It is exactly forty-one years to the day that the first World Roma Congress was held in Orpington near London. Since then, the 8th of April has had a special place on the calendar for all Roma as we celebrate International Roma Day.
The day was formally ratified during the 4th World Romani Congress in Poland in 1990.
This year there has been a vociferous call for unity to Roma across the worldwide. An official announcement encouraged all Roma to “gather at noon to cast flowers into our nearest river, sea, ocean. Let the spirit of the International Roma Day unite us!”
It was on this day, more than four decades ago, that the foundations of an international Roma movement were laid. Funded by the World Council of Churches and the Government of India the Congress hosted 23 representatives from nine nations.
As well as assigning sub-commissions to look after issues such as social affairs and language, the Congress instated the now iconic green and blue flag with the red sixteen-spoked chakra as the official emblem of the Romani people.
It was also a day when the word ‘Gypsy’ so often used in a derogatory or disrespectful way, was officially discarded in favor of ‘Roma’. While being primarily a day of Romani pride and celebration it is also a time to remember those who have perished at the hands of racist individuals, groups and regimes.
International Roma Day is also significant as it commemorates the day on which the song “Gelem Gelem” was officially recognized as the national anthem of the Romani people.
The anthem was composed by Serbian-born musician Zarko Jovanovic. Having fled German-occupied Belgrade during the Second World War, Jovanovic blossomed as very gifted balaika player and would go on to release several records in the Paris nightclub scene.
However, it was in England, on a trip from London to Birmingham, that Jovanovic wrote his most memorable piece.
I went, I went on long roads
I met happy Roma
O Roma where do you come from,
With tents on happy roads?
O Roma, O brothers
I once had a great family,
The Black Legions murdered them
Come with me Roma from all the world
For the Roma roads have opened
Now is the time, rise up Roma now,
We will rise high if we act
O Roma, O brothers
Open, God, Black
You can see where are my people.
Come back to tour the
Roads and walk with lucky Romani
O Roma, O brothers
Up, Gypsy! Now is the time
Come with me Roma
World brown face and dark eyes
Much as I like black grapes
O Roma, O brothers
We had the great fortune to speak with Jovanovic’s daughter-in-law Natasha, who told us more about the origins of the anthem and its composer.
In an exclusive interview, Natasha shared a truly remarkable tale about Jovanovic’s lucky escape from a Nazi controlled camp in Serbia.
She explained: “They (the Nazis) were starting to send the Roma to Germany or Poland from Serbia. One day they lined everyone up and said “All Gypsys take one step forward”. As Zarko was about to step forward, a Jewish man quietly held him back. That man saved his life.”
It was Jovanovic’s imprisonment under the Nazi regime that served as a major incentive for writing the anthem, as Natasha revealed: “He was a prisoner of the Germans in Serbia and this inspired him. He was always very active, and a very wise man.”
The anthem encapsulates the Roma spirit beautifully with reference to coming together as a people (“Now is the time, rise up Roma now”) as well as remembering darker times (“The Black Legions murdered them”). The latter refers to the German SS and the genocide for which they were brutally responsible in the Second World War.
“Gelem, Gelem” can be heard across the world but if you cross from one border to another you will hear a different version of the anthem almost every time.
As Romani people have embraced the countries in which they live, the same can be said of this song. From Sweden to Japan, from classical to rock ‘n’ roll, “Gelem, Gelem” carries the same message of Roma pride but with a unique flavor depending on the origin of the musicians involved.
All of the Romedia Foundation team wishes all Roma around the world a Happy International Roma Day!
In the coming hours you can listen to the versions and flavors of the different Romani anthem versions!
To illustrate this point, we have put together a scintillating selection of the Romani anthem, starting with Macedonia.
Esma Radzepova and the Netherlands Blazers Ensemble during the 1999 New Year’s Concert in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.
This clip is of Bojana Fabel, a well-known Macedonian singer, performing in a church in London where she now lives. This is a more traditional rendition of the anthem.
Fabel once sang with the legendary Tose Proeski who died tragically in a car accident in 2008. Devoted fans of the Eurovision Song Contest may also recognise Fabel as she was part of the group XXL who represented Macedonia in 2000 with the song “te ljubam (I love you 100%).
Wherever you hear the anthem, you can expect the singer to have an interesting tale or two to tell. This is certainly the case for Dmitri of the now Paris-based band Urs Karpatz.
Dmitri was known to have saved a drowning boy from a river in Bosnia. The boy was part of a family of bear-training Roma so, to thank Dmitri for his heroic act, they gave him a little dancing bear.
Thereafter, he started out performing along with dancing bears in Eastern Europe and Asia Minor.
After fifteen years of this, Dmitri bid the bears a fond farewell and started up his very own sleuth, forming UrsKarpatz (the Carpathian Bears) in 1993.
He sought proud Romani musicians and singers to join him and within three years the Bears were roaring on stage in Paris.
By 2000, their appeal in France had grown to significant heights and they were awarded the Prix Romanes at the Bataclan with Dmitri receiving the accolade from esteemed Romani film director Tony Gatlif.
Their popularity, just like “Gelem, Gelem” has crossed many countries and continents as UrsKarpatz now regularly touring Europe, USA and Asia.
Boasting a significant Romani population, it was not surprising to discover a Slovakian version of the anthem. Finding a Rhumba style recording from Slovakia though was somewhat unexpected.
The Bohemiens performed this at the International Gypsy FEST with BarboraBotošová, MarekKonček, ĽubomírGašpar, TomášGašpierik, Roman Horváth, Richard Sarkozi, JurajRaši all contributing to a wonderful musical fusion.
That is only a brief summary of how “GelemGelem” has left its mark on musical stages all over Europe. Like the Romani people themselves though, the anthem is not confined to European borders. All over North America, there have been Jazz recordings made of the song by the likes of Herbie Mann.
Born in Brooklyn, Mann was a master of the flute and was the most decorated flutist of the 1960s.
Last but by absolutely no means least, our global tour of the Romani anthem has even taken us to the Land of the Rising Sun. The eccentric Maia Barouh gives “GelemGelem” some a mesmerising Japanese makeover.
The multi-talented French-Japanese was born in Tokyo but raised in France until her mid-teens. She was travelling regularly as a child with her father, an actor and producer, Pierre and developed a taste for music when seeing a young girl playing the flute in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
A singer, a flutist, a guitarist and also a raucous ambassador of the treasured and globally traveled Romani anthem.