Posted: 09/08/2008


Gypsy Caravan… When the Road Bends


by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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Many people may have misinterpretations about what exactly a gypsy is. After watching Gypsy Caravan, I’ve a better understanding about what this group of people is all about.

Gypsy Caravan is a concert movie interspersed with local stories from people all over the world who call themselves gypsies. And it shows that gypsies aren’t what have stereotypically been known as thieves and nomads.

The Roma (gypsies) are people who believe in the universal language of music and dance, no matter if they hail from India, Spain, Macedonia or Romania. The groups and solo acts joined together to travel Europe and the United States to dazzle audiences with song and dance, replete with resplendent costumes.

Nicolae Neacsu is the eldest of the group called the Taraf de Haidouks. Close to the age of 80, Nicolae treasures his longevity, knowing that his senior years are much easier because when he was younger he was better equipped to deal with trials and tribulations.

As the five bands, which consist of Taraf de Haidouks, from Romania; Macedonian diva and “Queen of the Gypsies” Esma Redzepova; Maharaja, a traditional Romanian folk group; Fanfare Ciocarlia, a brass band from Romania and Spain’s Antonio El Pipa Flamenco Ensemble, travel from coast to coast, along World Music Institute’s 16-city concert tour, members return to their homelands to tell their compelling stories. Often members are the main breadwinners, with music being their way out of a world that looked upon “gypsies” as being inferior. “With our dark skin, we were made to sit in the back,” said one musician, who added that theirs were “protest songs.”

Esma’s work could be considered social commentary. In one phone interview as they were travelling through the states, she said her songs were filled with sadness, happiness, tradition and culture, but she did not “assimilate” during her more than 45-year singing career.

The band members all agreed that while they may be shunned at home, audiences around the world pay good money to see them perform. And the money earned during the tour seemed to keep everyone happy. Nicolae, the elderly violinist, was joyous that he was able to support his extended family back home with his earnings; but as the autumn of his life neared, he also yearned for the company of a woman, since he had long been widowed.

Nicolae’s band also worked with actor Johnny Depp, who made a cameo appearance in the film. Depp said, “it would be great if by experiencing the Romani people and their music, people can learn more about them and understand that what you’ve believed about these people has been a lie your entire life.”

Taraf de Haidouks, which means band of brigands, tours regularly from New York to Tokyo, and they won the 2002 BBC Radio3 World Music Award, among other acclaim.

At many venues, which spanned New York, Austin, Portland, Miami and San Francisco, among other stops, the concerts were sold out, with people dancing enthusiastically in the aisles.

The Flamenco is unmistakably gypsy, and Antonio El Pipa Flamenco Ensemble, a family group from Andalucia, is so full of energy, as they “show their feelings and express their cries to the world.”

One member, Juana la del Pipa, had fun at home with her young son, smothering him in the way that only a mother could. She also shared the story of marrying too young, with a husband and son who fall victim to drug abuse. She reflects her family’s tortuous journey through the pain in her songs.

The Maharaja consists of singers, poets and musicians from varied castes who make beautiful music together. One featured member, Harish, does a mean “knee dance,” which is native to the Indian town of Rajasthani. It was in this town that one of the elders said they were proud of the gypsy band but that formal education was something to be sought, as well as music

Unfortunately, before the end of the tour, tragedy befalls the tour, with the death of Nicolae, whose wake and funeral are shown in the film. His was such a rich, full life, and for three days hundreds of people mourned him from far and near, showing respect for the master of the violin. Local musicians play the Clejani Funeral March, a violin wake song, in his honor.

Also in Gypsy Caravan, Fanfare Ciocarlia’s brass horns combine Romanian Gypsy music with Turkish and Arabic influences, with sales from their first CD reportedly bringing in enough money to bring electricity to their entire home village. One member said traditionally that “Turks celebrated victories with music.”

Gypsy Caravan is a “film with stories as rich as the music,” and it’s written, produced and directed by Jasmine Dellal. For a toe-tapping, hip swinging good history lesson, Gypsy Caravan is available on DVD from Docurama Films.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor and film critic in Chicago.

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