The opening lines from Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man have remained etched on my consciousness ever since I first read them 30 years ago. The Invisible Man is narrated in the first person, by an unnamed African-American man, who is socially invisible. It could equally be applied to the Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities of Europe today.
In France, Roma families have been illegally expelled, in Britain a Traveller community have been been hounded from their home at Dale Farm in Essex, and across Eastern Europe there have been a number of violent and murderous attacks on Roma and Gypsy communities.
One of the most serious took place in Bulgaria in September. It began when Angel Petrov, a 19 year old, was killed by a minibus driven by an ethnic Roma in the village of Katunitsa on 23 September. The driver of the minibus was an associate of Kiril Rashkov, a Roma bootlegger. The next day three houses belonging to Rashkov were set alight and the Roma community were driven out of the village.
Over the next three days Roma families and their homes were attacked in cities and towns across Bulgaria.
The authorities did not bother to record how many homes were burnt nor did they record the number of Roma injured. But what we do know is that this was the worst racist violence the country has seen since the Second World War. Over 350 Nazis and assorted football hooligans were arrested. There are worrying reports that the attacks spread to the Czech Republic and Hungary.
The violence in Bulgaria only stopped when Rashkov was arrested and charged with “threatening behaviour”.
The Nazi Ataka (Attack) party was behind the violence. It organised demonstrations under the banner “Gypsy crime a danger for the country”. On those nights of hatred its members wore black T-shirts with the slogan “I do not want to live in a gypsy country”. Their leader, Volen Siderov, sent a message to the Bulgarian government that was simple and dangerous: “I am your weapon. Use it”. Ataka have 21 seats in Bulgaria’s 240-seat parliament.
Ellison’s invisible man was just that, but he was also educated, articulate and self-aware. The same is also true of the Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, they have produced some of Europe’s most exciting and exhilarating music.
You need look no further than the new CD Balkan Brass Battle (Asphalt Tango). The record charts a musical duel between Romania’s Fanfare Ciocarlia and Serbia’s Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra. It is a glorious collision of big band jazz and funk – Count Basie meets James Brown.
Gogol Bordello are the gypsy equivalent of the Pogues. Although based in New York (most of their members are from Eastern Europe), the band is a fusion of punk and tango, and traditional Yiddish and Gypsy music.
But just like the jazz and blues legends of the 1930s, Roma and Gypsy artists experience the degrading cancer of racism. Concert halls may not put up posters saying “Whites only” but the invisible signs are there.
Taraf de Haidouks are one of Europe’s most popular Gypsy bands. Back in their homeland of Romania they were described as “ragged Gypsies”. In December 2000 they travelled to Bucharest to record their live album “Band of Gypsies” at one of the city’s biggest concert venues. When the management found out the band were Gypsies they tried to cancel the concert. International pressure forced them to allow the gig to go ahead.
But the racism is not just confined to Eastern Europe. Ten years ago I interviewed Roma singer Vera Bila for a music magazine. Despite performing at the prestigious Barbican concert hall, the hotel she was staying in would only take her booking if she paid her bill in advance, the cab driver refused to take her to the venue and the doorman refused to allow her in. She told me “That’s life on the road.”
The truth is that like the blues and jazz musicians of the 1930s the prophet is never honoured in his own land. As Bila sang that night:
“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.”
“I am black, beautiful and proud”
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