Celebrating with the outcasts of Europe

Over at the UK's biggest Gypsy festival, Kate Worsley marvels at arts made in the teeth of hatred
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They flocked into the gloomy foyers on foot late yesterday afternoon, clutching their children and personal belongings. Their musicians soon took over, and by nightfall the shrieking, heaving mob had packed out the hall, dancing in abandon.

They flocked into the gloomy foyers on foot late yesterday afternoon, clutching their children and personal belongings. Their musicians soon took over, and by nightfall the shrieking, heaving mob had packed out the hall, dancing in abandon.

The authorities stood back, watched, and smiled. This was London's Barbican Centre, after all, not some immigration centre or seaside hotel. The presence of the Gypsies is welcomed here. Romany music and culture provides just the sort of energy and soul that august cultural institutions with an eye to their public funding are desperate to encourage.

The Gypsies are the "blacks" of Europe: love the music, hate the poverty, the crime, the otherness. The fact that the Barbican is holding the UK's biggest ever festival of Gypsy music and arts at a time when political and social prejudice against them is on the increase is the latest manifestation of their ongoing paradoxical relationship with mainstream society. They face tabloid outrage at Tony Martin's sentence for murdering a "teenage gypsy thief". And as 3,500 Gypsies seek to escape their role as the scapegoat for eastern Europe's woes, William Hague attempts to outdo Jack Straw with increasingly wild salvos against "bogus asylum seekers". Although the Roma were recognised as an ethnic group in their own right by the UN in 1979, things have only got worse for them since the fall of Communism. But can celebrating Gypsy culture do anything to help Gypsy people?

"I knew very little about Gypsy music before this event, but I now treat it as being of the same stature as classical music. Technically, their musicians stand alongside anyone from the western tradition," says the Barbican's artistic director Graham Sheffield, who sanctioned "The 1,000 Year Journey", programmed by Brim Ormrod with David Jones from music promoters Serious. He's happy to acknowledge his political motive - "If this festival can do something to help their PR campaign then we've done a good job" - and doesn't accept that the fortnight-long programme of Gypsy music and arts will further romanticise their role in the popular imagination as the ultimate outsiders. It is more than the latest in a long line of homages to the intensity of the outsider experience from Bizet's Carmen through D H Lawrence to the Gipsy Kings. "It will make you admire them as musicians, make an objective judgement, and hopefully think twice before airing your prejudices in the future."

The box office reports blocks of eastern Europeans booking, but who knows how many Gypsies are attending the festival? "They look like you and me," says Sheffield, "it's their music that's distinctive. Its raw, raucous and immediate qualities - it's never been written down - are consistent and that's what sticks out a mile."

The music of the Gypsies, or Roma as they call themselves in the Romany language, is the original "Macedonian salad", a mélange of instruments, rhythms and influences borrowed from the cultures encountered on the 1,000-year journey from which the festival takes its name. From northwest India they migrated to Iran, Armenia and the Middle East. By the fourteenth century they had reached the Balkans, arriving in the British Isles around 1500 (some 100,000 remain today, along with Travellers, members of the same ethnic group who have existed here since the twelfth century).

Accordingly, you'll hear Hungarian roots in the same mix as breakbeat and bass 'n' drums, oriental electric soul with Gypsy violins, and funky horn riffs laid down with Indian film music. As the musical audience becomes more promiscuous in its tastes, the classical music tradition is seeking to reinvigorate itself by drawing on roots music. Witness the Kronos Quartet's latest album, Caravan, made with the dozen or so members of the Taraf de Haïdouks, the Gypsy Lautari, a musical dynasty from Romania, where more Romas have been murdered in recent years than any other central European state.

To many, Europe's eight million Gypsies seem to offer the ultimate rock lifestyle, producing a non-commercialised expression of life on the margins of society. The house was full for last night's performance by Yugoslavian film composer and rock star Goran Bregovic, the Elvis Presley of Gypsy culture. He's no Gypsy himself, but while he believes Russian Gypsy violin and flamenco have been ruined by their success as "restaurant music", his wild "weddings and funerals" fusion of brass with massed singing and accordion has become hugely popular.

Amid family workshops on wagon-painting and fire-making, a film season and various exhibitions, next weekend is dominated by the most celebrated Gypsy music of all, Andalucian flamenco. In the evening, Roma divas, Czech singer Vera Bilá and Macedonian Esma Redzepova are practically sold out.

But, says Sheila Stewart, a singer from a Scottish Traveller family who appears on 13 May, "The music is a very, very small portion of Roma life. The way of life is hard ... If society would accept that we are an ethnic group who don't want to blend in, then they'll know that we're human beings. But the only way we'll blend in is if we give up our heritage. It's an endless rope."

In yet another paradox, while continental Gypsy music has enduring appeal, Stewart points out that British Traveller music is dying. "We've changed already. It's dead. I sing in the unaccompanied tradition. But my grandchildren don't want to know. It's too old-fashioned." Yet this is the sort of music-making that musicologist Simon Broughton identifies as the music Gypsies make for themselves in private: "Rarely heard by outsiders, it is largely vocal with percussion accompaniment, with almost none of the virtuosity you associate with Gypsy music".

You will find more Gypsies on the Barbican stage on any given night next weekend than have been granted asylum in the UK in the past two years. Of the 10,000 European Roma (mostly from the Czech Republic) who have sought refuge here since 1998, nearly 3,500 have been turned away. The rest await a decision. Only three have been granted asylum.