BY Tove Djupsjöbacka
Music is strongly associated with the Romani people. Singing was always a part of travelling with horse-drawn wagons or sleighs, or resting by the campfire. Music still occupies a large role in the lives of many Romani today, even as traditional lifestyles are being replaced by modern ones.
In many countries, Romani people have earned their living as professional musicians for centuries. According to researcher Risto Blomster, the Romani started gaining visibility as musicians in Finland as late as the turn of the 20th century. The massive changes in post-Second World War society virtually put an end to the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Romani. After this, music began to emerge as a viable career option for an increasing number of Romani as well.
The traditional songs are still alive and strong, but the Romani are also active in the Finnish iskelmä (schlager) music scene, especially as tango singers. Christian music is another strong genre in the Romani community.
In the 1960s, Romani music became more visible in Finnish society through artists such as the band Hortto Kaalo, which also fought for better social conditions. The name of their first album Miksi ovet ei aukene meille? (Why are the doors not opening for us?) is a case in point. According to researcher Kai Åberg, bands such as Hortto Kaalo consciously strengthened their Romani identity by borrowing influences from Romani music from other countries.
Traditional Finnish dance music is a genre close to the Romani, and tango in particular. According to Kai Åberg, the Romani prefer traditional styles and often shy away from overly creative or original interpretations. The legendary tango singer Olavi Virta was influenced by the Romani singing style, and, following him, the time was right for Romani singers to make their debuts. Some of the first of them, however, chose to “Finnishise” their names: Allan Isberg became Markus Allan and Taisto Lundberg became Taisto Tammi. Iskelmä and tango are male-dominated genres and not many female Romani singers have been in the public spotlight, with the notable exception of Anneli Sari.
Kai Åberg sees tango as a folk-style continuum for Romani songs. Tango lyrics often touch on similar subjects to traditional Romani songs (loss, loneliness, longing), and the restrained and modest words sit well with Romani singers. Romani musicians often lack a formal music education, a fact Åberg feels is overly emphasised in the media. Romani singers are seen as “natural” musicians, and their emotional and naturally strong interpretations are highlighted.
Life’s work preserving traditional songs
Traditional Romani songs can be found both in the Finnish and Romani languages. According to Risto Blomster, the latter were originally intended to be sung only within one’s own tribe. Even the Finnish-language songs may include hidden messages which only the Romani can decipher. In the 21st century, these songs have once again gained attention. Singer Hilja Grönfors has made her life’s work preserving this singing tradition, and having been born in the 1950s, she has personally experienced these songs as a part of the old-time Romani culture.
“I have heard traditional songs since I was a small child, and started singing myself at the age of two,” says Grönfors. “When I was a child, wherever grownups were singing, there I was, listening. Other children would play.”
Singing used to have an important role in camp life as well.
“Women went around the neighbourhood houses selling their craft and getting some money and food, while others stayed behind at the camp. When the women returned with food and drink, the singing would begin. There was never any agreement how to do it – someone would simply begin, and the singing would go on and on.”
Grönfors sees that singing provided an important escape for people. Throughout history, Romani people have lived in difficult circumstances.
“There has been a lot of discrimination, and acceptance was only experienced within one’s own tribe. We would never have made it without singing! Our load has been made lighter through music and dance.”
A gift from past generations
Hilja Grönfors has been performing all her life. In 2005, she was awarded the title “Master Folk Singer” at the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival. Grönfors’s ensemble Latšo Džinta is made up of five professional folk musicians. “Absolutely wonderful interpreters! They pour their souls into this music and have a respect for it.”
Grönfors has also been collecting and documenting the Romani singing tradition. “I felt obliged to do this! The songs are a gift, passed on to us by past generations.”
Her work is ongoing and a sheet music book is on its way, in collaboration with the Sibelius Academy.
The current situation of Romani music makes Grönfors concerned. “Our young people no longer know these songs. Our own culture, music traditions and language are essential to Romani identity. I want these songs to survive for the next generations. If the generation after me fails to get interested, maybe the following one will!”
Grönfors is very critical about making modifications to the songs. “Many people want to iron out all of those fine little details. lt just sounds like a big mess and hasty note-bashing. Personally, I do not approve of the fact that these songs keep changing. They should have remained as they were originally, but this is of course impossible. In general, however, the language and customs of the Finnish Romani have remained very pure, due to our being here in the remote far North!”
Having said that, Grönfors has collaborated with other musicians such as the rapper Paleface and the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra. “I am not afraid to try new things or put my skills to the test. I like so many other music genres as well, not only Romani music. I would love to perform in a musical, for example!”
