Two months ago I wrote an article about my perception of hatred of Romani people in Bulgaria. Every time I visit the country, it strikes me how much aggression, prejudice and discrimination has become normal to the citizens and how many dehumanize Romani as if they were second class people. However, I find it not only deeply unsettling, but incredibly hypocrite. Hardly anyone would employ Roma – not only in Bulgaria. The stereotypes address their work ethics, their hygiene and everyday manners. I’m not repeating them now, because most people will directly have an image of the stereotypical Roma family while reading these lines.
Nevertheless, in pop culture, there is a frank shift towards romanticism of Roma. Some people think of them as free vagabonds who never settle and live completely in accordance to their very own rules. Moreover, musicians and artists are commercially successful of selling Roma culture and people are buying it all over the globe. Just to give you a few examples, I will present you a few success stories linked to the cultural heritage of a group which in general is highly marginalized. Thus, I am directly addressing my fellow Bulgarians, but the hypocrisy applies to more people. In the 1980s in several countries new music genres emerged which were highly influenced by Oriental and Roma rhythms and singing styles. In Bulgaria it’s called “Chalga”, in the former Yugoslavian republics there is “Turbo Folk”, in Romania “Manea” is popular, in spite of a drastic fear in these countries that their “own culture” might be conquered by Romani lifestyle.
After my visit in May, I flew to Bulgaria in June and went to a club – it was no surprise that people were dancing wildly to Chalga. In fact, Bulgaria’s greatest star of this genre – Azis – is Roma himself. The biggest summer hit this year with more than 10 million views on YouTube actually addresses stereotypes about Roma, it s lyrics include this line: “Barefoot, brass music, God holds his hands up, smiles gently and flicks his fingers” – which refers to the cliché of a Roma celebration. The cherry on top is that the video was shot in a Roma neighborhood.
Additionally, the king of Balkan music with Roma influences – Goran Bregović – tours from New York to Moscow with his band to perform his vibrant mix of Turkish, Greek, Balkan and Romani pieces. The composer and singer actually does great intercultural work with his music, attempting to connect people from the Balkans who often have a conflicted relationship with each other. In 1999 he even released a highly acclaimed album with Polish pop star Kayah, which was a huge success in the country, selling more than 700.000 copies. Apparently, people don’t have an issue with Roma culture as long as it’s mainly performed by non-Romani people. Kayah added Polish lyrics to Bregović’s songs. An example is her version of the song “Ederlezi” which Roma people sing during the festivities connected to the return of spring on St. George’s Day.
Not only Balkan artists celebrate impressive success with music influenced by Roma culture, Shakira released a song a few years ago which was called “Gipsy”, singing the lines of “I might steal your clothes and wear them if they fit me […] never made agreements – just like a gipsy”. Speaking of Spanish-rooted artists, perhaps you remember the Flamenco band “Gipsy Kings” (and I’m sure you do) who branded themselves as, well – kings of the gipsy. They sold millions of copies of their albums and won several awards, including a Grammy. Nevertheless, the fascination or interest of Romani heritage only remained in the sphere of music.
The issue here is not about political correctness, it’s not about cultural appropriation, it’s about the contradicting perception of culture and the consequences of this schism. Just notice the irony. How can one celebrate Romani culture and romanticizing a particular way of life when in return this certain lifestyle leads to discrimination and marginalization? How is it possible to find a culture threatening when there is a demand for more popularity in music and art for this culture you oppose? It seems to me that as long as Romani culture fits into the narrow box of passionate or cheerful music, people are in favor of their influence, but as soon as we talk business, money and politics – the ugly side of the coin shows.