Monday 7 November 2011


Below are two haikus I wrote in Romanes. These were written as rewards for people who helped fund my trip to Serbia. I still have one accordion-gram, 2 house concerts and 11 commissioned songs to write. As a note to self regarding my work habits, I am much better at completing tasks in a timely manner before I get paid.

Purane prne
achen te adzhukaren
jekh phabray perel

Old legs
sit and wait
one apple falls 

Tumen bashalen
putarav mure jakha
amen dzivdinas

You play
I open my eyes
we are alive 

Serbia via Queens

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting accordionist Peter Stan at his home in Queens, NY to catch up and share some of the music I had learned in Serbia this summer. Peter is a extremely accomplished musician in Serbian, Romanian and Romani styles. A series of lessons I had with him last year were formative in my understanding of the importance of ornaments and feel in this music.

Last spring, Peter introduced me to the music of the two current superstars of Serbian Romani accordion, Aca Cergar and Dejan Kostic. There are dozens of videos on youtube of these two duking it out under wedding tents, ripping unbelievable lines in rapid-fire to an exhausted bride and groom. I was fortunate to see both of these accordionists play together at a wedding in Grabovica. Unfortunately I left the wedding around 1am, long before the action really got hot, but even in the early hours of the celebration I knew I was in the presence of overlords.

Peter plays with Slavic Soul Party, Brooklyn's premier Balkan-plus brass band, as well as several other musicians in New York's Balkan and Eastern European music scene. Despite the recent frenzy for Balkan brass bands in New York and beyond, Peter described a general decline in interest in the music he plays. Where weddings and kafana sessions were once the norm, now only a few bars feature live music, and if they do it is usually comes in the electrified form of Manela or Turbo-folk.

In any case, Peter is an accordion virtuoso with a deep knowledge of several Balkan styles, and is an extremely innovative player. He knew all of the music I learned in Valjevo and for a while I felt like I had been transported back to Serbia by way of the L train.

Here Peter is showing me a Romanian tune that can be combined with another one he taught me last year. You can hear me playing a super slow version of it here.

Whatever New York's level of interest in Balkan music may be, shortly after my visit Peter's music was featured on Google's front page as the soundtrack to a giant pumpkin carving video. In an era in which one's degree of recognition is measured by view-counts, I think this puts Peter and his music pretty high up there, and for good reason.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Our School / Scoala Noastra

A few weeks ago I was invited to play accordion at the Camden International Film Festival here in Maine. The festival focuses exclusively on documentary, and this year there were several amazing films. As a musical prelude, I played my normal repertoire for all of the films, weather they were about returning Iraq war veterans, Fly fishing, or skate punks. On Friday afternoon I was happy to play before a film that was directly relevant to the music I was playing - Our School.

Our School, produced and directed by Mona Nicoară, follows three Roma children through the process of integrating Roma and non-Roma schools in the Transylvanian town of Targu Lapus, Romania. Thirty towns in Romania were given funds to integrate schools, and the production team chose Targu Lapus as the most likely to succeed. Integration was a resounding failure, and the Roma children who stayed in school were transferred into schools for the mentally disabled at the end of the 'integration' period. While similar stories have been repeated over and over across Eastern Europe, but perhaps most severely in Romania, the film poignantly shows how school administrators, teachers, and officials talk about racist policies that we most often hear about in headlines.

The filmmaker, Mona Nicoara, is a Romanian human rights activist who made the film, admittedly, from an advocate's perspective and with the optimistic assumption that the integration program was going to succeed. I spoke with her after the film screening about her experiences working in and outside of Romania.

One major difference of opinion between Mona and some of the Roma I met in Serbia is that Mona believes that the benefits of Roma integration outweighs its pitfalls. While acknowledging the difference between integration and assimilation, her position is that the fact that Roma have lived side by side with Gadje (non-Roma) for millenia is proof that their identity will remain intact regardless of changing circumstances. Even loss of language, what I would consider a strong indicator of the death of cultural identity, is something that she believes Roma will be able to overcome. In Mona's view, any theory, accepted truth, or prediction by anthropologists and social theorists, Roma buck.

