The Music

“Gypsy” music is smoke and mirrors; a virtuoso illusion — we all know what it sounds like, and the music is real enough, but it is not born of an ancient “Gypsy” tradition. Instead, centuries ago, travelling “Gypsies” (— or Roma, as they are correctly known) began to twist the local music around them into tantalising, mysterious and pulsating new versions. They earned their next meal by creating music that was rare, wonderful and provocatively different — but from local ingredients.

Dangerous, wild, alluring, exotic — feared, envied, persecuted — desired — scapegoats, or symbols of freedom: “Gypsies” roam the darker paths of our imaginations, alternately bewitching us with the allure of their music and  terrifying us by living by different rules. But who are they? A low-caste tribe of musicians from northern India took to the road at some murky point in history as the Doma (or Rom) and reappeared in Hungary in the 14th century as the Roma, fleeing the advancing Ottoman empire. They cashed in on their musical skills, appropriating the music of those around them and becoming the go-to players for all functions from village dances to the entertainment of princes.

Musicologists tell us that Hungarian “Gypsy” music is really mostly indigenous Hungarian folk music, or derived from 18th and 19th century art music, and Romanian and Bulgarian scholars are equally keen to reclaim their folk music from inaccurate branding as being “Gypsy.” And it is all very convincing: the Roma’s music for their own purposes was almost entirely vocal — nothing like the showy instrumental music we expect. As they travelled west, they earned their way by adapting their impressive musical skills — particularly on the violin — wherever needed. Peasant dances had their melodies twisted by eastern scales and between dances the musicians improvised with extraordinary expressiveness and skill — they were soon the must-have players throughout central and eastern Europe, the Balkans and Spain. Village dances and courts vied to have the best band and the Roma lent their fiddle bows to their version of whatever was in fashion. “Gypsy” music might not exist, but “Gypsy” virtuosity certainly does. 

And yet that is not the whole story of the music that we call “Gypsy”: in Europe, from the medieval period onwards, Jewish communities represented another wandering tribe who kept to themselves and had an equally specialised musical class, the klezmerim, who provided music for weddings and celebrations. They were also remarkable fiddlers with an eastern twist, so it is not surprising to learn that they branched out a bit to take on some of the Roma musicians’ success. We know, for example, that one of the most famous Hungarian “Gypsy” band leaders of the 18th century was a Jewish man who changed his name and became a celebrated “Gypsy” fiddler. Unpicking the appreciable klezmer influence from what we think of as “Gypsy” music is impossible.

Despite the fact that our beloved “Gypsy” music is not actually indigenously Roma, and that neither were many of the famous “Gypsy” bands who created the style, it remains one of the world’s most instantly recognisable musical brands: vibrant, expressive, sensuous and fiery.