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Vol 3, No 13
2 April 2001
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Roma in Hungarian Culture The Key to the "Question"
The role of Romani music in
Hungarian nationalism

Rhoda Dullea

There is much debate nowadays in Central European academic and political circles regarding the so-called "Roma problem" or "Roma question." This question, redolent of the infamous "Jewish question" that occupied Nazi political thought in the 1930s, essentially asks whether there is a place within today's mono-cultural European nations for partially or wholly unassimilated minority subgroups such as the Roma.

An enduring legacy of the Communist régime in Central and Eastern Europe is an ultra-modernist attitude that promotes a dynamic, "an-ethnic" societal norm and insists on assimilation within the mainstream by ethnic minorities as the only route to economic progress. But the preservation of Roma identity depends on their adherence to a traditional system of "anti-pollution" laws that perpetuate difference by symbolically segregating Roma from the intrinsically polluted gadje (non-Roma).

Their steadfast maintenance of a pure ethnic identity together with their tentative status as ethnic minority have ensured that the Roma have been at the receiving end of racist abuse throughout much of their history in Europe. Some of the most insidious treatment of the Roma in recent times can be said to have been at the hands of political and even academic authorities in their ideological attempts to assimilate and demythologise the Roma through forced sedentarisation policies and extensive (sometimes invasive) anthropological study.

The first professionals

Nonetheless, there have existed situations in times past which permitted the Roma their identity and unique way of life while allowing participation, even integration, in mainstream society. The Roma have traditionally been associated with peripatetic professions such as tinsmithing and blacksmithing, occupations that were somewhat jettisoned in the wake of sedentarisation in the 60s. However, it has been through the art of music that the closest cultural and social interactions between gadje and Roma have been able to take place.

In fact, the Roma have played a fundamental and highly influential role in the dissemination of folk and popular music traditions in many Central and Eastern European nations over several centuries. The Roma were some of the first and most characteristic professional musicians in this region of Europe. Their performance style featured a unique ability to adapt to indigenous local forms, styles and repertoires, while simultaneously maintaining and projecting their own identity through certain idiosyncrasies in performance that served as ethnic markers (eg extensive improvisation and ornamentation).

In this way, many aspects of Central and Eastern European music traditions became joint efforts between the Romani professional musicians and their gadje audiences. Thus, there was a place for the Roma in Central European national cultures which did not deconstruct or interfere with the Romani sense of being.

In fact, several emerging nationalist traditions in 19th-century Central and Eastern Europe drew on the ethnically marked local "gypsy-style" music genres as a means of defining and representing national culture and tradition, as opposed to a "non-ethnic" European mainstream culture (comprising mainly Germanic elements) that was threatening to supersede regional cultures throughout Europe.

This "self-exoticism" was probably most evident in the emerging Hungarian nationalism of the first half of the nineteenth century, in which the Roma musicians became a symbol of the Hungarian musical tradition, both for the Hungarians and for their international audience.

Becoming orientalised

It is worth examining how and why the Roma assumed such an important role in the construction of a Hungarian national identity. In order to understand the rationale of a Hungarian cultural nationalism that promoted a more or less exotic self-stereotype, it is necessary to have some idea of the complex historical situation that gave rise to it. By virtue of its geographical circumstance, Hungary found itself assuming the role of frontier between Occident and Orient, for much of its history until the Age of Enlightenment. Most importantly for Europe, it acted as the last barrier against the Turkish advance westwards during the Renaissance era.

Hungary, in fact, fell to the Turks at the Battle of Mohács in 1526 and remained under Turkish control for nearly a century and a half until the Austrians annexed Hungary having gained the upper hand after the unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1683. Such a history ensured that Hungary became irrevocably "orientalised" in the eyes of the West.

Much of the Hungarian nationalist representative enterprise since then has consisted of attempts to consolidate Hungary's position as a bona fide "Occidental" culture, an attempt to refute the "otherness" that such Eastern connotations implied. This is important to bear in mind when examining the nascent Hungarian nationalist agenda of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Hungarian musical nationalism aimed simultaneously (and paradoxically) to celebrate its "eastern" individuality, while also attempting to meet the demands of mainstream musical aesthetics and thus become recognised as a truly European culture.

The most characteristic Hungarian musical genre upon which the nationalist movement focused, however, did differ quite substantially from the mainstream of European art music—not only in terms of musical language but also in terms of function and performance practice. This was the verbunkos, an instrumental dance music once used as recruitment propaganda in Hungarian villages by soldiers of the Austrian Habsburg forces, a genre which fused folk and art forms, and the principal exponents of which came to be settled Magyar (Hungarian) Roma musicians.

Until well into the 19th century (at the least), the Magyar Roma, or Romungre, acted more or less as Hungary's musician-caste. Prior to this, the arrival of the Roma in Europe proper in the 13th and 14th centuries approximately coincided with the Islamic, and especially the Turkish, expansionism westwards, and Romani musicians did, indeed, form a salient feature of the Turkish military entourages.

By virtue of their association with the Turks—together with their refusal to assimilate into settled European society—the Roma became the virtual embodiment of the alien and unknown Orient for much of Europe and were treated accordingly. With the Hungarians, however, they met with some degree of tolerance, and there they came to assume a vital cultural role.

Social climate writes the tune

The concept of the Rom as professional performer of Hungarian music took hold in the austere social climate of a post-Counter-Reformation Hungary, in which music came to be frowned upon as a morally undesirable activity, particularly for members of the noble and aristocratic classes (considered the most representative section of Hungarian society). This mirrored the situation in Islamic Turkey, where music was regarded with suspicion, particularly the instrumental music associated with dance, the performance of which was left to lower-caste, non-Muslim professional musicians such as the Roma.

