I have lived in Pest County for the last 16 years. For 10 of them, I lived to the west of the Danube, but then felt compelled to move, due to the subtle yet unavoidable racism. Now, I am in my seventh year of living here in the eastern part of the county, where anti-Roma racist slurs are open and widespread – at the hairdresser, the market, in the stores, on the train, in the doctor’s waiting room – in short, anywhere there are people. And since most people do not know that I belong to that group, they speak their slurs in my presence – even in my home, or in my car, as when my wife asked me to drive someone home from the market in a neighbouring town.
Most do not know that they are doing any harm. For them, anti-Roma slurs are a natural way of life. Opinion-makers have a role to play here, but they too disparage the Roma, except they are more subtle about it, or use coded language. As for bars or public offices, I simply do not go there. In mixed marriages, as a rule, the white-skinned spouse takes care of official interactions. Just a few days ago I heard that a man was beaten by his own relatives because he chose a Roma woman as his girlfriend. My wife goes without me to the senior centre and to the city hall, and we avoid all public events where we know that a Roma should not set foot. If he does, they will not send him away; they will just stare at him till he leaves.
The crowded Roma settlements at the end of town – whose inhabitants are, by the way, respectable people living in poverty – are shunned at all institutions except the school. I recently learned that a nearby village would not allow Roma to move in – and indeed, not a single Roma lives in that village. A nearby town apparently prefers that only people of German extraction move in. If things continue in this vein, what will become of us?
Things have not always or everywhere been like this. In our part of the world, there is a tradition of coexistence between Hungarians and Roma. In their works, Franz Liszt, Prince Joseph (later Palatine of Hungary) and journalist Miklós Markó paid their respects to such famous Gypsy personalities as Panna Czinka, János Bihari, Pista Dankó, Imre Magyari, Laci Rácz the 36th, Béla Radics and Aladár Rácz.1 As to the question of why non-Roma are writing our history: our culture is an oral culture – or, in Assmann’s telling words,2 it is a non-written culture. In our day, throughout Europe, we are still struggling, with varying degrees of success, to participate in the written culture of the majority nations and to adopt the thought patterns that such a written culture entails.
The advent of writing brought about a complete transformation of thought patterns. Auditory communication was replaced by a preference for the visual sense, which created a new way of thought, logic and world view for the literate. The fact that, among the Roma, auditory communication remained the dominant method of information exchange probably explains their extraordinary instinct for music. During my days as a professional musician, I often encountered colleagues with limited talent for verbal expression, yet they could perform miracles of expression on their musical instruments.
One young man’s story is a good illustration of the basic difference between written and oral cultures. This young man came from the countryside. He was a genius on the zither, and moreover a modest, winning personality, who soon became a popular figure among the musicians of Budapest, and the Gypsy bandleaders competed for his services. He worked in locales that required musicians to have a “Category A” professional certification, which in turn required a grammar school diploma. But Alfonz was illiterate – he could read neither words nor a musical score.
On the day of the examination, the orchestra occupied one end of a large auditorium, and the candidate took his place among them. The examining board sat across from them, with the president in the centre, a renowned professor from the Academy of Music. At the other end of the auditorium sat the audience: family members, relatives and friends. “Please give me a scale in C-sharp minor!” the professor said to Alfonz. Our friend stared straight ahead impassively; it was apparent he had no idea what to do. “Please show me a C-sharp minor scale!” repeated the president, more sternly this time, and we in the audience began to worry in earnest. It was obvious that he did not know what the expression “a C-sharp minor scale” meant. In the increasingly painful silence, another member of the examining committee, a band leader named Kálmán Suha Balog, whispered something in the president’s ear, who nodded. Balog took up his own violin and began to play a song in C-sharp minor. Alfonz joined in, and it was now clear that he was extremely familiar with the key of C-sharp minor. Alfonz received his Category A certification, which we all celebrated as a victory.