One point of view she shared with my friends in Serbia - the European Commission's 'Decade of Roma Inclusion' is a conduit for recycling funds that leave Roma, quite literally, in the dust. Funds (which are substantial) for this initiative are explicitly structural. That is, they are distributed exclusively to NGOs who will reinforce government programs, in turn strengthening national objectives to assimilate or relocate Roma. A strange time we live in, when the name betrays the nature, a la Clear skies Initiative and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Citizen beware.

Our School closes with one of Gogol Bordello's most apt refrains, 'You love our music but you hate our guts.' The film has garnered much-deserved international acclaim, and perhaps more importantly, has received a lot of attention in Romania. Will this affect any positive change for Roma? Who knows. In speaking with Mona, she told me how the school system and the non-Roma Romanian families had no problem with the film crew focusing on the Roma kids. Perhaps in part, because the presence of the film crew underscored how they were exotic and out of place in a formal school setting. In any case, a candid portrayal of the situation did not threaten Romanian families or school administrators who blatantly and systematically filtered Romani children out of the educational system, and thereby society at large.

Monday 10 October 2011

Goodbye Serbia, Hello world

It's been a slow time for updates but a busy time in life since I returned to the US from Serbia in late August. I have a number of posts that I have been meaning to catch up on, and hope to get the ball rolling again in the coming weeks.

Although I started this blog as a way to share my experiences studying Romani music in Serbia, I have been pleasantly surprised how much I have been able to continue my independent, low-budget, non-academic, highly anecdotal and personally thrilling research since I returned stateside. Highlights include hanging out with some amazing people over the past month - two Roma rights activists, a Romani dancer from Kosovo, a filmmaker from Romania, and an amazing Romanian/Serbian Rom accordionist living in Queens, NY.

So, while gears have shifted from Eastern Europe to the East Coast of the US, I'm planning to continue to write about my encounters with Romani music and issues as they warrant interest. In part to ease my pangs of Serbian nostalgia, but also as a way of widening scope beyond my own experiences from this summer in Valjevo, I'm hoping to use this blog as a way of gathering, filtering, and relaying topics that I, and hopefully you, will find interesting.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Food, Hrana, Xabe

Next to music, food has been the most time consuming and interesting aspect of my time in Serbia. When you can't participate in conversation at the kitchen table, understand the news, or read the newspaper, food takes on a heightened importance as one of the best ways to make sense of where you are. Call it coincidence or etymological fate, but the commands 'eat, drink!' in Romanes is
'ha, pi!'  Happily, indeed.

In the month I've been in Valjevo, I have only eaten out twice. The rest of my meals have been prepared by my gracious hosts, so I'm pretty sure that my food-based judgments have some basis in reality. Going through my catalog of pictures over the past month I also realized that I did not take any photos of the foods that are the real staples here. I think I have eaten more tomatoes in the past 30 days than I have in my entire life up to this point. Fresh hot peppers garnish the table at EVERY meal. The ceramic salt tray even has a hole in which the pepper rests when it is not being ripped into. Canola or sunflower oil is a given.

So without further ado, some of my ingestive highs and lows over the past month.

Burek, I hate to love you. Made with a variety of fillings - meat, cheese, spinach, mushrooms, Burek hides its guts in an inflated swirl of filo dough. Often topped with sesame seeds and always heavy with oil saturation, most of the burek I have had here is golden brown on top and black on the bottom. 

Watermelon, aka Lubenica, is plentiful and cheap. Plentiful as in pick-up beds overflowing with them. Cheap as in 18 dinars per kilo - about 11 US cents per pound.

