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Festival Founder Seeks To Raise Awareness Through Music

A dancer performs at the Khamoro festival in Prague.
A dancer performs at the Khamoro festival in Prague.
PRAGUE -- As the Khamoro festival of Romany music, dance, and art took place in Prague, RFE/RL correspondent Kristin Deasy spoke with Darko Sidelic, who co-founded the festival with his mother, Jelena Sidelic.

RFE/RL: How many years have you been doing this?

Darko Sidelic: This is the eleventh year.

RFE/RL: And is there anything that’s special this year because the Czech Republic holds the European Union presidency?

Sidelic: No, no, nothing. Not at all. Same thing, eleven years.

RFE/RL: And the same sort of turnout? Any EU representatives?

Sidelic: Well, every year there’s more and more people. For the past maybe five years, whatever we do, it’s full.

RFE/RL: And you and your mother, what are your personal backgrounds?

Sidelic: We come from Sarajevo, from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and we moved to Prague in ’93, I believe, when the war started. My mother was a film producer back in ex-Yugoslavia, she did a few films with Emir Kusturica, I don’t know if you know it, “Time of the Gypsies.” It won one of the main prizes at the Cannes festival then, I think.

This movie was about gypsies. It was shot in Macedonia, in Shutka, which is the largest gypsy settlement in Europe, and so my mom fell in love with the whole culture and the music and everything. So once we came here, she did not want to keep working as a film producer, but decided that we could give a shot to a gypsy music festival. At first it was only a music festival, but throughout the years it’s grown into various areas of culture...exhibitions, paintings, photos, books, whatever.

RFE/RL: When you’re not organizing festivals, what are you up to?

Sidelic: Well, I usually work as an events manager for an agency. I do all sorts of events ranging from company, sports, musical events obviously, and I always come in for the week of the festival to do this. So I’m not working on it throughout the entire year. But once it starts, I take over many things.

RFE/RL: Just for clarification, you’re not of Romany background yourselves?

Sidelic: Not at all, not at all. But since we’ve been with them such a long time and cooperating with them in all sorts of ways, we’ve got a lot of people we know from the Romany ethnic group, and could even say we consider ourselves half-Romany.

RFE/RL: Do you share your mother’s fascination then?

Yes, it’s brilliant. A lot of energy and a lot of emotions, and that’s what’s very important from where we come from, so we tend to appreciate these values.

RFE/RL: And when you first started, to go back quite a number of years, what was the response from the Czechs?

Sidelic: Well, first it was kind of careful, let’s say. People weren’t too sure what was going on here, like a lot of, you know, unknown people with backgrounds that maybe don’t suit the general public always, or color of skin that doesn’t suit the general public always, trying to, you know, do something here. Making noise.

So a few people, I mean, we did have some, you know, negative responses from some groups, but over time people get used to it, get used to liking it, and now I think it’s an annual event that the city -- if it weren’t to happen any more, the city would lose a lot. Because all of Prague knows about it, and everyone is expecting the end of May to be a festival of gypsies here.

RFE/RL: Have there ever been any racist incidents targeting the festival?

Sidelic: No. Nothing.

RFE/RL: Who is your largest sponsor this year? I noticed you have quite a few.

Sidelic: Yeah, I’m not too sure about the funding itself, but I know some of it comes from the European Commission, some from the government, the city itself, the city of Prague sponsors it as well, so with the former Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, and the mayor [Pavel Bem]. I wouldn’t want to name [just] one or two because I don’t know all of them, but there’s a few larger companies that also support the festival. But obviously, as always, it could be better.

RFE/RL: Is it always difficult to get financial support?

Sidelic: Well, yeah. I mean, money is behind everything, obviously, so in order to run such a big production, such a big project, you need some backing. And sometimes it’s not easy to get it. Because some companies especially sometimes don’t want to be associated with something like this. So...the sources where you can ask for funding are, let’s say, a lot more limited than if you were doing a regular music festival. Because even though there’s nothing wrong with it -- on the contrary -- some people don’t want to be associated with it....For reasons that are only probably clear to them.

RFE/RL: Do you see the festival as more of a celebration within the Roma community, or more of a chance to raise awareness for the greater public?

Sidelic: Yeah, that’s it. Obviously other than enjoying ourselves and letting other people enjoy the wonderful culture of the minority – [the goal] is to raise awareness and show people who maybe don’t know much about it that, you know, it’s not bad. It’s not a bad thing; it’s a great thing that gypsy musicians and artists in general are very talented, that they have a lot of intelligent, educated, smart people and that basically, it’s a good thing that they should like and definitely not block because, you know, it comes from people with a different color of skin or so on. So basically, to raise awareness and to help try to improve tolerance.

RFE/RL: Do you know of any other Roma-specific musical festival in Europe, or is this the only one?

Sidelic: There’s quite a few. And we cooperate with some of them: Norway, Russia, France, many places.

RFE/RL: One final question about the program of events. I noticed there was an exchange focused on young people. Is that new?

Sidelic: Well, no, I mean, we always try to have it as different as possible every year and we try to also make sure that the music itself varies from...all sorts of styles of gypsy music. You know, we got jazz, we have a modern section, and a traditional one, and so basically we try to kind of reach various sorts of people, age groups, and so on....

For the first time this year we have a modern section, like modern gypsy music section, which was represented by a concert on Monday played by the band !Deladap, which is an international band which plays gypsy music but in a modern way. So people enjoyed that. But I think they enjoyed this as well, so it’s very mixed, always.

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