Roma people are geographically greatly dispersed. The process of their language socialisation has remained partly obscured – some people still hide their knowledge of their native language – and there are significant differences in the level of language socialisation among the various communities. The most widespread form of language socialisation was to expand the vocabulary used for internal communications by adding words from the majority language, and then mixing them with conjugations and adjectives from the Roma language. This is commonly used in intercultural communications, and can be considered a form of spontaneous language renewal that has resulted in a new, hybrid language (similar to the emergence of Yiddish). The same happened with Sinti (the variation of the Roma language that came under German influence) and probably many other language variations.
The other remarkable development in language socialisation occurred largely among the musician communities in urban areas. Instead of taking over words from the majority language, they did the opposite: common words from the Roma language, mostly verbs, were combined with Hungarian declensions and inserted into Hungarian sentences. Common Roma-language nouns (such as csaj, csávó, séró, lóvé, manus, sukár) were melded into Hungarian sentences. This phenomenon evidently helped to preserve communal identity during the transitional period. Today, such words are becoming part of Hungarian slang, of whose origins most people are unaware.
As time passed, these abilities became keys to our survival. However, this situation was turned upside down with the advent of democracy. Communication, political dialogue and representative democracy became norms and necessities for our community as well. We were now allowed to found associations and self-governing councils, which work well for national minorities and all other groups who need representation for their collective interest – but are entirely unsuited to our problems. Not only because our ingrained reactions, formed during the years of the dictatorship, make this impossible or difficult, but more importantly because the two world views do not intersect, even though the desire is there on both sides to pursue a dialogue. Our communities did not take part in the development process in which the institutions of civil democracy were nurtured. Today, it has become evident, in view of the spontaneous organisations of the traditional Roma communities and their networks, that the problem is deeper and more widespread than we thought. What is happening is that, due to a different approach to community organisation, the Roma people do not view their own situation the way others do, and so their way of seeking solutions is also different. Solidarity exists only among tightly drawn relationships, and this solidarity is uncompromising. Within these relationships, only basic human needs count – it follows that the Roma community rejects the idea of property and of saving; they have a different understanding of space and time, and all this affects their communications strategy.
Despite the existence of historical records, we know practically nothing about the developments that occurred within the Roma groups at the time of and shortly after their arrival in Europe. Even given our knowledge of later eras, we can only conjecture that an informal institution of authority must have existed, which encompassed laws and norms to ensure order in every situation. This authority – a community of our ancestors – sought to bring about equality and equal access to resources while maintaining a significant level of economic activity. This can be considered the starting point from which the European (and within it Hungarian) so-called Roma cultures were formed, as part of a unique process that from the outside looked like stagnation. This system was destroyed by the calamitous events of the 20th century.
In the winter of 1944, the eastern front of the Second World War rolled across our community. On one occasion, I watched from our window, behind the curtain, as the German troops drove their green canvas-covered truck into the yard belonging to our neighbour across the way, Imre bácsi [Uncle Imre]. The Germans were on a requisitioning spree and took everything they could find: pigs, chickens, hams, potatoes, flour, beans. That (non-Roma) neighbour was well-supplied, compared to our family. But our family did not live in a segregated part of a locality; we were on good terms with our white neighbours. The soldiers skipped our house because it was obvious that we owned nothing worth taking. Later, though, they returned bearing small gifts after they learned we could play music. I performed dances and songs for them, and received candy and chocolate in return, as well as an army hat, which I loved to wear. Most of them were Hungarian, but some were Germans, and I also remember a Romanian Gypsy who was a good violin player. I have another distinct wartime memory: at the end of Imre bácsi’s yard there was a hill where all the residents of our street dug cellars in which they stored food over the winter: potatoes, corn, squash, cabbage and animal feed. As the fighting line approached our village, the owner of the hill property allowed our entire family to move into this cellar, whose entrance was camouflaged with corn cobs.
