Wednesday 20 June 2007

The Gypsy parade

May must be the month of processions in the Czech Republic. Little over a week since the big Ride of the Kings at Vlčnov, there was a procession of Gypsy musicians through the streets of Prague’s Old town to mark the end of the Khamoro Romany cultural festival.

The procession started at the Můstek end of Wenceslas Square. There were five or six groups of musicians milling around and loads of people trying to squeeze in to photograph them. There were also marshals fighting to get the whole thing organized and dozens of friends and friends of friends. It was chaotic but not nearly as much as you might expect either from five groups of musicians or five groups of gypsies. Considering it was five or six groups of Gypsy musicians the whole thing was positively efficient.

(I understand that in some circles the word Gypsy is considered pejorative, but by using it I intend no disrespect to anybody. There are accounts of many Roms who happily refer to themselves as Gypsy. Hip-hop musician is one high-profile example and recently there was also the lady who guided me through the Museum of Romany culture in Brno. The fact that the nationalities Romany and Romanian are sometimes confused is another reason to stick with the word ‘Gypsy’ Anyway, no offence, back to the parade…)

At a little after the appointed time the procession started down Na Příkopě, led by the Romany flag. The flag has two horizontal fields, of blue and green, with a red chakra (something like a wagon wheel) in the centre. Behind followed the flags of Israel and the European countries with sizable Romani populations. The first group of musicians marched behind the Ukrainian flag and following them were the groups from Slovenia, Hungary, Czech, Rajasthan and Macedonia. The only ones playing at the beginning were the band from Macedonia, which was fine by me, because it was these fat brass sounds from the Balkans that got me hooked on Gypsy music in the first place.

Up near the corner of Havířská the procession paused and the other groups of musicians cleared spaces for themselves to play and dance. The dark flowery costumes and headscarves of the Ukrainians are what I remember of childhood impressions of gypsies in film and fiction and it was them that I watched dance. Or tried to watch, before the professional (read ‘rude’) photographers got in on the act and forced their way in front of everybody else. Rather than the brass instruments favoured in the Balkans the Ukrainians played violin and piano accordion. Only a clarinet could have made it more typically Central European. The Rajasthani Gypsies played percussion, so it was only the flamenco guitars of French and Spanish Gypsies (ala The Gypsy Kings) that were underrepresented.

The highlight of the dancing was contributed by the brightly dressed girl with the group from Rajasthan. At the last stop before the old town square she danced for several minutes in a tight circle of spectators before slipping the two big gold rings off her fingers and presenting them to the crowd. She laid them jewel-side down on the ground, with the ring itself pointing up into the air. More dancing in a circle, a faster tempo and then she stopped, stretched over backwards with her belly to the sky and picked up the rings. Between her eyelids! Stretching over backwards far enough to put your forehead on the ground is impressive enough, doing it with enough control to pick up something made of metal between your eyelids without having your eye out is quite amazing and the whole thing in a street surrounded by a jostling crowd of strangers was a feat worthy of the most courageous daredevil!

The procession continued like this, the Macedonians playing on the move and then a halt while the other groups and their dancers had a turn, until it reached the Old Town Square. On the square the musicians followed the flags in a rough sort of loop before everybody split and found their own space to play. After half an hour or so some of the groups packed up, the flags had all been rolled away and others drifted off to try their luck at busking for the 85Kč-beer drinking onlookers in the outdoor cafes. "Te den, cha, te maren, denaš!" (If they're giving, take, if they're angry, run!)

A fittingly imprecise and natural end to a parade celebrating the culture of Europe’s greatest undefined and undefinable nation. Long may they live, prosper, and keep pumping out that fantastic music…

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