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August 19, 2022



Dragan Ristic: Anatomy of an Idea - The European Roma Institute

23.6.2015 22:58
Dragan Ristić (far left) and the KAL band.
Dragan Ristić (far left) and the KAL band.

Dragan Ristic is a guitarist, lyricist and vocalist with the music group KAL. A citizen and resident of Serbia, he holds a Master's in Film Theory from the University of Belgrade.

Since 1998 Ristic has served as the Director of the Romani Cultural Center in Belgrade and has led KAL since 2002. He has directed the Amala School for Romani Language and Culture since 2011 as well; he submitted the following piece to news server on 11 June 2015.    

Dear Friends,

Let’s look truth in the eye and say what is rarely addressed. The Idea of creating the European Roma Institute has slept in the brightest of corridors of Roma movements for almost 40 years and is now experiencing its own evolution!

I am convinced that the European Roma Institute (hereinafter referred to as ERI) is deeply rooted in the need to create a coherent and stable racial culture as a means of establishing ethnic particularity. An Institute that will address and deal with the creation of the Roma Cultural Policy, whose integral part will be the production, diffusion and promotion of Roma culture, is of invaluable significance as to Roma, so to Europe.

If the fact that culture is the best product of this nation is taken into account, then this matter becomes that much more important and of utmost urgency.

I see that there is a debate present in academic, political and activist circles about the meaning of the whole idea, and at the risk of sounding esoteric, I will try to explain the reasons of the necessity of the existence of the ERI.

First, I must emphasize that preservation of national and cultural identity is of extreme importance to each nation, and is so to the Roma.  Even though they are the largest “Europeans” in Europe, this nation has the need to preserve and develop its diversity and sense of belonging to their nation as well as to preserve their own heritage. The largest European apartheids wish to preserve the forms of thoughts, actions and feelings which have made them so distinctive and special that they have left an indelible mark in the history of civilization.

I estimate that it is high time for Roma to create a stable and solid institution, or to move in a formalized and structured process of institutionalization. These institutions rarely exist in any European country yet Europe here gives us a hand because, in this way, they want to show their intentions and to be equal towards all.

The Roma don’t have any more time and must not miss the chance to finally form a strategy with which they will take care of themselves in a systematic way because, up until now, they haven’t had such a chance.

Europe is nowadays one market, a unique community, and the Roma must find their place here with a clear, specific and orderly vision in which culture has a special meaning. The rapid development and enormous influence of the media and the global public opinion has to be used in the context of forming a positive image of the Roma nation, and so ERI has to exist!

If Japan is known for technology, Switzerland for abundance and precision, Rio de Janeiro for Carnival and soccer, then the Roma should have an image of fantastic artists, an image of peace-loving people, a nation that has never started a single war, a nation which is loyal to family, a nation whose only flag is love and freedom! In the future, I see ERI as an institution that will lead Roma cultural diplomacy because I repeat, culture and respectively art are our best products, and why do we not use so in the promotion of our own best interests?

Hence, this institution needs to grapple with branding its own nation and that is a long process, but certainly attainable.

Imagine a feature film in which the director will not be Emir Kusturica and the music will not be written by Goran Bregovic and in which there won’t be “wide Roma smiles and gold teeth” yet the topic will be love between a Rom and Romani who are, at the same, intellectuals!

Imagine Roma musicians who represent their culture in mainstream context instead of bands like No Smoking Orchestra, Gogol Bordello (which incidentally have nothing to do with the Roma). From the above, it is evident that an abuse of Roma culture exists, especially in music. As there are skilled white musicians and bands who play the blues, so it is logical that there are also non-Roma musicians and bands that play Roma music; but it is completely illogical that practically no Roma musicians or bands exist as a representative of Roma music in today’s mainstream music scene.

Is the reason for this phenomenon maybe the fact that artists of Roma origin have a conception of their own position of understanding artistic practice as an autonomous domain which, with some resistance or quite willingly, is separated from the world of everyday life and they do not understand that this is a time of cultural industries and cultural products that have their own price in the market?

ERI must find a place for Roma cultural expression in the hierarchy of creativity that generates sinister metaphysical dualism which, it seems to me, identifies the Roma with the soul, the non-Roma with the mind. This institution must have a defined strategy for the production and consumption of cultural goods, which the Roma have in abundance, and which is the basic characteristic of 21st century culture.

Some academics have remarked that the ERI threatens to turn Roma into entertainers, minstrels, musicians and I say that Roma are sustained, healed and nurtured by the translation of their own experiences into art, especially music. I am sure that, for us, music, gesture and dancing are embodiments of communication, just as important as the gift of speech.

I will quote a famous African-American female writer, Nobel Prizewinner, who said the following about African-American music:  “My parallel is always the music, because all of the strategies of the art are there. All of the intricacy, all of the discipline. All the work that must go into improvisation so that it appears that you’ve never touched it. Music makes you hungry for more of it. It never really gives you the whole number. It slaps and embraces, it slaps and it embraces. The literature ought to do the same thing. I’ve been very deliberate about that. The power of the word is not music, but in terms of aesthetics, the music is the mirror that gives me the necessary clarity… The major thing black art has to have are these: it must have the ability to use found objects, the appearance of using found things, and it must look effortless. It must look cool and easy. If it makes you sweat, you haven’t done the work. You shouldn’t be able to see the seams and stitches. I have wanted always to develop a way of writing that was irrevocably black. I don’t have the resources of a musician but I thought that if it was truly black literature it would not be black because I was, it would not even be black because of its subject matter. It would be something intrinsic, indigenous, something in the way it was put together – the sentences, the structure, texture and tone – so that anyone who read it would realize. I use the analogy of the music because you can range all over the world and it’s still black… I don’t imitate it, but I am informed by it. Sometimes I hear blues, sometimes spirituals or jazz and I’ve appropriated it. I’ve tried to reconstruct the texture of it in my writing – certain kinds of repetition – its profound simplicity… What has already happened with the music in the States, the literature will do one day and when that happens it’s all over.”

In the end, I add:  When that all happens to the Roma everything will be over!

agw, Dragan Ristic
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