Interview with Romani composer Roger Moreno Rathgeb
Roger Moreno Rathgeb is, like many Romani musicians, self-taught, but he gradually began to use musical notation and to compose. Several years ago he decided to compose a requiem for the victims of the Auschwitz extermination camp, but his work was interrupted by a visit there which strongly impacted him and blocked his creative capabilities for several years. The impulse to complete the work came in the form of a request from Albert Siebelink, who suggested presenting the "Requiem for Auschwitz" at the International Gipsy Festival in Tilburg and then in other European cities.
A composer and multi-instrumentalist (he plays accordion, violin, double-bass, guitar, piano and drums), Rathgeb came to Prague for the first time ever to present his most extensive work to date, "Requiem for Auschwitz" (for more about this exceptional event, see http://www.romea.cz/cz/kultura/pocatkem-listopadu-predvedou-romsti-umelci-v-rudolfinu-koncert-requiem-za-osvetim). We spoke together in the foyer of the Rudolfinum concert hall during the dress rehearsal, which we could hear underway on the other side of the wall. It was beautiful.
Q: You were born in Switzerland in 1956, which means 11 years after the war. Even though Switzerland was neutral, did you sense any of the aftermath of the war?
A: In reality there was no war in Switzerland, but there were other problems there. For example, at that time a particular Swiss organization was working to take children away from Romani families immediately after they were born and give them to infertile non-Romani married couples. That lasted until 1979. You could say that was a war, too, just a bit of a different one.
Q: Where did your parents come from?
A: My father was not Romani, he was a German Swiss. My mother was Romani - to be precise, she was Sinti - but she also was born in Switzerland. I was not raised in the traditional Romani environment of that time. My sister and I normally attended school. I didn't even know my mother was Romani until I was 12 or 13. Not only did we never speak Romanes at home, we never talked about being Romani. I basically don't even know how my parents met. My grandpa (that is, the father of my mother) passed away when she was six, so she de facto did not know his culture.
Q: You do speak Romanes, however. You learned it later?
A: Yes, sure. In 1980 my band and I were on a tour of Holland and I met several Sinti families of musicians. The band just left me there with them [laughs]. They only spoke the Sinti dialect of Romanes, and I immediately felt at home among them.
Q: Did you already know you were a Sinto by then?
A: Yes. When I was young, children in school would laugh at me and say I was a "gypsy", and I always defended myself against their accusations because I really didn't know anything about my origins. They must have sensed it somehow. Once I came home and complained about it to my mother and she revealed to me that I am Romani. It wasn't easy for her to say, she was a bit ashamed herself. Then, for many years, I had a problem with my identity. After all, I grew up as just a "normal" Swiss person, just like a gadjo.
Q: Do you identify as Romani/Sinti today?
A: I always had the feeling I was not like other Swiss people. I was a rebel. I protested against Swiss laws, against society, basically against everything. Swiss people have a completely different mindset. Inside I suspected I wasn't Swiss, that it couldn't be true. There just had to be something else.
Q: When did you decide to professionally devote yourself to music? What led you to that?
A: When I was 10, I got a guitar for my birthday from my grandmother (on my mother's side). She recognized that I had musical talent, even though I am the only one in the family who has dedicated himself to music. My family is totally unmusical otherwise.
Q: What kind of music do you like most? You're here in Prague for a concert of classical music, but do you also go in for traditional Romani music?
A: Yes, Romani music is definitely what I like the most. The road to classical music was a very long one for me, because for a long time I couldn't even read music.
Q: Where did you learn the music theory that is so necessary to composing a requiem?
A: I first encountered musical notation when I was 35. I was taking violin lessons and my teacher was a Hungarian Rom who played in the Maastricht Symphony Orchestra. It was he who first showed me musical notation, and by doing so he opened up a whole new world to me.
Q: In addition to classical and Romani music, what else speaks to you?
A: I'd say I basically love all music. Once I even played drums in a rock’n’roll band and to this day I have very warm feelings about that musical style, I enjoy it!
Q: You have worked in many different groups - which do you have the best memories of and which contributed the most to your life?
A: I'd say the Sinto family I started to play with after moving to Holland [the band Zigeunerorkest Nello Basily – Editors]. They played the traditional music of Romani people from Hungary, Romania, and Russia. From them, especially from the cimbalom [concert hammered dulcimer] player, I learned how to distinguish the Hungarian harmonies. Those are the best for learning accompaniment because they are constantly changing, and that makes it easier to accompany even songs you don't know. I came to the greatest depth of understanding in that band.
