What do you play when you’re a Romani musician hired for nuptials in northern Greece? Whatever the audience wants, as musical anthropologists Charles Keil and Angeliki Vellou Keil found out in their decades-long exploration of “Gypsy” musicians in the town of Jumaya, a search captured in words, photos, and soundscapes in Bright Balkan Morning: Romani Lives and the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia. Masters of the “most important instruments in the world,” the zurna (a lightweight oboe, played in pairs) and the dauli (a bass drum), the Roma have to be ready at a moment’s notice to play old Greek ballads and dance music from every region, Bulgarian folk songs, Serbian ditties, Vlach and Slavic numbers, modern waltzes and tangos, and even old Romani tunes for audiences searching for one thing: kefi.
Kefi is a virtually untranslatable term, though the authors make a game but unsatisfactory attempt with “deep satisfaction.” Too communal and internal to be ecstasy (which requires getting “out” of something), too self-conscious to be bliss, and too transcendent to be simple enjoyment, kefi is the shedding of the money management and worries that consume the people of the rural Balkans through the invoking of their patchwork pasts. The deep pain of being refugees, victims of ancient empires and modern wars, is all subsumed into the group dance. In the state of kefi, personal and collective pleasure are identical. The only ones who don’t get to participate are the Romani musicians, the multicultural catalysts at the very bottom of Balkan society.
Not the stuff of kefi is the CD of soundscapes by Steven Feld included with the book. After hundreds of pages of description of the thrilling sounds of the zurna and dauli as played live, a field recording won’t do the instruments justice, but the disc isn’t well conceived. The CD tracks aren’t labeled and aren’t all music. Snippets of conversation in (mostly) Greek, the bells of what sounds like an ice cream truck, rustling around with (presumably) the microphones, and finally the wail of the reeds, just don’t satisfy. The book, however, is brilliant as the day.
Keil and Vellou Kiel avoid the pull of mysticism that nearly always rears its head when the Roma are involved. Exoticized and exploited by all of Europe, the instruments and their families here are presented in first-person narratives, a rare instance of “Gypsies” telling their stories without being accused of hiding some esoteric wisdom. The Roma in Jumaya are “settled” and have been for centuries, making their living through peddling, broom- and mat-making, backbreaking “stoop labor,” and, of course, as “instruments.” The term “musician” is reserved for those who can read music; only one zurna player has had this ability, the legendary Mitsos Hindzos, interviewed by the pair before his death.
Without written notation, the hellenized Roma of the area took up the zurna and dauli after forced population transfers in the 1920s sent their Islamized cousins across the sea, and mastered the thousands of tunes required in a region with dozens of different syncretic and improvised traditions. “After 1924,” the authors explain, “Greek Macedonian villages were often ethnically mixed: local Slavs lived there with settled Roma, Vlachs and/or Sarakatsans, refugees from Asia Minor, and civil servants from Athens and elsewhere in Greece.”
The Roma simply had to learn how to navigate the Balkans without borders; nearly every wedding represents at least two disparate cultures, every party is a polyglot. This talent isn’t magical or even ineffable; it’s a successful strategy for survival in an area where the hostile division of populations, balkanization, is a top-down phenomenon forged by occupying armies and distant dictators, not by the people themselves.
The instruments have become all but indispensable to the local culture—they are treated with a respect Roma rarely get, they compete successfully against recorded music, and their songs create an environment where the notion of a monolithic Greek national identity is replaced by a celebration of difference. Having been in Greece before there was a Greece, the instruments absorbed Indian, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Greek folk styles; by the modern era, the improvisation of new traditions on the spot became second nature.
Outside of Greek Macedonia, Roma use other strategies to please their audiences. In Serbia and Kosovo, the multiple ethnicities implicit in the music were once accepted, but rejected after the ethnic battles of the 1990s began. Now the instruments keep to ethnically specific playlists. In Bulgaria, the musicians have eschewed pick-and-choose methods of audience-pleasing to create a single sound involving all the Balkan traditions, plus songs from Hindi motion pictures, and even James Brown.
The combination of two oboes and a big bass drum can be found in China, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, throughout the Middle East and Greece, and across the Balkan states. It appears in dozens of folk musics because its volume inspires communal play, its portability dovetails with the needs of wedding marches and outdoor celebrations, and its sound is beautiful. Double reeds played together can create a mysterious third note that listeners perceive even though it isn’t actually being played. Something new emerging from the juxtaposition of the old—that isn’t just the kefi of the wedding dance, but the spirit of the Balkans themselves.