Gypsy Music-River of Fire

July 27, 2017

I met Eugenia Moliner, flutist of the Cavatina Duo, at a chamber music conference in January, 2017. As we chatted, I was instantly struck by her vibrant passion for music and life, her "Mediterranean" emotional expressiveness. When Eugenia told me she and her husband, guitarist Denis Azabagic were planning a new project inspired by Gypsy music with its roots going all the way back to India, I asked Eugenia if she had heard of Latcho Drom, the seminal Gypsy music documentary by Tony Gatlif. Her eyes grew wide, and with a huge, electric smile, she exclaimed “Yes! I LOVE that movie!” In that moment, I felt we made a deep connection in sharing a love for this vividly unique culture. "Musical soul mates", I thought. But aren’t we all?

River of Fire

Latcho Drom (Safe Journey) is a magnificent film, a total experience. It follows along the “Gypsy Caravan” from the Kalbelia People in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan, in North Eastern India, to the “Gitanos” of Andalusian Spain visiting Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and France in between. It follows the historical and geographical flow of the Romani people. With no commentary and very little dialog, the film is a feast for the eyes and the ears as a beautiful, rare encounter with an exotic culture and its astonishing musical traditions. Amidst the diversity, there flows a unity linking crucial aspects of sound, expression and communal culture revealing, for example, that Spanish Flamenco and Rajasthani Music are intimately related, almost mirror images of each other. This is the music and culture of a semi-nomadic people that thrive, often quite marginally, on the outside of conventional society and yet, exert a lasting presence and influence on the prevailing culture: vivid, alluring, instantly recognizable, undeniably intense. From India to the Middle East, North African, Turkey, the Balkans, Eastern, Western and Northern Europe, Russia, Scandinavia and now, the globe, there flows a river of “Gypsy” music consciously, or unconsciously known to us all.

After learning about the Cavatino Duo and their project, I watched Latcho Drom yet again, and this time I was struck quite profoundly by the very first two images of the film: water and fire. Water is motion, flow, travel, a journey. Water is a vital culture, refreshing and saturating as it flows and absorbs everything around it, branching into numerous tributaries and pools. Fire is passion, hot, illuminating the darkness with a glint of gold, the fire of passionate romance flamed by dance around the bonfire. It is also a searing trial by fire, persecution, destruction, a suffering than burns and rages for justice, a passionate tale about a fiery history. Latcho Drom is all about the brightly etched lines of Gypsy music flowing form East to West in a veritable River of Fire.

Who are the Gypsies?

Through the study of language and genetics, it is now believed that a variety of closely related ethnic peoples known as the “Gypsies”, Romani or Roma originated in northeast India in what is now southeast Pakistan. A multi-century long series of migrations out of the region due the continuing ravages of war starting as early as the 6th Century CE define the vast Gypsy diaspora leading northwest through Afghanistan, Iran, Armenia and Turkey and eventually into Eastern Europe as well as forking southward through the Middle East, down into Egypt, across Northern African and up into Western Europe across the strait of Gibraltar into Southern Spain. Gypsies reached the Balkans by the 12th century and Western Europe around the year 1500. Tributaries would eventually reach England, Scandinavia, Finland and Russia. This map, particularly with its routes in red, vividly reveals the flowing river of fire.

Though semi-nomadic, the Gypsies came to settle in a diversity of locations often representing distinct language and cultural subgroups forming communities. As a result of their culture of nonassimilation and internal cohesion, as well as external pressures towards isolation, rejection and outright persecution, the Gypsies have tended to remain external to the older European societies around them, coexisting as separate cultures. This second map illustrates the contemporary distribution of the Romani throughout Europe with the largest concentrations in Eastern Europe and Turkey followed by Spain and Western Russia. Following the devastating Porajmos of WWII, the Gypsy diaspora became global flowing into Canada, the US and South America.

What is Gypsy Music?

Gypsy music is as unique, exotic and diverse as the Romani that play and perpetuate it, an art and essential cultural expression for which the Gypsies are particularly famous. Centuries of literature make reference to the wild, intoxicating music of Gypsies: passionate, virtuosic, bristling with rhythms and wild intensity almost inseparable from dance and communal music making. Perhaps its most famous variety is Spanish Flamenco music most popularly expressed by the Gipsy Kings. More authentic, and more intense, is the stunning final scene in Latcho Drom featuring the famous gitana singer La Caita with a fierce and nuanced vocalise that vividly harkens right back to the Rajasthani music at the beginning of the film.

Despite this remarkable similarity at the beginning and end of the journey, the road between features a tremendous variety of music as regionally defined Gypsy groups encounter regionally native music cultures, blending them through assimilation and recreation, infusing them with an unmistakably Gypsy sensibility. Specific subgenres of Gypsy music flourish in the belly dancing of Egypt and Turkey, the Brass Bands of the Balkans, the village bands with the iconic cimbalom of Romania and Hungary, the virtuoso guitars of France and Spain. Sprinkled throughout are oboes and clarinets, accordions, guitars and zithers, always ingenious percussion in a number of forms as well as the nearly omnipresent fiddle. The signature common trait soaring above it all is the indescribable Gypsy singing, a rhapsodic, melismatic outpouring of passionate melody that calls as if from another world. Heavily inflected song, virtuostic instrumental improvisation, complex and mesmerizing rhythm and the rich vitality of communal participation: these are the distinctive musical traits throughout the expanse of Gypsy music along the river of fire.