This is bread porridge, one of my arch-rivals of Serbian cuisine. It tastes, not surprisingly, like buttered bread. Unfortunately it has the texture of buttered bread that has already been fully chewed. When served piping hot it is glutenous and sticky. When it cools it could be used as grout. In the picture above it is combined with Kajmak, a very salty cheese-like substance of Turkish origin.

I was told several times that this stuff is good for stomach problems, such as hangovers or surgery. If you can get it past your mouth, maybe it's true.

My absolute favorite in Serbia, apple burek, made with apples from our front yard. Note the salt dish with the pepper-holding hole (no pepper pictured here). On the other side of the dish were black pepper would reside in the US, in Serbia there is more salt. Yin and Yin.

Fresh fruit from the front yard. Pears, apples, grapes, walnuts, raspberries, and plums, the mother of Serbian booze. Both Slivovitz and Rakiya are made distilled from plum wine, and home stills are common. The best one I had was sweet and warming, from an old guy Dusan knows. The worst one I had reminded me of the smell of model airplane glue.

For reasons I cannot understand, at all, 90 percent of the fruit here is left to rot on the ground. From what I can tell, canning, preserves, juicing, or fruit salad, is unheard of. Every day the grandmother here rounds up the apples that fell from the tree, puts them in a plastic bag, and places it in the trash.

Oink oink, we'll be pigs. I'm happy I'm not a vegetarian trying to find food in Serbia. Perhaps even more difficult than that is trying to eat Kosher, a concept which seems to be utterly untranslatable here for another American in the house.

A general store in a nearby Romani village. First time I've ever seen a balance in action.

Shopska Salad, tomatoes, cukes and salty cheese.

Two other unique dishes I did not get pictures of are Burania, a soup made from long, bisected bean pods, and Skanja (?) a hair-like byproduct of lard rendering. Tastes as delicious as it sounds.

And, I also must mention the joy of fresh sugary donuts with turkish coffee. No two are the same shape, all are delicious.

Friday 19 August 2011

Play buddy

Rasha is a violinist from Grabovica I have met with a few times over the past week. I feel like I'm getting the better end of the deal playing with him, but it's affirming to have someone of his experience to want to take the time to get together to play music together. He said that if I stuck around I could start playing weddings. In my suave Serbian I responded, "hochu!"
 - I want!

I've learned about a dozen new songs and dance tunes over the past few weeks, so our session last night went on for quite a bit longer than the last one. Here is a Kolo that I learned the first two parts of last night. I love how rhythmic and smooth his playing is.


Why do we care about singers?

After slogging my way through a few hundred pages of peasant uprisings and beheadings in my brick of a book The Balkans, I very happily came across an (English!) copy of The Ground Beneath Her Feet in a pile of Serbian art history books. Salman Rushdie is one of my all-time favorite authors, and I have been wanting to read this book for a long time. Coming up on my last few days in Serbia, this passage struck a bell in my head that has not stopped ringing.

Why do we care about singers? Wherein lies the power of songs? Maybe it derives from the sheer strangeness of there being singing in the world. The note, the scale, the chord; melodies, harmonies, arrangements; symphonies, ragas, Chinese operas, jazz, the blues: that such things should exist, that we should have discovered the magical intervals and distances that yield the poor cluster of notes, all within the span of a human hand, from which we can build our cathedrals of sound, is as alchemical a mystery as mathematics, or wine, or love. Maybe the birds taught us. Maybe not. Maybe we are creatures in search of exaltation. We don't have much of it. Our lives are not what we deserve; they are, let us agree, in many painful ways deficient. Song turns them into something else. Song shows us a world that is worthy of our yearning, it shows us our selves as they might be, if we were worthy of the world.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Tamburica takeover

One of the highlights of last week was when a tamburica band from Vojvodina, northern Serbia showed up for an evening of music making. As was the case with the brass band I wrote about in an earlier post, these got out of the van, tuned, and started playing. They stopped playing about five hours later, with no break or signs of slowing down.

