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Gypsy Music

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Ethnographic CD Review: Ensemble La Roue Fleurie – Gypsy Guitars

The Music of the Gypsies
The Gypsies or the Romani people are an ethnic group now living predominantly in Europe. They are believed to have migrated from an Indian Subcontinent some 1000 years ago due to persecutions and their status on the Indian caste system. It wasn’t until around 1856 that the gypsies were freed as slaves in Walachia and Moldavia, which are now part of Romania. In Western Europe, hanging, flogging, and branding of Roma people was encouraged, and an estimated 1 million were killed in the holocaust. The Gypsies are nomadic and live in caravans or trailers, setting up small camps and moving from place to place. Music as a tradition is paramount in the lives of the gypsies, who have always been revered as being exceptional musicians, especially for their virtuosity in their instruments. For the gypsies, music has always just been a part of life, and it has been extremely important in helping them to cope with the harsh reality of their existence. As a result of the years and years of traveling throughout the world, a myriad of musical influences have left their mark in the traditional gypsy music. Beginning of course with Indian roots, tinges of Greek, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Serbian, Czech, Slavic, Romanian, German, French, and Spanish can be heard in the music. Indian influence can be heard through the use of the harmonic minor scale and the double-harmonic minor, or Hungarian minor scale. This scale is strongly colored with harmonic minor keys due to the use of the augmented second. The gypsies also have very strong ornamentation skills. Grace notes, arpeggios, and passing tones are among some of the things they use to add color to their improvisations.
Gypsy music has an extremely large variety, due to its many different places of origin. Defining local characteristics can be heard varying from country to country. For the purpose of this paper, we will focus on Hungarian gypsy music, or Style Hongrois. This style of gypsy music is heavily influenced by European music and tailors to show off the gypsies’ exceptional musicianship. Influences of western classical style can also be heard in Style Hongrois. As the gypsies began to appear performing in public settings such as bars or restaurants, they had to tailor their music to appeal to their upper class audience. They started to play popular Hungarian songs and essentially abandoned the folk tradition. Their instrumental proficiency greatly impressed the people they were playing for. They continued to refine their music and technique, which developed into specific instrumentation, ornamentation, structure, and musical scale.
The typical instrumentation of a gypsy band is two violins, one bass, and one cimbalom. The cimbalom is a type of hammered dulcimer, and consists of a large trapezoidal box with metal strings stretched across its top. It is played by using mallets to hit the top of the strings, and has a very distinct percussive and striking sound. It is an extremely unique and beautiful instrument and adds a very distinct element to any music it is incorporated into.
One main subdivision within Style Hongrois is called the czardas. The czardas is a type of dance music consisting of two different sections; lassu, the slow section, and friss, the fast section. The czardas is typically played starting at a slow tempo and increasing throughout the song to an eventual very fast tempo. The lassu section is normally an open tempo, with lots of ornamentation. The gypsies are considered the originators of the czardas, and it has been regarded as a part of the typical gypsy repertoire since the 19th century.
However there is another main type of gypsy music that has not yet been discussed in this paper. It is a fusion between jazz and gypsy music called gypsy jazz, and it has an interesting background story.
On January 23rd, 1910, Jean “Django” Reinhardt was born in Liberchies, Pont-a-Celles, Belgium. He spent most of his early years in gypsy camps outside of Paris, and had a particular interest in music from an early age. When he was 12, he was given a banjo-guitar as a gift. He watched and studied other musicians closely and by the age of 13 was able to make a living through playing music. This rendered education less important in his life and as a result he received very little of it.
