Zuzana Jurková: Worlds of Romani music in contemporary Prague


In today’s Prague one can find a great variety of musical events and recordings labeled as Romani/Gypsy music – from classical music with “Gypsy” themes to romano hip hop. For meaningful understanding and organization of it, the article uses both the basic ethnomusicological model of Alan P. Merriam (1964) and Kay Kaufman Shelemay’s (2006) concept of soundscapes. With their help, four “musical worlds” – soundscapes – are presented: the romantic image that non-Roma have of Roma; Romani coffee house bands; traditional Romani bašaviben, that is, playing for their own entertainment, influenced by popular music; and emerging Romani hip hop. Each of these worlds – however they influence each other – is at the same time internally coherent and thus it is easy to follow the connections among the original purpose of this type of music, the behavior of the musicians and the public, and musical sound.

Worlds of Romani music in contemporary Prague

My main intention is to introduce to you different spheres of today´s Prague, where music is labeled or called or considered Romani/Gypsy. But before doing so, it seems to me necessary to provide a sort of theoretical framing. And – although we often tend to consider theory boring, and even unnecessary – this time, it helps us to see meaningful shapes, or in other words, to better understand the rules of the world.

The first theoretical framework is the very basic theoretical model by Allan P. Merriam (1964) (I am sorry if you are familiar with it.) According to him, the phenomenon of music is not primarily a sound object, but more a culturally conditioned human activity, which can be researched from three points of view, or better, understood as three-leveled. The most apparent analytical level is musical sound. We are usually used to considering it as “music itself.” However it is apparent that musical sound is dependent on a whole row of factors to which it is possible to give the overall term human behavior: the tension of the vocal cords, the vibrata of musicians’ fingers on strings, and this again to the reactions of the audience, not excluding music critics.

However neither is this second layer – human behavior in relation to music – coincidental. On the contrary. It is influenced by the most varied notions, concepts that are connected with music, more closely or more loosely, and can concern e. g. relations of emotions and music, but also concepts about the origin of music (and thus its values and meaning) (= more ancient would be considered better).

Now, let me describe my work and material. After that, I will present another theoretical concept, related to that of Merriam.

As Romani music, I label everything which, in Prague 2008 (I did my research from May to November) was called Romani/Gypsy/Gipsy[i] music (song, dance)[ii]. In other words, I am interested in what Praguers imagine Romani/Gypsy music to be or what they call it. My point of departure was publicly available materials (cultural programs, flyers, Internet ads) announcing live performances. It is surely possible that I was unaware of some performances, but I do not supposed that that happened too often and that the resulting picture is too incomplete.

The other field that interested me was available recordings, in whose title or genre category appeared the word Romani/Gypsy.

So what was performed as Gypsy/Romani music in Prague?

1. Regularly repeated performances.

a) Once a year – the last week in May – the World Romani Khamoro festival takes place in Prague. It is one of the five category A metropolitan festivals, like, e.g., the Prague Spring. Besides seven concerts (the premiere with two Czech groups, three called Gypsy jazz, three concerts of traditional Romani music; in them there were 13 bands from eight countries), there were also there a Music and Minorities international ethnomusicological conference, a Spanish flamenco workshop in the Zambra studio[iii], four exhibitions and two film showings.[iv]

b) Once a week – on Sundays – the popular Lesser Quarter music club Popocafépetl presents so-called Gipsy Nights, during which two rompop bands, Bengas and Gitans,[v] alternate.

c) Also once a week – on Thursdays – in the Zambra dance center in Vinohrady women from 21 to 48 years old meet and eagerly learn “Gypsy dancing.”[vi]

d) Every week from Wednesday to Sunday in the restaurant “U sedmi andělů” in the Old Town there is a trio of Roma who play violin, cimbalom and double bass. Evenings are advertised as Today Live Gipsy music.