To my amazement, this band has no name. They all come from the same town, and as it was to explained to me, they are a subgroup of a few dozen musicians there who all share the same repertoire. This particular formation is one variation that might include all, some, or none of them tomorrow or the next day.

This is a pretty radical concept when compared to the culture of music making in the US that pushes brand identity before content. These guys are veteran musicians who fucking rock, and they don't have a name for their band.

They played their guts out. The videos don't do justice to the music or the vibe but they are a nice token from one my favorite musical evenings ever.

Monday 15 August 2011

Guča trumpet festival

After three weeks of debating whether or not I would go to the Guca festival, the stars aligned and I got to see for myself the madness in all of its beer-soaked glory. For those of you who do not  know, the Guca trumpet festival is the largest music festival in Serbia, and one of the largest in Europe. During one week, one million people descend on what is otherwise a sleepy village in central Serbia to get drunk and be blown at by horns.

While this sounds like a grand time in principle, Guca has been criticized in recent years for a turn towards corporate showcasing and away from music. Which is not to say that music is not abundant. 10-piece brass bands play at full volume a few feet away from each other, separated only by a gaggle of hippie-dancing festival goers sporting newly purchased pink afros and green army caps. Brass bands are fundamentally the work of Roma in Southern Serbia, and nearly all of them are at the festival - if they are not competing they are working for tips under restaurant tents or in the streets.

One of the students at the Amala school was offered a set on the stage through the Australian embassy, so I got to tag along and hang out back stage at the cultural house.

One of the highlights of the festival was seeing some of the dances up close. Unlike in some of its neighboring countries, Serbian folk dancing is more performative than social. After spending the past few weeks working on the feel and ornaments of this music on the accordion, it was great to see similar gestures happening in feet. I came really close to buying a pair of these leather elfy dancing shoes, I'm regretting already.

Not much else to say about Guca, except that I could not help but notice a lack of acknowledgement of any Romani contribution to the festival, despite the fact that Guca exists only because it can draw from a longstanding tradition of Romani brass music in the area. The brass bands playing at Guca are function bands, gigging throughout the year at weddings and celebrations. Nevertheless, Guca is presented as being all about trumpet, not so much the people who play them. Trumpets are pretty boring if you don't have bad-ass musicians behind them.

A perk of traveling with the band is that I got a free meal ticket. This is the vegetarian option. Yes, that is beef floating in oil.

Sunday 14 August 2011

A musical dynasty

The other day I met Ljuba's nephew, Stefan. He is eight years old, speaks perfect German, and plays violin more expressively than many of the musicians I heard when I worked for the Portland Symphony. When I asked him how he learned how to play violin he told me that he starts playing when he wakes up and stops playing around midnight.

It also can't hurt being the son of the best Romani violinist in Serbia, Ljuba's "real" brother Misha. A short side note - real brothers are precisely that - someone who shares parents with you. In the leafy family trees of Grabovica, extended family members are often assigned the title of brother, sister, or cousin. The prefix "real" says, 'yes, he's my brother, but he's REALLY my brother.'

And Ljuba's real brother really is the best violinist in Serbia. There is an ongoing debate here with the power of interrupting meals: who is the best accordionist - Aca Cergar or Dejan Kostic. Not so in the violin world, as Misha is unrivaled as king of the fiddle. I was lucky enough to catch Misha and Ljuba playing a few tunes together in Baba's back yard.

The violin that Misha is playing here hangs on the wall of the dining room. Every visitor to the house has commented on how it's a good instrument. Everyone who has played it in my company has made it sound good. Yet the bridge looks like it's on the verge of buckling and there are several visible cracks that stretch across the belly. Another student here, a classical violinist from New York, could not believe the condition of the violin. When Branko, a local musician, played her 300 year-old pedigreed violin, he didn't like it.

