INTERNATIONAL ROMA DAY – CELEBRATIONS OF A ROMANI EMANCIPATION MOVEMENT BEING BORN
Forty-three years have passed since the First World Roma Congress was held in Orpington, near London, in 1971. Officially, 8th of April was ratified as an International Celebration Day during the 4th World Romani Congress held in Poland, in 1990. Since then, this date has had a special place in the calendar of all Roma, as it marks an important moment in the history of the Romani Emancipation Movement. It became the day during which we celebrate the International Roma Day, a day to bring forth our beautiful, diverse culture and traditions, but also one of remembrance. The many hardships Romani people faced along the history, from the early days of their arrival in Europe, to the dire conditions they are still confronted with in today’s society, should not be forgotten in our quest for dignity.
Let us take you through a brief history of how our flag, language and anthem were officially recognized. In the end, embrace with us our diversity and hop on board for our visual journey, ‘from the caravan to the palace’.
It was on this day, more than four decades ago, when the foundations of an international Roma movement were laid. Sub-commissions to look after issues such as social affairs and language, were assigned, with the Congress deciding on the now iconic green and blue flag, with the red sixteen-spoked chakra, as the official ensign of the Romani people. Most importantly, this day marked the official transition from the derogatory misnomer “gypsy”, which saw almost universal use, to the endonym “Roma”, a much more preferred term these days.
As for the anthem, ‘Gelem Gelem’, composed by the Serbian-born musician Zarko Jovanovic, was chosen for its ability to encapsulate the Roma spirit beautifully, with reference to coming together as a people (“Now is the time, rise up Roma now”) and 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. Jovanovic fled German-occupied Belgrade during the Second World War, and he lived to blossom as a very gifted balalaika player, going 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.
We had the great chance 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 the truly remarkable tale of 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 Gypsies 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 to us in an interview: “He was a prisoner of the Germans in Serbia and this inspired him. He was always very active, and a very wise man.”
Today, there are countless versions of ‘Gelem, Gelem’, across the world, with every border crossing unveiling a different version of the anthem. 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 local flavor, conjured by the the origin of the musicians involved.
That unique flavor, earlier mentioned, is one of the greatest contributions of the Romani people to all the cultures they came in contact with. There has been considerable progress in certain areas relating to Roma acceptance and inclusion, but these advances are still largely overshadowed, however, by numerous backlashes. Trying to offer an overview of the successes and failures that occurred during the past decade and beyond is a difficult endeavor. We will attempt to map a perspective of realistic expectations that we can have for the future of Romani people, a future in which our dignity will not be shadowed.
Until new efforts are being clearly mapped out and new strategies implemented, we just want to underline that economic segregation, which translates in spatial marginality, affecting mostly the ones who are traditionally assigned to the domestic space. These are the Roma women and the young Romani girls, that we consider to be at the forefront of their communities’ development. Before we expand the call to solidarity, for all us to ‘unite through the flow of the rivers, seas and oceans, letting the spirit of the International Roma Day to unite us!’, take a look at this collage. You will discover not only the diversity of our culture, but a heterogeneous Europe and different housing facilities, from settlements to social projects, to palaces of splendor.
The Romani Anthem:
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
brown face and dark eyes
Much as I like black grapes
O Roma, O brothers!