Although they have been resident in Germany for over six hundred years, Sinti and Roma are often still regarded as foreign bodies. Yet they have significantly shaped European culture, especially music. The still young internet platform RomArchive wants to change that. With a unique offer of information, audio contributions and videos, it wants to create awareness for the cultural wealth of the Sinti and Roma as well as their great influence on the European nations.
Text: Erik Prochnow
"The widespread assumption that Roma are a travelling people is wrong. "
Even the general suffering of the war does not end their exclusion. "According to reports, the Ukrainian Sinti and Roma who fled were disadvantaged in Slovakia or Hungary, for example in terms of accommodation and food," observed Romani Rose, Chairman of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma at the end of March. Just like the Jews, Europe's largest ethnic minority, with up to twelve million people, has experienced persecution, discrimination and extermination for centuries. But unlike people of Jewish origin, there has been no public outcry to this day. The example of Germany shows how difficult it is for nations to deal with their history. For a long time, the genocide of an estimated five hundred thousand Roma in the Third Reich, known as Porajmos ("the devouring"), was considered a forgotten Holocaust. It was not until 17 March 1982 that the government of the time under Chancellor Helmut Schmidt recognised the crime as genocide. The associated right to compensation, however, has remained an empty promise for many victims to this day. And a memorial planned in 1992 took twenty years to be inaugurated in Berlin. "We still experience stigmatisation, for example when looking for housing or jobs, and athletes and artists from our minority do not openly acknowledge their origins for fear of having their careers cut short," says Rose, who led the delegation at the meeting with Schmidt forty years ago, describing the everyday experience of many Sinti and Roma.
Although both communities have a common ethnic origin, they do not form a single nation. The word pair, which is only used in German, therefore distinguishes geographically between the Sinti, who live in Central, Northern and Western Europe, and the Eastern and Southern European Roma. Researchers assume that both groups migrated to Europe from India and Pakistan about a thousand years ago. However, the widespread assumption that Roma are by nature a travelling people is completely false. They were often forced to do so by economic hardship, displacement or discrimination. In Germany, their presence has been known since the thirteenth century. "What bothers me most is that Sinti are seen as foreign bodies, although they have been resident in Germany for over six hundred years," criticises the musician Dotschy Reinhardt, who is related to the two Sinti jazz legends Django and Schnuckenack Reinhardt and who repeatedly brings the roots of their culture to life in her cross-border jazz.
According to the Central Council, around seventy thousand Sinti and Roma currently live in Germany. Although they have been considered one of the four national minorities worthy of protection in Germany since 1998, along with Danes, Frisians and Sorbs, the path to recognition in everyday life is still long. This is all the more surprising because the Roma have had a decisive influence on the cultural life of Europe, especially music. Works by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and especially Liszt were strongly influenced by the Roma. They created styles such as Sinti jazz, Balkan beats or the unique music of the Vlachs. Flamenco would not even exist without the Gitanos, as the Roma are called in Spain.
"In view of this, it was time to raise our voice not only against antiziganism, but to present the cultural wealth of the Sinti and Roma," says freelance curator and cultural producer Isabel Raabe. Together with her colleague Franziska Sauerbrey, she initiated the project "RomArchive - Digital Archive of the Sinti and Roma" in 2015, which was launched online in 2019. The project, funded with 3.75 million euros by the Federal Cultural Foundation, is now managed by the Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma. "In addition to historical information, the unique archive presents the entire artistic diversity of the Sinti and Roma in visual art, music, dance, theatre, film and literature," is how the Berlin initiator describes it. In addition to detailed background information about the ethnic group, the archive offers in-depth insights into the creative culture of the Sinti and Roma through numerous interviews, videos and audio contributions. Together with Rose and the Berlin curator and artist Moritz Pankok, Raabe published an excerpt of the wealth of information in February in the wonderfully prepared book Widerstand durch Kunst - Sinti und Roma und ihr kulturelles Schaffen.
The decisive factor in setting up the constantly growing information platform was that the Sinti and Roma compile the content themselves. "So far, our group has always been portrayed from the outside and our voice, how we see ourselves and our culture, has not been heard," explains Berlin singer Tayo Awosusi-Onutor, daughter of a German Sintizza and a Nigerian father, who herself is mentioned as an artist in RomArchive. As an Afrosintizza, she was confronted with discrimination from an early age. In her artistic projects as a songwriter, book author and filmmaker, she deals intensively with the perspective of especially young Sinti and Roma on life in Germany. "First and foremost, I want to set a sign against racism and stereotypes," says the 44-year-old activist. The soul, jazz, RnB and gospel musician therefore also attaches great importance to singing in Romani, the language of the Sinti and Roma. Language and music are an essential part of the ethnic group's identification. That is why musical education also plays a big role, especially because it is often the only way to earn money. "We watch our children develop, and when someone plays the guitar well, it is a great joy for us, a little treasure that preserves all the music we carry inside us," says Pedro Peña, one of the most renowned flamenco-gitano-guitarists.
