In the Balkan Brass Scene, a Conversation About Racism Unfolds

Brass band Inspector Gadje and clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski specialize in Balkan Romani music. (Sefa Karatekin / Anastasia Kuba )

The word "gypsy" is everywhere. Herbal apothecaries, hippie clothing stores and restaurants use it to conjure an exotic, free-spirited allure. And for numerous brass bands across the country, it's shorthand for a horn-driven, percussive style of Balkan folk music.

Yet many don't realize that the word "gypsy" is an ethnic slur against the Romani community, which has endured centuries of oppression in Europe and faces discrimination in the United States today. The Balkan brass band Inspector Gadje, a 14-piece ensemble trained on the music of Romani masters, are part of a longstanding effort in the Bay Area to combat Romani stereotypes and draw attention to the culture from which this popular style originates.

Born out of the activist Brass Liberation Orchestra—a radical ensemble that drums up enthusiasm at protests—Inspector Gadje specializes in Southeastern European Romani music with a twist. On Oct. 12 at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco, the 14-piece band is accompanies virtuoso clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski, a star of the Balkman music scene in the U.S. and abroad, and one of the most popular Romani musicians on this side of the Atlantic.

In the Romani language, gadje is a term for a non-Romani person (similar to gringo in Spanish), and in Inspector Gadje's case, it serves as a reminder of their status as guests in the Romani culture. The group was born out of a collaboration with the Sebastopol-based arts nonprofit Voice of Roma, a coalition of Romani activists and allies who use music as a tool for education and cultural exchange.

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A fan of Brass Liberation Orchestra's activism, Voice of Roma founder Shani Rifati enlisted members of the band to learn Romani music for a tour he organized in 2010. After six months of study under celebrated Romani multi-instrumentalist Rumen "Sali" Shopov, the members of BLO fell in love with the bouncy, danceable genre, which shares sensibilities with Middle Eastern and Eastern European folk music as well as jazz.

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"We all caught this bug, so by the end of the project most of us wanted to keep playing this music," says Inspector Gadje percussionist and bandleader Marco Peris. "So with their permission, Inspector Gadje was born."

Lumanovski came into the picture to give Inspector Gadje a master class, which turned into a years-long collaborative relationship. He and Inspector Gadje have toured the globe together, and recorded a live album in 2017.

"I like working with Inspector Gadje because it actually expands my view of how people see Balkan music, and what can be done so it could be represented in the world in a way that can be legit and creative at the same time," says Lumanovski. "What I do with Inspector Gadje is not just playing traditional melodies, which we do, but trying to compose new music that’s inspired by Balkan music, and create a new language basically."

Brass band Inspector Gadje and clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski.
Brass band Inspector Gadje and clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski. (John Nilsen)

Centuries of displacement lost in translation

As non-Romani musicians specializing in the Romani musical tradition, the members of Inspector Gadje use their popularity in the Bay Area's live music scene to draw attention to the Romani community, and educate the wider public about cultural sensitivity. Back in Italy, where Peris is originally from, he helped organize legal support for Romani families whose children were excluded from public schools. And Inspector Gadje's website devotes a section to Voice of Roma's efforts to educate the wider U.S. public about the offensiveness of the term "gypsy" and how it reinforces harmful racial and ethnic stereotypes.

Indeed, many people in the United States associate the word "gypsy" with a free-spirited, nomadic romanticism. But Rifati says that the stereotypical, pejorative term stems from a centuries-long history of displacement of and discrimination against Roma in virtually every European country they've inhabited since the Middle Ages, when they migrated from India to Europe.

Across Europe, Romani people have long been treated as second-class citizens and sequestered into slums. "Then what’s there left for me as Roma?" says Rifati in a phone call from Berlin, where he now lives. "Just the road. It’s not by choice, it’s by necessity."

Many examples in recent history back this notion: Romani people were targeted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. And more recently, 100,000 Roma were stripped of citizenship rights in 1993 when Czechoslovakia split into two separate republics following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today in Kosovo (once part of Yugoslavia, where Rifati was raised), many Roma, who make up 10 percent of the population, live in segregated settlements and are discriminated against in jobs and education.

Reclaiming a pejorative term

Anthropologist Carol Silverman, who sits on the board of Voice of Roma, says structural discrimination persists against Romani people in the United States today, especially in courts, policing, social services and mainstream media. "Certain crimes are associated, structurally, with Roma," she says. For instance, the word "gypped," a synonym of "swindled," stems from "gypsy."

"In fact, many police departments in the U.S. still have criminal divisions of investigative assumptions that there's 'gypsy criminality,'" Silverman adds. 

To Rifati, equating the word "gypsy" with free-spirited wanderers erases centuries of oppression and exclusion from mainstream society. "I am not Gypsy, because that's how the white men used to call us," Rifati says, adding that in his home country, he was unable to work in his field as a chemist because of racist discrimination. "It’s inaccurate, it's offensive and it's wrong."

Still, Lumanovski, who lives in New York, says it's more common for him to encounter well-meaning ignorance about his culture in America than overt racism, and doesn't mind so much if bands use the word "gypsy" to refer to the style of music. His other band, the New York Gypsy All-Stars, has been praised on Huffington Post and Salon. He says he wouldn't have chosen that band name himself, "but a manager who I trusted—a producer of a big festival—put that name for us, and I don't feel like we're doing anything wrong with that," he says.

Still, Lumanovski concedes, "If I translate that word in Macedonian or any language in the Balkans, it would sound discriminatory," he says. "Of course, I wish everyone would understand the culture and not use the g-word, but I understand people [in the United States] are not using it to discriminate."

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As far as Peris and Inspector Gadje are concerned, it's up to Romani people if they want to use the word "gypsy" for themselves. Inspector Gadje's mission, rather, is to educate the broader public. As Peris says, "I only have a problem with if you want to use the word to your advantage, and you have no connection and no understanding of the culture."

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