Socialist Worker

Issue No. 1699

I my view

Roma struggle remembered through song

By Martin Smith

HER REAL name was Bronislawa Wajs. She was better known by her Roma Gypsy name, Papusza, "Doll". Papusza is regarded by many as one of the greatest Roma singers and poets. She died in destitution in 1986. Roma music entered the mainstream nearly 15 years later.

The most popular Roma singer is Vera Bila with her band, Kale (which translated means Vera White and the Blacks). Bila's music is a cocktail of traditional Roma music and flamenco, with the Beatles and Abba thrown in for good measure. The result is "Roma pop". Anybody fortunate enough to see her during her recent trip to Britain, or who has heard her stunning new CD, Queen of Romany, will testify that her voice cuts you in half.

She told the Guardian, "Even when I'm singing my heart out I'm not celebrating. "What's there to celebrate when Gypsies die earlier than other people? Sometimes when I'm performing the boys think the tears on my cheeks are because I'm sweating. Actually I'm crying my eyes out." Roma music is an expression of the experience of and resistance to persecution. There are over 12 million Roma Gypsies living all over the world. Around eight million live in Europe-mainly Eastern Europe. They are the continent's largest ethnic minority group. Yet they are a forgotten people. The Nazis' extermination of nearly a million Roma people is often ignored. The conditions that many Roma people live under today are horrendous.

Tens of thousands live in shanty towns built out of cardboard boxes. Roma lives are about a third shorter than those of their fellow countrymen and women. Persecution of Roma people is on the increase. Since the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in 1989 the number of attacks on Roma has more than doubled. Haunting insight A racist gang murdered two Roma boys and burnt out 27 houses, leaving 175 people homeless, in Romania in 1993.

Governments have encouraged these attacks by whipping up the age old lie that Gypsies are thieves and robbers. The Romanian government launched an inquiry into "Gypsy crime". They found that only 11 percent of all crime was committed by Roma Gypsies, who represent 11 percent of the population. The report was suppressed. When Roma people flee war and persecution and apply to come to live in Britain, the Tories and the right wing press scream about "bogus asylum seekers".

Instead of explaining the case of the Roma people Jack Straw and New Labour introduce even more draconian laws to stop them entering Britain. That is just one of many reasons why everyone should march to defend asylum seekers on 24 June. Meanwhile Bila's music gives us a haunting insight into the experience of such oppression: 

"The children of the Romany grow up 
Grow up in poverty 
But the Romany can't make things better 
The whites beat them up 
Let's hold together 
Unite, Romany, unite 
We won't surrender."


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Sat 3 Jun 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1699
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