Romani Customs and Traditions:
For a collective economic effort, Roma may
form a purely functional association, the kumpaniya, whose members
do not necessarily belong to the same clan or even the same dialect group.
Individually, many Roma are peddlers, especially in Europe. Some sell goods
they have bought cheaply. Others sell what they make themselves, although
in the twentieth century a number of Romani crafts have suffered from competition
with mass-produced articles.
There are certain staple Romani occupations, such as horse trading,
metalworking, dealing in scrap metal, and vegetable or fruit picking in
some countries. In gaining a livelihood, the women play their full part.
It is they who often sell their wares from door to door and who do the
fortune telling. Among the Vlax-speaking Roma in the United States,
this latter profession, known as "reading and advising," is still widespread.
Generally, Roma occupations are divided by sex. Men are the artisans
while women offer services, such as fortune telling, and selling what the
men produce. It is the women who bring in the money, and the women who
are largely responsible for managing it.
The Roma have traditionally sought work that could be done on the move,
work that required little equipment, as well as work that did not call
for year-round attention. Because of this, agriculture, which would have
necessitated permanent residence, had never interested them until recent
times, when Roma began to take on occasional summer jobs as itinerant farm
Romani commercial activities generally require
a minimum of conformity to local administrative procedures and the possession
of necessary cultural skills. It is, for example, necessary to speak the
language of the people with whom you wish to do business and have a good
knowledge of local customs.
Roma vendors have always been a common sight near Romani encampments.
Because the movements and travels are often uncertain for the nomadic Roma,
it is difficult to build up a steady clientele in any one place. For this
reason, they are forced to try to sell their wares to passersby, or by
going from house to house. The articles they sell are generally of minor
value, such as baskets, brooms, rakes, and cooking utensils.
Roma have not only been master metalworkers, but they have also shown
great ingenuity in devising relatively light equipment, such as forges
and hammers. These tools are necessary to their work and are specifically
designed to be easily transported. Knife grinding, or blade sharpening,
is a common occupation for many Roma in Europe, and Roma can be frequently
seen sharpening scissors and knives with their portable whet-stone wheels
on street corners.
Today, the traditional art of metalworking has been transferred to jewelry
design, metal container repair, automobile body repair, and welding.
According to legend, skilled Roma horse trainers accompanied the first
Lippizaner stallions from Spain to the famous Spanish Riding School in
Vienna, Austria in the sixteenth century.
The Roma made a specialty of attending horse fairs.
These were major occasions in their lives, occasions for social gathering
as well as business. They were adept at pointing out the advantages of
their own horses, which had been carefully taken care of before the fairs,
and minimizing their defects. By the same token, they knew how to emphasize
the disadvantages of those horses they were interested in buying, thereby
bringing down their prices.
The annual Appleby Fair in the second week in June, on the banks of
the River Eden near Ullswater in the Cumbria District of England, is still
an important fair for the Romanichal Gypsies.
The Gypsy fairs in Stow-on-the-Wold, Cotswolds, England, are always
held on the Thursday nearest 12 May and 24 October. They attract large
numbers of visitors and stall holders. For Romanichal Gypsies it is an
opportunity to meet friends and sell horses. At present the fair takes
place on the roads and fields between Stow and Maugesbury.
There are about fifty fairs a year which the Romanichal regularly attend
in the UK. Some other fairs include Horsemonden in Kent, Epsom in Surrey,
Doncaster in Yorkshire, and the Cambridge Midsummer Fair, which is one
of the largest and oldest in England. The smaller fairs are always facing
the possibility of discontinuance due to poor attendance and economic reasons.
Next to the horse, the animal the Roma have shown
great interest in is the bear. Because of this, Roma traditionally have
found work as bear leaders, men who could train bears for entertainment
purposes. It was not an uncommon sight for many years in Europe to see
a Rom leading a dancing bear through the streets and collecting coins from
amused passersby. Some of these bear trainers are still found today in
Musicians and Dancers
The instruments traditionally preferred by Roma musicians have been
the guitar, the lute, percussion instruments such as the cymbalom and
drums, the cello, and the violin. Though their orchestras have included
the clarinet, the use of other brass and wind instruments has increased
in recent times.
The Roma skill at improvisation is well known.
In Hungary and Romania, Romani orchestras, with their virtuoso violinists
and cymbalom players, developed a style that has come to be taken
as the hallmark of Romani music. Much of what outsiders get to hear is
in fact European music with a Romani interpretation. "Hungarian Gypsy"
music and "Spanish Gypsy" music is not "Gypsy" music as such.
Both are brilliant and inventive adaptations of the local music, to which
the Roma have made certain original contributions. In Russia, troops of
Romani singers attained popularity under the Czarist regimes for their
improvisations of Russian song and music.
