Friday, December 26, 2008

Gypsy Caravan - When the road bends...

"You cannot walk straight
When the road bends..."
- A Romany-Gypsy proverb

This piece could very easily turn into one of a number of things. I recently discovered that, while the people it refers to are ancient, the term 'gypsy' itself is of relatively recent (late 18th-early 19th century) coinage, and is derived from the dark, laden term 'Egypt' (which, by the bye, is NOT what that Egyptians call it). While this is undoubtedly fascinating in and of itself, it isn't what I want to write about right (ARGH! That ghost of internal rhyme still hath me in thrall!) now.

I could also, perhaps, trundle off into stories about how I've always seen myself as something of a gypsy - how the wanderlust in me, I've always wishfully ascribed to some wild-eyed, dark-haired, wandering minstrel of an ancestor. On second thoughts, that description fits me more accurately than any ancestor of mine - perhaps I should leave them poor souls out of this. Hmm.

Anywhoo, I'm focusing for a minute to tell you what I DO want to write about - this afternoon I saw what is possibly one of the finest music documentaries ever made - and this isn't one of those "Ten thousand saw I at a glance" type of hyperboles either. Jasmine Dellal's 'Gypsy Caravan' is, in a word, splendid, and should be compulsory viewing for any musician or music aficionado. While I'm being didactic and prescriptive, another thing that is "compulsory" for this breed of weirdos, of which I am a loud and proud part, is the reading of Pratchett's 'Soul Music' - just take my word on this one; don't argue - read!

Meandering done with, back to this Caravan, then. What I love about this documentary is that it doesn't dwell on how misunderstood this race has always been - something it could justifiably and easily have done. Instead, it celebrates them in all their glory. And since nothing to do with the gypsy 'way of life' would be complete without their music, so much the better for this avid viewer/listenHer (another of Jayawant's 'jjems'). The World Music Institute arranged for a group of gypsy musicians from Macedonia, Romania, Spain and India (don't look askance at this inclusion - Gypsies originated from the tribe of 'Roms' who migrated westwards from North India in ages bygone), to tour across America, Canada and a host of other countries, a few years ago. Alongside them on this 6-week journey was this intrepid filmmaker, Dellal.

To me, this documentary is an ode to the beauty of exchanged acquiring. The musicians from these countries start out wary of each other, but end on a carnivalesque (can it be otherwise, with this particular group of performers?) and suitably 'emancipated' note, which sees a Rajasthani folk singer plaintively croon, 'is duniya mein kitna hai gam', to the strains of a classical Spanish guitar and a flamenco dancer giving form to his grief. 

Esma, the Macedonian diva, in one of her early interviews stresses on how she is against "assimilation", and has stuck to the purity of her form. This same chanteuse - one of the best I've ever heard - ends the documentary singing with a troupe of Romanian gypsies, 'Taraf de Haidouks' (which literally translates to 'Band of Brigands': this troupe 'runs' their village on their earnings). Nikolai Neascu, the lead violinist, is one of the most expressive musicians I've heard yet, and his protege, Caliu, one of the fastest. Nikolai dies before the end of the tour, and the music his Brigands play at the wake is as extraordinarily moving as only music, when every other form of expression (beginning with language, first off) fails one, can be.

I've got more to say about the documentary itself, but I won't. As you walk away (I had the fortune of attending a special screening for just 5 people), what stays with you is how easy music makes the task of communicating - there are 30-odd musicians here, most of whom do not share a language in common, at least ostensibly. This is until the first note is struck - the first 'stance' taken. Then, everything falls into place. Juana, with her pack-of-cigars-and-crate-of-whisky-a-day-for-fifty-five-years voice, sings her 'lament'. As does Esma. That I don't know what it is they sing about, and probably never will, suddenly ceases to matter. I share their grief, as I know you will too.  


escaping2nowhere said...

very nice post about something that i once got interested in. i mean not the music but the gypsies and their fascinating world. met the people from banjaara tribes in Rajasthan and Andhra ( not called banjaras there) and was told by some of them that gypsies all over the world share the same roots and they even have some sort annual congress where gypsies from all over assemble together.

Harmony Siganporia said...

That's very interesting - where does this maha-music-mela (can it be anything else?) happen? One of my minors for my Ph.D. is an ethnomusicological study of Rathwa instruments and the role of women in their music - I'd love to go 'hear' this thingammy!
On another note, have you heard about the Tribal music mela at Kaleswari (in North Gujarat)? It's an annual gathering of some 20,000 tribal people from across the country, who come together to celebrate what they stand for, and who they are. I went this year - brilliant it was! I have pictures and videos :)

escaping2nowhere said...

where can I get this movie ? i read a bit about it and saw trailer on net. i can't wait to see it !!