2. One-time performances

a) In August the Theater without Balustrades reprised[vii] the musical Gypsies Go to Heaven. To a great extent the performance copies the famous Russian film from 1976 which, besides, can still be bought on DVD. A CD of the performance has been published with the songs of the show. Ida Kelarová is credited in the program as the author of the musical arrangement; her band Romano Rat also accompanies the singers on the CD.


b) As part of the “Prague Autumn” classical music festival there were, on September 20 and 21, three concerts of the Budapest Gypsy Symphony Orchestra, also called A Hundred Gypsy Violins. This orchestra has been part of “Prague Autumn” every year since 2003.[viii]

c) On October 18 the Strašnické Theater premiered a “dance-theater project/social specific theater”[ix] – “Gypsy Suite.” In the performance are heard several songs by the late Romani singer Jan Áču Slepčík; the performance was dedicated to him.

d) On November 8, there took place in the Abaton club in Libeň the autumn part of the Sázava Fest well-known musical festival (the main part of which was held in the summer). As the main performer, the popular Romani rapper Gipsy.cz appeared here with a repertoire from his two latest CDs.

Commonly available musical recordings[x]:

In the category of “Romani music” I found recordings of a favorite Slovak band Diabolské husle, “Devil’s violin of Berky-Mrenica: Gypsy Dance” and “Devil’s violin: Greetings from Slovakia.”

The term “Gypsy” is connected with two performers of Dvořák and Bendl Gypsy songs and Gypsy melodies, a Brno funky band Gulo čar CD entitled Gipsy Goes to Hollywood, altogether seven different recordings of the French Gipsy Kings, the pop band Triny with its Gypsy Streams CD, three CDs of the above-mentioned rapper Gipsy.cz, and also Lagréne Birelli, an exponent of Gypsy jazz.

Labeled as “romano” are the CD Staré slzy, one of the latest CDs of Ida Kelarová and Romano Rat, a mixture of genres and performers of the “Most beautiful Gypsy songs/ Jekhšukareder Romane giľa,” and Gipsy Way, the newest CD of the violinist Pavel Šporcl and Romano stilo.

Besides the above-mentioned categories, but clearly presented as Romani music, are also the two latest recordings of Věra Bílá and her group Kale (who, however, have not played together since 2005), Rovava and C´est comme ça, and also a CD entitled Dža by the Bengas band.


At first glance it seems that the collected materials represent a whole continuum of possible musical approaches to the “Gypsy” topic. Despite this, I will dare to try to sort them out. As its starting point, I will use the contemporary concept of soundscapes of Kay Kaufman Shelemay. The resulting groups show a certain coherence, from the basic concepts, through human behavior and to the resulting musical sound. At the same time, however, it is true that the basic feature of soundscapes, relating to their continual variability, is their mutual influence.

The term soundscape is found in relevant literature with two basic meanings. The first is the musical-ecological, close to the idea and term landscape. The initial concept of its founder, the Canadian composer and theoretician Raymond Murray Schafer, is the perception of sounds (that is, any sounds at all, not necessarily meaningfully organized; meaningful organization is, however, considered to be the basic assumption of music) in a certain place, including their meanings and relations.[xi]

For the organization of data relating to Romani music in Prague, there is, however, another more appropriate concept, the one of the Harvard ethnomusicologist Kay Kaufman Shelemay (2006). She uses the term soundscape in a more abstract and dynamic meaning and compares it to seascape, that is, sea scenery with its unpredictable changeability and multi-dimensionality. In addition she even injects into it the element of change in time, which is lacking in Merriam:

…here we will more often compare a soundscape to a seascape, which provides a more flexible analogy to music´s ability both to stay in place and to move in the world today, to absorb changes in its content and performance styles, and to continue to accrue new layers of meanings. (p. XXXIV).

In the material that I presented I see three soundscapes that have existed for some time and one newly forming (at least in the Czech lands). I label it according to the original performer-listener pair. This pair, however, determined the goal of the music performed – and it formed (besides other things) the basic features of musical language.

Who for whom as key

1. Gadje for gadje about Roma

Magdalena Kožená: Songs My Mother Taught Me

Magdalena Kožená, today undoubtedly the most famous Czech opera and concert singer abroad, chose for her “personal” CD songs by composers from her native land. Near the beginning are three songs from the famous Dvořák cycle Gypsy Melodies, op. 55: “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” “The Strings are Tuned” and “And the Wood is Quiet All Around.”