There is another, quite different type of music
that is authentically Romani, a highly rhythmic progression of tones in
which few or no instruments are used. The dominant sound is often that
of clapping hands. This music greatly influenced the flamenco, a
dance that originated in Andalusia and which has become famous throughout
the world. From Andalusia this style spread across the Iberian Peninsula
and then to Spanish America, until flamenco song, dance, and guitar
playing became a generally accepted form of popular entertainment. This
stirring music and dance, performed by proud men and women stamping their
feet and snapping their fingers with awesome intensity and passion, is
largely associated with the Gitanos. Nonetheless, as with so much
Spanish music, what the Roma did was to adapt and popularize a dramatic
and exciting dance form that is traditionally Spanish and not Romani. The
same has been demonstrated for Jewish klezmer music, which features
unusual scales and lively rhythms.
There are three main reasons that fortune telling has appealed to the
Roma. First of all, it gave them an aura of mystery and of magic. Since
it was the one means of close contact with the gajikane world, fortune
tellers were useful in learning of the social, political, and economic
climate of a region they were visiting. Their clients often took them into
their confidence, revealing facets of local conditions the Roma would otherwise
be unable to judge. Finally, of course, fortune telling was a relatively
simple way of earning money.
Roma have been known to perform many kinds of predictions.
They have read tea leaves, seen visions in crystal balls, analyzed the
future from reading cards, and from interpreting the significance of numbers,
or numerology. They have practised palmistry, judging a person's fate,
character, and aptitudes from the shape of hands and fingers and the designs
of lines in the hand. Though they claim that their great powers of prediction
come from supernatural sources, the real skill of fortune tellers lies
in their remarkable abilities in judging human character and in manipulating
human desires. She knows that most people remember what comes true and
forget what does not. She knows, too, that she is capable of adding an
exotic, exciting element to the life of the gadje. To please their
believing clients, they most often predict a favorable future. There will
often be mysterious warnings of perils that might well be avoided by preventatives
provided, of course, by the Romni. As a rule, Roma never practice their
skills as fortune tellers on other Roma.
Roma believe in their powers,
as exemplified by their use of curses, called amria, and healing
rituals. The fortune teller is always a woman called a drabardi.
The concept of fortune telling contains several independent elements that
are misleadingly grouped together. One element is foretelling the future,
called drabaripé or drabarimos. Another element relates
to healing powers, which the Roma do practice among themselves. The healing
elements of fortune telling are called "advising." Both elements are based
on a belief in the supernatural.
Good luck charms, amulets, and talismans are common
among Roma. They are carried to prevent misfortune or heal sickness. The
female healer who prescribes these traditional cures or preventatives is
called a drabarni or drabengi. Some Roma carry bread in their
pockets as protection against bad luck, or bibaxt, and supernatural
spirits or ghosts, called muló.
Any number of herbs, called drab, are used
for the prevention or cure of various diseases. Herbalism may be practiced
by both sexes. Some of these herbs, called sastarimaskodrabaró,
actually have medicinal value in addition to their supernatural qualities.
Host countries generally view fortune telling as
swindling. Many host countries have reacted to this traditional Roma practice
by banning fortune telling. In some cases, the dominant culture has sometimes
reluctantly recognized that its own cultural values are not necessarily
absolute. Cultural defenses have been increasingly permitted in American
trials, and some courts have considered the issue under gajikano
law of whether a fortune teller who sincerely believes in magic and ancient
healing powers can form a true criminal intent.
Roma in America
The men generally work on short-term jobs that do not require them to
stay in one place for any length of time. They have been able to find such
jobs since they will accept work that many gadje will not do. Their
love for horses has been transferred to a love for cars, and they are often
skilled at engine and body repair. They insist on maintaining their independence
by generally refusing work that will tie them to non-Roma employers.
Today, in Europe and elsewhere, Roma have adapted
to the modern world by becoming teachers, scientists, lawyers, and high-tech
entrepreneurs. They have become skilled in professions that offer some
degree of independence and mobility, while maintaining their social and
cultural identity and ties. The Roma have survived over a thousand years
by providing services to the non-Roma populations, adjusting and accommodating
their skills to new surroundings when required. They continue to survive,
despite persecution and censure, and they continue to adapt to a changing
world, ensuring their continued existence.
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Wanderers of the World. National Geographic Society, 1970.
Strom, Yale. Uncertain
Roads: Searching for the Gypsies. New York: Four Winds Press, 1993.
Sutherland, Anne. Gypsies:
The Hidden Americans. Reprinted Prospect Heights: Waveland, 1986.