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Top Gypsy musician celebrated around world — scorned by many back home

BUCHAREST, Romania, 31.1.2007 12:49, (The Associated Press)

His panflute strapped to his body, the young Gypsy musician fled communist Romania on foot in search of freedom.

Nearly two decades later, Damian Draghici has become one of the world's top panflutists: he has played on stage with James Brown and Joe Cocker and won a Grammy in 2006. But as he tours Europe to promote Romania as a new EU member — performing gypsy ballads in a band called Damian and Brothers — his roots are striking a wrong chord with some politicians.

Gypsies, or Roma, have long faced intense discrimination in Romania and the rest of the Balkans — shut out of jobs, housing and marriage prospects. Several Romanian politicians have criticized Foreign Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu for funding Draghici's tour.

"He wants (Europe) to believe that in Romania there are only Gypsies," said Nationalist Senator Gheorghe Funar, who accused Ungureanu of having an "anti-Romanian attitude."

Draghici said that's precisely the kind of attitude he is trying to break down by playing his ancient instrument — also known as a panpipe — which takes its name from the Greek god Pan and is made up of short pipes bound together in a row.

"Our music changes people's perception of Gypsies and that is the objective," said Draghici, 36.

The tour of Damian and Brothers has been greeted with enthusiasm across Europe, getting thousands of people attending free concerts in Brussels, London and in Dublin on their feet and dancing.

On New Year's day, when Romania joined the EU, Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn danced the night away in Bucharest to Draghici's music.

Born into a musical family, the great-great nephew of the legendary panflutist Fanica Luca, Draghici began playing when he was three and fled the country when he was 18. It was the spring of 1989, months before the fall and execution of late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Draghici had won accolades and prizes for his music while growing up in Soviet-era Romania. But all the while he felt he was being slowly suffocated.

"I couldn't stand not being free. I thought: 'I stay here and die slowly or I die tonight," he said recalling his flight into the former Yugoslavia and on to Greece during an interview at a Bucharest restaurant.

Years of playing in four-day weddings as a child, and walking for kilometers (miles) in wind, rain and sun to accompany the bride and groom on a horse-drawn cart had prepared Draghici for the long trek of five days and five nights. He survived on wild fruits and handfuls of water he scooped up along the risky route to freedom.

Greece became his home for the next decade. There, he began playing in bars and clubs, learning to speak perfect Greek so the immigration officers wouldn't deport him.

At first he scraped together a few drachmas, busking in the street and hanging out with beggars and prostitutes. Later, as word of his talent spread, he was earning up to the equivalent of US$500 (€387) a night. He also started studying at the Philippos Nakas music conservatory in Athens.

But the money and the studies weren't enough for the restless Draghici. After landing a Sony recording contract, he won a full scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston finishing the four-year course in 14 months.

Draghici, who composes music and plays a dozen instruments, still counts the panflute — which is today played mainly in Romania and South America — as the true instrument of his soul.

"When I want to express something to people, that is how I tell them best," he said.

American musical great Quincy Jones has lauded Draghici as "a blessed talent and mind." He has made 15 albums and has dabbled in electronic music, jazz, and hip-hop — while staying close to his Gypsy music roots.

In Romania, however, his music is less known and not widely appreciated.

"It saddens me that ... a cultural project we are promoting .... is attracting negative comment in Romania," said Corina Vintan, spokeswoman for Romania's Foreign Ministry.

Draghici has a simple message for his critics.

"Everyone is open to see the good in people. We are made of love. (As musicians), we give love, nothing else. If someone has a problem with us, they have a problem with love. Racial discrimination is a lack of love."

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