Q: Why did you decide to emigrate to Holland?
A: In 1980 we traveled with the band on a tour around Holland, and the mentality of people in that country immediately clicked with me. The Dutch are free-thinkers, unlike the Swiss, who are terribly conservative. The truth is, the Swiss don't like Romani people. The Dutch are open and tolerant, and they have a beautiful country. It was a very quick decision.
Q: You have written scripts for several theatrical performances - what were they?
A: We created two theatrical shows with the band. The first is called "The Long Journey", and it tells the story of the migration of Romani people from India to Europe. We called the second one "The Life", and in it we portray the daily life of Romani musicians. These are pastiches of music, poetry, and story-telling. We sat around a fire, played our instruments, and did our best to create the atmosphere of a Romani camp. The gadje don't know much about Romani people and often ask me about our culture and history. We wanted to somehow approximate our "Romani-ness" for them, because discrimination comes from ignorance in particular.
Q: How many people came to the show - was it mostly non-Romani people or Romani people?
A: We performed in theaters in Belgium, Germany and Holland, and most of them were attended mainly by gadje. It's sad - Romani people aren't interested in these things, I don't know why.
Q: You have come to Prague with your wife. Is she also a musician?
A: Yes, we perform together, it's how we make our living. It's brilliant that my composition is being played all over Europe, but I have not yet made any money from it, and I have to make a living somehow. We play in concert, we play at festivals and in theaters, at weddings and at various parties.
Q: You are one of the main figures in the film "Musicians for Life", which was created by Bob Entrop. Can you tell us about the film?
A: That film is one of the reasons I am now in Prague. Albert Siebelink, who is the director of the Romani festival in Tilburg, saw it, and there's an interview with me in it where I talk about "Requiem for Auschwitz". After seeing the film, Albert asked me whether I had completed the piece yet, but it wasn't ready. He promised that if I would complete it, he would arrange for it to be performed. I began work on it once more, but it took me another three years all the same.
"Musicians for Life" is not the only film I have collaborated on with Bob Entrop. I also perform in the documentary "A Hole in the Sky", which is about WWII survivors.
Q: When did you start to work on "Requiem"?
A: I first visited Auschwitz in 1998 and I immediately got the idea to write a requiem. I started working on it, but after some time all of my inspiration for it disappeared. I thought that if I returned to Auschwitz I would know how to continue, but that didn't happen - the complete opposite happened. I was just destroyed, it's a very macabre place. I set the work aside and did not return to the "Requiem" until eight years later.
Q: Would you call yourself a Romani (Sinti) activist?
A: Probably not - I'm just a musician. Naturally, if people see a message in my music, then that's brilliant.
Q: For a certain time you collaborated with opera singer Carla Schroyen. What was that project? Did your idea to create a great classical music work (like "Requiem for Auschwitz") start there?
A: Carla Schroyen sang various "gypsy" arias from operas and operettas and I accompanied her on accordion, but that didn't influence my composing. I had already dedicated myself to classical music prior to that.
Q: What was your first classical composition?
A: In 1995 I decided to try to write a ballet for an amateur dance ensemble in Maastricht. In the end, however, it turned into a symphonic-poetic work.
Q: Did you try to incorporate elements of Romani music into "Requiem for Auschwitz"?
A: A little, you can hear them in some places - there are several motifs that turn up repeatedly. "Requiem", however, is not dedicated only to the Romani victims, but to everyone who suffered or perished in Auschwitz. Before writing it I did not listen to any other requiems so I wouldn't be influenced by other works. It's me in "Requiem", not anyone else, which is why some Romani motifs have to be there.
Q: Do you see any difference between the genocide of the Jewish people and that of the Romani people?
A: It's completely the same thing. The numbers differ a bit, but that's not what is essential.
Q: You have played as an opening act for Chuck Berry, you have performed for the Dutch royal family, and "Requiem for Auschwitz" is being played in the most celebrated halls in Europe. What do you consider your greatest success so far? What are your other plans or dreams?
A: I am working on an oratorio about the migration of Romani people from India to Europe. I think it will be a much more extensive work than "Requiem". I also would like to write an opera about the Romani children taken away from their parents and placed with non-Romani families in Switzerland. As you can see, I have enough plans! [laughs]
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