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Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora by Carol Silverman (review)

From: Notes
Volume 69, Number 4, June 2013
pp. 748-750 | 10.1353/not.2013.0065

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This book discusses Romani (Gypsy) musicians and musical styles from the Balkans. It introduces and discusses numerous musicians primarily from Bulgaria and Macedonia to show how over a thirty-year period from the 1980s to the mid-2000s, Romani musicians modernized in order to serve their own communities in life-cycle celebrations, coped with paradoxes of Communist cultural control, and became the object of world music fads.

The author, Carol Silverman, is a cultural anthropologist who has been researching Romani culture since the 1970s. She worked with Romani people in the United States and also conducted long-term research in Bulgaria and Macedonia. Her work has even extended to legal advocacy. Silverman is also an impresario and a performer of Balkan music. The ethnographic research for this book included participating in the life-cycle events of Romani households, observing and discussing music festivals and mass media as they relate to Romani people, assisting and observing the activities of Romani-rights NGOs that formed in the Balkans after 1989, conducting lengthy retrospective interviews with important Balkan Romani musicians, touring and performing with Balkan Romani musicians, observing European DJs, and discussing many issues with Romani interlocutors. In some chapters, Silverman explains politics of music-making that are local to Macedonia and Bulgaria. However, almost all of the musicians and Romani communities Silverman discusses have a transnational orientation, whether they have emigrated, concertized internationally, or experienced the change of national borders around them. The Romani ethnoscape thus extends to neighboring Balkan countries, Turkey, the United States, and Western Europe.

Three introductory chapters explain the Romani communities, musicians, and countries covered in the book, provide a theoretical framework, and delineate key musical genres. Silverman discusses how theories of hybridity, diaspora, transnationalism, essentialism, and identity apply to Roma. Here she explores several aspects of contemporary identity formation, including the significance of Romani anthems and some activities of the Romani human rights movement since the 1990s. Silverman outlines a conceptual framework developed for areas to the west and north such as Hungary, Russia, and France in order to explain some general issues concerning Romani music such as the fact that its originality has been questioned, that it is often virtuosic, that it can contain improvisation, and that it often has mesmerizing effects on non-Roma. She returns to a Balkan framework (specifying Ottoman and Turkish influence at many turns) to outline some basic genres of Balkan Romani performance. These include oboe and drum music; čoček/kyuchek music; a trend of modernizing urban ensembles starting with the čalgiya idiom of the late Ottoman period; and outsiders’ Orientalized, sexualized images of Romani women entertainers. Silverman also traces fashions within Balkan Romani communities from čalgiya through Bulgarian wedding music, rap, and Kosovo Romani music.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 discuss Macedonian Romani households and life-cycle celebrations. Chapter 4 delineates how since the 1960s Macedonian Roma resettled in New York and other North American cities and since then have maintained extended family connections while dispersed between Macedonia, Western Europe, and the United States. Silverman stresses the key role of life-cycle ceremonies, especially weddings, in maintaining family ties. She argues that via communal viewing and discussion of home wedding videos, Roma constitute a transnational identity. Silverman outlines a valuable fieldwork exchange: she sees women exercising significant power within Romani ceremonies and daily life, yet some of her female interlocutors disagree with her. Chapter 5 describes Macedonian Romani weddings in Macedonia and in New York, concluding with a description of Romani musicians who work for Macedonian Romani and other Balkan communities in the city. Chapter 6 discusses čoček/kyuchek dance, which was wildly popular in the Balkans and Balkan diaspora from the late 1980s through the 2000s. Silverman explains that Romani families can be proud of young women who show dignity, delicate artistry and marriageability by dancing in Romani family settings, contrasting this with mass-mediated dance that conveys the stereotype of a sexually libertine Gypsy woman.

Chapters 7, 8, and 9 discuss how the Bulgarian Communist state suppressed Romani culture and music, and explain the great popular demand that developed during and after the Communist period for two genres that included Romani music, “wedding music” and chalga...


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