- Gypsy Music: The Balkans and Beyond by Alan Ashton-Smith
My own experiences as a musician and academic specializing in the music of Greece and the southern Balkans suggest to me that many Euro-American listeners are quick to label certain pieces of music, performances, or sonic textures as "gypsy," but very few are able to articulate why certain sounds suggest that term—beyond vaguely defined tropes of wildness, mystery, and abandon. Alan Ashton-Smith's Gypsy Music: The Balkans and Beyond seeks to address this persistent Western fascination with stereotypes of Romani music and musicians—from Romantic composers and authors to the folk-punk and electronic fusion scenes—while also allowing room for a variety of Romani perspectives.
The book is part of Reaktion's Reverb series, aimed at an educated general audience interested in the connections [End Page 103] between music, musicians, specific places, and their cultures; other volumes focus on, for example, the Beatles in Hamburg, Van Halen in California, and tango in Buenos Aires. This deceptively difficult task necessitates an approach that blends analytical rigor with engaging narrative and is made even more challenging when the subject is not a single artist or genre but rather a worldwide diaspora's diverse approaches to music making in a dizzying array of definable styles. Despite some problems with his narrative framework and cultural analysis, Ashton-Smith does an admirable job of providing enough historical and cultural context to cover some of the thornier issues inherent in an examination of "gypsy music" and provides an adequate introduction to several main streams of music associated with both the Roma people and gypsy stereotypes.
From the start, Ashton-Smith sets a lofty goal, seeking to define "what gypsy music actually is" (p. 8) through an examination of othering—the historical and cultural process of excluding groups of people based on perceived difference—and the geographical boundaries of that othering. The others here, of course, are the Roma, scorned as "gypsies" throughout the last eight hundred years of European history, and the site that Ashton-Smith chooses to explore this process is the Balkans, since, he argues, it is there that links between gypsies and specific places are most frequently and tellingly made. But since gypsy and the Balkans are equally ill-defined concepts (p. 9), the book begins with an explication of these terms, and it is here that its issues start.
Ashton-Smith's definition of the Balkans for the purposes of this book is based primarily on three factors: a significant Romani population, consistent othering in the Western popular imagination, and a "quasi-colonial status" (p. 14), this last characteristic referring to nations that were previously subject to the Ottoman Empire, communist regimes, or both. While this is a solid argument for the inclusion of Hungary, Croatia, and all the former Yugoslav states, Ashton-Smith's use of these criteria to justify his exclusion of Greece and Turkey from the Balkans is somewhat perplexing. Both Turkey and Greece have been subject to centuries of consistent othering and orientalizing by Europeans, and both have relatively small but musically prominent Romani communities—to say nothing of Greece's complicated relationship with the West, a status that many scholars of the region have described as "cryptocolonial." (For one prominent and influential example, see Michael Herzfeld, "The Absent Presence: Discourses of Crypto-Colonialism," South Atlantic Quarterly 101, no. 4 [Fall 2002]: 899–926.) Furthermore, this formulation is marred by the astoundingly erroneous claim that Greece was never part of the Ottoman Empire (p. 12), when in fact by the fifteenth century nearly all of present-day Greece was under Ottoman control, and several Greek islands, such as Crete, Lesbos, and the Dodecanese, were among the last to be relinquished by the collapsing Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Thankfully, Ashton-Smith's distinction between the Roma people themselves and the ever-problematic term gypsy is considerably more nuanced and cogent. Through a...