The Russians were preceded by their bad reputation, and the population tried to protect the young women in particular, hiding them away, dressing them in ugly clothes and padding them with pillows to make them look pregnant. Naturally, I entertained the Soviet soldiers too, with my songs and dances. I was especially popular with the following song whose text, of unknown origin, was set to a well- known Russian folk song:
Bastard Kraut, what did you do? You tried to take the Gypsy away, But the Russian noticed
And saved the Gypsy’s life.
Why do I recall these stories here? For one thing, it shows that during a dangerous time, our little house was an island of peace. For another, I draw attention to a strange paradox.
In an earlier article for this journal, (Vol. III, No. 2, March 2012), I described the Roma community structure, which was maintained, probably over the course of centuries, largely because the majority population viewed it with tolerance. This tolerance, in turn, was made possible by the Roma groups’ avoidance of conflict, by Roma land usage patterns that respected their neighbour’s ownership, and above all by the social meeting place represented by Gypsy music.
It was in this period, however, that the decline of Gypsy musical culture became evident. The legacy of the distinguished Pali Nagygéczi Rácz, head of a musical dynasty and composer of popular Gypsy songs, came to an end. In this small community some people still visited the pubs, but only the drunks and the unredeemable elements heard the music anymore. The world of the Gypsy musicians came quietly to an end; the last died a few years ago.
Following the Second World War, the traditional restaurant scene and the associated Gypsy music were officially denigrated as a “bourgeois” legacy of a reviled, bygone era. One after the other, coffee houses and restaurants were closed down, so that family celebrations and company-based events became the musicians’ only remaining source for a precarious livelihood. As it happened, society’s desire for the musicians’ services could not be extinguished by political decree, yet this was not enough for musicians to make a living and support their families – and they began to leave the traditional music profession in droves. Some used their musical abilities in other directions, while others became factory workers, miners, or agricultural or construction labourers. The ambitious and talented could learn a trade. Interestingly, it was at this time that the Hungarian Radio’s Folk Orchestra was created, performing extensively on Hungary’s public radio stations, and enjoying great popularity. Older Hungarians will still remember the folk tune that preceded the children’s story hour every evening – a magnificent dulcimer recording by István Lukács. The other significant development was the emergence of a series of groups created to foster Hungarian folklore. Among these, the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble stands out, whose performances based on Gypsy musical themes – Kállai kettős, Ecseri Wedding Feast, Székelyfonó – toured the world. Gypsy music had become a polished product, and had no more room for improvisations or ornamentation – its style increasingly resembled that of Hungarian folk music. In this context, musicians could again make a living, and even ensure a long-term middle-class existence. In fact, the joint rehearsals, extensive worldwide tours and popular renown created a new form of community in which skin colour no longer counted, and this was a major turning-point in the history of the Roma. No longer was it characterised by a master–servant relationship. But this change affected only a small proportion of the urban, professional musicians. The majority of Gypsy musicians were lost to the world of music.
There is, or more precisely was, another social caste among Hungarian Gypsy musicians: those who remained at the authentic musical source, that is, a dwindling number of amateur musical groups in the villages and small towns. Their audiences were made up of farmers, business- and tradesmen, lower-level officials, and their repertoire was accordingly comprised of folk songs, troubadour tunes, csárdás, operetta excerpts and, later, modern dance songs. Traditional Hungarian ballroom dances (the soldiers’ recruiting dance or the “palace” dance) were rarely played. These groups adapted their routines entirely to the agricultural workers’ calendar and to their celebrations. Spring and fall were the seasons for weddings and community dances, so the rest of the time they turned to their regular jobs to augment their income – generally traditional gathering activities (medicinal herbs, mushrooms, wild fruits and berries), although some worked in cottage industries or trade. The family division of labour generally involved the husband working as a musician, while the wife produced woven goods (ropes, doormats) which she would sell in the village. During the musical off-season, the husband would help out, while the children could choose which path to follow – it was no longer expected that they would necessarily follow in their parents’ footsteps, since music was becoming less lucrative as an occupation. Later, when full employment became mandatory under the Communist system, the official full-time job became, in fact, their sideline job, yet they were also eligible for family benefits, free prescription drugs, medical care and sick leave. On paper, schooling was required for all children, but this did not always work out in practice. In some families, for example, two siblings shared a single pair of shoes, so they took turns attending school.
