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By Bryan Newbury
August 12, 2008

It has often been observed that all worthwhile traditional music emerges from suffering a combination of repression, violence and want. One could say often enough to make the sentiment platitudinous in the abstract. In the concrete, it is as essential a statement as could be made, especially to those who have been the ones experiencing the suffering.

If these tribulations are indeed the provenance of brilliant music, then no one has carried a heavier weight than the Roma people. 

A few additional elements are resourcefulness and soul, which the Roma have in spades. To argue which type of performance is more stirring, or to suggest that one kind of music is more soulful than another, is to court a series of debates which all turn up at a dead end. Then again, it would be difficult if not impossible to debate the earth moving spirit, the virtuosity, the proficiency and the originality of Roma, or gypsy, music. In the series of dead end roads, the dirt path trod by these beleaguered geniuses might well be the most magnificent. Whether playing on the traditional saarangi spike lute, the violin, the ney or the trombone, whether influencing Andalucían string music and dancing or appropriating Ottoman military marches, the Roma have historically absorbed hatred and bigotry and repaid their hosts with cultural expansion. 

In her latest film, Jasmine Dellal provides us with a glimpse into the music and lives of disparate yet unified Romani, as they venture from their homes in India, Romania, Spain and Macedonia on a North American tour. Equal parts performance film, travelogue and ethnological study, Gypsy Caravan does precisely what any fan of world music – music, for that matter – seeks. While treating us to largely uninterrupted sets (when interrupted with dialogue or shots from the performers’ home countries, done incredibly tastefully and without distraction) of some of the finest musicians and dancers in the world, it presents us with a look into just who the people are making their art. 

No character could be more arresting than the undisputed star of the film, Nicolae Neascu. Founder of the award winning and awe-inspiring group Taraf de Haïdouks, Nicolae was the living embodiment of a Romani musician. The viewer feels giddy and lucky at the prospect of listening to his setbacks, successes and desires, of seeing him interacting with kinsmen and countrymen, of hearing him proclaim from his humble abode that he is a star, and that “I am going to build a swimming pool, like Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp.” (Depp, of course, has spent a bit of time with Taraf. That alone establishes their must-know bona fides. Whenever someone is really worth knowing, Depp takes his plane out to hang with him/her/them, in order to bolster his greatest life ever credentials. Yes, ladies, Mr. Depp does appear in the film. Let us move on.) 

From Neascu’s village in southern Romania, to the Romania-Moldova border home of Fanfare Ciocarlia, the superlatively adept eleven-man brass band whose sound permeates Goran Bregovic’s stunning Underground soundtrack, to Skopje, Spain and northwestern India, Caravan commits to film something more than slice of life. In the stories and songs of Esma Redzepova, who can fairly be promoted from “Queen of the Gypsies” to “Patron Saint,” in the passionate torrent of Antonio el Pipa and the heart-rending saga of his aunt Juana, in the joyous and troubled qawwali blues of Maharaja and the cathartic dancing of their leader by fiat, Harish, we receive an adequate rendering of Roma music, culture and daily life. The word “adequate” seems harsh in most instances. In this case, it conveys the highest compliment. To expect a filmmaker to cover the millennial odyssey of such a colorful and complex people in a mere hour or two, while providing us with stirring live music from five distinct and enthralling ensembles would be beyond harsh. 

Dedicated to the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015 (www.RomaDecade.org), Gypsy Caravan dispels popular mythology of the Roma people while providing footage of events and attitudes even in the United States, no stranger to prejudice, but with a much less present Roma Diaspora as that of Europe, that indicate the need for such mythology to be shattered. The Decade project prioritizes education, employment, health and housing, which the interviews in the film indicate are central to the dreams of Romani young and old. Among the less pernicious myths about the gypsy is his happiness with his lot of wandering and entertaining, a kind of Old World spin on the noble savage. It is clear that, while embracing a distinctive and many hued heritage, these people aspire to the same things the rest of us do. As Redzepova relates, the world could learn a few lessons from a people that have never engaged in warfare or occupation of a country. If one needs proof that music has the power to break barriers, to communicate and universalize the suffering of all, and to forge a path toward understanding and appreciation of his fellow man, he need look no further than Gypsy Caravan

If, however, the viewer wishes only to have a film whose music stirs the soul and injects frenetic energy and baffling musical proficiency, she might procure the exact same film.

—–

Gypsy Caravan: When The Road Bends…

Written, Directed and Produced by Jasmine Dellal

Color, 2006, 111 minutes

English; Romani, Spanish, Romanian, Macedonian, Hindi and Marwari with English Subtitles



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