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On the harmonious fusion of Romani “Gypsy” music
I had the good fortune to conduct an interview with the scintillating Tatiana Eva-Marie, a performer of mixed-Romani heritage who The Wall Street Journal has called, “One of the best young singers around.” She holds a degree in medieval poetry from the Sorbonne University in Paris where, at night, she “performed as a Gypsy singer at night in cabarets across the city, barefoot on tables with the Eastern mafia drinking vodka out of her shoes.” She has also graced the stage as a singer and actress “in some of the most renowned theaters in France, including the Comedie Française and the Théâtre du Rond Point. Tatiana Eva-Marie wrote and directed two musical theater plays, Rhapsodia and The Magic Violin, which had a lot of success at the Avignon Theater Festival.” Now you can find her performing in New York City as the lead singer of The Avalon Jazz Band, alongside her husband, violinist Adrien Chevalier, as well as in the world music documentary and competition Music Explorer representing French, Yiddish, and Romani music. The documentary airs in June, which also happens to be Romani and Traveller History Month, and you can vote for Tatiana now via the website.
If you’re not sure who the Roma are, allow Dr. Ian Hancock, linguist, Romani scholar, and professor at The University of Texas—Austin, to explain. In short, the Roma, the ethnic group better known as Gypsies, originated in India and began to travel west, most likely because of the invading Muslim army, in the 11th century. In Europe, Roma were met by hostile Christians who were suspicious of their dark skin and ‘strange’ customs, and were violently persecuted throughout the continent and enslaved in the Balkans. The Roma were forced into a nomadic lifestyle, not as a show of free-spirited whimsy as movies and literature suggest, but to escape the rising tide of antigypsyism which still surges today. Romani culture is expansive yet tightly knit—there are Roma on almost every continent and yet both the culture and ethnicity have remained distinct—in fact, most Roma are much closer genetically to Indians than to Europeans.
In the twentieth century in Paris, Jazz Manouche became extremely popular, spearheaded by prodigies Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli, Biréli Lagrène, and many others. Manouche refers to the name of the Romani clan* in and around Paris that Reinhardt and others in the movement belong to. Although Roma are often called “Gypsies” and Jazz Manouche is frequently called “Gypsy Jazz,” the word 'Gypsy' is both a misnomer and a racial slur. (For instance, people say, “I’ve been gypped!” to mean, “I’ve been cheated!” This comes from ‘thieving Gypsy’ stereotype.) Even though Gypsy is the word that most of us are familiar with, it’s best if you join the education front: if you aren’t Romani, don’t say Gypsy. Instead say 'Romani people,' 'Roma,' and 'Jazz Manouche.' However, many Roma and people of Romani heritage, like Tatiana Eva Marie, make a conscious choice to reclaim the word Gypsy, as is their prerogative.
Romani (“Gypsy”) culture glitters with music and has influenced musical styles across the world for centuries and Romani musicians have long been appreciated by gadjé, non-Romani people, for their talent and unique sound. Historically and presently, however, gadjé culture has done little more than appreciate the entertainment and fantasy that Roma provide while Roma all over the world continue to struggle for representation, human rights, and equality. A haunting reminder of the world’s fickle affection toward the Roma is the story of how Django Reinhardt, the famous Manouche “Gypsy” Jazz musician, was spared from the concentration camps because the Nazis who invaded France enjoyed attending his concerts. The more that Romani musicians, scholars, artists, writers, and professionals are represented and represent themselves, the more the rest of the world can experience, understand, and fall in love with real Romani culture and the individuals who make up the many clans and communities—and hopefully countries will treat their Roma as equal citizens and residents.
I love Tatiana’s music for many reasons—it’s eerily gorgeous yet cheerfully sweet, it makes me feel in touch with a heritage that was nearly stifled through genocide and intolerance and nearly lost in my own family, and it’s a glorious fusion of Roma & European-gadjé aesthetics and sound. Even Tatiana herself is a voice of tolerance and inclusion and expresses her own multi-cultural heritage as the harmonious joy of ‘the melting pot.’ We need more of this coexistent beauty in our world.
* There are many, many Romani clans, all with their own culture and dialect of Rromanes (the Romani language), so it is impossible to generalize about Romani culture as a whole. For more about Romani culture, check out RADOC, ROMBASE, The Romedia Foundation, The Gypsy Chronicles, and Patrin.
A conversation with Tatiana Eva-Marie
Jessica Reidy: How did you get your start in music?
Tatiana Eva-Marie: My father is a composer and my mother is a violinist, so music is really a family tradition. Everything was music around me all the time, from morning to night. I could change LP records before I could talk. My parents took me everywhere with them, so I grew up in concert hall, recording studios, backstage in theatres, and always fascinated by my parents’ entourage of artists, musicians and actors. Dedicating my life to music and the arts was the only natural path for me.
JR: Romani culture has a long, rich musical tradition. How has your heritage influenced your music, and how has your music changed over time?