Photos: Bodo Gierga, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0
"What sets us apart is the ability to improvise and let emotions flow."
This love for music and thus authenticity in performance is also the reason why Henry Ernst founded his label Asphalt Tango Records in 1997, specialising in Roma music. His hobby was to record local music with a DAT recorder while travelling. "On one such Romanian tour, while buying diesel on a farm, I happened to be recommended a band called Fanfare Ciocarlia in the neighbouring village," the Leipzig native recalls and continues: "The planned stay there of one hour eventually turned into three months." Ernst made friends with the now legendary Balkan brass band and organised a tour for them through Germany. "Even though the tour was a great success, it only produced debts for me, as I didn't know the trade at all," says Ernst. However, no sooner had the band returned home than he was contacted by WDR, who wanted to hire Fanfare for a world music festival. "In view of my experience, I wanted to talk them out of it as much too expensive, but my fee calculations of 10,000 DM were not an issue for WDR," the 51-year-old still shakes his head in disbelief today. Since then he has not only managed Fanfare Ciocarlia, he has also produced numerous other famous Roma bands from the Balkans such as Mahala Rai Banda or Kal.
Photos: Asphalt Tango Records
The decisive criterion for his selection is authenticity. "But this kind of Balkan music is unfortunately slowly dying out because turbo Balkan folk with its mainstream melodies, superficial lyrics and singing à la Helene Fischer, which is mainly played at weddings, is proving to be much more lucrative," says Ernst. There's simply no one who wants to play the old music any more, and non-Roma can't bring it authentically to the stage. But what exactly characterises the authenticity of Roma music? In its lyrics and in its expression, it is certainly the great melancholy as well as the longing for freedom and recognition. "Especially for the so-called normal people, the music thus offers a fantasy escape from the daily grind," says Czech Petra Gelbart, curator for the music section of the RomArchive and Roma musician. From a musicological point of view, there is no genre that unites the different styles of the Sinti and Roma. Rather, the different styles would have integrated themselves into the cultural musical styles of the respective countries and influenced them significantly. A good example of this is flamenco, into which the Gitanos mainly introduced footwork, finger and arm movements and the twelve-beat rhythm. Or the Chabo language, which was influenced by Romanes and developed in German hip-hop. The RomArchive therefore also portrays the entire range of Roma music from the Balkans to Central and Northern and Western Europe.
Education and enlightenment are crucial - every day."
Hungarian jazz guitarist Ferenc Snétberger, who has been living in Berlin for many years, explains what distinguishes the music of the Roma: "I think that the ability to improvise, making music in the family, self-taught learning of an instrument by ear and observation are a great advantage over those who are first introduced to music through theory. I also see this in our music school, the kids are more relaxed, freer in making music together and more able to let emotions flow in." Landau Sinti jazz guitarist Lulu Weiss recognises the disadvantage that also comes with this: "Because I can't read music, I have to rehearse twice as much." A special feature of his ensemble is that he not only arranges traditional Sinti jazz with violin and clarinet, but now also with saxophone. So it's more the way Sinti and Roma play than a specific style. Gelbart confirms this: "Virtuosity, rhythmic interest, changes of tempo, altered tone levels and more complex harmonics are among the elements that Sinti and Roma often bring to existing music." Add to that their very different orientation when it comes to instruments. "Musically, the guitar is the instrument of the Sinti, Roma tend to play the violin, cymbal or wind instruments," says Snétberger .
The musical landscape of the Sinti and Roma in Europe is as heterogeneous as it is in Germany. From the Roma and Sinti Philharmonic Orchestra, founded by conductor Riccardo Sahiti in 2002, to the world musician Snétberger, who dedicates a suite to his people on his current album, to the Sinti jazz musicians Weiss and Reinhardt or the Karlsruhe rapper Sin2. What unites them all is their commitment against racism and for the great cultural heritage of the Sinti and Roma. "Education and enlightenment are crucial here - every day," affirms singer Tayo. The RomArchive is the best starting point to change the often unconscious prejudices now.
Moritz Pankok, Isabel Raabe, Romani Rose (eds.), Resistance through Art - Sinti and Roma and their Cultural Work (Ch. Links Verlag, 2022)
- Fanfare Ciocarlia, It Wasn't Hard To Love You (Asphalt Tango Records, 2021)
- Dotschy Reinhardt, Chaplin's Secret (Galileo, 2018)
- Ferenc Snétberger, Hallagtó (ECM, 2021)
- Lulu Weiss, Lulu Est De Retour (self-published, 2018)