Singing as medicine
According to Risto Blomster, most traditional Romani songs are closely related to the general Finnish song tradition, transformed through an elegant “Romanisation” process. The singing style includes heavy use of vibrato and glissandi. Instruments were not traditionally used, but in the 1960s they started to appear, especially the guitar. Popular song topics included love, horses and fairs, travelling and roaming, but also booze and prison.
“These songs portray our life, the way it has been,” explains Grönfors. “Instead of speaking directly of love, the songs describe it in a more subtle way. We also have songs that are used as a warning: for example, a fight can be avoided by singing a warning song. Mothers have used singing in order to teach various things to their children.”
Some fine samples of traditional songs can be found through the brand-new video series Musiikin muisti (The memory of music), which can be viewed at the kansanmusiikki.fi website. The series makes a clear distinction between the old modal singing, “rekilaulu” tunes and songs which use contemporary metres. It also provides information on which songs are meant for men and which ones for women. The songs are interpreted by singers representing a wonderful range of age groups, including the first Romani student of folk music at the Sibelius Academy, young folk singer Anette Åkerlund.
For Hilja Grönfors it goes without saying that men’s and women’s songs need to be clearly separated. “If there is a big celebration and older men are present, it would be insulting if I started singing men’s songs. On the other hand, I have taken the liberty of performing all of the songs. I have to! If they remain a secret, they will disappear.”
Grönfors actively teaches the tradition to anyone who is interested. “Previously, teaching ‘outside’ of our culture was forbidden. But now the situation has changed and there has to be a way of making our songs available to the general public. But my main reason for doing all this is for my own people. I wish this music to stay alive.”
Only a few cross the border
Many Romani musicians have a strong evangelical Christian background. This provided a way for many Romani to make their mark in the society even before the era of social activism began. From the 1970s onwards, Romani vocal ensembles such as the Romanos and Freidiba Boodos have been visible in the Christian music scene.
Christian and secular music circles have remained fairly separate. One of the few genre-crossers is the ensemble Suora Lähetys, who have gained national visibility through talent contests such as Talent Suomi and Ourvision. The core of the group is a trio of harmonising Romani singers, but the group has ultimately grown into a tight eight-piece ensemble. Gospel music first led to iskelmä songs, and now their music has no limits.
Music still holds a strong place in Romani culture, says the ensemble’s singer-guitarist Mertsi Lindgren, a graduate from the Helsinki Pop & Jazz Conservatory.
“There is a lot of music-making in Romani families, just like in Finnish families in general. I guess the Romani mentality is a bit more sociable and positive compared to mainstream Finns, so maybe it is easier for us to bring our music forwards.”
Music is still an active part of everyday living. “In the old days, they used to harness a horse to let off some steam. Nowadays a car will do. I remember once riding in the car with my grandmother. She looked out of the window and started singing. She sang old Kale (Finnish Romani) songs for two or three hours straight, without a break.”
lt took relatively long for Lindgren to muster up the courage to perform traditional songs himself. Today, it no longer bothers him if a non-Romani sings these songs, or finds inspiration in Romani music. “Everyone borrows from everyone. Nobody can claim ownership of C major!”
From gospel to no limits
When they were first starting out, Suora Lähetys only performed at gospel events. However, they gradually began to feel that their music deserved a larger audience. Mertsi Lindgren thinks that people often have a certain preconception of Christian music, and of Christian musicians in general. Music and religion do not need to be in conflict – music is work and the church is a conviction.
“When we got to collaborate with the iskelmä music legend Esa Nieminen, we clearly stated our wish for the lyrics to remain within a certain framework that reflects our Christian values. We preferred profound material that talks about human life to raunchy or suggestive topics.”
In time, their colour palette has expanded to include more joy alongside serious tones. The ensemble now write their own songs, partly as a result of encouragement from singer-songwriter Tuure Kilpeläinen – the “unofficial godfather of Suora Lähetys”, as Lindgren describes him. Kilpeläinen has also contributed by writing music and lyrics for the ensemble.
Music has helped open doors on to completely new directions, Mertsi Lindgren states. “Musicians are the first group of people to have shown absolutely no discrimination towards us. Tuure Kilpeläinen is not afraid to speak his mind: why do you always view things through an ethnic lens, what is the relevance? Let’s just get on and play this piece!”
Tove Djupsjöbacka is a music journalist and musicologist specialising in flamenco and folk music, but eagerly delves into all kinds of music from opera to hip hop.
Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham