Audiences eager to learn more about Gypsy (Roma) culture the past few years have had their pick of stimulating subtitled films, most of them set on location in the Central European Roma heartland. In Bosnian director Emir Kusturica’s Black Cat, White Cat and Underground, and Aleksandar Manic’s The Shutka Book of Records — rambunctious travelogues populated by overheated personalities — the narratives seemed like documentaries, and vice versa. Meanwhile, French director Tony Gatlif’s lyrical portraits of his fellow Roma have set the standard for entertaining meditations on the Gypsy experience: the remarkable Latcho Drom, Mondo, and Gadjo Dilo.
Gypsy Caravan, filmmaker Jasmine Dellal’s record of the groundbreaking North American tour of five Roma musical outfits from four widely scattered countries, falls into the parade as a worthwhile effort better suited for beginners. Maybe we should chalk that up to the blandifying effect of the American market. Bracing as the sounds may be, Dellal’s documentary often seems like a cleaned-up, homogenized version of the chaotic Roma world presented by Gatlif, Kusturica, et al. But even toned down and packaged for US and Canadian concert crowds, the music itself has the power to thrill.
The film opens like Gatlif’s Latcho Drom in the original Roma homeland of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, India, where kids emulate snake charmers and the folkloric group Maharaja performs its mixture of Arabic, Sufi, and Rajasthani folk music in brilliantly colored finery. Star of the troupe is Harish, a boyishly handsome young man who dances, according to tradition, as a female in full regalia. In Rajasthan, one performer explains, musicians are so attuned to nature that one man transcribed the notes of birds’ songs. On the North American concert tour — New York City, Toronto, Ann Arbor, Miami, Austin, San Francisco, Portland — Maharaja found common ground with a group of Andalusian Gypsies from Spain, the Antonio el Pipa Flamenco Ensemble, whose soul-stirring cante jondo melded perfectly with the bangles and rhythms of Northern India.
The stated aim of the World Music Institute in organizing the Gypsy Caravan tour was to further the dream of uniting the ten million Roma around the world. Good luck. Roma, by their own proud assertion, are not easily led. Take Esma Redzepova from Skopje, Macedonia, the Roma stronghold featured in The Shutka Book of Records. The amiably defiant diva (“I don’t assimilate!”) has “adopted” 47 poor children and countless Kosovo refugees and runs a music school when she isn’t soul-shouting her version of the Gypsy blues — a dead ringer for Oum Kalsoum’s voice of Middle Eastern love and pain.
Back home in Romania, the eleven-piece Fanfare Ciocarlia brass band roughs it in the countryside with the same joyous abandon as Taraf de Haïdouks, the internationally famous folk group (Johnny Depp is a fan) featured in Gatlif’s monumental 1993 doc Latcho Drom. “If we didn’t make music, we’d have nothing,” one player proclaims. The Romanian footage, shot in part by famed American documentarian Albert Maysles, is the best part of Gypsy Caravan, as we visit muddy villages and the homes of violinists Caliu and Nicolae Neacsu, the spirited old man whose trip to America turns out to be his swan song. These guys play fast.
The film’s European title is taken from a Romany proverb: “You cannot walk straight when the road bends.” Of the world’s diasporas, the thousand-year journey of the Roma has certainly been the most circuitous and among the least understood. But that may be changing. Writer-producer-director Dellal, a native of England who spent her childhood with her grandparents in southern India and later studied filmmaking with Marlon Riggs at UC Berkeley, has dedicated her film to the Decade of Roma Inclusion, 2005-2015, “an initiative of eight governments, the UN, George Soros, and the World Bank, joining Roma communities to fight poverty and discrimination, prioritizing education, employment, health, and housing.” To find out more, visit RomaDecade.org.
Light and playful as it is, Gypsy Caravan can serve as a pleasant introduction before moving on to Gatlif’s films and reading such thought-provoking books as Isabel Fonseca’s Bury Me Standing. It’s fairly impossible to resist a band of Gypsies at full musical throttle. Just try not to smile when Fanfare Ciocarlia covers Bollywood tunes, or when they wipe their faces with twenty-dollar bills.