The “Gypsy Caravan” did a six-week bus tour in 2002 with five Romani bands which often reminded me of Roger McMurrin and his Ukrainian singers and musicians who have toured the U.S. innumerable times in the last decade. Of course, McMurrin’s bus tours usually include over 150 in three busses. This caravan that I watched in a documentary film must have had nearly 25-30 performers in one bus that toured large cities from East to West Coasts and even up in Canada. The two hour film used many vignettes from the performers’ humble origins and skillfully used lyrical pieces from their concert tour. The English subtitles translated from the respective languages from the five different groups represented helped with bringing the story all together from present to flashbacks to fast forwards after the tour.
Most distinguished of the gypsy performers was Esma Redzepova, originally from Macedonia, who made sure everyone knew her as “Queen of the Gypsies.” By the end of the movie you knew WHY she successfully lived up to her title. Her singing career has spanned over 40 years from when she was a petite young woman in colorful costumes to how she appeared as a huge opera singer in her latter days but with an equally huge heart. She and her late husband (not gypsy) could not have their own children so they rescued and saved 47 children who were street children or orphaned. Four or five of her adult, adopted children were her backup band on the tour.
Another performer, 55 year old Juana la del Pipa, from the Spanish Gypsy Flamenco group had a riveting story about her sad life. Juana had raw, innate talent as a performer while her nephew,“Antonio El Pipa,” danced flamenco. She admitted that she married very young and eventually some of her sons and husband got involved in drugs. Juana was ready to give up her life, so unbearable was her pain while she watched the destruction of drugs within her own family. Juana cried out to the Lord God and He saved her and her family became drug free. To me, it was an amazing testimony of what God did in her life and she gave God the glory.
Another very profound performer with a much longer life story was Nicolai Neaucescu from Romania. He looked about 80 but maybe he was really in his 70s. Nicolai would play his old traditional tunes on his violin and then take one long hair from his bow and use that to play the strings, a very unique way to play. Nicolai was proud of being a grandpa who still supported his family. In fact, he had a granddaughter studying accordion in Bucharest and she was learning to READ the music notes on the page. However, he admitted to being lonely as a widower and said that even if one had all the gold on the table, it did make up for living out his last years of his life by himself. Yet at the beginning of the film, Nicolai talked about the three fates one is handed and you can have bitterness and hardship when you are young and full of energy but then will have a satisfying, easy end of life. Coming from Romania, he must have had a VERY difficult life. Nicolai seemed to enjoy the tour but there is a surprise ending in this film and I will not be a spoiler of what happens to him. Nicolai reminded me of all the other old timers who need to have their life stories documented before its too late.
Another traditional folk musician from Nicolai’s Romanian region also supported his family in his village. Part of the charm of this documentary is that it showed the inner feelings and life experiences of a few of these musicians’ backgrounds. This man (I didn’t catch his name) lamented that he lost a 4 year old daughter years ago and how he missed his wife and family the six weeks he toured the U.S. But upon their return to Clejani, southwest of Bucharest, the movie showed a big wedding he prepared and he played his violin for his young daughter. He was proud of the fact that he had enough money after the tour to pay for the feasting to celebrate his daughter’s wedding. He was part of the “Taraf de Haidouks” (it means band of outlaws).
“Fanfare Ciocarlia” was a 12 piece brass band from near the Moldavian border. Their music blends Romanian, Roma, Turkish, Bulgarian, and Serbian influences. While living under the deposed and executed Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, these musicians were forced to work in the factories but as an outlet for their music, they could carry on during the weekends with playing long and hard at weddings. One funny part happened when the musicians wanted to cut off part of their brass instruments (I think a trombone) right before a concert to obtain a different sound. The American coordinator of the tour could be heard in the background while they sawed away, “Don’t damage the stage, whatever you do” while also reminding them they had just minutes before they were to perform.
Of all the performers, the one group from northwest India named Maharaja was respected by the other gypsy groups because that is where the gypsy origins are originally from. The Indian town of Rajasthan was shone especially through the young and handsome male eyes of Sayari Sapera. He had the sole responsibility of supporting his younger siblings since their parents had died. Sayari’s claim to fame was he played the role of a man who dresses up as a bride to help his friend save face as the groom who was stood up. Sayari claimed he was one of two dancers who do the knee dance at top speed circling around the stage as a costumed female Sufi-style dancer. His music group utilizes Arabic and Sufi music but the other Romani groups could hear strains of their own musical derivations in the old, north Indian folk music.