Sunday, August 14, 2005

Roma UnDaunted

A week of reading and not reading Garth Cartwright's Princes Among Men: Journeys with Gypsies, which I picked up at the fantabulous Daunt Books travel bookstore in London earlier this year, while looking for something completely different (Lela Aboulela's Minaret [OK] and Kathleen Jamie's Findings [superlative], if memory serves). Very few works of non-fiction have ever come close for me to Isabel Fonseca's Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey, and Cartwright's is not one of them. Both Fonseca and Cartwright shift from the position of objective reportage to involved, and even implicated, travel writer - but as their titles indicate, Fonseca does this in order to tell the stories of Roma across the Balkans, Cartwright (in the end) to tell his own story of obsession with Roma music. It's like High Fidelity with six pages on O Porrajmos (The Devouring, the Roma phrase used to describe the Holocaust). Or (given the frenetic nature of the prose) On the Road with naïve attempts at political contextualisation.
Cartwright's enthusiasm for the music is infectious - already leading to record store scouring for rare Balkan imports and eighties world music compilations - but also pretty one-note for a book supposedly concerned with some of the wildest, most diverse and accomplished music in the world, given its incorporation of Indian, Turkish, Balkan, Hungarian, Jewish, Chinese, and other musical traditions. Cartwright's prose, littered with catchy hooks from Western pop music and colloquial expressions (the equivalent of a Beat writer ending every sentence in a poem "dig, man?"), is designed to suggest the oral culture that has remained strong amongst the Roma, even as they are settled and (sometimes) schooled by various European governments - but it has the deadly side-effect of being unbelievably patronising, translating the Roma's rich languages, slangs and stories into British street slang and the commercialised platitudes of MTV. Not so hip, dude.
When the voices of the singers are allowed to come through, the book grabs, embodying the spirit of Daunt: books are travel, but also the prompt to and preparation for travel. As a prompt, it's rather Hunter S. Thompson -- all rakiya blindness, scary driving and stompy nationalists. Gonzo travel has been pretty much overwritten by wacky Brit Nick Middleton, whose endlessly exhausting ability to turn even a trip to the shops for some fags into an obstacle course raises the boy-travel challenge to new levels. Of course, politics and cultures become little more than scenery to such high-altitude writing: the white man's survival of the conditions that their hosts live in day by day becomes the narrative that supposedly hooks us in. Daunt bristles with these tall tales of derring-do (dating back to Polo, M. , I suppose). Travel as extreme sport. On the other side is travel as landscape painting, which evacuates everything that's not picturesque - or sees even poverty as just darling if it adds local colour. Dervla Murphy, the phenomenal travel writer who took her daughter, as a toddler, around Central Asia, said something very profound about men travelling for TRAVEL - speed, danger, a new place every day, very linear and agenda-driven - while women travel to stop - to sit down and talk with the locals, to see where each conversation will take them, what they can learn, what they can share. It's a huge generalisation - certainly Freya Stark's The Minaret at Djam is an example of a woman travelling on a mission -- although she stops frequently to smell, and pick, the flowers. Like any generalisations, it offers food for thought. Cartwright gives the sense that he is travelling in a haphazard, gypsy-like manner, criss-crossing the Balkans as if following the musicians - but he's not. He's a writer with a deadline and a preconceived narrative: he wants people to show up on time and say useful stuff. He wants countries to be sketchable in a single sentence, wringing cheap yuks from a running gag about the awfulness of Communist architecture. His attempts to encapsulate the flavour of each country (and it usually involves those staples of the travel narrative: food and architecture) instead blurs them together, partially because in each country he has a single purpose: manically chase Gypsy music.
Given that Daunt is arranged by country (pretty unique), I wonder where they would shelve it? Gypsy music rarely has a section of its own in world music stores, tending to be included under the country of the singer's origin, or thrown in with Eastern Europe, or even World Fusion (if you're the Gypsy Kings). This is an issue. It suggests that all Roma are assimilated, ignoring the forced settlement and assimilation policies of many countries that effectively destroyed the Roma's nomadic way of life, which was none too concerned with national borders, wherever they happened to be at the time. The fierce nationalisms of Eastern Europe, with their blood and earth mentality, have traditionally found the Gypsies and the Jews at the bottom of the heap. Cartwright's book alludes to this 'clash' between nomads and nationalists, but is resolute in his categorisation: there is Serbian gypsy music, Macedonian gypsy music, Romanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, etc. (Spain and Turkey don't make the cut).
So this is really a book about the Balkans, its very title a lie: Cartwright journeys, but the Roma that he talks to don't. Or rather, he doesn't journey with them. He has his own agenda to pursue (something about pursuing a Czech girl, yawn), his own rather CNN-ized gonzo history to write through the blaze of yet another dull hangover. All the Roma artists that he interviews talk about travelling: to India, to the US, all over Europe, their music opening doors and earning money. Cartwright gives the sense that he finds all this travel less than pure, a pandering to the West's idea of the romantic musical Gypsy embodied in the current popularity of flamenco. But the Roma, as a nomadic people, have always been accumulators, synthesisers, taking the music of the places that they travelled through and interweaving it to make something unique, playing back to each new listener sounds that he or she might recognise made different. Like jazz, it's a music of call and response, of improvisation, of going with the flow. The musicians interviewed all talk about their delight in borrowing, stealing, remaking, reinventing, collaborating, seeing where the music takes them. It's a shame that Cartwright couldn't put aside his sheet music and follow their lead.

2 comments:

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Sophie - tiptop commentary! Yes, Bury Me Standing is a classic - you make me want to read it again - unfortunately Daniel has rearranged every book in the house and our libraries are now very dishevelled ...I could probably write a travel book on the endless quest to find anything...

Delirium's Librarian said...

Voyage to the Other Side of the Library. It sounds like a project...