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May 26, 2022



Documentary shows Roma from Slovak settlements singing with non-Romani musicians

26.3.2015 19:41, (ROMEA)
A still from the Slovak documentary film
A still from the Slovak documentary film "Cigarettes and Songs" (Cigarety a pesničky). (PHOTO:

Hundreds of ancient Romani songs have been collected by the ethnomusicologist Jana Belišová during her long-term research in Slovakia. Her meetings with Romani musicians there inspired her to undertake a new project bringing non-Romani and Romani musicians together.

The documentary film "Cigarettes and Songs" (Cigarety a pesničky) by Jana Bučková and Marek Šulík tells the story of these collaborations. It is not just a film about music, but also about creativity, love, tolerance and the world we live in; Anna Pivodová has interviewed Jana Belišová for news server

Q:  How did it occur to you to start this project?

A:  There is basically no thought-out concept behind this project. It was a spontaneous idea:  What if these musicians were to get together with Romani singers? The group came about because these people wanted to go into the project, which developed very spontaneously.

Q:  How did you get the actors in this project together? Why did you choose them in particular?

A:  As a musicologist I have spent a lot of time in the field. I have gotten to know many Romani singers, many genuinely talented people. The choice was very subjective, these people had a great deal of charisma, it seemed to me. What is interesting is that these people, who live in the settlements, greatly dislike going anywhere on their own. The chosen singers always wanted to bring someone with them, sometimes a husband, sometimes a sister-in-law, and basically that's how the whole team came about.

Q:  The church you chose to record in was probably chosen on the basis of good acoustics. Why exactly that evangelical church in Slavkov?

A:  All of the Romani people were from various localities and the musicians were from Bratislava and places like that, so we sought a place where we could all meet up and find accommodation and food. The acoustics, understandably, also played a role. A friend suggested that church because it met all our requirements.  

Q:  How is traditional Romani folk music disributed today?

A:  Romani music, at least in Slovakia, is quite variable. The songs that personally led me 15 years ago to take an interest in Romani music, the ancient, wistful songs that you hear in the documentary, almost no one knows how to sing today, especially not in that archaic manner. They are declining, which is natural for folklore. Romani people in Slovakia have not stopped singing, but today they are singing a completely different wave of songs that are supplanting the original ones. These are modern songs influenced by popular music, you hear traces of Leonard Cohen, Michael Jackson, and other modern songwriters in them. The quasi-gospel singing style is a completely specific style, and there really is a lot of it here today. However, if you are looking for someone who knows how to sing the ancient songs, you must visit the elderly.  

Q:  To what degree are the songs in your project influenced by modern music, such as jazz? Or are these also ancient, original songs?

A:  We included all the songs in the project at the initiative of the Romani singers themselves. For example, the tango that you hear in the documentary ("Libertango" by Piazolla - Editors) is something the accordionist was playing for himself, and they then added their singing to it. Some of the recorded songs are the ancient ones, but the singers brought them up on their own. No one said to them "Learn this, we'll play it, they were constantly singing them. We would rehearse a little bit and then take a break, relax. They relaxed by singing whatever they wanted. They sang when they were working, and they sang when they were resting. We chose some of the songs on the basis of what they sang to themselves during their relaxation.  

Q:  What are the features of ancient Romani music? Can you describe it to a lay person?

A:  In Slovakia we know these songs as halgato, songs with Hungarian features. These are songs to listen to, most of them sad songs about disease, illness, poverty, sorrow over the death of a loved one, and musically they are rather easy to identify - they are rhythmic and slow, in a rubato tempo, but the tempo greatly depends on the singer, on how he feels at that moment, what he is going through, so the rhythm will accelerate or decelerate, and there is a great deal of improvisation. It is essentially imposible to capture the same song the same way twice. The singers improvise both the lyrics and the melodies, and frequently they will alter the song to reflect the situation in their own lives and project their own story into the songs. They invest enormous emotion into them - often the singer will cry while singing them.

Q:  From what time period do these traditional Romani songs come?

A:  Given that they are based on the Hungarian halgato, they are estimated to be about 50 years old, but here and there recordings are found that seem to be of older material. In any event it is really hard to determine their age, because there were never recordings before then.

Q:  How did the singers respond to the musicians?

A:  The musicians and the Romani singers knew each other from before. However, at the very first meeting, the singers were afraid, they were ashamed to sing in front of them. Luckily, Thierry joined them (Thierry Ebam, an African artist who works in Slovakia). He brought his drums, loaned a drum to each of them, and led them in drumming so everyone could relax. Gradually we all figured it out, we did our best to make sure there was room for everyone, that no one was being suppressed, so all of the elements could combine somehow.  

Q:  What followed the filming?

A:  They gave a concert at the church in Slavkov where we recorded. There is a big Romani community there, so the church was filled to the last seat. We gave more concerts after that, we also went abroad. The project then ended when one of the fabulous singers, Béla, passed away. We went silent after that, we knew we would never find another Béla. In any event those concerts were rather demanding, each of the Romani singers lived somewhere else, so it also happened that we might not meet for three-quarters of a year, but we performed about 40 of those concerts.  

The documentary film "Cigarettes and Songs" (Cigarety a pesničky) was written, directed and filmed by Jana Bučková and Marek Šulík (Slovakia 2010:  52 minutes). 

Anna Pivodová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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