Ljuba, Misha, and Stefan come from a long line of highly respected musicians. Their grandfather's real brother was Dushko Petrovic, one of the most well-known singers and accordionists in Yugoslavia. When I asked Ljuba how he learned how to play accordion, he said simply, "Ja sam harmonika" - I am the accordion.

Inclusion to what?

Grabovica, a Romani village located a few miles North of Valjevo, is an interesting place. It is located on a gentle ridge surrounded by beautiful views of rolling farmland. The air is cooler than it is in Valjevo, and oddly pleasant wafts of cow shit and burning coal circulate around the houses.

The architecture varies as much as the inhabitants of this village.  Smaller, older homes are dwarfed by sprawling kitsch mini-villas, bedazzled with over-sized lion gargoyles and brass fences. In the driveway a glimmering BMW or Mercedes is invariably parked, the license plate marked "A" for Austria and "W" for Vienna. While a house like this may go unnoticed in a suburb of Monaco, in Grabovica a house like this can neighbor a one-bedroom home with a tin roof. Just beyond the brass fence you might see a Yugo-era tractor loaded with salvaged wood.

Like many towns transformed by economic migration, Grabovica is a place where many people are from and few people live. As I walk by houses where kids are dancing to rippling accordion lines and men are asleep on patio furniture, it's hard to imagine what this village will look like in three months, when 90% of its inhabitants will return to Austria to work for the fall, winter, and spring.

While Roma are known as travelers by non-Roma around the world, there is neither a word nor concept for “traveler” in Romanes. For Roma, traveling is a tool for survival, not a lifestyle. The word traveler implies a homeland, something all Roma lack. Even Roma whose families have lived in Grabovica for generations have never, and maybe will never, receive the benefits that are provided to the majority population, scant as they may be.

Through several conversations I've had with Dusan, the founder of the Amala School, I have begun to realize how complex and convoluted this issue is. For centuries, the identifying aspects of Romani culture (language, music, and customs) have been maintained because of their separation from Gadje (non-Roma). During those times discrimination was obvious, and often brutal. In the Balkans, this surface-level vitriol is rarely shown anymore, but it has far from disappeared. According to Dusan, anti-Roma sentiments are often disguised in the very organizations that claim to come to their aid.

We are currently in the middle of the European Commission “Decade of Roma Inclusion.” Millions of euros have been dedicated to meet the council's objectives. But the very title of the initiative demands the question, inclusion into what? If it is inclusion into a society that is yearning to assimilate and dismantle a source of strength and identity, many Roma will opt out. However, the odds against Roma in this game are stacked. In one corner you have an organized, heavily funded institution with international support. In the other you have a group of people who basically want to be left alone, but out of necessity need to participate at some level in the political and economic systems in which they live. Abject poverty and lack of services (water, electricity, sanitation, schools) for many Roma communities ratchet the pressure to assimilate, or be “included” even more. But at what cost? I think of Liljana Petrovic, one of the greatest Romani vocalists of the last 50 years, who spent the last years of her life as a house cleaner in Germany. Inclusion provides no default benefits, especially into a system that is consistently a source of suspicion and contempt.

So what is in store for the future of European Roma? According to Dusan, change needs to come from within the community, spearheaded by Romani intellectuals. Education and equal opportunity for Roma are essential, and the frame of the discussion between Roma and non-Roma needs to encompass more than the concept of “problem.” It's a long road ahead.


Tuesday 9 August 2011

Marjan Crstic Brass Band

This week I had the pleasure of hanging out with the Marjan Crstic band, a 9-piece brass band from Surdulica, Serbia. Each year Surdulica hosts a festival to determine who qualifies to play at the Guca trumpet festival (more on that soon). Of all the Romani musical idioms, the brass band has become the most widespread beyond the Balkans, and for good reason. They are loud, driving, and capable of inducing frenzy.

