Last week saw a week long free Roma festival - at the Gödör Klub at Deak ter. I have been pretty well submerged in old style transylvanian Gypsy band music this spring, so it was time to get out and listen to some of the newer sounds. I heard that the Serbian Gypsy/World Music band Kal was going to be headlining, so I had to go.Kal is headed by Dragan Ristic, who, with his brother Dushan, lived in Budapest for a couple of years during the Kosovo war years. As Roma, they didn't feel comfortable with the war in Kosovo, and opted to work for the European Roma rights Center in Budapest alongside our friend Claude Cahn. On thursdays the Ristic Brothers used to play typical Serbian/Voivodina kafana music at the now defunct Tutu Tango Bar near the Opera house, and we became good friends. After returning to Serbia, Dragan reformed Kal and today the band is riding the crests of fame on the World music circuit.The new sound of Kal is a long way from the boozy bar songs and Roma standards they used to play. But then, Serbian Roma singer Saban Bajramovic died last week, and that pretty much marks the end of a classic and unique era of Serbian Gypsy pop music. Saban pioneered the fusion of kafana songs in Romani with a mix of modern sounds. He also is the source of most of the tunes Goran Bregovic retooled for use in Emir Kusturica's films. Of course, Bregovic called them "folk songs" and never paid Saban a dinar for the rights. Claude and Dragan visited Saban ten years ago and interviewed him about this, and the article can be found on the site of the Amala Roma Culture Summer camp, a project run by the Ristic brothers and worth noting if you want to spend a few weeks learning music and Roma culture in Serbia during the summer.Claude nailed Saban's influence and Bregovic's conceit: The only problem is that many non-Roma -- especially non-Romani Yugoslavs -- cannot stomach listening to him. In the first place, he sings ballads in a language they can't understand. More importantly, his whole atmosphere is drenched in Gypsiness, and anti-Romani sentiment is presently at high tide in Central and Eastern Europe. With his gold tooth and his Muslim name, he is the epitome of Romani strangeness all over the former Yugoslavia -- a kind of too-familiar false Turkish exoticism. Hence the role for a cultural translator. A talented composer like Bregovic can take Bajramovic's genius for pop melody and render it suitable for non-Romani audiences. And make a lot of money in process. (Note to Dushan: the Amala website is a bit of a mess. Clicking on Claude's article sends you back to the Amala opening page. Readers shoud navigate to the menu and click on Romani Bands, then on Saban Bajramovic, and then choose Claude's article at the top of the page. Exhausting, I know.)Contemporary Roma music is not too hard to find in Budapest - it is a happening scene for a downtown urban culture right now - and I am talking about the newer permutations based on a fusion of traditional and modern Gypsy styles. EtnoRom played at the Siraly a couple of weeks ago. Two of the members were originally with the seminal Hungarian Roma folkore group Kali Yag. Today they have added elements of Romanian manele, Catalan Gypsy rumba, and still manage to stick to firm Vlach Roma roots material from Hungary. A week earlier, Nadara from Romania played the Gödör Klub - this band is a fusion of traditional Transylvanian fiddle music led by French cultural activist Alexandra Beaujard (who also appeared in the Tony Gatlif film Transylvania) and some of the musicians from Szaszcsavas who are well known for their trad material, but can really rip on the modern styles as well.But, fusion is for those that want fusion. I'll stick with the old style stuff. This summer I'll be working at the Other Europeans Project at the Yiddish Summer Weimar Jewish music festival addressing the role of Roma and Jews as historical outsiders in the European musical scene. During the seminar's dance workshop sessions we will be having Florin Kordoban from the Palatka Band as a guest with DNK to teach Transylvanian tsiganesti dance styles and music.The Gödör Klub on a hopping night. The name means "the Ditch" because the club was built in the ditch that would have become the site for the National theater until the FIDESZ party came into power and stopped construction in 1998. The place remained a hole in the ground until years later, when a park was built on the site. The city is constantly threatening to shut the club down. It's a sad fact that nearly every live music venue in Budapest is under constant threat of closure. You would think that a European capital city would be a bit less provincial about public cultural space, but this is Hungary, and every overblown city official wants his palm nicely greased or... we shut you down.
Parting shot: Dragan Ristic in the video to Serbian comedy singer Rambo Amadeus' "Dikh tu Kava" - Romani rap at its best.