Electric Roma

Going into this week’s International Accordion Fest (and beyond), it’d be helpful for “world music” fans to make a little permanent mental adjustment: Take all the good, funky associations you have with the word “gypsy” and shift them over to the label “Roma.” Then ignore it when promoters, record labels, and the musicians themselves sometimes use the former.

“It’s a catch-22 for Romani artists,” says Sani Rifati, who will be at the fest with Kal, a group he manages which fuses the Roma tradition with other kinds of world music. “If you want to get noticed and get exposure, the ‘gypsy’ label is your best bet — but it just perpetuates the myths and stereotypes.” It’s one thing in the U.S., where people frequently have romantic associations with the word. But when touring in Europe, where the stateless ethnic group has suffered a long history of persecution, Rifati (president of the advocacy group Voice of Roma) says he’s often busy “showing them that we are legitimate citizens, beyond our musicianship, that we are smart, honest, aware, etc. — and not dirty, thieves, con artists or beggars.”

Organizers of the Accordion Fest, for their part, are less interested in labels and stereotypes than in trying to make sense of this sprawling musical tradition. They’ve gathered Romani masters from multiple countries to highlight the musical threads connecting people who (as the 1993 movie Latcho Drom conveys so eloquently) have spread across the globe, often not by choice. Fest Director Pat Jasper traveled the Balkans in search of performers, eventually staying in the homes of some and even attending one’s wedding — more thrilling than it sounds, as the tradition is known for raucous wedding music. (The public-radio program The World did a feature on her last fall, when her first attempt at this was quashed by difficulties obtaining work visas for the guest performers.)

The “Roma Accordion Convergence” will star Kal and two other accordionists: Bulgarian Neshko Neshev, known for the wedding band Trakia (formed with his cousin, clarinetist Ivo Papazov), and Romanian Andrei Mihalache, a third-generation master who now performs with his sons. In addition to the expected concerts, the men will participate in workshops.

While the latter two men are traditionalists, Kal is anything but. Based in Belgrade, Serbia, the band incorporates rock, rap, flamenco, and even Punjabi bhangra beats into a lively, seamless hybrid. Their first album, a self-titled disc on Asphalt Tango Records, opens with tracks that could play in your local pan-ethnic disco (Mike Nielsen, knob-twister for groups like Underworld, Natacha Atlas, and Jamiroquai, was enlisted to swank it up) but soon develops a more organic heft — the plaintive vocal on “Lili,” the wheedling violin of “Papusha,” and the comically sleazy narration of a Serbian rapper known as Rambo Amadeus on “Komedija.”

The group is led by Dragan Ristic, son of a school teacher who, according to Ristic, “was the first openly Roma teacher to graduate from teachers college.” Ristic, whose background is in theater, plays guitar as well as shargjia, an instrument he says isn’t much used by today’s Roma performers: Originally from Turkey, it has three double strings and “sounds like a banjo sometimes or bouzouki. It gives a player an opportunity to play melodic groove riffs.”

Ristic says that his group, formed in 2001 with his brother Dusan (no longer a member), is considered in Serbia to be “the most progressive European Romani band” and is mainstream enough to be played in cafés. (A press release boasts that their album topped the European world music charts in 2006.) While Kal’s sound is cosmopolitan and draws on myriad modern influences, the singer is no fan of much of the pop around him: “Today,” he gripes, “Balkan music is a sexy girl in a short skirt singing badly over an electric keyboard.”

Ristic, who says he listened to everything from Leonard Cohen to B.B. King in his youth, recognizes a kindred spirit in somebody like Manu Chao, who manages to make widely accessible music without homogenizing his influences. As he put it to another interviewer, “So many young Roma are just making pop crap, because Balkan society, especially Serbian society, has, after the collapse of communism, allowed the lowest common denominator to rule. … I hope we set an example of young Roma musicians using beats but staying true to Romani culture and music.” With any luck, his band will get to cross-pollinate while in Texas with some accordionists from completely different traditions.

Festival-goers who get carried away by the music this weekend have plenty of options to learn more about Roma. Not only does Rifati’s Voice of Roma have an active campaign to enlighten the public, and Ristic is associated with a program for the supremely culturally curious with a bit of vacation time to burn: The Amala Summer School is a “Romany (Gypsy) Music Dance Language Summer Camp” held each year in the Ristics’ home village of Valjevo.

“This is a project of my brother Dusan,” Dragan explains, “where he teaches our traditional music and language. Most of the students are teenagers and adults. They come from New Zealand, Australia, Israel, U.S., Italy, and other countries. They live amongst us, in our Romani neighborhood, which also provides them an opportunity to learn a real culture. “

And, if they’re as lucky as the Accordion Fest’s Pat Jasper, maybe somebody will get hitched while they’re there.


International Accordian Festival
6:30pm and 8:30pm Sat, Oct 11
5:30pm and 8pm Sun, Oct 12
La Villita Historic Arts Village
418 Villita St # 900A
(210) 865-8578
See internationalaccordionfestival.org for full schedule.

Squeeze these in

Conjunto Ritmos Santenos de Osvaldo

Grammy-winning accordionist Osvaldo Ayala (above) combines elements of cumbia, salsa, and other Latin styles with the pindin of his native Panama for a blend so artistically significant the Panamanian government has appointed him cultural ambassador, and so venomously kick-ass he’s nicknamed el Escorpión.

Joe Ely and Joel Guzman

Texas music legend Joe Ely (the Flatlanders, Los Super Seven) joins his longtime bandmate accordionist Joel Guzman for a set that’s sure to encompass god knows how many sub-genres of Latin and Texas roots music. Live Cactus!, an album recorded in Austin and released by the duo in March, got critical love for its reworked, squeezebox-heavy renditions of previously released Ely tracks.

Neshko Neshev and Kalin Kirilov

Veteran accordionist Neshko Neshev is most famous in his home country of Bulgaria for Traika, the popular wedding band he cofounded in the ’70s with his cousin Ivo Papazov, but you can forget about hearing the power-ballad schmaltz typical of American nuptials. Neshev instead tears into a modernized hybrid of the Eastern European and Roma traditions he’s studied since age 9.

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