The Cavatina Duo and the Gypsy Music Project

Classical Guitarist Denis Azabagic hails from the Balkans, from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He grew up with Gypsy music in his ears, recognizing it’s rhythmic vitality particularly in contrast with other folk musics native to the region. Recently, A friend from his home town suggested that he and Eugenia do a “Gypsy Music” project. Denis was curious but perhaps a bit skeptical. What could be “original” about doing a Gypsy Music theme? There are popular examples, certainly, and as one looks backward in the Classical canon, one finds Gypsy influences in numerous composers from Haydn to Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms and Bartók. Is anything original? Eventually, it became clear that original could mean using Gypsy music, culture and history as a broad point of departure, inspiration for newly conceived music forming a brand new tributary from the river of fire. Denis explained that after some point as a musician, he feels the longing to contribute to the repertoire, to create new and potentially enduring music to keep the canon flowing. The whole idea that it be “new” or “original” only emphasizes the reality of how music, like language, is always in a state of flux and becoming. Musical traditions, styles, dialects, even small "genetic" markers like rhythms, tunes or ornaments are born, flourish, sustain or fade but certainly always permute. The goal is to stimulate a new permutation wherever that may lead.

Classical flautist Eugenia Moliner grew up in Valencia, Spain, where she also heard Gypsy music including perhaps its most famous incarnation in the Flamenco music of Andalusia. Curiously, she discovered a deeper encounter while studying at the Rotterdam conservatory, which, at the time, was the only European conservatory that had programs for Classical Indian Music as well as Gypsy and Flamenco music. She heard Indian vocal ragas, Spanish Flamenco guitar and Indian Bansuri flute music from a fellow student in the same apartment building. Eugenia vividly realized the similarity, the intimate connection between the Classical music of India and the Gypsy music of Spain: they were like two sides of the same coin.

Denis acquired a young Indian guitar student who endeavored to literally follow his teacher in the ancient tradition of master and apprentice. This fostered a relationship with the student’s family who eventually founded the first festival for classical guitar in India. Thus began a series of visits the Cavatino Duo would make, taking Western Classical music back to India often representing the first exposure of the genre to many in the Indian audiences. Here, Denis and Eugenia witnessed an enthusiastic receptivity to “new” music of a different tradition, a way that a diversity of cultures can easily join together in a universal faculty for musical expression, reception and appreciation. In the reverse direction, completing the circle so to speak, (as Gypsy music flows from East to West), the Cavatina Duo took their music from West to East absorbing influences in both directions, and, for Gypsy music, ultimately finding its source. This all stokes the fire, the inspiration for the Cavatino Duo’s Gypsy Music Project.

The River of Fire: We are all in it, It is within us all

The historical, political, geographical, ethnic, religious and cultural diveristy of the human race tends to place us in pigeonholes, to constantly divide into "us" and "them". Prejudice, persecution, ghettoization, war and out-right ethnic cleansing leaves us alienated, disoriented, scarred, ignorant and afraid. We all have experience of confronting or being confronted by "the other" as we both contribute to and suffer from this divisiveness. The Gypsies have endured extraordinary marginalization and violence throughout their history as a "exotic" people foreign to the older, native culture. Both Denis and Eugenia haved talked about the negative cultural stereotypes they initially inherited regarding the Gypsies but how, especially through music, these boundaries can be broken down as we discover our mutual humanity. When Eugenia reacts to the passionate expression of Gypsy music, she calls it the outpouring of humanity itself, a trait, faculty and impulse we all share and viscerally relate to as humans. About their Sephardic Journey project, the Cavatino Duo wrote, "The human spirit connects us with each other, regardless of natural or man-made borders, regardless of the passage of time . . . Culture endures over the millennia.

While Eugenia is from Spain and Denis the Balkans, they live today in Chicago, a place rife with racial prejudice in a country that lately seems to be fomenting new kinds of broad discrimination particularly against Muslims. Denis originally left the Balkans before the war, resettling in Rotterdam where he came to understand being foreign, displaced and longing for a home that essentially ceased to exist. Ultimately, the Gypsy diaspora represents a common theme in humanity from the smallest example of leaving home or losing one's innocence, to the larger examples of war refugees or a centuries old exiled, nomadic people skirting the fringes of conventional society. This Gypsy Music Project is a supreme way to connect us all through the shared language of music. We are all travelers on the the river of fire as sure as the passionate life force surges within, an inner river of fire as our own, human blood.


I am thinking back some 20 years to the magical evening when I first saw Latcho Drom, sometime around 1995. I went to the film with my girlfriend and her two young daughters, on a lark, to the “art” cinema nearby. Towards the end of the film, brimming with amazement, passion and unbridled excitement, I turned to the girls and found all three of them deeply asleep. It was late, they were young and tired, and the movie didn’t have much of a plot. Personally, however, I felt I had stumbled on the mother lode of all music, the wellspring and ancient origin of its fiery power and I felt my eyes had been opened. Over the longer years, I have come to realize how my girlfriend and her daughters have been my greatest “Gypsy” teachers, as full as they are of adventure, passion, spontaneity and life force. I have yet another friend with whom I deeply connected over Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier many years ago. Meeting her and her love of Bach reminds me of meeting Eugenia with her love of Gypsy and Indian music. I asked my old friend once if she knew about Latcho Drom and her reaction was uncannily the same: “Yes! I LOVE that movie” she exclaimed. “Let’s have a party and watch it together. I am due for another viewing.” Bon voyage!

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.