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Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Friday, July 07, 2006

Garth Cartwright - Princes Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians

Garth Cartwright is a New Zealand-born, British-based writer whose deep-seated love of Balkan Gypsy music shines through every page of this fascinating new book.
To most Americans, the term "Gypsy Music" - if it has any meaning at all - conjures up images of flamenco guitars and dancers, or perhaps Hungarian cafe violinists, or Django Reinhardt and his present-day "gypsy jazz" counterparts. Every semester I find the students in my Musics of the World course totally unaware of the existence of Taraf de Haidouks, the Kocani Orkestar, or any other Balkan Gypsy artists for that matter. And every semester, most of them take to this music immediately. This comes as no great shock, as it is music of tremendous power, both viscerally and emotionally. Until now, I've been unable to recommend an easy-to-comprehend, non-technical source of further information. I will, however, be guiding students to this book from now on.
Princes Amongst Men works on a number of levels. Since, as the subtitle indicates, it deals with Cartwright's own journeys within Serbia, Macedonia, Romania, and Bulgaria, it is in some ways a travel book in the classic manner. Cartwright has the eye and the interpretive sense of a travel writer, telling us not only about the scenic beauties of the mountains and the squalor of the mahalas (the "Gypsy part of town"; an inexact parallel would be "ghetto" in the older, Jewish sense of the term), but tying in the history of the land, its various peoples, and their interactions.
We also learn a lot about Garth Cartwright as well, perhaps a bit more than we need to. But at least he gives us a good sense of where he's coming from, and of how his Balkan experiences have transformed him.
There is also quite a bit of socio-political commentary throughout the book. His subjects, the Roma a/k/a Tzigane a/k/a Gypsies (different terms are preferred in different places), have been marginalized out of public awareness (indeed, almost out of existence). What little we think we know about Gypsies (nomads living in caravans, never settling down, marrying at age 12, always stealing or cheating) are really slanderously vicious stereotypes. A few people have been incorrectly taken to represent the whole. The poverty, discrimination, and denial of identity are all too real, however. Sad to say, too many young Roma with no future in sight and nowhere to turn have taken to sniffing glue as an escape.
But this is primarily a book about musicians. Yes, there is musical description, though very little in the way of technical analysis (which is not Cartwright's intention, in any event). He travels from major cities to small towns to tiny villages that do not even appear on maps, interviewing and photographing the cream of the Balkan Gypsy music scene. (The photographs are sometimes smaller and less clear than one might prefer.) Many of the musicians he had already gotten to know from previous trips to the region, which gives him a level of access reserved for trusted friends. He also finds it easy to earn the trust of many new acquaintances. He even manages to get an interview with Bulgarian chalga superstar, Azis, famed for his Mephistophelian look, bisexual-S&M stage act, and overtly homoerotic music videos. I quickly add that Azis is totally unrepresentative - musically and personally - of the musicians profiled in the book, which in itself makes him one of Balkan music's most memorable characters.
Most of the musicians Cartwright discusses are more down-to-earth, regular people. We see them in their homes, with their families, friends and neighbors, in taverns and at weddings (which are often their primary source of performing income). Cartwright not only looks at the professional history of Taraf de Haidouks, he talks to several members of the loosely-structured ensemble and gives us a feel for what their life is like at home in their now-fabled Romanian village of Clejani. We are charmed by Esma Redzepova. We shake our heads at the injustice to which the Kocani Orkestar's Naat Veliov has been subjected. We learn why Fanfare Ciocarlia seem so atypical of Romanian Gypsy music (it has to do with location and ethnicity). We attend the brass orkestar festival at Guca, Serbia, and are ready to book a flight immediately. We get to know Ferus Mustafov, Jony Iliev, Saban Bajramovic, but not singers Dzansever (whom Cartwright failed to locate) and Sofi Marinova (who refused to be interviewed unless she were paid).
The "villain" of the book is filmscore composer Goran Bregovic, who is cited several times for appropriating songs composed by known artists. Bregovic then claims the material to be "traditional", copyrights his "arrangements", and receives lavish praise and healthy royalty checks as a result. The Gypsy musicians whose material is thus adapted receives nothing.
There are useful lists of further source material, including books, journal articles, websites, recommended recordings and films. The book's usefulness as a reference is, unfortunately, lessened by its lack of an index.
But it is Cartwright's skillful portrayals of the land, the society, the musicians, and their music that make this a memorable and valuable book. Highly recommended.
Princes Amongst Men was published in London in 2005 by Serpent's Tail, and has a U.S. list price of $20. The publisher's website is www.


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