On the recording can be heard, first, the mournful motif of the piano; then it is repeated and developed by the highly cultivated voice of the famous singer (so unlike untrained or folk singing); she sings of the feelings of a Gypsy mother, song, music and dance, sadness, nature and freedom. It is easy to imagine a live performance during which this beautiful and always perfectly dressed woman leans on a shiny concert grand piano played by a man in a black jacket. The audience in the hall, dressed somewhat less elegantly than the performers, listens quietly; someone has on his lap a program in which he can check the text (which is not always easy to understand). For the majority of the listeners the music undoubtedly evokes some emotions, apart from the fact that the listeners are enthusiastic about the singer’s performance and at the end they applaud enthusiastically.

This soundscape is undoubtedly the oldest of those discussed: Goethe (1749 – 1832) and Pushkin (1799 – 1837) had already written about what Gypsies experienced (more precisely, how non-Gypsies imagine what Gypsies experienced). The image of Gypsies/Roma ideally corresponded to the romantic values of the time: passion, abandon — and frequent professional connection to music, which in the contemporary point of view meant their status as “artists,” strengthened this romantic image even more. It is not surprising that Gypsy literary inspiration appealed so much to the romantic composers Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826) and Mikhail Glinka (1804 – 1857) to begin with – Ravel and Enescu – and in our times ending, e.g., with Sylvie Bodorová (b. 1954). Besides, the famous Russian film Gypsies Go to Heaven (1976), based on the novel/stories, Makar Chudra (1892) by Maxim Gorky and his subsequent innumerable variations are proof of the long-lasting popularity of this romantic myth.

The musical language of this soundscape is initially closely attached to mainstream musical language: not only do Antonín Dvořák in his songs or Giuseppe Verdi in his operas (Troubadour) not use Romani music idioms, but neither does Janáček in his later The Diary of One Who Disappeared (1916) in the singing of the Gypsy girl Zefka deviate from his musical speech. Specific musical language in connection with Roma appears in the music of Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886): exotic intervals or scales with augmented second (since his time in musical theory denoted as “Gypsy major” and “Gypsy minor”) evokes the romantic image of some extraordinary thing, use of rubato rhythm which is not subjugated to regular meter, again free handling with time. Liszt’s relation to the music of the Roma was, however, exceptional, mainly thanks to his connection to Hungarian culture. In it Romani musicians had the exceptional position of bearers and guardians (musically expressed) of the national specificity. Besides this, Liszt could be in relatively close contact with the contemporary expansion of Hungarian “Gypsy bands,” whose style of playing he minutely detailed in the first systematic book about the music of the Roma (Liszt 1859).

Liszt’s influence is important for this soundscape in one more sense: in his welcoming opening with the “foreign.” Through him inspiration of the music of the Roma became more or less strong – from Béla Bartók to the above-mentioned “Gypsies Go to Heaven,” whose folk-like melodies later became folksongs, mainly among Roma.

The essence of this soundscape nevertheless remains emotionally satisfying to listeners more or less accustomed to the idioms of classical music. Therefore, for example, in Gypsy Suite, which is dedicated to the memory of the Romani songster Jan Áču Slepčík, his music and singing are not sufficient: for “real” impression the directors had to supplement it with a romantic solo violin played, moreover, by a Rom in red shoes.


Roma for gadje

One hundred Gypsy violins

Rudolfinum, September 20, 2008 at 4 p.m.

Within the framework of the “Prague Autumn” classical music festival, in the Rudolfinum, the most prestigious concert hall in Prague, three concerts of the Budapest Gypsy Symphonic Orchestra, also called One hundred Gypsy violins[xii] are taking place. As every year, all three are sold out in advance, and this is despite the fact that tickets in the orchestra cost about a thousand crowns.

The audience is extraordinarily varied, starting from parents and grandparents with children, to youths to senior citizens. (There are only a few Roma in the auditorium.)

With a ten-minute delay, which is not too common in classical music concerts, 100 musicians, among them two women – in white shirts, black pants or skirts and red or blue vests – arrive on stage. (Later it will become clear that the blue vests belong to the soloists – besides violinists, there are also one clarinet player and one cimbalom player.) For the second half of the evening the players put on classic black suits. Except for nine clarinets, the orchestra contains only string instruments: six large Hungarian cimbaloms, and mainly violins, violas, cellos and double basses.

