by Jessica Mosby
– USA –
All gypsies are thieves and beggars who will steal your children and your passport! According to Johnny Depp, believers in that statement should drop everything they’re doing and run, not walk, to the nearest theatre to see When the Road Bends: Tales of a Gypsy Caravan. The 2006 documentary about the American tour of five famous Romani bands from four different countries has recently been released stateside.
Viewed as a music documentary, Gypsy Caravan is an invigorating film that shines a spotlight on the rich musical heritage of the Roma people. Organized by the World Music Institute, the film follows the six-week tour of the five Romani bands: Antonio el Pipa and his Flamenco Ensemble (Spain); Esma Redzepova and Ensemble Teodosievski (Macedonia); Maharaja (India); Fanfare Ciocarlia (Romania); and Taraf de Haïdouks (Romania). The most inspiring part of the film is seeing the performers interact on and off stage during the 18-show tour. Over the course of six weeks, people who don’t all speak the same language; who live in different countries and socioeconomic classes; and who do not play music that would seemingly complement each other jam on stage and lovingly impersonate one another off stage! For musicians who have never played together before, the five bands have incredible synergy. In almost every group scene, someone is singing or playing an instrument. The bands literally jam their way through hotel rooms, airports, bus rides, cigarette breaks, and even a photo-op at Niagara Falls. One regret that most viewers of Gypsy Caravan will have is that they didn’t get to see the tour live; while the documentary attempts to capture the energy, being there in person must have been an unparalleled experience!
The tour nicely combined gypsy bands that have completely different sounds. Esma, the most famous and seemingly wealthiest musician on the tour, was christened as “Queen of the Gypsies” in 1976; she sings a commercially popular brand of ballads. Antonio el Pipa is a flamenco dancer backed by an acoustic guitar player and two singers, including his illiterate aunt Juana la del Pipa. Maharaja is a traditional Indian ensemble that features interpretive dance by Harish Kumar. Fanfare Ciocarlia is an Eastern Romanian brass group; and Southern Romanian string group Taraf de Haïdouks is led by the late Nicolae Neacsu, the breakout star of the film.
There is something inherently madcap about 35 people (mostly foreigners to the United States) traveling across the country together on buses and planes – often drinking and always smoking. And the film captures that jovial spirit: in one scene a Romanian musician plays his accordion (his carry-on bag) while his band members sing backup as they exit a plane. Yet the good times of the tour are contrasted with the musicians’ often melancholy lyrics and devastating personal stories. The musicians say that what brings them together is not only their Romani heritage, but the feelings of both sorrow and joy that define the gypsy experience.
Jasmine Dellal‘s direction of the film, along with Albert Maysles (of Grey Gardens fame) behind the camera, balances the live concerts with behind the scenes footage and personal interviews, mostly filmed at the musicians’ homes. However, the timeline of the tour in relation to the individual interviews and personal events is never clearly explained and at times, disjointed. Some of the cinematography could be termed overly theatrical and sentimental.
The film also loses ground as social commentary. How can these five bands accurately represent and encompass the experience of the 10 million people globally who identify as Romani? Even the musicians themselves lead vastly different lives. Esma and Antonio both live in comfortable and modern, even fancy homes, while members of Fanfare Ciocarlia live in rural Romania in houses without central heat or indoor plumbing. Even within the band Taraf de Haïdouks, there are extremes: Nicolae Neacsu (the lead violist) supports his entire family and sends his granddaughter to music school in Bucharest so she can “open her mind,” whereas Gheorghe Anghel “Caliu” returns home from tour to find that his 19 year old son is engaged to a 13 year old girl, who despite her tender age lights up a cigarette like a pro. While prepping the bride for the wedding, Caliu’s female family members lament that women are treated like “slaves.” Yet the film never explores the condition of women within the Romani culture, which many in the international community feel is unacceptable. That single scene with Caliu’s family is the only overt criticism of the Romas in the film.
Yet the movie’s shortcomings do not diminish the individual musicians’ contributions, both musically and socially. Esma’s trailblazing story of her marriage to a gadjo (a non-Roma, the late Stevo Teodosievski), their adoption of 47 children (many of whom are her backup players) and her benefit concerts to help Roma refugees from Kosovo is truly inspirational. Taraf de Haïdouks tours the world and appears in films, including The Brothers Grimm and The Man Who Cried (staring Johnny Depp), not for personal wealth, but to support their entire village. Maharaja’s star dancer Harish started dancing at 16 after his parents’ deaths left him with younger siblings to support. Despite being from a carpenter caste, he started dancing at night for money while attending school during the day; he wanted to become a teacher.
While the film wants to counteract negative depictions of what it means to be a gypsy, it should have at least mentioned the ongoing problems and shortfalls of the culture, such as the exploitation of women, illiteracy, poverty and oppression by other groups. To really offer effective commentary on this issue, the film needs at the very least to acknowledge the negative aspects of the culture, even if it cannot offer possible solutions.
Obviously, no culture is entirely made up of angelic or criminal persons – everyone has positive and negative attributes; denying this reality is a disservice. If the sole message of Gypsy Caravan is that the Roma are a talented and engaging people, then the musicians speak for themselves. However, not everyone can be in a world-famous band. Real alternatives for helping the Roma, who have been persecuted for far too long, must also be discussed.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is an aspiring writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she’s not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.