Guest Review: Colleen Mondor
Princes Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians
By Garth Cartwright
Garth Cartwright was already familiar with Gypsy music when he decided to travel across the Balkans in search of the truth behind Gypsy myths. He set out to not only interview well-known Gypsy singers and musicians but also to explore how the Roma people were surviving in the former Yugoslavia and other Eastern European countries. (The term “Roma” refers to people of an established ethnic group and is slowly coming back into use. “Gypsy” was a title conferred by Europeans on the first Roma to arrive in Europe a thousand years ago as they mistakenly believed them to have arrived from Egypt. It is now used somewhat negatively to refer to anyone who leads a nomadic life, regardless of ethnicity, but is still the accepted term for Roma music.) While it may sometimes be difficult for some readers to keep track of the many unfamiliar names and destinations that Cartwright rattles off with ease, his intense desire to know just what life is like on the ground for a people struggling not only to hold on to their traditions but also to keep a roof over their heads makes his book, Princes Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians fascinating reading.
In traveling through Serbia, Macedonia, Romania and Bulgaria, Cartwright found most Romas living in “mahalas” or Roma settlements. The poverty is staggering, with the musicians often proving to be the only community members who are able to afford indoor plumbing or electricity. This is the story that, as Cartwright explains, is all too often ignored by journalists investigating post-war Yugoslavia or the collapse of communism. As he writes in the book, “their role in history is reduced to a silent supporting cast. And the Roma know this – nobody’s listening – so [it's] feeding a sense of exclusion.” This feeling is supported by the fact that few historians acknowledge the Roma genocide in WWII, where they were one of the few groups specifically targeted by Hitler for extermination and lost approximately 500,000 people in concentration camps. Cartwright makes a serious effort toward combating this lack of information by discussing Roma history in each of the countries he visits, explaining how they initially came to live there and their political and social struggles to gain equality. His research reveals that it has not been an easy road for them, and each step of the way their struggle has been gone largely unrecognized.
It is almost incomprehensible that in the midst of so much poverty and sorrow Gypsy music would not only thrive but gain in popularity across Europe. But Cartwright easily finds successful singers and musicians as he travels and interviews long time traditional singers like Esma Teodosievska and the new wave of stars like Jony Iliev and the genre defying Azis. He finds Gypsy music in clubs and bars, at music festivals and packed stadiums. Every chance he gets, he asks the hard questions, presses for answers about the price of success, dreams for the future and hopes for political and social acceptance. In the end he learns a vast amount about the Roma people and with Princes Amongst Men has certainly written a deep and valuable record of the modern Roma culture. But I am not sure that he ever really knows the people he talks to, or understands anything beyond the obvious about their struggles. At the end of the day after all, Cartwright can go home to Britain; he can leave the mahalas behind. The one thing the Roma make clear is that none of them have that option; no matter how loud they sing or how well they play they still remain an overlooked minority in Europe who suffer daily from racism and prejudice. It is that image and not the music that will linger with readers and make them wonder why we all know so many Gypsy myths but precious little Roma truths.
Colleen Mondor writes for Bookslut and Eclectica Magazine. She grew up in Florida, spent ten years in Alaska and now lives in the Pacific Northwest. Her book on Alaska flying is making the agent rounds and she has an essay in Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans, which was published by Chin Music Press in February 2006.