The Marjan Crstic band play as well as (and some times with) musicians from some of the better-known bands such as Kocani Orchestra and the Markovic brothers, but their circuit lies mostly within the functions of European Roma, which is often far more lucrative than playing for festivals and Gadje (non-Roma). One of the band members showed me a youtube clip of them playing at what looked like a private party at a men's social club in Belgium. The singer they played with made 10,000 euros that night. Not bad.

While working musicians play internationally, the musical traditions of Serbian Roma can be divided broadly into three categories, determined by region. Tamburica (similar to guitar) bands are from the north, violin-based groups are from the west, and brass bands are from the south. If Serbia were to have a national instrument it may well be the accordion.

When the band first showed up last week they got out of their yellow and black van (still faintly lettered for the concrete business that previously drove it) and started playing within minutes. You can' t tell from this clip, but volume was crushing.

Throughout the week the band played a number of gigs in the area, including two weddings I was able to attend. More than a typical wedding band, their role is to announce the arrival of the bride to the site of the wedding celebration. In the case of this clip, they were announcing he arrival some of the family of the bride, who are also our gracious hosts at the Amala School.

In addition to being stellar musicians, the members of the band are friendly and quick to laugh. Although my minimal Serbian and Romanes managed to work out a few vital facts and a misunderstanding about me wanting one of the guys to find me a bride, we found more common ground in a cross-cultural affinity for beer and sharing party tricks.

Thursday 4 August 2011

To market

As in many towns in Europe, the market is by far the most interesting place in Valjevo. When approaching by foot, one sees a gradual transition between random artifacts discarded on the street and those for sale on the outskirts of the marketplace. Shoes, bras, haggard stuffed animals, patriotic boutoniers, old records and VHS porn lie in rows to asking to be rooted through. There are no prices posted, and at least for our group of five, whenever the price was asked, the item was offered as a gift and money was refused. Therein shows the real reason people come to the market, buyers and sellers alike - to hang out, share news, and in our case, break dance.

This scene at the market was the first of it's kind in Serbia, but it has repeated over and over again since I've been here. What seems to be a serene and generally disinterested public vibe is transformed by a groundswell of energy. Within seconds a crowd materializes- performers, audience, and hecklers in full bloom. When the subject of the drama dissolves, so do the crowd, jeering, and focused attention. I wish I had more of the breakdance video but I was caught up in the 30-second build-up to what little I captured.

This is the shop in which Branca, our gracious hostess, sells dresses and the occaisional zip-off men's trouser, which she tried to convince me looked great, regardless of the size 38 tag. She is an amazing woman- cooking, cleaning, laundering, and caring for 8 people, always gracious and ready to laugh. Most of the morning she sports the end of a cucumber on her forehead, her individual cooling system and self-described "Gypsy magnet," which she was happy to see worked on me as well.

Some lonely abandoned stuffed animals. I was waiting for them to start animating themselves a la Jan Svenkmayer.

Who needs a truck?

No longer at the market, but in downtown Valjevo. Dusan buying popcorn, a popular and apt treat for watching the other people watching you on the promenade. Maybe it was the element of surprise, but this was freaking good popcorn.

Harmonika Ljuba - Accordion Love


This is my accordion teacher, Ljuba. I don't have too many words to describe what an amazing musician he is, so I'm not going to bother at this point. 
Here is Ljuba late one night. I'm pretty sure this solo was a dedicated attempt to woo a student here, it worked a spell on us all.

Here is Ljuba and Dragan, the younger brother of the household. Dragan is the bandleader of KAL, one of the few Serbian Romani Bands that have enjoyed a level of international success. They fall in the camp of Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello - playing traditional music in the context of contemporary music fashion and demand, complete with samples and skanked guitar.

How family members living far away stay in touch, Valjevo-style.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

First week at the Amala School

Valjevo!! Long at last, the Amala School is in full swing, so much that I have had no time for computer updates. So much has happened in the past 10 days, I can't possibly condense the experience into this format, so I'll share a few pictures and videos from the past week that hopefully will give some idea as to what's going on in these parts.

