Last week saw the return of the annual Khamoro festival to Prague, a venue of the highest calibre celebrating both Romani music and Roma culture. Over six days visitors were able to attend performances by bands from thirteen different countries, as well as photographic exhibitions and expert seminars on Roma identity and tradition.
"Laco dzives...krasny den, damy a panove!"
In his speech the Lord Mayor said "diversity provoked", meaning, of course, in the most positive sense. That is a view shared by most in attendance, not least by Vaclav Kubata, a representative of one the festival's traditional sponsors, one of the country's largest retail banks.
It's not just about the music of course, it's also about the culture, there are going to be discussions everyday.
"Um, it's absolutely right to open such discussions. Because we need it, we need it. Some topics must be discussed and some "black boxes" must be opened - that's a fact of life. For us it's very important to not actively participate but to support and help organise such meetings - we believe in that."
Jelena Silajdzic, one of the festival's founders, also understands diversity and its importance. But, she says in the Czech Republic there is still work to be done:
"When my husband and I came from Sarajevo to the Czech Republic we came from the war. We thought everything here was okay. It's the middle of Europe, the people were okay. But, when we came here we learned that everything isn't 'so easy'. And on of the worst questions was the question of the Roma. My husband is a musician, I am a film producer, and we decided to try to show Roma culture at a higher level. But not only culture: during the festival we would like people to address different questions."
Different questions this year included looking at issues of identity and tradition - examined by a panel of young Roma representatives at one of the festival's venues. One visitor in the crowd said that this generation of Roma was different: far more open to progressive trends, leaving certain outmoded traditions behind. That case certainly seemed to have been made by Enisa Eminova an activist from Macedonia.
She spoke of how she and her co-workers had confronted the so-called "virginity cult" and had addressed the problem of young Roma women's sexuality, in an area where topics of sex and family planning all too often remain taboo. Interestingly Ms Eminova indicated that it was by growing up 'outside of the loop' that allowed her to take a different perspective on things:
"I was somewhere in the middle and I was like 'okay', I'm not quite well accepted by the Roma community, because I didn't speak the language. But, I wasn't accepted by the non-Roma community because I am dark, or I said I was Roma. So, this was a crucial point. I was seventeen."
Her story of "not belonging" was also echoed by an man in the audience; he recalled growing up in an orphanage, then one day being told by his father that he was a "Gadjo" - a non-Roma, because he had never properly learned the Romany language.
"I grew up in an orphanage and other diagnostic institutions and I have to say whenever I encountered other Roma here in the Czech Republic they always asked 'Where are you from?". And when I replied in Czech because I couldn't speak Romany, they said 'You're not a Roma'. Even my father said I didn't belong."
The paradox of oppressiveness from within - rather than without - raised the ire of many in attendance, some of them prominent within the Roma community Europe-wide. The discussion had clearly hit a chord.
"We are speaking about the discrimination of the Roma nation, we are speaking about prejudice and stereotypes of non-Roma people, but never are we speaking that there is prejudice and stereotyping amongst ourselves - the Roma. Where I'm working in Macedonia we recognise these young people who can't speak the language and we know that they are Roma because it's very important for them. It's based on important feelings and emotions inside. We can not say 'You are not Roma!"
Despite the heatedness of the discussions, all of those on the panel did display a love for Romani culture in its many aspects, respect, family, solidarity - at least in principle. Where traditions changed - or needed to be changed - they stressed "core values" could still be upheld, though these often are slippery to define. That led me to ask Slovak activist Ivan Mako how he saw the situation in which some Roma had already lost tradition and been caught in a downward social spiral of poverty, drugs, disintegration of community.
"That too is a part of life. Those people are integrated, accepting negative aspects of the majority. I understand that in a certain sense it is unavoidable. But, there are still people within the community, or the family cell, who can play a decisive role, who can offer their help - help others get back on track."
Somehow the answer is not wholly convincing but perhaps its real weight can only be measured at the grass-roots, where activists like Mr Mako try to change conditions for new generations of Roma who aspire to new education, new work opportunities, better living conditions. While his colleague Marian Balog mostly agreed - his view was somewhat bleaker in outlook:
"I think that only the basic family can help. But national solidarity is a myth, the idea that a neighbour or stranger will help you out of the dirt, or help you get off drugs. Maybe that was true fifty years ago, but it's not true now. Every single family struggles on its own, it differs from case to case."
In a way some of the discord in evidence at the discussion at Khamoro seemed to conflict earlier shows of solidarity and mutual respect within the framework of Roma tradition - but it remains a paradox only if one looks at these values in a vacuum rather than in a real-life setting. In the real world professed values obviously vary from community to community, from country to country, depending on the strength of the Roma communities themselves, their representation, as well as the presence of government programmes in tandem with the work of not-for-profit organisations, and not least cultural television programmes like Poland's "We are Gypsies", directed by another of the invited speakers, Katerina Stankiewicz.
For her at least there is no separating of tradition from identity: they are one and the same. She uses her programme to remind the Roma of traditions Ms Stankiewicz says have held more strongly in Poland than almost anywhere else.
"Last year I studied during the summer and I met there Czech Gypsies - not for me traditional. It's different. For me as Roma I must have long hair, need to wear a dress, and would never smoke in front of older people. Because that would be shameful for me, shame. In Poland Gypsies are very orthodox."
Respect was one of the words often mentioned...
"You know, it's inside for me, tradition is inside for me. I feel this, really."
Khamoro 2004 - for many it is just a music festival but it is important
not to forget it is also a valuable forum for Romani issues bringing Roma
non-Roma together, from all over Europe.
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