BBC radio presenter
‘Back in July I spent an inspiring few days travelling to Romania with the Czech Philharmonic who were taking a group of young Roma singers on a bold journey to discover their rich cultural roots.’
Chavorenge is a children’s choir like no other. To appreciate its true character you really need to be somewhere in rural Romania, at a feast with a roasted pig and plenty of plum brandy, and a band consisting of fiddle, accordion and cimbalom, backed up by an ensemble from the Czech Philharmonic. Imagine it.
After first meeting them on a sweltering hot evening, I joined the choir the next morning as it gathered in Prague for a flight to Bucharest. Some of the singers had never flown before. I shared the excitement of their trip into the mountains, where they performed for an audience that took them instantly to their hearts.
These singers are from the Roma community in the Czech Republic, youngsters from eight to 18 from desperately poor backgrounds, who are part of a remarkable project run by one of the most revered cultural institutions in Prague. Remarkable, because this is much more than the kind of ‘outreach’ that has become part of any self-respecting orchestra or opera house at home in recent years. Engaging with Roma children isn’t simply a cultural statement, it’s political too. When, like any bunch of schoolchildren, the choir sang in the bus on their travels, they were consciously celebrating a culture that isn’t encouraged, and is sometimes even supressed. It gave their excitement a particular flavour.
For Ida Kelarová, an indefatigable musician and campaigner, this has been a dream years in the making. ‘These children have been encouraged to deny their culture. But the Roma culture is rich – its language and its music are wonderful,’ she explains, ‘and I want them to understand it.’ She persuaded the Czech Philharmonic in 2014 to start an annual summer music school – Romano Drom (The Romany Way) – with the help of the MIRET foundation, an initiative for developing ethnic art. The choir is one of the outcomes. ‘The Čhavorenge choir gives these children a chance to fulfil their dreams. It is as simple as that,’ Kelarová says.
Across eastern Europe, discrimination against Roma people is widespread. There are many millions of them – no one can be totally sure of the numbers, because many choose not to identify themselves as Roma in census returns – but in an era of nationalist politics, notably in ★ungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, they are an easy target for those who see advantages
The music and language spring from a folk tradition that celebrates raw passion with unash am ed
’ ’ directness
in the politics of divisions. ‘The gypsies’ can be blamed for almost anything.
The involvement of the orchestra is therefore important. Since the 1890s, when Antonin Dvořák conducted its first concert in Prague, the Philharmonic has been a proud institution. It has survived turbulent politics, even the time when it had to play on platforms bedecked in swastika flags, and its home, the magnificent Rudolfinum on the blanks of the Vltava, has always been a magnet for musicians and a source of pride. It self-consciously represents a tradition that has been protected, through the turmoil after 1918, the Nazi occupation, the Communist years and the end of Czechoslovakia with the Velvet Revolution of the 1980s.
String, woodwind and brass players from the Czech Philharmonic joined the choir at the airport. ‘I find it moving to play with them,’ one of the viola players tells me. ‘This is not the music we are used to. But we love it.’
Petr Kadlec, who works with the orchestra, has been Kelarová’s partner in the enterprise, striving to make the programme an important part of the Philharmonic’s year. Across the Czech Republic and Slovakia, tens of thousands have attended concerts by the choir, discovering the sheer verve of their music-making. ‘We always talk about music breaking down barriers,’ he says. ‘Well, this is what we are doing to try to make it happen.’
The choir is nothing like an ensemble schooled in, say, the English choral tradition. It is lusty and loud, the music and language springing from a folk tradition that celebrates raw passion with unashamed directness.
One of our first stops in Bucharest was a school where a group of Roma children from the area were assembled to listen to the choir. ‘They don’t speak their own language,’ Kelarová says. ‘They are being asked to put away their own culture. We want to give it back to them.’
We gathered in a stifling upstairs room where the electric piano was soon plugged in, the choir lined up, and the local children wondered what they were going to hear. In an instant, there was what can best be described as an explosion of joy. The floor shook, and people gathered outside to hear through open windows. We all understand the exhilaration of collective music-making. To watch and listen to these youngsters – none of them with any educational advantages or special privileges – was to understand the power of their exposure to music which they understood to be their own. Their natural movement and rhythm, and their smiles, told the whole story.