The status of Gypsy musicians thus stabilised itself at the edges of the two cultures, which also meant that they had to know and use the norms of both worlds, which in turn was reflected in their performances. They had one style reserved for their general audience – for the white gadzsó majority, corresponding to that audience’s expectations and tastes. And they had another style, used when they played among themselves. Formally, this style too corresponded to Hungarian folk music, but its content was different. “It plays differently”, notes Ágnes Diósi accurately, in her beautiful sociography Cigányút [The Gypsy Way]. This musical style and atmosphere have nothing in common with the more commercial Gypsy music of later origin, which emerged as mass-market products at the end of the 20th century. Nor does it resemble the currently popular polka-style tunes.
A customary ritual, acceptable to and observed by both sides, eventually emerged at these community events, which thus proceeded peacefully. Ethnic confrontations did not occur. This was a state of grace in which the principle of equality, considered an essential value in the Roma culture, was extended to and accepted by both sides. This tendency became definitive after the Second World War, with the departure from the villages of the former elites, who had occupied the top of the social hierarchy while the Roma were at the bottom. At this historical juncture, the changing social structure favoured an increased social integration of the Roma. The symbiosis of the two cultures is signalled by a unique form of folk poetry: new Gypsy texts were composed to the tune of well-known Hungarian folk songs. As an example, the Hungarian folk song Hej rozmaring rozmaring [Hey, rosemary, rosemary] has a Gypsy text, here given along with a rough translation:
Okoj téle basaven, Akharen man tekhelen. Na dzsanav me tekhelen, Csak átyhenca te cshinen.
They’re playing music out there and calling me to dance,
but I can’t go out to dance,
All I can do is wink at them.
This situation was characterised by two communities’ mutual dependence; the word “Gypsy”, at this point, had lost its negative content. A process of spontaneous integration was underway, a rare gift in intercultural relations. Unfortunately, this development too affected only a small percentage of the Roma community. Most Roma remained in a state of stagnation, reflecting their various strategies to achieve invisibility, which occasionally engendered tensions.
The new political balance that followed the 1956 Hungarian revolution, and a rapid growth in Western tourism to Hungary, led to an upswing in the tourism and entertainment industry beginning in the early 1960s. That, in turn, raised demand for Gypsy music, which suddenly became highly prized. Once again, activities inspired by our own culture were in demand; for those who had preserved their cultural identity, this was a great opportunity. Just as linguistic patterns reflect the various types of adaptation, so does the return of musical harmonies during this period reflect the degree to which ethnic identity was preserved. Factory workers, miners, stonemasons, electricians, painters, workers from agricultural communes and day labourers returned in droves to their musical instruments; the National Popular Music Recording Studio in Budapest was always full, and music certification exams were in full swing. I joined the fray: leaving my current job behind, I (alone in my extensive family) took up the musical baton from my distinguished forebear Pali Rácz. Although in 1977 I was officially too old to qualify as a professional musician, I got an exemption and took the exam, which allowed me to perform at “Category C” venues.
While I was preparing for my certification exam, I realised how the Gypsy musician community had taken the first steps toward creating its own literacy.
Although Gábor Rigó’s compositions of the early 20th century included many Gypsy musical themes, his work did not yet achieve a turning point – it represented just a popular variation on Hungarian Gypsy music of the era, which was already a highly “polished” product. The real turning point occurred now, in the 1960s and 1970s, in the form of a shift in the harmonic structure, which transformed the sound of Hungarian Gypsy music, and which would reach its apex in the restaurants of the National Hotel, the Kulacs Restaurant, and the (no longer existing) Vígmatróz Restaurant.