On the program there are compositions, the majority of which can be heard in classical music concerts, but most often as encores or as “light” concert numbers: Monti’s Czardas, Sarasate’s Gypsy Melodies [Zigeunerweisen], the Thunder and Lightning polka or The Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss or the Radetsky March by Johann Strauss, Sr., and Khachaturian’s Saber Dance from the ballet Gayaneh.

The second type of compositions are those written by contemporary composers specially for the orchestra (e.g., Gypsy Fire by Zoltán Horwath) which show the specific qualities of the orchestra, mainly their instrumental virtuosity balancing on the edge of performability combined with proverbial (perhaps well feigned) temperament.

Numerous members of the audience – those silent performers (of course not silent when standing for enthusiastic ovations in the Rudolfinum) – confirm the constant attraction of the tradition whose roots are in Hungarian and Slovak restaurants and coffee houses of the 19th century. Still today it is possible to find isolated groups with that original, chamber-like appearance in Prague. The context of the city of the 21st century, however, gives it a rather different character and meaning.

Today Live Gipsy Music at 8 p.m.

Restaurant Seven Angels, Old Town

November 22, 2008

If you type “Live Gypsy music in Prague” into Google, they will not offer you on the top line the Web page of the Romani festival Khamoro or some popular Romani group, but “Prague’s Best Restaurants”[xiii]. Among these fourteen restaurants, undoubtedly aimed primarily at foreign clientele, twelve of them offer “live music.” My personal research, however, revealed that “live Gypsy music” (in any shape) is not offered by any of them. On the Internet advertisement for “Prague’s Best Restaurants” the offer of live Gypsy music is clearly part of their image.

“Live Gypsy Music,” however, is surely possible to track down in Prague. It is announced on a board (in English) on the door of the Seven Angels restaurant, which is in the most historic center of Prague, only a few yards from Old Town Square. It is hard to imagine a place with a greater concentration of foreign tourists – and obviously the announcement is meant for them. The main room to the right of the entrance is evidently supposed to impress you in two ways: its antiquity (above the entrance the date 1392 is emphasized, patinated painting, the whole place with historic [or historicized] furnishings; and luxury (most of the little tables only for two – however, closely lined up so that the impression of séparé is hardly convincing; large, richly decorated mirrors reflect the flames of candles; in comparison to the little tables, strikingly large wine glasses…). To this correspond relatively high prices for average food and mainly for drinks.

Among the guests, we are the only Czechs. Couples in ordinary clothing prevail; a group of youths are dining at the larger table. In a little alcove of the main room, at the entrance to the cloakroom, there are three musicians in dark suits and white shirts: a cimbalom player at a large Hungarian pedal instrument; behind him a bass player; in front – nearest the guests – a violinist. He also reacts to the (sparse and lukewarm) reactions of the guests. During one of the breaks I learn in an interview with the musicians that they are brothers from a musical family from the Slovak-Hungarian border.

Their repertoire is very similar to the repertoire of the Budapest Gypsy Symphony Orchestra. The Radetsky March, the Blue Danube waltz, a melody from Carmen, and even among Gypsy bands of this type the popular Jewish Hava nagiľa... and, besides all this, jazz compositions and Suk’s Song of Love.

The soundscape around Gypsy coffee-house cimbalom bands (which sometimes play with a clarinet or its metal cousin – the tárogato as another melodic instrument) has a rather different character from the former one. The music in it is not art that communicates emotion, but a craft – a craft serving to give the guests of the coffee houses or restaurants a good time. For this purpose is connected an auditorily undemanding repertoire. Listeners value Romani musicians for their perfect technique and then the mastery of their craft (even if an adequate dose of emotion, mediated by Roma as their romanticized incarnation, is also expected). The Romani community traditionally valued its coffee-house musicians for their ability to earn a relatively high financial reward.

In Prague at the beginning of the 21st century, this soundscape takes various shapes. Listeners to symphonic music are satisfied with a less demanding repertoire. The violin virtuoso and showman Pavel Šporcl spices up his performances (and discographies) with something unusual, that is, playing along with a real “Gypsy cimbalom band”[xiv]; their repertoire is easy to predict: Monti, Sarasate, Khachaturian, Strauss… And it also accommodates tourists looking in Prague for “genuine, old-fashioned atmosphere” with which perhaps in their imaginations the Austro-Hungarian coffee-house band can distantly correspond.


