The Macedonian Tendency: Book On The Roma: Princes Amongst Men

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Book On The Roma: Princes Amongst Men

Wild things
Guardian Unlimited Books:

"Saturday August 6, 2005
The Observer

Princes Amongst Men:
Journeys with Gypsy Musicians
by Garth Cartwright
Buy Princes Amongst Men at the Guardian bookshop
320pp, Serpent's Tail, £11.99

'Back in the early 90s,' writes Garth Cartwright, 'I chose the Taraf over techno, Esma over Oasis.' In this excellent survey of Roma musicians in the Balkans, Cartwright interviews Esma, Taraf and about 20 other bands and musicians, talking his way into their houses and parties, quickly discovering that their crazed nights and chaotic lives make the Gallagher brothers look like innocent little things."

Taraf de Haïdouks are a Roma band, based in Romania, famous for their wild gigs. Taken to play in Switzerland by a Belgian entrepreneur, the Taraf suddenly found themselves thrust into international stardom. They performed for Johnny Depp, then toured with the Kronos Quartet, but couldn't adjust their style; unable to read music or even play the same tune twice, they would disappear on inspired improvisations, leaving Kronos far behind. When Cartwright visits the Taraf, one of them tries to sell him a violin. Another, dapperly dressed in designer clothes, shows off the home that he shares with his wife and two kids - a one-room shack, barely big enough to house a double bed and a wood stove.

Esma Redzepova Teodosievska is a Roma who is also Iraqi, Albanian, Macedonian, Jewish and Muslim. She's fluent in Romani, Macedonian, Serbian and Turkish. A professional singer from the age of 12, she performed for Tito, Gaddafi and Nehru, raised 47 adopted children, campaigns for political reform and has been nominated for the Nobel peace prize twice. According to Cartwright, she is also "amongst the 20th century's most potent singers, the raw, eerie beauty of her voice commensurate with the gospel cry and the imam's call to prayer".

Wherever Cartwright goes, whoever he meets, they seem to be united in their dislike of one person: Goran Bregovic. Through his work on Emir Kusturica's movies - Time of the Gypsies and Underground - Bregovic has been responsible for popularising Roma music. But the Gypsies feel cheated. Again and again, people complain that Kusturica has shown a fake picture of Gypsy life and Bregovic has stolen their music without giving anything in return. According to Cartwright, "Bregovic toured the west playing a pastiche that had critics too lazy to listen to Balkan music acclaim him as a composer of genius." More likely, Bregovic simply had the skills necessary for a commercially successful musician -contacts, business savvy, good cheekbones - whereas many of the Gypsies just play great music.

Cartwright plunges through Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania, pursuing tunes. To capture his passion, he uses a manic prose style, frothing with energy, swinging from panic and confusion to exuberance and complete loss of control. "Girls dance across the square, men stand on rooftops, the atmosphere is relaxed, easy, festive. And then the fires start. A tractor tyre's soaked in gasoline. Snap. Crackle. Pop. Booooooooom. Dense flame. Harsh fumes. Toxic smoke. On they come, the Gypsy zombies, wired on glue and rakija - Here we are now, entertain us! - feeling their way into the night ... "

Up to you, really, whether you find this exhilarating or infuriating. I like it, and I can't help admiring Cartwright's refusal to be objective. He is never cold or dispassionate. He's often drunk, sometimes stoned, occasionally out of control. Now and then he can do nothing but shake his head in astonishment. "Never underestimate the Balkans' ability to deliver the absurd." From most writers, this would seem like a confession of failure, perhaps even a lazy insult, resorting to tired generalisations about the Balkans. But Cartwright's honesty is disarmingly charming, and it's difficult to find anything patronising in someone who writes: "Believe: the band are good. Let me say that again: the band are good, damn, they're cooking!"

The least successful parts of the book are Cartwright's occasional diversions into historical or political analysis. He lacks the depth of knowledge, or even the language, for objective discussions of racism, the Holocaust or the EU's policies. He's far better when he sticks to his own experiences, avoiding generalisations. What distinguishes Cartwright is his style, his verve and his whole-hearted engagement with his subject. The final few pages list about 80 CDs and 20 films by and about Balkan Gypsies; having read the book, you'll find yourself rushing out to buy them.

· To order Princes Amongst Men for £10.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875.

1 comment:

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