By the 1980s, interest in this kind of music began to decline throughout Europe, as popular taste underwent a radically new development. At first, the number of bands merely declined; then they started to disappear at a precipitous rate. The culture of blue jeans, Coca cola, hamburgers and electric music no longer wanted the natural harmonies. In the end, the change of regimes in Eastern Europe dealt a death blow to this culture, and so the majority of Hungary’s Roma population has regressed to the conditions they lived in 50 years before.
So what next: assimilation or integration? It is a classic question. We learned about it at school. Though we did not experience these processes first hand, we understood the difference: assimilation meant forgetting our Roma cultural identity; integration meant retaining it within an overarching national loyalty. Communism required full assimilation but did a complete job of it. All of us had a job, a small but certain income, and full access to social services. Racism was prohibited – not just as a matter of official policy, but in reality, and in time, this policy left its mark on public discourse and popular thinking. Those with talent and ambition could study for free. They could become doctors, lawyers, engineers, or teachers, not due to positive discrimination, but based on personal ability. It is true that this cost the state a great deal of money, but it is worth considering whether, given the potential outcome of this policy, it might not have been a worthwhile investment.
I was gathering research for a sociological study – an exciting undertaking, because it brought me back to the old haunts of my childhood and youth. These have undergone a significant transformation, not only in the more narrow society and community I had belonged to, but in the sense of the broader social, economic and cultural environment. In the place of the formerly well-tended fields, I found wastelands. I found myself in an entirely different world than the one I had known. Perhaps the most significant change was that members of this community had nearly all lost their status as employees; jobs that had formerly ensured a living had disappeared, and everyone was just muddling through – for example, by gathering herbs and mushrooms. New activities included salvaging wrecked cars for their scrap metal and spare parts, and rummaging on scrap heaps. Those who did have jobs were officially listed as working only 4–6 hours a day, so their employers could avoid paying the minimum wage.
Not long ago, I heard that Elemér passed away. Elemér – one of the last of my generation – was also related to me, since his wife was a cousin of mine. Naturally, I attended his funeral, parking my Suzuki among the other cars near the entrance to the cemetery. After the service, I found that my car was hemmed in by the others, so I had to wait around before I could drive away. While waiting, I noticed an interesting thing: across the road was a small covered truck. Sitting in back were two children around 10 years of age, a boy and a girl, if memory serves. Their mother stood in front of them, on the street. All three were staring in the direction of the cemetery entrance, evidently waiting for the father of the family to emerge. This truck did not serve as a mobile home, from what I could see through its door. The family clearly used it for some commercial purpose – but I could also see that the family had set it up as if it were their home. The changes in society had, to a certain extent, turned them back into nomads, and should the need arise, they were ready to assume an entirely nomadic lifestyle. It is well known that our ancestors learned the art of house-building and permanent settlement after they arrived in Europe. But originally, we were nomads, and this knowledge is imprinted deeply upon our consciousness to the present day.
From time to time, I meet with Roma entrepreneurs, some of them young, some no longer young. These meetings are incidental, without any stated purpose or goal; we will chat a bit, perhaps have a drink together, and then each of us goes on our way.
During these chats, the topic of politics is inevitable, and particularly with respect to the resurgence of the far Right. More and more frequently, they tell me that if Jobbik [Hungary’s far-right parliamentary party] should take over the government, they will leave the country immediately. They will emigrate not to the West – but to the East.
Translation by Katica Avvakumovits
1Mezey, Barna – Pomogyi, László – Tauber, István: A magyarországi cigánykérdés dokumentumokban 1422–1985 [Documentation on the History of the Roma in Hungary, 1422–1985], Kossuth Könyvkiadó, 1986. Pomogyi, László: Cigánykérdés és cigányügyi igazgatás a polgári Magyarországon [The Gypsy Question and its Management in Hungary], Osiris–Századvég, 1995.
2 Assman, Jan: A kulturális emlékezet [Cultural Memory], Atlantisz Könyvkiadó, 1999.