Roma (not only) for themselves: rompop[xv]

Gipsy Nights: Bengas

Popocafépetl Club

October 26, 2009 at 8 pm

Popocafépetl in the Lesser Quarter belongs to a couple of Prague musical clubs which have regular music programs: on Mondays, Havana Nights; on Fridays and Saturdays, Friday/Saturday Dance Fever; and on Sundays, Gipsy Nights. On these nights two rompop bands — Gitans and (the better known) Bengas alternate..

The club occupies the whole basement of an old house on the main Lesser Quarter street, right next to an elegant Thai restaurant. But, despite its attractive location, its interior resembles many of the usual music clubs: unplastered stone walls, bare wooden tables with the club logo. The main room with a bar (where prices are surprisingly low) and only a hint of a stage at the shorter wall; in an alcove, the mixer. The next room is acoustically connected to the main room. On the other side of the staircase, where the music sounds much weaker, there are two quieter, today almost empty rooms, marked as a “wine cellar.”

A half hour before the beginning the main room is completely full. Most of the audience are young people between 20 and 25 years old, often in hip hop sweatshirts with hoods, but also in shiny disco tops. In addition to Czech, you can hear English and French (the club is a frequent destination of foreign students who are in Prague on an Erasmus exchange program). Shortly before the announced beginning two groups of Roma arrive and clamor to be seated in front of the stage.

Bengas[xvi] (Devils) are playing this time with three guitars, one bass guitar, a keyboard and three different sets of percussion instruments. Although the group acknowledge various sources of inspiration, their musical language is relatively homogeneous: a dense fabric of guitar sound; above it solo masculine singing in Romani, the refrains alternating with parallel part singing. There are short instrumental introductions and interludes, in which there may be virtuoso playing. Lucid phrasing, no great dynamic or tempo changes. The musical style of the group is undoubtedly influenced by the Gipsy Kings, with whom Bengas played in 2004 during their Prague concert.

After 8 pm not only are all the places taken (including a few newly brought in tables and room at the bar), but people are also standing between the tables. During the music they sway to the rhythm. After each composition they applaud or whistle favorably. Today Bengas are clearly the most popular group playing rompop. This term[xvii] originated in the 70s and refers to a fusion of traditional music that Roma played and sang for themselves with elements of contemporary western popular music, specifically pop music. In the broad stream of rompop two main styles loom large. The first of them, reminiscent of the musical expression of ethno-emancipating attitudes, consciously linked to their own local tradition and combining its special characteristic musical elements with elements of international pop music (mainly in the field of instrumental accompaniment, but also rhythm and its realization…). Pioneers of this style, sometimes labeled as ethnic mainstream[xviii] in Central Europe are the Hungarian Kalyi Jag.

Much more popular both among the majority public and, chiefly, among Roma is the style that consciously does not use (at least to such a striking degree) local music idiom, but often lets itself be inspired by other patterns, first and foremost, the enormously popular Spanish Gipsy Kings. In the Romani environment this style – both as recorded music and as music actively performed – has the classic function of bašaviben, played and sung for their own entertainment, accompanying social gatherings, often connected to dance. In the past two decades, however, rompop has also often been discovered in the non-Romani environment: at concerts of world music, in “classical” music clubs such as Popocafépetl, Roxy, etc., but also at high-level events.[xix] The spectrum of bands that have turned to it is very broad. One thing that is notable, however, is that if we compare the social background of the groups with their musical language, we come to a remarkable correlation. On one hand there are groups that formed as amateur, generally on a family basis. They played first of all only for themselves and their closest surroundings, and from this local level gradually rose, perhaps even to the international scene. They play mainly their own compositions, and their own musical language – although the musicians acknowledge various influences – has features similar to those described above: a dominating distinctive melody, a “thick” and energetic accompaniment and perfectly “well crafted” mastered part singing, which is mainly made up of parallel melodic lines. This can be reminiscent of the sound realization of what Steward (2005) calls the timeless brotherhood of Roma. The first and most striking representative of this genre in our country is the musical style of Věra Bílá[xx] and her accompanying group Kale (Blacks)[xxi] as well as of the East Bohemian Točkolotoč and Terne Čhave (Young Boys)[xxii], and the Prague Bengas.

