Queer poetry and big brass bands: a beginner’s guide to Romania’s Roma culture

Queer poetry and big brass bands: a beginner’s guide to Romania’s Roma culture
Poet and actor Bety Pisică. Image: Ioana Cîrlig

30 July 2020

One of Romania’s largest minority, the Roma, is best-known for its strong presence on the country’s music scene which is quickly gathering international clout. But Roma artists and experiences are now beginning to leave their mark elsewhere, too: in cinema and in literature, embracing everything from mesmerising nomadic myths, to direct, hip hop-imbued poetry.

Here’s your go-to primer for what Romanian Roma culture has to offer.


Literature

The Lost Country

by Luminița Cioabă


This magical collection transports readers to a world of spells, intense passion, and overbearing customs, all shared from a female perspective. Romany and Romanian-language author, Luminița Cioabă, is one of the few remaining Roma-Romanians born within a semi-nomadic community, and the stories in the book were passed down to Cioabă by her grandmother. Using vivid prose and images, the book opens up the traditions of these lost nomadic Roma communities through fairytales and legends. They include stories of the nightingale who gifted her song to Roma people, founding their rich music tradition, or fables used to teach the importance of ancient Roma customs.


It’s not her fault that she was born a woman

by Bety Pisică

“it’s not my fault that I was born a woman

I’m the gypsy woman from the first floor

the girl with baggy clothes who listens to rap,

the girl who laughs noisily

or

dad’s boy

from time to time I get good morning messages

— you, be hetero and stop dressing like a hobo

— are you lesbian? you weren’t fucked by the right person, come sleep at mine.

— you look like a gay slut dude

speak quietly

laugh differently

bring me water

bring me the remote control

bring me…

are you mentally ill

why don’t you wear make-up?

shut up

shut up

laugh differently

“when I brought you into the city,

you ate chicken soup with a fork,

you were naked,

without me you wouldn’t have existed today.

say thank you that I’ve married you.

have you been deprived of anything?

say it, woman, have you been deprived of anything?

fucking shit

you will die of my hand,

I will go to prison but at least I will be able to sleep”

„there isn’t enough salt in the food. you want to poison me? come here, come, you! take these plates away or I’ll throw them into your head”

this is what I heard from my folks’ room

I interfere

I interfere,

I interfered

every time I could.

I am a girl, I listen to rap and I wear baggy clothes

my father taught me not to be afraid of anything

(except himself)

— where are you off to?

I stay

I stay

to protect my mother

it’s not her fault that she was born a woman,

I am 20 springs old

seeing your father is aggressive

isn’t fun

to hear how your father is aggressive but to be glad that at least he’s not an alcoholic

isn’t fun

not at all

I am 20 springs old

a guy screams after me

sluuuuuut!!! you’re a sluuuut!

I didn’t want to have anything to do with him.

I am 20 springs old

I have fleas, I have dramas and I feel like drinking a bottle together with its shards

I am 20 springs old

It’s not my fault that I was born a woman.


Bety Pisică is a young poet and actor based in the Romanian city of Timișoara. This poem was originally published in the Romanian feminist magazine Cutra. Follow Pisică and Cutra on Instagram.


Films

Aferim!

Directed by Radu Jude

Aferim! was the first Romanian film to reflect on the 500 years of Roma slavery — a subject that is rarely discussed in Romania, and is not taught in schools. Shot in black and white, the Western-style Silver Bear winning movie follows a local policeman and his son as they search for an escaped slave accused of having an affair with his master’s wife. Set in 1835, Aferim! explores the generational divide between father and son, as well as multicultural Romanian society. Overflowing with antiquated but colourful curses and humour that reflects the prejudice of the era, this groundbreaking film is not for the faint-hearted.


Soldiers: A Story from Ferentari

Directed by Ivana Mladenovic

Based on a novel of the same name by Adrian Schiop, Ivana Mladenovic’s film recounts the love story between a white man researching his PhD in Roma pop music, and a document-less Roma man from a criminal gang. Set in the deprived Roma neighbourhood of Ferentari in Bucharest, the story was groundbreaking for representing Roma experiences in Romanian literature, but retains the troubling power dynamics between the white narrator and his Roma boyfriend, who hopes to secure ID and a job through the relationship. Toxic social context, personal economic interest, emotional vulnerability, and explicit sexual imagery all blend together to make this an in-your-face film. However, critics have argued that the movie represents a white exoticising gaze of the Roma community in Ferentari.


Music

Taraf de Haidouks

Dating back to the 16th century, the age-old Roma music tradition of lăutărească still produces extraordinary modern ensembles, including legendary brass band Taraf de Haidouks. Rising to international fame after the release of their first album in 1991, the 15 members of the collective and their collaborators mix the violin, double drum, cimbalom, accordion, flute, double bass, and other musical instruments, to make energising polyphonic songs about love and death. Hailing from the village of Clejani, 40 kilometres southeast of Bucharest, Taraf de Haidouks have an unforgettable vitality and creativity. One of their new projects is called Taraf de Caliu. If you enjoy their music, then don’t stop here: check out Fanfara Ciocârlia, Mahala Rai Banda, and Damian and Brothers.


Shukar Collective

Fusing traditional Romani rhythms and electronic music, Shukar Collective brings together Ursari Romani musicians and electronic producers from different generations. Conceived by film director Paul Țanicui, Shukar have released two albums to date: Urban Gypsy (2005) and Rromatek (2007). The result is a deeply moving modern twist on the rich and longstanding tradition of Romani music. Unfortunately Shukar Collective have since disbanded but you can check out their sister-project, Balkan Taksim.

Read more

Queer poetry and big brass bands: a beginner’s guide to Romania’s Roma culture

6 Roma creatives talk art, identity, and the fight for equality in Romania

Queer poetry and big brass bands: a beginner’s guide to Romania’s Roma culture

Chain reaction: meet the first Romanian director to tackle Roma slavery onscreen

Queer poetry and big brass bands: a beginner’s guide to Romania’s Roma culture

The rise and fall of ‘Manele’, the Balkan beat genre that took Romania by storm