Yet in Bucharest there was bleak evidence of how much this project is needed and why it is so deserving. A concert had been planned in the city. Kelarová told me what happened: ‘We had the hall booked. Everything was ready. We were looking forward to it. Then they discovered we were Roma. The booking was given to someone else, and they didn’t even tell us. We had to find out for ourselves.’ It was an eloquent comment on the problem that Romano Drom is confronting as directly as it can.
An accordion player got going, the cimbalom was tuned, and soon the children from Čhavorenge were singing
But on the day of the school visit, we were promised a treat. A trip out of the city to a town – Clejani - with a sizeable Roma community, where a warm welcome was promised.
Trestle tables were laid out. At the back of a shed, someone lit a rough-and-ready barbecue. There was orange juice for the kids, beer and slivovitz (plum brandy) for everyone else, and the musicians began to warm up. A trombonist and a cellist from the orchestra started to play. Performers from the famous Roma group Caliu joined in. An accordion player got going. The cimbalom was tuned. And soon the children from Čhavorenge were singing along.
We were plied with food and drink for a couple of hours as the sun set and the musicmaking went on. The choir couldn’t stop singing, Kelarová making sure they gave of their best: ‘I am half-roma. This is my culture too.’ Returning home to the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution, after years abroad, she found herself delving into her own culture with, for the first time, a sense of purpose.
‘I hope for all these children that they do the same. Look at the young people we met in Bucharest,’ she says. ‘They don’t know their own language. They’re told it is dirty and bad. I hope we have shown them something new.’
The experience on the next day made the point forcefully. We drove into the mountains, to the resort of Sinaia, for the main concert
of the trip. It was to take place in an old casino, a rather elegant auditorium with something of the air of an Edwardian theatre. For most of the choir members this was yet another new experience. They had never sung in anywhere quite like it. Fired up by an exuberant rehearsal, they prepared to face a full house. I talked to the orchestral musicians as they tuned up. One confided that there were a few traditionalist members of the Philharmonic who were a little sniffy about the project, and made clear they wanted to stay away. But for these musicians, this trip was evidence of a commitment to encourage the singers in their journey of self-discovery.
‘We find this very moving,’ one of them said to me. ‘Wait until you hear the performance.’ It was a passionate affair. Kelarová herself sang, we had some virtuoso gypsy music and the choir took over the stage. With rich backing from the classical musicians behind them – luxuriating in the freedom of the folk repertoire – they filled the place with sound, and danced across the stage with delight. There were encores and tears, cheers from the audience and an after-show dinner that was abuzz with excitement.
‘Čhavorenge means “for the children”,’ Kelarová tells me. ‘And that tells you all you need to know. We are doing this for them. It is a small step. I know that. But it will lead to a bigger one, and then another one. That is the way you change things. I want them to understand the richness of their culture, and for others to realise how important it is that it is not forgotten or pushed away. You saw what happened in Bucharest – the concert that never was – and that shows you how much this is needed.’
The following day, they were heading to another Roma community, and no doubt another uproarious performance. I had to leave, but with memories that will not easily fade.
The Czech Philharmonic’s involvement is a fine example of what can be done. Many orchestras have taken steps in the right direction – Simon Rattle took the Berlin Philharmonic to perform in some of the roughest parts of that city – but this one has a particular character and relevance. At a time of rampant nationalism in Eastern Europe, the outsider is always going to suffer. It is nothing new for Roma communities to have to accept that they are going to be denied respect and perhaps face direct discrimination. In that atmosphere, the statement by the
Czech Philharmonic is brave and significant. ‘Outreach’ doesn’t come better than this.
These youngsters have been dealt a bad hand – as we left Prague, Kelarová asks me, for instance, if I realised that most of them had never seen the sea – but they have been given a chance by this project. Through music they can discover selfrespect, a pride in who they are, and discover the profound satisfaction of musical discipline and cultural engagement.
As I travelled home, I felt I could still hear them, and see their smiles.
The Czech Philharmonic celebrates its 100th anniversary with a concert at London’s Royal Academy of Music on 24 October
All change: campaigner Ida Kelarová
Make some noise: (clockwise from left) Cˇhavorenge sing out; gathering for the trip; T-shirts for the occasion
Circle of friends: Cˇhavorenge (main) and organisers (below) enjoy the impromptu party
Curtain up: the Czech Phil and Cˇhavorenge perform in Sinaia
Smiles all round: Cˇhavorenge singers