Hungary, likewise, assigned the role of professional musicians to the Roma, who—especially through their association with the characteristic verbunkos dance music—quickly built up a formidable reputation as instrumentalists of consummate virtuosity and musicality. A special system of patronage evolved between the Romani musicians and the nationalist middle nobility that set the basis for nationalistic expression in Hungarian music of the 19th century.

Though music as a middle- or upper-class profession was stymied in Hungary by social convention, many amateur composers belonged to these classes and could only find an expressive outlet for their work through the performances of the Roma musicians. Their compositions essentially consisted of a type of sentimental song written in a folk-like style, known as the magyar nóta, the Hungarian popular art song, which the Roma performed together with verbunkos dances and, later, the csárdás, a popular dance derived from the verbunkos. The printed music and the composers of this music apparently played a relatively unimportant role.

What gave the music its meaning was its life as an "urban folk" genre: the music was mostly orally disseminated in the highly improvised and virtuosic performance style of the Romani musicians. The "Hungarian-Gypsy" idiom became hugely popular both at home and abroad to the extent that it came to represent the quintessence of the Hungarian national character, both for the Hungarians themselves and for their international audience.

Do not confuse Gypsy with Hungarian...

In the West, however, the reception of the Hungarian-Gypsy idiom inevitably Ferenc Lisztbecame tainted with erroneous stereotypes: the origins of the genre came to be wholly attributed to the Roma, and the music in its "wild" and "untamed" expression was perceived as the naïve art of an illiterate gypsy people. In fact, in many countries in which the Romani musicians toured as representatives of Hungarian culture, the word "Hungarian" itself came to generically connote "gypsy." It was this confusion that was the source of the controversy surrounding the musician-composer Ferenc Liszt's book Des Bohémiens et de leur musique en Hongrie (1859), translated into English as The Gipsy in Music (1926).

That the book excited controversy and heated criticism in Hungarian nationalist circles was due to Liszt's erroneous assumption that the music he heard the Roma perform was their own folk music, in which the Hungarians themselves had no creative input at all. Liszt's supposition was lent authority by his standing as an international artist of Hungarian origin. His ideas came to fundamentally undermine the Hungarian nationalist construct, instigating a sense of doubt that remained in place until the ethno-musicological work of Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók could provide evidence of the existence of a "genuine" Hungarian music, half a century later. (See also "Chasms of Perdition" in this issue).

... or folklorism with nationalism

Kodály's and Bartók's extensive ethno-musicological work and ensuing nationalistic compositions were strongly informed by their folkloristic agenda. Folklorism, a scholarly approach to cultural nationalism that emerged at the turn of the 20th century, saw in folk music the spontaneous and natural expression of the pure essence of a culture, untainted by the potentially polluting agents of education and urban cosmopolitanism. The supposed purity of this uneducated music indicated a fundamental capacity of the culture to resist the threat of corruption posed by the influence of other, more predominant music (eg German art music).

The ideological outcome was that Hungary's representative music-culture (the pseudo-folk music composed by the gentry and performed by the
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Roma) automatically came to be viewed as a heterogeneous, impure mix that had doubtful nationalistic value. For Kodály and Bartók, the "true" folk music—the music of the peasants that had hitherto been inaccessible to urban gentry because of prohibitive social boundaries—seemed to be the only route to turn to that could possibly generate an organic, coherent and authentic Hungarian musical tradition.

Their folklorism was systematic, following a scientific paradigm that instigated in the Hungarian nationalist movement of the 20th century a need to classify and differentiate every aspect of "true" folk culture for consumption by urban audiences. Thus, the "impure" Hungarian-Gypsy idiom found itself increasingly redundant in nationalist discourse throughout the 20th century, being displaced as a national symbol by various forms of peasant music and dance which had gained popular currency.

Hungarian-Gypsy music did persist in popularity amongst the ordinary people, both at home and abroad, during this time, but was never to regain its prominent position in nationalist ideology. While Hungarian academic discourse disparaged the idiom for its heterogeneity and apparent cultural vagueness, scholars now turned their attention to the ethnically purer Romani folk music and the cultures of the less assimilated Vlach and Boyash Roma subgroups.

Moreover, from about the middle of the century onwards, a respect grew in academic and nationalist circles for the Magyar Roma village musicians that were the traditional performers of "pure" Hungarian peasant-style instrumental music. Thus, the emphasis in academic and nationalist literature was placed always on the ethnically pure: Roma music-making was only acceptable in that it was either purely Romani or purely Hungarian, nothing in between.

In writing off the Hungarian-Gypsy idiom as a valid cultural icon, however, academic and nationalist discourse ruled out compromise, their obsessive quest for purity symbolically divorcing the two cultures. We may see reflected in such ideologies the development of the uncompromising, exclusionist "mono-culture"&—one that has parallels worldwide&—that could generate a "Roma" question.

Rhoda Dullea, 2 April 2001

Also of interest:

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The Polish Right

The Balkans Heat Up
Heather Field
Going for Broke

Magarditsch Hatschikjan
Crisis to Crisis

Omer Fisher
The Road to Independence

Sam Vaknin
Balkan War III

Roma Culture
in Hungary

Dan Damon
Liszt and the Roma

Rhoda Dullea
The Roma Question

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Romani Theater

Behind Bars!
Susan Abbott
Slobo's Support

Brian J Požun
Slovenia's Opportunity

Sam Vaknin
A Prelude to Death?

Catherine Lovatt
"We will never
give you up!"

Stanisław Lem

Peter Swirski
Look to the Future

Stanisław Lem
An excerpt from Okamgnienie

Štěpán Kotrba
Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Press Reviews:
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Big in Albania

Czech Republic

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