the Roma artists, the culture itself, and even the audiences are badly misled by this kind of hype.

Roma in Eastern Europe aren’t doing well these days in the post-socialist societies there. The venues could help people understand the bigger picture about the culture of the musical performances they offer. I do think there are parallels between Roma and African-Americans here in the U.S. Everybody loves blues and jazz, but we do not want to talk about slavery, it is “not the right setting”; those things happened a long time ago. Guess what? I do think that this is the right setting, right here, because the art is coming from deep wounds and many years of oppression and segregation and putting us in ghettos and so on…

8. Can you give some examples of success stories of people from outside of this cultural group collaborating in the music and arts field with people within this community?

Many American musicians that have been involved with music and dance are regular people who love and respect the culture. Very good examples are: The World Music Institute, Rock Paper Scissors, Voice of Roma, and Traditional Crossroads. The last thing is thanks to computers today, many people know about the term Roma, instead of “Gypsy” and so on…

9. In what areas do you hope the world music community improves in serving and collaborating with this community?

One of the most important is to work very closely with the artists and let them tell also about their culture and who they are.

10. Thank you for taking the time to speak with DubMC. Anything else you would like to share?

Just make/produce music, not wars, and have fun in life. Life is too short, and by the way, don’t buy into the fear mongering about terrorism! Go out there and enjoy the life with your family and friends. Also, we’d like everyone to know that Voice of Roma produced our first CD this year with Rumen Shopov, “Soul of the Mahala”, where the artist had total freedom musically and in all ways. We’re very proud of this CD. is the brainchild of Dmitri Vietze and is sponsored by rock paper scissors, inc., world music publicity firm.