A different type are the groups that arose, as it were, from the outside with dramaturgical or commercial intentions. Their members do not have any links other than musical ones, and musical products (that is, not entertainment realized through music as with the preceding groups) are their raison d’ être. This very different musical concept is – unsurprisingly – reflected in their musical language, which is much more artistic, with complex sequences of playing with timbre, etc. The different point of departure is also clear in the composition of the repertoire, which contains mostly old Romani songs. In this category are both Ida Kellarová and her projects and mainly the group Triny (Three)[xxiii], behind whose rise stands the experienced producer Ivan Král.

The rompop soundscape confirms to the attentive listener the realization that the basic concept, or WHAT music represents for the musicians, is straightforwardly and clearly reflected in HOW the music finally sounds – without regard to a uniform label.

4. Romano hip hop

Get a Taste of Europe: performance of the group Gipsy.cz

Wenceslas Square, March 6, 2009

One of the events accompanying the Czech presidency of the European Union was the three-day “Festival of European Regions” Get a Taste of Europe, March 5-7, 2009. It took place at the so-called Golden Cross, that is, the place where the main communication arteries meet: Wenceslas Square and Příkopy. On a small stage on Příkopy you could see and hear folk music groups; a large stage on the lower part of Wenceslas Square was occupied by various genres of popular music.

While the preceding band, the Greek hip hoppers, did not attract the interest of many Praguers or tourists, several hundred people gathered in front of the stage for the group Gipsy.cz: not only homeless people (some of whom a bit drunk) and not only tourists: mainly Czechs, mostly young. A couple of dozen Roma.

Into the effective colorful lighting first come the black-clothed Surmaj brothers (a guitarist and an electric double-bass player), the violinist Vojta “Béla” Lavička, and finally – with the enthusiastic applause and whistling of the audience – the slight Radek Banga – “Gipsy” in a typical hip hop outfit: a jacket with a hood trimmed with fur, a cap and wide pants. During his arrival you could hear the refrain of his first song – Romano hip hop.

It has a striking and memorable melody with only a few words (“Romano hip hop in the house, šunen savore, Gipsy.cz in the house); the musicians interpolate the words with rhythmic syllables (hop, hop, chit, chip) in off-beat, as is frequent in the traditional music of Vlach Roma and in the music of contemporary groups, e.g., Hungarian Kalyi Jag. The showy passages of the violin copy the melody; they are also sometimes heard in the interlude.

The refrain alternates with rapping, that is, quickly recited passages to the rhythm of musical accompaniment. “Come in the rhythm, whether you are a Rom or not. Dance savore! Piki piki piki piki piki pom! I want all to know that I am a Rom. That my band is Romani, dark, that it plays blackly. So come, chip hop, come with us, we don’t care if you are a gadjo. But nobody is perfect, you f… idiot, it is all about romano hip hop.” The second stanza is in Romani; he concludes again in Czech. Gipsy dominates not only in singing (in the refrains other musicians join in), but the whole stage: he moves easily, comments on songs and verbally and non-verbally communicates with the audience. Soon the first listeners begin to move to the rhythm, clap and join in the singing of the refrain…

Most of the songs from the latest CDs (Romano hip hop and Reprezent) have a similar character: they combine rapping with distinctive, but not trivial, melodies in the refrain or accompaniment, their texts (generally less playful but more aggressive than in Romano hip hop) alternate languages: Czech preponderates; after it their “Romani” is represented (which Romani scholars call the specific language of Gipsy.cz) and then somewhat oddly pronounced English.

The fact that Gipsy.cz was chosen to be the Czech representatives is not especially surprising: in the previous year the Czech minister for human rights named Gipsy ambassador of the European Union’s European Year of Equal Opportunities and shortly after the Get a Taste of Europe festival Czech television made public the fact that it chose the group (in contrast with the usual approach whereby the national representative is voted by television viewers) to represent the Czech Republic in the international Eurovision Song Contest. It seems as if Gipsy.cz and mainly Radek Banga, were chosen from the outside to be the representatives of the Romani community. They are popular enough among the majority (although sometimes their song texts are criticized) and at the same time they can seem to be a suitable example for young Roma to follow.

