Simon Thacker brings “Songs of The Roma” to Summerhall in Edinburgh tonight and, even for Simon, this is an ambitious project. Any work attempting to trace the musical migration of a people through their Indian, Balkan and European travels is at best going to be a very brief introduction to the subject in the very small time frame allowable for a performance. Not only does this subject cover many centuries of musical development, but it also covers history and human stories on a vast scale and, with a small selection of music that combines the innovative new with the at times inspired re-interpreted, Simon has clearly shown in two sets here a clear connection between the music and cultural identities .
Through music Simon illustrates what may at first seem to be totally unconnected cultures as wherever people travel in this world, be it travelling gypsies, or peoples displaced though wars, economic or social circumstances, they take with them their culture, and that is often embedded in their music. Music is in the end living and breathing cultural history with the evidence left not in stones, but in words and song.
Taking us on this musical journey of discovery with Simon (classical guitar) are the huge talents of Justyna Jablonska (cello), and Polish Roma singer and violinist Masha Natanson. Along the journey that we take, we touch upon many musical forms as Roma music breathes new life into Flamenco music whilst at the same time still retaining its older Indian roots, and classical music elements enter the soundscape too. Simon is never a man known for making his projects easy, and other people would probably have taken the far simpler route of performing this project with straight covers of known standards. That however would not have produced the musical fusion or the originality that this project required.
If to some people this merging of music seems an odd mixture, it is perhaps worth noting that classical music has for centuries found a rich vein in traditional folk song to re-interpret, and the music is already firmly established in many of what we consider to be “classical masterpieces”. Also, although our journey today takes us to countries that include India, Russia, Serbia, Romania and into Europe, it is interesting to me that this traditional music also flowed through Russia in the other direction into the Nordic countries. If you are ever in any doubt of that merging again of cultures, just listen to the songs of Abba in hits like “Fernando” and “Chiquitita”. Both are firmly based on older musical traditions.
Some of these traditional songs given voice by Masha Natanson may not be lyrical masterpieces, with very basic stories about drinking and meeting someone (how many Blues songs do this too?), but others are wonderful stories of human emotions full of love and loss. Some of these songs are so imbedded into the cultural psyche of a people that even when being transported by train to Nazi death camps, they were still communally sung. This music reflects not only what is good in humanity, but also in these songs a very dark reminder of man’s never ending inhumanity to his fellow man, woman and children. Wherever oppressors in history have sought to eliminate a people and their culture, they have often tried to eradicate first of all this culture through its words, songs and music.
Highlight of the evening for me though was the performance of the “Aruna” duet between Simon and Justyna as cello and classical guitar complement one another in an interwoven work that allows each to draw upon the other’s distinct musical voices.
“Songs of The Roma” is a story that covers a wide period of time, but is itself constrained into the short time allowed for the performance, but even then I get this feeling that in this music there are endless stories to be told.
As “Folk” is Swedish for “People”, I always think that “Folk Music” would, if we have to tag it at all, be better off simply being called “People Music” as that is what it truly is, and ultimately all music is by that definition “people music”.
Once again, Simon Thacker clearly demonstrates that music is actually an endless flowing and merging of styles and cultures that knows none of the man-made media and marketing categories and sub categories that many people try to force it into. Music is just that – MUSIC, it knows not imposed boundaries.
Review by Tom King