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Energy And Emotion On Display At Prague Romany Festival

  • Kristin Deasy

Musicians at the Khamoro festival in Prague

Musicians at the Khamoro festival in Prague

PRAGUE -- It’s been a tough year for the Roma. In countries across Europe, including the Czech Republic, there is growing hostility to Romany communities.

Prague’s 11th annual celebration of Romany art and culture, however, didn’t miss a beat.

The Khamoro festival -- that’s “little sun” in Romany -- draws hundreds of artists and volunteers from across Europe and the United States every year. They come to attend conferences on Roma history and culture, see art exhibits, take Roma dance classes, and, of course, listen to the biggest names in Roma music.

The Italian gypsy band Acquaragia Drom is one such group, having released one of the first Romany music CDs on the international market. As violinist Erasmo Treglia tells it, the band began performing Romany music before Romany music was cool.

As hard as it was starting out as unknowns in the mid-1980s, he says that this year has been the hardest on the Italian Roma.

Amnesty International singled out Italy this year for violating the human rights of the Roma, citing incidents such as an assault on a pregnant Romany woman and the unlawful forced eviction of Romany communities.

“In the newspapers, on the TV, on radio, every day, we're always hearing something about problems with gypsies or in general with immigrants," Treglia says. "And now, you can't talk about this even with your [non-Roma] friends. Or your friends say, ‘OK, I understand, it’s nice music, it’s nice culture, but we have a lot of problems from them.'"

Video: Performers at the Khamoro festival

Treglia says that in Italy, something changed in “the conscience of the people” during last year’s general elections. Politicians used popular frustration with Roma to win votes, he says.

He says Acquaragia Drom enjoys playing at festivals like Khamoro, as opposed to staging a gypsy music concert in Italy, where it’s “impossible to talk about this.”

High Point In Troubled Times

The festival has become a Prague establishment that’s earned the sponsorship of the European Union and support from Czech officials even as the country's Roma are facing an escalation of violence and discrimination similar to the situation in Italy.

Czech Radio's Romany language director, Anna Polakova, requested asylum for her entire family this month because they had "faced racist attacks recently," a co-worker told the Mafra media group. Polakova described an attack on their home as the "worst moment in her life," and said her 12-year-old daughter couldn't even shop at the store with her 2-year-old nephew without being harassed. In another recent incident, Neo-Nazis beat her son unconscious.

In April, attackers threw Molotov cocktails into a Roma house in Vitkov, a village in the western part of the Czech Republic. The fire burned down the family's home, seriously injured the parents, and left their 2-year-old in a coma with burns covering more than 80 percent of her body.

But the string of recent hate crimes only gives greater impact to the Khamoro festival, which celebrates the joyous music of the Roma people -- in spite of their struggles. Romany music is "very good music, and very powerful, and energy from the heart," Josef Fiala of the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Human Rights and National Minorities says. "And I think in the Czech Republic, it's not very usual, and so I think this is good, actually."

The festival’s Bosnian-born founders, Jelena Sidelic and her son, Darko, started the event precisely because it's unusual. Darko Sidelic says they wanted to show people that the Roma “are very talented, that they have a lot of intelligent, educated, smart people,” Darko says, in contradiction to the deep-seated prejudices held by some Europeans.

The mother-and-son team have a special kinship with the Roma because their culture brings “a lot of energy and a lot of emotions,” Darko says. “That’s what’s very important where we come from, so we tend to appreciate these values.”

The cooperation shows. Unlike some Romany events, Khamoro reaches out to Roma audiences as well as other Czechs and foreigners.

“I’ve been to at least five gypsy-related concerts in the past month, and the one thing that's never at gypsy concerts is actual gypsies,” said Samantha Carmel, a Romany music enthusiast who started and runs a night dedicated to Balkan Music at a Prague bar. “It's refreshing to be somewhere where's they're actually a part of their own culture.”

Jelena Sidelic started the event because she “fell in love” with that culture, her son says. After collaborating with director Emir Kusturica on the award-winning 1988 film “Time of the Gypsies,” she decided that she and her son could give a Romany music festival “a shot.”

It has blossomed into one of the largest international Romany festivals in Europe, an event that attracts everyone from children to academics.

Pavla Berkova remembers seeing part of the festival while she was at work. "A little girl, she was maybe five, six -- she danced in front of everybody. One small gypsy, and she danced all around. We saw it from the office and were like, wow, it’s nice!”