Saturday 9 July 2011

48 hours to blast-off


If you are reading this, you are likely a friend or acquaintance who knows something about my upcoming trip to Serbia and Romania. In case you are here by some other turn of events, I'll fill you in on a bit of background about what this blog is meant to address, and not address.

In two short days, I will be leaving my home in Maine to embark on a six week trip studying Romani language and music in Serbia and Romania. I've been playing Romani and Balkan music on the accordion for the past few years, most recently with Cinder Conk, but I have yet to travel to the wellspring of this music in the Balkans.

This spring I launched a kickstarter campaign to help send me to the Amala School in Valjevo, Serbia. The goal of the Amala School is to break down the mythology of the 'gypsy' and replace it with real knowledge of the Romani culture, music, and language. I've had the good fortune to study with some great Serbian Rom accordion players over the past few years, Dejan Jovanovic from the Berlin-based group Romenca, and Peter Stan of NYC's Slavic Soul Party. Both of them emphasized the importance of going to the Balkans to get a real understanding of the context in which this music breathes. As Peter Stan told me, the best way to learn this music is to 'hang.'

In addition to the 70 or so people who helped kick me to Serbia this summer, I am also deeply grateful to the Maine Holocaust and Human Rights Center and the Maine Arts Commission for awarding me some funding to cover tuition costs at the Amala School which will also allow me to continue my musical exploration into Romania. I've been dreaming of this trip for several years now and I'm honored to have received the support that has come my way so far.

Before this blog gets rolling along, I want to lay out a few parameters for this project that will hopefully let readers know where I'm coming from and my intentions behind this trip (as well as my interest in Balkan and Romani music in general). First, I am not Romani, nor do I pretend to be (it's surprising to have to say that but it's even more surprising how many American musicians falsely identify themselves as 'Gypsy.' I have no Balkan heritage, and did not grow up surrounded by this music.

As an accordionist who has sought out interesting repertoire and contexts for the instrument I play, I can think of no other part of the world that draws from such a deeply expressive, complex, and beautiful musical wellspring than the music of the Balkans. For the past five years or so I have been nurturing my fascination with East European and Balkan music in whatever ways I can. The journey has been surprisingly challenging. There is plenty of amazing music out there, but access is tricky. Balkan and Romany music is rarely distributed on commercial labels, and there are virtually no online English-language resources outlining taxonomies of musicians and genres. To make things more complex, bands like Gogol Bordello and others waving the "Gypsy Punk" flag give a totally inaccurate impression to audiences and musicians who then think they know what 'Gypsy music' sounds like.

So, dear readers, I hope that this blog provides a service that I have found lacking in my own exploration of Balkan and Romani music - a straightforward, English-language resource that tries to stay clear of indulgences both academic and romantic. And be warned, you will also probably find a healthy dose of non-musical musings and observations from my travels over the next six weeks.

Ach mishto! (Romani for be well, stay cool).

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