There is a joke making the rounds in contemporary
Czech Republic. "Q: What's ultimate bad luck? A: When a hitchhiking band
of Gypsies gets picked up by a busload of skinheads."
Say it to an average American, this 'joke' will not seem particularly
funny. But to the people of Eastern Europe the joke captures the essence
of the so called "Roma question," a problem they have been grappling with
for some time. To the Romany people (as the Gypsies prefer to be called)
this 'joke' succinctly expresses their fatalistic existence in an impoverished,
hostile environment that inevitably leads to violent confrontations. The
right wing skinheads on the other hand are tolerated by the new-found democracy,
as they openly express the racism, hatred and violence felt by many non-Gypsies.
And for the majority of Czechs, the joke accurately conveys their mixed
feelings ranging from indifference and non-involvement, to a smug satisfaction
with the hostility of the skinheads towards these undesirable outsiders.
Publicly, the majority of Czechs (43%) in a recent poll said they condemned
racism. But the second largest group (36 %) said they didn't really care.
(6% answered they actively supported racism, with only 3% actively opposing
it.) At first glance, attitudes like these in a nation that was itself
oppressed and persecuted for centuries are hard to understand. But if you
think about it, turning against people who are worse off than you
are begins to make sense.
Following the Nazis' systematic annihilation of
the Romanies during WWII, the forced assimilation of the remaining Romany
population by the Communists created new problems. For instance when the
Czechoslovak government outlawed 'migratory lifestyle' in 1958, it quickly
found it needed to provide the Romanies with free housing in a very tight
real estate market. Naturally, both Romanies and the "gadje" (non-Gypsies)
resented these handouts, each group for its own reasons. Instead of acceptance,
the results were confrontations and outbursts of violence from both sides.
This and other similar heavy-handed policies ended up only deepening the
cultural, economic, and social rift between the groups.
The problems are far from being over. Since the fall of Communism in
1989 there were dozens of racially motivated murders in the Czech Republic.
In a country that prides itself on having the most progressive economy
of all the post-Communist nations, where its unemployment of the general
population stands at 3%, unemployment among the Czech Romany citizens is
a staggering 70%.
Historically, there has always been a
special group of Romanies - the musicians. Getting rewarded for their
gift to entertain, the singers and dancers were always among the richest
Romanies. And during their steady contact with the non-Romany world, they
kept advancing the romanticized view of the simple but carefree lifestyle
of a Gypsy. Vera Bila and her group Kale represent a modern day version
of a band of traveling musicians. In their albums "Kale Kalore" and especially
"Rom Pop," the group successfully blends elements of several different
cultures. Like a Henri Rousseau painting, Vera Bila and Kale's style is
at the same time deceptively simple but sophisticated, exotic yet homey,
Central European yet Latin American. The Felliniesque singer and her four
guitar-strumming accompanists can easily invoke sounds of Brazilian pop
stars Gal Costa, Maria Bethania or Djavan, as well as echoes of Django
Reinhardt, the great Roma jazz guitarist, and the Gipsy Kings. Since 1994,
they have achieved a reasonable degree of success in Western Europe, especially
France, but being an openly ethnic group they are virtually unknown in
their own homeland.
On the other end of the spectrum, Iva Bittova is a fairly well known
Czech avant-garde personality. She's been a founding member of the progressive
rock group Dunaj and has also released modern classical music albums of
her solo singing and violin paying influenced by Bartok, Laurie Anderson
and Stravinsky. She's also a successful stage and cinema actress. Although
never overtly ethnic, her Roma cultural sensibilities have nevertheless
come through in her work. Still, unlike Vera Bila, by and large Iva Bittova
has been accepted by Czechs as assimilated.
Things are more complicated for Bittova's sister Ida Kelarova. After
graduating from the conservatory in Brno, during one of the foreign tours
with a theater group where her sister was also a cast member, Kelarova
fell in love and ended up living in Wales with an English actor. For ten
years she devoted herself to bringing up her two children. But she grew
restless before she finally realized she missed the stage and she returned
to performing. Her powerful singing accompanied by her forceful piano style
became well known in Western Europe, especially Scandinavia. For the past
four years she's conducted numerous master vocal classes sought out by
women from all over the world.
Last year, Kelarova returned to her native Moravia
region of the Czech Republic and established a music school dedicated to
instructions in Romany vocal expressions. But this time, the odds are really
stacked against her. Many consider her a coward for leaving her homeland
in the mid 80's during Communist oppression. Abandoning her countrymen
and her younger sister for what many Czechs would call a personal
gain, plus being a woman and a Gypsy now present insurmountable obstacles
to her acceptance in the land where she grew up. No matter how good her
Ranging the whole gamut from painfully
slow laments to incredibly carefree whirling dances, Romany music has always
carried a clear and very emotional message. From classical musicians like
Liszt, Bizet, Brahms, Dvorak, Verdi, Rachmaninov, and Bartok to flamenco,
klezmer and jazz, the influences of Romany music are undeniable. They've
lived in the area of Eastern Europe for centuries. Yet, they were always
There are six million or so Roma living throughout Central and Eastern
Europe. The prejudice against them isn't by any means limited to the Czech
Republic. There are many reasons for this prejudice. Color of their skin
and suspicion of foreigners in a homogeneous society, the exclusionary
nature of the Romany culture, the fact that Roma have no territorial, military,
political, or economic strength and are therefore easily targetable all
contribute to the problem. Yes, many Romanies live a life of petty crime
and yes, they are being persecuted. But it's time to move beyond the differences
and concentrate on the commonality.
No matter how many examples of oppression I can
come up with, no matter what statistics I quote, this probably offers the
most telling commentary: In the Romany tradition birth of a child is a
sad event, a sign of poverty and misery to come. It is a poignant and telling
footnote to the everyday existence of Romany people, an existence that
I can't see significantly changing for a long, long time.