Moving to the beat: Reviewing “Music, City and the Roma Under Communism“ by Anna G. Piotrowska4 min read
If the media surrounding Roma in Poland is reduced only to tales of oppression and poverty, musicologist Anna G. Piotrowska wants to change that. Music, City and the Roma Under Communism is about the many ways Roma developed their own musical culture both consciously and unconsciously, and how they were influenced by the state apparatus. Piotrowska begins her research by examining the lives of the Romani musicians living in Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest prior to communism. She then focuses on Roma musicianship in Kraków post-communism, during which there was a serious attempt by the state to rebrand Roma music and rejoin Roma into a utopian society.
At times, musicianship serves as a social elevator, helping Roma secure social recognition by means of self-preservation. However, playing the role of musicians also helped Roma people find a place in a communistic society. Piotrowska’s Music, City and the Roma Under Communism sheds light on the many ways Romani musicians did —or didn’t — participate in communism.
Roma music before communism
Since medieval times, Roma were unable to own land and could not participate in the agricultural economy. Therefore, they dabbled in seasonal employment, metallurgy, medicine patenting, horse-trading, and crafts. They “managed to consolidate their position as a middleman minority, often assuming the role of an intermediary between various social strata.” Many Roma passed down musical skills that came to be appreciated in public areas in Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest at the turn of the century.
To outsiders, Roma musicians appeared self-taught, and at times they pretended to be musically illiterate to play this prescribed role of a “gypsy band.” They used improvisation in their work, busking and performing in city centers. Bands often consisted of a single family which grew stronger through intermarriage, and it was not uncommon for a band or prime performance location to be passed down — an informal musical dynasty.
At the turn of the century, Hungary attempted to reinvent its Hungarian “sound” through nationalistic music. There were many points of contention on whether Hungarian folk music should include Roma influences, to the point of propping up composers like Bela Bartok who tried their best to write out all Roma influences. At the same time, Romani musicians in Romania were successful entrepreneurs, often becoming consolidated with state entities or finding employment with big “concert-style orchestras” and official platforms.
Post-War Roma Music
Under the communist regime, Polish authorities took greater steps to crack down on Roma’s itinerant lifestyle. In the ’50s, Romani carriages were confiscated. In the ’60s, vagrancy was outlawed by force, fines, and imprisonment. By the ’70s, very few Roma groups remained on the move.
Nowa Huta was one of the planned socialist cities for Roma to thrive and find work in, though Pitrowska writes that they accepted this lifestyle change with varying degrees of success. Some Roma musicians simply rebranded their tunes as “folk music.” A stream of newcomer Roma bands from Western Europe arrived, replacing some of the old. Performances once out in the open in city centers moved into restaurants and cafes. Their clientele was predominantly “ex-peasants turned workers displaying a predilection for a specific type of music, which on the one hand would remind them of their rural legacy but on the other hand could satisfy their already upgraded (by their stay in the city) ambition to participate in more sophisticated cultural life.”
The musicology perspective
Music, City and the Roma Under Communism by Anna G. Piotrowska is the first book I’ve ever read about Roma culture. I’m ashamed to say that as an American, I know very little about this culture. It was an enlightening read and my summary only covers a quarter of the research-rich data presented in this volume.
Piotrowska devotes entire chapters to prized musicians and folk heroes that arose during this time. She uses their music and writing to guide their stories. Her photos of these musicians are captivating. I enjoy the musicology perspective in her exploration of history because it is a lens that is strengths-based and enriches modern-day understandings of Romani culture. It makes me wish I could listen to some of these bands through recordings if they exist.
About the author
Anna G. Piotrowska researches musicology at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, and Durham University in the United Kingdom. She was a Fulbright Fellow at Boston University, was awarded the Moritz Csáky Preis at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and was the recipient of the Mellon Fellowship at Edinburgh University. From 2014 to 2017 she was a Balzan research fellow under the project “Toward a global history of music” led by Professor Reinhard Strohm.
Book details: Piotrowska, Anna G.. Music, City and the Roma under Communism, 2022. Bloomsbury Academic. It is available to buy here.