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The Gypsy Genre

14 May 2009

In rock ‘n’ roll, ‘gypsy’ is gendered female. The mysterious, hypnotic, fetishized Other. Transient, selfish, and above all devious. This peripatetic femme fatale haunts and ensnares the hapless man before he knows what hit him. “Gypsy Eyes,” “Gypsy Road,” “Gypsy Heart,” “Gypsy Queen”: they all sang about her. They all were victims underneath her spell – both figuratively and literally – as this ‘gypsy woman’ was also a symbol for the nomadic lifestyle of a touring musician. The gypsy that causes both pleasure and pain is embodied in that particular breed of female that comes along for the ride and is life on the road. But to back up a bit, the romance all wrapped up in the heavily loaded term gypsy deserves a lot of dissection, particularly when it comes to musical genre.

The etymology of the term gypsy (or gipsy) derives from Egyptian, which is where the Romani people were thought to have originated. The Romani or Roma, (as they self identify), actually dispersed across the Middle East and eventually Europe after leaving Northern India sometime before the 11th Century. The myths surrounding this itinerant group multiplied, and the label gypsy, considered pejorative by some Romani, became the widespread word used to refer to this geographically diverse people. By the end of the 20th Century, the largest concentration of Romani were estimated to live in the Slavic-speaking areas of Central Europe and the Balkans. While there are far more socio-cultural and political intricacies and implications surrounding the Romani all wrapped up in the term gypsy, that’s best read about in someone’s dissertation. For my purposes, I’m interested in how gypsy is continually tossed off to highlight certain aspects and hit home a particular ethos within a band’s music.

It’s easy to find songs sung about a gypsy woman, as mentioned above, but what about bands that classify their music as gypsy? To start, I’d be remiss not to mention the most popular example, GOGOL BORDELLO, whose founder and singer, EUGENE HUTZ, coined the term “gypsy punk cabaret” to describe his Eastern European and klezmer-influenced sound. The band got its start in 2000, joining a disparate group of acts in New York also incorporating music of the Balkans in their own unique ways. Among them is the city’s stalwart ‘gypsy brass’ band, SLAVIC SOUL PARTY!, still playing every Tuesday night at Barbes in Brooklyn to this day. When I spoke with MATT MORAN, vibraphonist and founder of SSP, he had much to say about the term.

“Everyone’s throwing the word gypsy around. To my knowledge, no one in Gogol Bordello, BALKAN BEAT BOX, DEVOTCHKA, BEIRUT, LUMINESCENT ORCHESTRII – no one in any of those bands is gypsy. We’ve been fortunate to play with gypsy musicians, to study with gypsy musicians, and to have gypsy musicians in the band. Always one, sometimes more than one. So I feel it’s not a misnomer to say gypsy when I’m talking about our music, and I feel like it’s a little more dubious for most of these other bands. Then of course, who am I to say? This is a huge question of semantics and aesthetics. Does that mean if you weren’t born in 1920 in New Orleans you can’t call what you play jazz? Of course not. It’s something I think about, but of course I’m very ambivalent about. It has become a huge topic lately. Everyone’s talking about what is gypsy music and who has the right to use it, so I think about it all the time.”

This got me thinking, and with very little effort, other appropriations of gypsy began appearing before me. A few weeks ago at New York’s Japan Society, I picked up a flyer for an event promoting a “Japanese Gypsy rock” band, KAGERO. After moving past the fact that it seemed somewhat of a contradiction in terms, I went to their MySpace. The gypsy part of Kagero’s act seems to be the Eastern European and Middle Eastern tonalities that are infused into their “world music goulash,” as bandleader KAZ FUJIMOTO describes it. Kagero incorporate sounds similar to those made by Romani musicians while simultaneously covering (musical) ground from around the globe, as the Rom people have done as a historically nomadic group.

From a completely different stylistic vein comes the ‘gypsy wave’ genre, named by NYC painter and founder of Wierd Records [sic] PIETER SCHOOLWERTH. In an interview with the TV program Beauty and the East, he discusses ‘gypsy wave’ in terms of the band RELIGIOUS TO DAMN and other, particularly female-fronted groups in the city, including San Francisco transplant, TAMARYN. “We’re calling it the gypsy wave…it’s a group of musicians who have worked in an eastern influence and acoustic music into a tradition of western rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a very nice hybrid and has a psychedelic witchy vibe to it,” he explains. So here, once again, we have this element of hybridity creeping into these ‘gypsy genres’. (Not to mention the explicit genderization of the term in this context.)

The bricolage of influence found in gypsy punk cabaret, gypsy rock and gypsy wave is a large part of the attraction. Speaking of the so-called ‘scene’ that has coalesced around Slavic Soul Party, Gogol Bordello, and others in New York, Moran is heartened by the shared influences, despite dubious uses of the ‘g-word’. “The great thing about those other bands is that they’re taking little elements of things and putting it in a larger context and making their own music. That’s great, that’s awesome. All the musicians love the passion and the balls-to-the-wall aspect of Eastern European music, especially gypsy music. I think that’s the unifying attraction – why we all use elements of this music in what we do. That’s my guess; we’ve never had a conference call about it.”

The most obvious conclusion to be gathered from this cursory look at ‘gypsy’ in genre, is that it is almost invariably a stand in for another more specific term. If you must strip it of its ethnic implications and direct connection with the Rom people, gypsy most often just translates as ‘hybrid’ – East meets West with a splash of the unknown – which surely makes a band’s music seem more magical and radical. “Gypsy is a word that cool sticks to and no one wants to throw it away ‘cause it really sticks good and it’s just too handy. It’s like the superglue of marketing,” Moran jokes. And if you’re still drawn in by it’s mysticism after all this, or at least ambivalent on the issue, then this Friday is your night. A party celebrating the fifth anniversary of New York’s annual Gypsy Festival will be held at Le Poisson Rouge and Slavic Soul Party! is headlining. Experience SSP’s “Balkan soul gypsy funk” with just enough dirty New Orleans to make you scream and get a little closer to the original gypsy sound. Like this loaded term, it will be, if nothing else, remarkably engaging.

For more in-depth reading, be on the lookout for ethnomusicologist Carol Silverman’s book, Gypsy Music in America, to be published by Oxford University Press in February of next year.

See also: The New York Times’ take on the subject in 2002 and 2005, as well as a wealth of articles on the ‘phenomenon’ here.


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