My Search for the Music of our
Romany Gypsies and Travellers
by Jeremy Sandford
Music and dance is one of the things that the world’s Romany Gypsies excel at - especially those in Hungary, Russia and Spain.
How about in our own islands?
Squeeze-box on his back, accompanied by Gypsy Traveller Mark O’Galley, Jeremy Sandford sets out on a journey of exploration.
My Search for the Music of our
Romany Gypsies and Travellers
Our film begins with cameos of the music and dance of typical non-British European Gypsies;
(1) Gyemant Gyuru, a Hungarian Gypsy Band and Dance Troupe that I am bringing to this country for a concert tour this autumn.
(2) A Spanish Gypsy Flamenco Troupe, either on a visit to this country or in their native caves in Andalusia.
(3) Stowe Fair or Appleby or any other of the great British Romany Gypsy horse fair meeting places.
In conversation with Mark O’Galley, Jeremy recalls that Romany Gypsies have played a huge part in the music of many countries.
As so many still do not read or write, the millions of world Gypsies spend long evenings inventing new music and also in singing and resinging, preserving music that otherwise would have been lost, injecting and preserving that Romany flavour into the music of so many countries through which they passed.
Jeremy and Marco discuss this with the Gypsies assembled round . They watch a bare fist contest on which large bets are being laid. Stepping aside, Jeremy may give examples on squeeze box. Marco sings briefly.
(4) The horse fair continued. BUT what about the British Isles? Can our Gypsies lay claim to the same excellence?
If not, why not?
Jeremy and Marco listen in on a group of Romanies standing in a circle, one after the other singing country and western songs with great skill.
However, good though the singers are, they are not singing our own music.
Marco points out that Gypsies these days play a lot of Irish music. Jeremy and Marco play tempestuous Irish reels and Romanies throw themselves into the famous Romany step dancing.
(5) Jeremy on moorland above or away from the horse fairs.
Jeremy; ‘So much for Ireland. But what about a specific English, Scottish or Welsh experience? Does that still exist?’
Or, as one Romany puts it, when they stopped living in horse drawn barrel tops and tents and moved into caravans pulled by vehicles, did they abandon also their old musical ways? Time was when something important happened, people automatically made a song about it. The Gypsies went on doing it longer than anyone else. It’s an essential knowledge and myth preservation and celebratory technique of non-literate societies, so the Romany heritage should be strong.
(6) Jeremy and Marco with cylinder gramophone recall that when Vaughan Williams, Percy Grainger and other composers at the start of this century looked for traditional music, it was to the Gypsies that they went.
Marco recreates the scene and the song which Romany Esther Smith sang to Vaughan Williams, later used in his Fantasia on Christmas Carols.
(7) Council Gypsy Site at Cursey Lane near Gloucester
A more recent event. Jeremy and Marco hear Romany Gypsy Wisdom (Wiggy) Smith sing the tale of three Gypsies who inadvertently killed a gamekeeper and gouged his eyes out and then were overcome with remorse.
(8) Council Gypsy Site in Essex
More up to date, Romany Tom Oddley sings a ballad composed at a camp where many Gypsies were exterminated.
(9) Site of Topcliffe Fair
The fairs, so crucial to the Travellers, are being closed. Romany Mik Dearling sings his lament for Topcliffe which was closed in ‘62.
(10) Harvest Fields in Scotland where Gypsies are working
Gypsy Duncan Williamson sings Sir Patrick Spens, not learned from a book but handed down in an aural tradition from father to son and mother to daughter through who can tell how many generations.
(11) The Romany Gypsy Museum at Axbridge
Amid the many traditional Gypsy caravans there Romany Ted Atkinson sings, to a group gathered round the camp fire, ‘the town is not their own’ by Eddie Furey, member of the famous Irish Traveller musical family, which gets us to the contribution of Irish Travellers to music in the British Isles.
(12 & 13) On illegal pitches in Birmingham and London, Mark Delaney and Johnny ‘Pops’ Connors sing a song about a Gypsy lass who was fourteen last Sunday with its wonderful refrain, ‘I’m Young and I’m Airy and Bold Contrary and Buckled I long to be’. Johnny sings his lament for a Birmingham eviction where three Gypsy children died.
(14) Irish Horse Fair at Balinasloe
Paddy Houlahan and his Gypsy band sing ‘We’re Travellers and we’re Proud.’
(15) Large venue in Dublin or Glasgow
The Furey brothers, Travellers All, sing to huge audiences. Outside Jeremy talks with Charlie Smith, President of the Gypsy Council. Jeremy and he discuss that music is one of the things Gypsies do well. The British have possibly fallen behind their Irish and European counterparts but they’re not doing badly.
(16) Concert venue (Hereford festival?)
The Hungarian band are playing a concert to an enthusiastic British audience. Marco gets on stage and, very powerfully, sings ‘I’m a Romany Rai’, the ‘national anthem of the British Romanies’.
(17) Both Hungarian and British Gypsies, together for the first time since their ancestors left Pakistan a thousand years ago, sing together in Romany, ‘Opre Roma’, ‘Gypsies Arise’, the world anthem of the Gypsy people.
People who’ve said they’d like to work with me on this:
Philippa Couzens (Celtic Productions in Cardiff)
Caroline Ross Pirie
Book (Songs from the Roadside) covering much the same area
Audio cassette (ditto)
Video cassette of me presenting BBC TV and ITN documentaries.
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