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Roma mother and child in old illustration
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There is a joke making the rounds in contemporary Czech Republic. "Q: What's ultimate bad luck? A: When a hitchhiking band of Gypsies gets picked up by a busload of skinheads."

Say it to an average American, this 'joke' will not seem particularly funny. But to the people of Eastern Europe the joke captures the essence of the so called "Roma question," a problem they have been grappling with for some time. 

To the Romany people (as the Gypsies prefer to be called) this 'joke' succinctly expresses their fatalistic existence in an impoverished, hostile environment that inevitably leads to violent confrontations. 

The right-wing skinheads on the other hand are tolerated by the new-found democracy, as they openly express the racism, hatred and violence felt by many non-Gypsies.

And for the majority of Czechs, the joke accurately conveys their mixed feelings ranging from indifference and non-involvement, to a smug satisfaction with the hostility of the skinheads towards these undesirable outsiders.

Publicly, the majority of Czechs (43%) in a oft-quoted poll said they condemned racism. But the second largest group (36 %) said they didn't really care. (6% answered they actively supported racism, with only 3% actively opposing it.)

At first glance, attitudes like these in a nation that was itself oppressed and persecuted for centuries are hard to understand. But if you think about it, turning against people who are worse off than you are, begins to make sense.

Following the Nazis' systematic annihilation of the Romanies during WWII, the forced assimilation of the remaining Romany population by the Communists created new problems. For instance, when the Czechoslovak government outlawed 'migratory lifestyles' in 1958, it quickly found it needed to provide the Romanies with free housing in a very tight real estate market. 

Naturally, both Romanies and the "gadje" (non-Gypsies) resented these handouts, each group for its own reasons. Instead of acceptance, the results were confrontations and outbursts of violence from both sides. This and other similar heavy-handed policies ended up only deepening the cultural, economic, and social rift between the groups.

The problems are far from being over. Since the fall of Communism in 1989 there have been dozens of racially motivated murders in Czechia. In a country that prides itself on having the most progressive economy of all the post-Communist nations, where its unemployment of the general population stands at 9%, unemployment among the Czech Romany citizens is a staggering 70%.

Historically, there has always been a special group of Romanies - the musicians. Getting rewarded for their gift to entertain, the singers and dancers were always among the richest Romanies. And during their steady contact with the non-Romany world, they kept advancing the romanticized view of the simple but carefree lifestyle of a Gypsy.

Vera Bila and her group Kale represent a modern day version of a band of traveling musicians. In their albums Kale Kalore and especially Rom-Pop, the group successfully blends elements of several different cultures.

Like a Henri Rousseau painting, Vera Bila and Kale's style is at the same time deceptively simple but sophisticated, exotic, yet homey, Central European, yet Latin American.

The Felliniesque singer and her four guitar-strumming accompanists can easily invoke sounds of Brazilian pop stars Gal Costa, Maria Bethania or Djavan, as well as echoes of Django Reinhardt, the great Roma jazz guitarist, and the Gipsy Kings.

Since 1994, they have achieved a reasonable degree of success in Western Europe, especially France, but being an openly ethnic group they are virtually unknown in their own homeland.

On the other end of the spectrum, Iva Bittova is a fairly well known Czech avant-garde personality. She's been a founding member of the progressive rock group Dunaj and has also released modern classical music albums of her solo singing and violin paying influenced by Bartok, Laurie Anderson and Stravinsky. She's also a successful stage and cinema actress.

Although never overtly ethnic, her Roma cultural sensibilities have nevertheless come through in her work. Still, unlike Vera Bila, by and large Iva Bittova has been accepted by Czechs as assimilated.

Things are more complicated for Bittova's sister Ida Kelarova. After graduating from the conservatory in Brno, during one of the foreign tours with a theater group where her sister was also a cast member, Kelarova fell in love and ended up living in Wales with an English actor. For ten years she devoted herself to bringing up her two children. But she grew restless before she finally realized she missed the stage and she returned to performing. 

Her powerful singing accompanied by her forceful piano style became well known in Western Europe, especially Scandinavia. For the past four years she's conducted numerous master vocal classes sought out by women from all over the world.

Kelarova returned to her native Moravia region of Czechia and established a music school dedicated to instructions in Romany vocal expressions. But this time, the odds are really stacked against her. Many consider her a coward for leaving her homeland in the mid 80's during Communist oppression. Abandoning her countrymen and her younger sister for what many Czechs would call a personal gain, plus being a woman and a Gypsy now present insurmountable obstacles to her acceptance in the land where she grew up. No matter how good her musicianship is.

Ranging the whole gamut from painfully slow laments to incredibly carefree whirling dances, Romany music has always carried a clear and very emotional message. From classical musicians like Liszt, Bizet, Brahms, Dvorak, Verdi, Rachmaninov, and Bartok to flamenco, klezmer and jazz, the influences of Romany music are undeniable. They've lived in the area of Eastern Europe for centuries. Yet, they were always the outsiders.

There are six million or so Roma living throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The prejudice against them isn't by any means limited to Czechia. There are many reasons for this prejudice. The color of their skin and suspicion of foreigners in a homogeneous society, the exclusionary nature of the Romany culture, the fact that Roma have no territorial, military, political, or economic strength and are therefore easily targetable all contribute to the problem. 

Yes, many Romanies live a life of petty crime and yes, they are being persecuted. But it's time to move beyond the differences and concentrate on the commonality.

No matter how many examples of oppression I can come up with, no matter what statistics I quote, this probably offers the most telling commentary: In the Romany tradition birth of a child is a sad event, a sign of poverty and misery to come. It is a poignant and telling footnote to the everyday existence of Romany people, an existence that I can't see significantly changing for a long, long time. 


- Ivan Sever is a professor at Berklee.
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