When he was 18 years old, Reinhardt was injured in a fire. His wife Florine made fake paper flowers to supplement their income, and their caravan was littered with them. When Django was returning home late one night from a performance, he knocked over a candle, setting all the paper flowers and the caravan ablaze. He came out alive, but was left with second-degree burns on half of his body, and a paralyzed right leg. His third and fourth fingers on his left hand (his fingering hand) were badly burned, and doctors believed that he would never again be able to play the guitar. However, Django would not take this for an answer, and his brother Joseph bought him a new guitar. With extensive practice and rehabilitation, Django was able to relearn the guitar and develop/utilize techniques and fingerings that were within his physical limitations. This event was arguably the most formative for Reinhardt, forcing him to develop a whole new style due to his handicap. Around 1930, Django became very interested in jazz, particularly the recordings of Louis Armstrong. Around the same time, Django met Stephane Grapelli, a young violinist with a similar interest in jazz. The two began jamming together and in 1934, they formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France. The band consisted of Django on lead guitar, Stephane Grapelli on violin, Roger Chaput and Django’s brother Joseph Reinhardt on rhythm guitar, and Louis Vola on bass. The music they played later became known as Gypsy Jazz.
While Gypsy Jazz is closely related to the swing music of the 30s and 40s, it has a few very distinct and defining qualities. First, the guitars used are specifically for playing gypsy jazz and are acoustic guitars modeled after the Selmer-Macafferi guitars that Django and his band played on. Selmer discontinued their production of guitars in the 50s, however other luthiers and manufacturers began producing the same style guitar. These guitars have a very unique sound, with a very chunky and full bass sound on the lower registers, and a punchy, clean, percussive sound on the higher registers. Gypsy Jazz has a very steady, straight, driving rhythm, called La Pompe. Because of the absence of percussion, the rhythm guitar must take the place of the drums. The 1 and 3 have a more bassy and warm sound, mimicking the kick drum, while the 2 and 4 have a strong percussive snap, acting as the snare drum. In addition, no two rhythm players play identically. Some prefer a more dry, sharpened, and minimalist sound, while others prefer a more wet and spacious sound. The lead guitar also has a very distinct sound. Gypsy Jazz improvisation puts emphasis more on arpeggios than scales, and utilizes typical gypsy ornamentation and musical qualities while still encompassing the jazz and swing style.
A perfect album in which to hear the Style Hongrois, Gypsy Jazz, and the way in which traditional gypsy music was blended with jazz to form a new genre, is Gypsy Guitars, by Ensemble La Roue Fleurie. The instrumentation on the album is two guitars and a double bass. Lead guitar is played by Gypsy Jazz virtuoso Angelo Debarre, rhythm guitar is played by Serge Camps, a master in Balkan guitar rhythm, and the double bass is played by Frank Anastasio.
There are three different styles of gypsy music on this album; Czardas or Style Hongrois, Gypsy Jazz, and Gypsy Waltz. The first song on this CD is a composition by Django Reinhardt called Blues en Mineur. It is a simple minor blues form, a common form in jazz. Like any other jazz piece, it begins and ends with the melody or “head,” leaving room for improvisation over the chord changes in the middle of the song. However, through the use of arpeggios, well placed ornamentation, and uncanny technique, Angelo Debarre adds to it the familiar gypsy feeling. Also, Serge Camps plays traditional Gypsy Jazz La Pompe rhythm. About 2 minutes into the song, they go into double time for two choruses before going back into the original tempo to end with the head.
The last song on this album is a terrific example of a traditional czardas written by Vittorio Monti, called Czardas de Monti. The song begins with the lassu or slow section, just like any other czardas. Lots of tremolos and other musical ornamentations can be heard in this section, which is typical of the lassu section of any czardas. After this comes the friss or the fast section. Here we can hear Serge Camps playing traditional Balkan style guitar rhythm with alternating bass, which is also typical of gypsy music.
Lastly, the Gypsy Waltz style can be heard on the fourth track, La Gitane. This is a well-known Gypsy Waltz and is a favorite amongst Gypsy Jazz guitarists. On this particular recording, they open with a lassu section similar to the one heard in Czardas de Monti. More tremolos, fast runs, and gypsy style ornamentation are prominent in this section. Then, the song breaks into a waltz (¾ time) and Serge Camps improvises more walking and alternating bass rhythms. The melody also has lots of fast and technical runs, which as aforementioned is typical of the gypsy style.
All in all, this album encompasses almost all the elements of gypsy music discussed earlier on in this paper, and is a great resource for anyone wanting to understand more about gypsy music. It is also a good example of how jazz and gypsy music were intertwined to make gypsy jazz. Not to mention it is an amazing listen, with incredible musicianship and instrumental virtuosity.

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