View from the Valjevo station - the somewhat imposing orthodox church (happens to be the second largest in the Balkans). Given the recent history of religious strife in this area I suppose I should have expected that religion would play a strong role in most people's lives, but somehow I imagined that it would have faded or crumbled like many of the other institutions of Serbia's former era. Not so. Almost every house is adorned with pictures of saints, and many men, Roma especially, are sporting saint charm-bracelets.

There are several different language and cultural groups among the Roma, even in Serbia. The language groups can be divided largely among religious lines. The dialect spoken here in Western Serbia, Gurbeti, falls squarely into the Serbian Orthodox church.

Valjevo is particularly important to orthodox Serbs, as the surrounding hills have two active monestaries that were home to two saints in the church. Apparently this is very rare. Besides its saints, Valjevo is also considered to be the birthplace of Serbian identity, where Karodjordje (Black George) first initiated an uprising against Ottoman rule. Many a head have been removed on the small white bridge at the center of town.

But, beyond saints and beheadings, I am most excited about the amazing music and musicians in these hills. My first night opened with an incredible display of musicianship and energy from Branco and Ljuba Petrovic, two young musicians from the nearby Romani village of Grabovica.

Ljuba's hands-on teaching technique in action.

The view down the street and into the hills of Valjevo. The driving here is some of the most wanton I've seen. On my bus ride from Belgrade I felt like I was reliving the passing scene in "Speed." This is also the first place I've been where it is routine to honk at motorists in front of you for driving too slow.

me happy to be on a walk around town

Me happy to be drinking a beer after a long first day of music classes. I say classes but the kind of musical instruction I've been getting can't really be described as a class or lesson. After breakfast I meet with Ljuba for about two hours. We share some misunderstood greetings, he shreds on my accordion and eventually settles on something I'm supposed to play. I learn the song and then he says yes or no until the morning is over. This is repeated again in the afternoon.

Up until now I have been learning mostly songs. Tempos are slower than the break-neck speed of the kolos, but the ornaments and progressions are still very challenging to nail down. Some of the songs, like "Djelem Djelem" and "Ederlezi" are Serbian Romani classics, often sung by Romani super star Ezma Redzepova.

The other songs I'm learning were written by Dusko Petrovic, a Romani Superstar in his own right, and also the second cousin of my teacher, Ljuba Petrovic. Dusko wrote the number one hits in Yugoslavia in 1969, 1970, and 1971. And whats more, he sang all of those hits in Romanes. It's striking how the mainstream can support Roma in a limited number of roles (music being very high on the list) but deny them other, more basic ones. More on that later.

This is Baba Ruzha, our in-house (literally) Romanes coach, doughnut maker, and coffee server. She has the most amazing voice. I was practicing near her house the other day and suddenly I was engulfed by a cloud of dense wood smoke. Her grandson informed me that this is common feminine Romani etiquette for getting your neighbors to stop watching you.

In addition to my 4+ hours of music playing each day, I have been learning the Romani language, Romanes. Romanes is an Indic language, with no relation whatsoever to the Indo-European language group (except for local words that are absorbed). The Roma migrated from Rajasthan, India, about 800 years ago, and have basically maintained their language wherever they went, with the strongest density of speakers living in the Balkans. Gurbeti, the dialect spoken here in western Serbia, is a combination of Sanskrit, Turkish, and Slavic languages.

While the phonemes are not that tricky to pronounce, the grammar is brutal for English speakers. Where we would use a pronoun, e.g. on, for, from, to, with, etc., Romani implements cases that modify the subject in a sentance. For example, instead of the formulation, "I am with my friend's sister" Romanes would have something like "I am friendith sisterof," with the word endings changing depending on gender and number.

