James Naugh­tie

BBC ra­dio pre­sen­ter

BBC Music Magazine - - Welcome -

‘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

’’ along

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

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