There is no doubt that the picture of the “good Rom everyone praises”[xxiv] comes primarily from the love for Gipsy’s musical style. From this point of view, the non-standard approach of Czech television was quite legitimate: none of the regularly chosen representatives of the previous years had advanced even to the semifinals. On the contrary, the official esteem of the CD Romano hip hop[xxv], along with a great number of votes for Gipsy in the national European round in the past years, enabled Czech TV to presume that this original and popular group would be successful. The fact that they finally were not any more successful than their predecessors in no way lessened the popularity of their style, which, however, has only little in common with hip hop.

Gipsy (this pseudonym has been used since their musical beginnings by the Kalo rikonos group) began, however, as a genuine hip hopper, more precisely a rapper (see below) in the group Syndrom Snopp. He recorded three CDs[xxvi] with them ( Syndrom Snopp – 1997, Syndrom separace – 2001 and Syndrom Snopp 3.0 – 2003). They have the same basic features as the original hip hop of Afro-American ghettos of the 70s. His point of view was strong social and racial frustration for the expression of which aggressive recitation is more suitable than song (called rap – radical anarchistic poetry) to the rhythm of usually recorded music. This musical background arises most often with mixed music on a turntable, which is, along with breakdance and grafitti, a moving and graphic element, considered the main components of hip hop. Somewhat later beatbox, recorded rhythmic oral sounds, appeared.

At the time of authentic hip hop, however, in Gipsy’s music the tendency already appeared that it is possible to ascribe both to his extraordinary ambition (also expressed verbally – both in song texts,[xxvii] and in interviews[xxviii]) as well as to the long-past tendency of Romani musicians to manage easily with stylized and genre borders. In 1999 – that is, between two hip hop CDs – he recorded with the prestigious publishing firm BMG the CD Ramonis, characterized as a “soul pop hip hop disk with a gentle breath of jazz.”[xxix]. In 2005[xxx] he then recorded in the style of R ’n’ B the album Rýmy a blues (besides: with extraordinarily vulgar texts, which is typical of rap rather than of R ’n’ B). After them follow the two popular CDs mentioned earlier: Romano hip hop and Reprezent.

It was actually these – with their gentle criticism and acceptable originality – that earned Gipsy such popularity.[xxxi] At the same time, however, there was a void among authentic hip hoppers.

Still, that tempting question remains: Is the image of the social situation of the Czech Romani and the Afro-American ghetto reflected in similar musical expression? A positive response seems obvious in so far as some authors simply consider it as a given.[xxxii] The reality, though, is different. In contrast with Slovakia, where the hip hop scene is dominated by the recognized Romani rapper Rytmus with the group Kontrafakt, in the Czech lands there is nobody similar. Nor in various types of contests or workshops has any outstanding Romani rapper talent[xxxiii] appeared – and those who do rap do it mainly in Czech.

At the same time one cannot disregard the large number of Romani children and young people (mainly boys) who have taken up breakdancing and beatbox. When I once asked a certain breakdancer from Rokycany how often he practiced, he answered: “We practice all the time – in school and afterwards, too.” Field workers confirm the omnipresence of both hip hop elements and, actually, they are from the socially most difficult places. It seems, so to speak, that a certain part of the hip hop soundscape of the American ghettos has found resonance in a similar environment in our country and fulfills a similar task, while its rap element has successfully joined the broad stream of popular music.


As is clear at first glance and hearing, the term “Romani music” can be found in today’s Prague in the most varied (and sound) forms and in the most varied environments. For the most part it is imbued with those mythical qualities which are attributed to it – and to the Roma in general – by romanticism: from emotionality to passion, individuality or love of freedom, and also the basic connection of Roma to music. At the same time, however, as is also confirmed by ethomusicological research in other urban environments (REYES 1982) this label does not correspond to a clear-cut genre definition. The configurations of various shapes of the above-mentioned qualities, and also of the expectations of the public, create various musical images — soundscapes.

But it is basic that all – musicians and audience – and also those who are in other ways connected to the rise and existence of these images, for instance the restaurateurs of “U 7 andělů” – are right with their concept. The phenomenon of Gypsy/Romani music is thus unseparably interwoven in our nets of relations and consequences to which Clifford Geertz compares culture.


Baumann, Max Peter. 1996. “The Reflection of the Roma in European Art Music.” The World of Music: Music of the Roma 1:95 – 138.