To make things trickier, the family I am living with and the musicians I am playing with switch back and forth between Romanes and Serbian. What little English is spoken is heavily laced with Serbian inflection, so whenever someone speaks to me I have to first figure out if it is Romanes, Serbian, or English, and then respond accordingly. This often happens while learning heavily ornamented dance music. So, my ears and brain are often pretty tired by the end of the day.
ddition to my 4+ hours of music playing each day, I have been learning the Romani language, Romanes. Romanes is an Indic language, with no relation whatsoever to the Indo-European language group (except for local words that are absorbed). The Roma migrated from Rajasthan, India, about 800 years ago, and have basically maintained their language wherever they went, with the strongest density of speakers living in the Balkans. Gurbeti, the dialect spoken here in western Serbia, is a combination of Sanskrit, Turkish, and Slavic languages.

While the phonemes are not that tricky to pronounce, the grammar is brutal for English speakers. Where we would use a pronoun, e.g. on, for, from, to, with, etc., Romani implements cases that modify the subject in a sentance. For example, instead of the formulation, "I am with my friend's sister" Romanes would have something like "I am friendith sisterof," with the word endings changing depending on gender and number.

To make things trickier, the family I am living with and the musicians I am playing with switch back and forth between Romanes and Serbian. What little English is spoken is heavily laced with Serbian inflection, so whenever someone speaks to me I have to first figure out if it is Romanes, Serbian, or English, and then respond accordingly. This often happens while learning heavily ornamented dance music. So, my ears and brain are often pretty tired by the end of the day.

Baba Ruzha, our in-house (literally) Romanes coach, doughnut maker, and coffee server. She has the most amazing voice. I was practicing near her house the other day and suddenly I was engulfed by a cloud of dense wood smoke. Her grandson informed me that this is common feminine Romani etiquette for getting your neighbors to stop watching you.

Fortunately, the food here has been amazing. Here we have some stuffed fermented cabbage leaves and beef. Tomatoes have been on the table three meals a day, and fresh hot peppers grace lunch and dinner. There are plums, apples, pears, and walnuts growing on trees in the yard. My only gripe is the tiny cups of Turkish coffee. You can throw back enough to make you jittery without waking up, and unless you boil it just right the whole thing erupts onto the floor like a grade school science experiment. Oh well, so far complaints are very few and precious moments are abundant. Stay tuned for some videos.

Vidimo se.

Thursday 21 July 2011


Landed! After one very bumpy flight I'm finally in Serbia. Hard to believe, and it's great to be here. So many impressions from the past few days, so here are a few images to say their thousands of words.

The view from my window at Hostel Captain. Nice place, but damn this city is hottttt.

My first meal on Skadarska Street, Sopska Salad and the legendary Cevapcici, which are basically skinless sausages topped with chopped onion. I was a bit underwhelmed by the Cevapcici but I'm sure I'll have more chances to compare.

One of the things I was wondering about before I got here was how accesible the music I was looking for was going to be. In Belgrade, I had to walk about 300 feet from my hostel to find a street packed with restaurants, with a band in each restaurant. The music ranged from "Somewhere over the Rainbow" to waltzes to some Saban Bajramovic hits. This is a shot of a band that was rocking the hardest. They were playing for a private party, hence the "I'm not invited" angle of the photo.

I'm impressed by how virtually everyone in the restuarant I went to was singing along with the band. Not just mouthing the words, but belting it out with the singer. Also notable are the total lack of song endings, at least with the band I heard. They were very accomplished musicians but each of the songs dribbled out with a few extra thumps or plucks. Not the classic Serbian V/I end I have come to expect. Much more to see and hear, but I'm happy to discover that finding music will be about as difficult as finding a restaurant.

Central square, Belgrade.

Confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers

I like how this is more a description than advice. Not sure if it comes off the same way in Serbian.

Signs of earlier times in Belgrade.

The Belgrade zoo is a very bizarre place. Not so free on the range but the animals seem content.

I am impressed how small and specific stores can be here. This one sells heels for women's shoes, which, I see, are in extremely high demand. I have seen similar sized stores selling crackers and sewing machines.

View from the Students square.