TEM: My grandmother had a terrible voice but would never stop singing, and if someone told her to be quiet she would hit them over the head with her handbag. I guess that was my first approach to my musical heritage. It was funny, but it was also a beautiful cry for life. Music is a very important part of everyday life in my culture, it’s a way to stay alive and sensitive no matter what hardships you encounter. In that aspect I think it is very similar to jazz, and it has been very interesting mixing these two influences in my music. France was the meeting point of the East and West, which led to the birth of Gypsy jazz in the 1930’s. That concept was the starting point of my music, but rather than just continuing to play it straightforward, I am starting to infuse more of Romanian and Romani elements into the sound I am creating. I want my audience to feel that they are constantly traveling with their ears.
JR: What has your experience been like in the world music documentary and competition Music Explorer? When is it out and how can we be involved?
TEM: It is a very interesting and unique music program, because for once the judges come over to your territory instead of the contestants standing in line for endless, heartless auditions. For this edition, they went to Africa, Arabia, the Caribbean and North America, meeting artists and their families, discovering local customs and really just sharing their newfound inspiration with the audience. I usually hate competitions, the only reason I accepted to be a part of this show was because it was done in such an organic and benevolent way. They were very eager to explore my musical heritage and very excited to bring artists of different cultures to share their experiences together, and I am always glad to support that effort.
The documentary is currently airing on a weekly basis and on YouTube, and the final show, which I have been selected for, will air at the end of June. In the meantime you can support me by voting for me on the Music Explorer website and clicking on the little heart.
JR: How did Avalon Jazz Band get its start?
TEM: I met violinist Adrien Chevalier when I was part of the Romani music scene in Paris. He had been to Romania many times and was passionate about eastern European music and culture. He first got me into Gyspy jazz, and then we decided to go to New York to learn more about the jazz scene. We started out in little cafés and bars, and moved our way up to opening for Norah Jones, performing for the French Ambassador and playing at the Carlyle. Our repertoire at the beginning was made up of French and American standards, and now we are adding original music and Balkanizing our arrangements.
JR: What’s your favorite aspect of performing?
TEM: I just love knowing that I can make people happy with my music and my voice. It really doesn’t matter to me if I sing for thousands or just a few people, my experience is always the same; it’s about sharing. I know how music can change people’s lives, help them, soothe them, inspire them, give them courage. I am very happy to be a part of such a powerful natural force. We are creating memories and contributing to the original soundtrack of people’s lives. It’s a kind of magic.
JR: How would you describe the Romani arts scene?
TEM: I haven’t met many Romani people in New York yet. In Paris, the scene was rich and flourishing. The audience was captivated by this culture and you could see it inspired the way they dressed and the music they listened to. There is a bohemian quality to Paris that invites the people there to take interest in such things, but New York is very modern and business oriented. Most people don’t even know about the Romani culture. It’s funny though how jazz and Romani culture always seem to intertwine in my life: one important Romani figure I have met here and who has helped a lot with my career is patron of the arts Michael Katsobashvili, originally from Georgia, who launched the very first New York Hot Jazz Festival in a now legendary club called Mehanata. He also introduced me to a fabulous place called Drom, where I recorded part of “Music Explorer” and where many famous Romani bands from around the world have come to perform.
JR: How do you think the Romani arts scene can support the fight for Romani rights and representation?
TEM: By showing an open and generous culture, not magical creatures, not chicken thieves, but real people. I suppose it is somewhat natural to be afraid of foreign things, but in the age of internet and communication there can be no excuse for that anymore. We are all so mixed now and most people can trace their heritage back to more than one country. We should all embrace our differences and be proud of our origins. We should try and educate the people around us, share our knowledge with each other. Art is a wonderful way of doing that and has always been a bridge between people.
JR: Where in the world has music taken you?
TEM: I am very lucky to have a career that enables me to travel and discover the world. Last week I was in London, tomorrow I go to Canada and in ten days I’ll be in Paris. It’s the perfect lifestyle for my nomadic soul. I avoid traveling as a tourist as much as I can and always want to meet the locals and see how they live. Last December I was in Fiji for a few concerts, I immediately found a way to ride a horse into the jungle. There the village children took me to their sacred waterfall and taught me how to cook with coconuts. It’s incredible to have memories like that from around the world. It teaches so much about love and tolerance between people.
JR: Tell me something that people don’t usually know about you.
TEM: I am sort of a geek. Although in general I am nostalgic about less robotic times, I am really into video games. Especially RPGs. I can get very excited about finding that perfect runic amulet.
JR: What are you working on right now?
TEM: I am preparing the recording of my next album, which will be a fusion of old jazz, Romani and Yiddish influences. I am currently listening to a lot of artists to become inspired for my arrangements. Django Reinhardt, Bratsch, Lhasa, Juliette Gréco and Mahala Rai Banda are on repeat right now…
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