Dočkal, Tomáš. 2007. “Romská hudba: Romové a hip-hopová kultura.” Diplomová práce, Husitská teologická fakulta UK.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

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Věra Bílá + Kale: Rovava. BMG 2001.

Věra Bílá + Kale: C´est comme ca. BMG 2005.

Cikáni jdou do nebe. Divadlo Bez zábradlí 2004.

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Nejkrásnější cikánské písničky. BMS 2007.

Pavel Šporcl + Romano Stilo: Gipsy Way. Supraphon 2008.

Triny: Gipsy Streams. Supraphon 2001.

[i] In Czech I looked for the word cikánský/romský.

[ii] In this text I am not going into an analysis of the use of the expressions “Gypsy/Romani”; I am convinced, however, that this is a promising research field.

[iii] We will also discuss the Zambra studio in connection with Gypsy dance courses; flamenco courses are not usually advertised in connection with Romani/Gypsy music.

[iv] For details, viz www.khamoro.cz.

[v] For details, viz www. popocafepetl.cz.

[vi] I have details about the Gypsy dance course at Zambra from my student Pavlina Holcová, who not only goes dancing there, but is also carrying out research about Gypsy dance for her bachelor’s thesis.

[vii] The premiere took place on April 15, 2004.

[viii] After the first concert there appeared in Romano Džaniben an interview with the band leader and first violinist, Sándor Rigó-Buffó, viz Romano Džaniben, jevend 2003, pp. 208 – 211.

[ix] Quoted from the invitation: To the question of what it means, the authors of the production explained that it is a theatrical work which strikingly reflects a social theme, here the Romani question (from the historiographic and comparative perspective)”

[x] I looked for recordings that would fulfill two requirements: 1) they can be bought immediately in physical form 2) they can be bought at non-specialized CD shops.

[xi] For details, including contemporary literature, viz Griger 2007.

[xii] The orchestra, founded in 1985, was originally called the “100-strong Budapest Gypsy Orchestra”.

[xiii] www.pragueexperience.com/restaurants/highlights/restaurants_live_music.asp (12.6. 2009).

[xiv] Viz booklet CD Pavel Šporcl + Romano Stilo

[xv] I have already devoted a separate in-depth article to rompop — Jurková 2008.

[xvi] Viz www.bengas.net

[xvii] Katalin Kovalcsik (2003) uses synonymously Roma pop.

[xviii] HEMETEK 1998. Kovalcsik (2003) labels it ethnic music culture (s. 92 n.)

[xix] In the year 1990, e.g., the rompop group Točkolotoč played at the benefit concertSOS Racism,” organized by President Havel and at which Paul Simon performed; in the summer of 2006 Terne čhave performed at a garden concert organized by the Senate of the Czech Republic.

[xx] http://romani.uni-graz.at/rombase/ > personalities > Bílá, Věra; official Web page: www.verabila.com.

[xxi] In the year 2005, however, Věra Bílá and Kale separated and today they sing alone.

[xxii] www.ternechave.net

[xxiii] www.triny.cz

[xxiv] Title of an article by Karel Veselý in  A2 27/2008:13.

[xxv] The CD was awarded the Golden Disc for the sale of 10,000 copies.

[xxvi] For suggestions relating to Gipsy, mainly his time with Syndrom Snopp, I am grateful to my student Tomáš Dočkal – viz Dočkal 2007.

[xxvii]For example, in the song I can “In Prague and almost in all Bohemia I proved to many ones
that I can be same and even better than millions!” CD Ya favourite CD Rom. Besides, this album, sung entirely in English, has the obvious ambition of penetrating further than only Czech listeners.

[xxviii]From them all, one recent example: “Do not categorize me anywhere; I did not lower myself… in short an entirely new species in evolution.” Lidové noviny 6.12.2009.

[xxx] The date is not mentioned on the CD; I took it from Dočkal. It is also confirmed in an Internet review of the same year.

[xxxi] It seems to me significant, besides, that on www.gipsy.cz (7.13.2009) none of their preceding CDs is even mentioned.

[xxxii] Radostný more naively formulates it in an exemplary way (2008).

[xxxiii] Viz e.g., the Brno contest Street Sounds (www.street-sounds.cz) or the workshops mentioned above by Dočkal in Ústí nad Labem (Dočkal 2007:83 – 84).

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