Does Musical Improvisation Begin With The Gypsies?
Romani Musical Traditions Have Influenced Many Different Popular Styles
In 1859, noted Hungarian composer and musicologist Ferenc Liszt published a book in which he stated unequivocally that all Hungarian music had Gypsy (Romani or Roma as they preferred to be called) roots. Though most of Hungarian traditional folk music features recognizable Roma violin melodies and ornamentation, the controversy he sparked continues today.
In reality, the influence of Romani music extends much further than Hungary, where the connection is clear and well documented.
The Gypsies, or Roma, are an ancient race that originated in Rajasthan, India. Until the link between the Romani language and language of India was published in 1776 by Istvan Valyi, Europeans were unaware of these origins. In fact, the word Gypsy is derived from Egypt — where Europeans assumed the Gypsies originated.
Gypsy music is some of the oldest and most influential on the planet. Music and dance have always played a very special role in Roma society and culture. Every occasion has its musical accompaniment, every ceremony its special song or dance. The making of music is a thread that is woven throughout the long and arduous Gypsy migration.
Today, there are Roma communities in most central Asian and European countries. Some Roma families have emigrated to the U.S. and Canada. In many cases, it is music and dance that unites these diverse and far-flung communities.
As the Roma migrated from India across central Asia, through the Middle East and Turkic countries up into the Balkans; Europe, and finally the British Isles, their music touched every ethnic group that they encountered. It left lasting impressions and influenced a broad spectrum of musical styles across multiple cultural traditions and continents.
At the same time, the Roma co-opted and incorporated musical instruments and melodic elements that they encountered in their westward migration into their own traditions. Thus, they carried memorable bits-and-pieces that they heard around them throughout their travels. Both of these practices combine to produce a powerful and largely under recognized Gypsy influence on the development of contemporary musical styles.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Russian and Hungarian nobles maintained Gypsy Orchestras and choruses to provide musical entertainment for royalty and major national events. That influence forever changed the music of both nations.
The Gypsies arrived in Wales in the 1700’s. They introduced the violin to Celtic music and added the Welsh harp to their own repertoire.
Full of passion and exotic melodies, Gypsy music slides easily in and out of major and minor scales. It is their pension for using the minor scale, called the “Gypsy scale” by Europeans, that characterizes Roma musicians. And Romani music always contains fluid, imaginative improvisations — whether on violin, guitar, or tuba in a Balkan Gypsy brass band.
We can hear the influences of this compelling and engaging music in bands and tunes from Turkey; Armenia; the Balkans; Russia; Eastern Europe; Spain and Portugal. Gypsy music has influenced multiple folk music traditions as well as a whole generation of classical composers including Liszt, Moeller, Rodrigo and Albeniz.
One of the strongest influences Gypsy music has had is in Spain, where most Flamenco artists are Roma. Flamenco, perhaps the most passionate music in the world, owes its unique sound and exotic dance to strong Gypsy roots. Catalonia’s Gypsy Community Virtual Museum notes: “…the entire history of flamenco is a continuum of named Romani families and lineages.” Bands like the Gypsy Kings — masters of Spanish Flamenco (though they are from southern France) — are well known in “world music” circles.
It is thought that the Portuguese “Fado,” a traditional style of song with many forms, owes part of its haunting melodies and stunning guitar work to Gypsy influences. Street Fado performers, often the engine of musical creativity in Portugal, are frequently Roma; and the very first Fado song was written about a love affair between a Portuguese nobleman and a Gypsy (Cigano) woman.
The closely related Manouche and Sinti clans of European Gypsies have had a heavy influence on Jazz. Django Reinhardt, the best-known Sinti, was one of the most influential jazz guitarists and musical innovators of the thirties and forties. Playing with violinist Stephan Grapelli in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, he helped shape the entire universe of jazz guitar. Django’s unique jazz leads, fluid improvisations and exotic ornamentation are still influencing popular new bands.
It can be argued that, in addition to bringing the guitar and violin into a number of Gadje (non-Gypsy) musical vocabularies, the Roma were among the first musicians to incorporate regular improvisation into their songs. In fact, there are references in the literature to Gypsy musical improvisations as early as 1500. To be clear, traditional European musical formats during that period were very rote and structured. It is likely that the Roma have been improvising as long as they have been making music.
That makes sense, as the Gypsies have always disdained written composition, musical tablature and all of the accoutrements of formal musicology. There is no evidence that any attempt has ever been made by the Roma to formalize or standardize their music. That’s not their style.
Every time a Gypsy song, or any other for that matter, is performed by Roma musicians it is entirely unique. This is consistent with the lack of a written Gypsy literary record. And with a linguistic tradition that emphasizes social interaction over the exchange of facts. Life, love, music and performance are very much “of the moment” for the Roma.
The Gypsies carry their disdain for external structure and standardization in their daily lives into their music and literary traditions. At the same time, the Roma prize individuality, cleverness, assertiveness and personal creativity. That leads to uniquely personal musical interpretations and promotes technical experimentation.
So in that sense, it is my personal conviction that we owe at least part of the credit for modern jazz and improvisational lead rock guitar to the Roma culture and early Gypsy musical innovation.
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Author’s note: If, like I am, you are fascinated by Roma culture, I highly recommend the wonderful movies of multiple award-winning Roma director Tony Gatlif. His movies are classics, and many are also intimate explorations of Roma music and culture. His pas de resistance, Vengo, features some of the best Gitano Flamenco in cinema. I’d also recommend another highly comedic film: Black Cat White Cat, featuring the Balkan Gypsy song Bubamara along with a lot of other great music and a thousand laughs.