Roma Agencies Beyond Contemporary Bias Roma house in Craiova, Romania; photo: Stefan Fraunberger

Roma Agencies Beyond Contemporary Bias

March 25, 202115 minutes read

Written by:

Stefan Fraunberger

Edited by:

Andrei Rusu

Share article:

Migration is a theme highly discussed nowadays within the European Union and beyond. Solutions are tailored on a national level and projected on a global scale. Both seem to be an illusion, mainly because the nation and the globe are both illusions taken to be real. The notion of place versus globe seems to find no proper solutions within the patchwork of modern-day democratic possibilities. The last contemporary tools of change, "governance" and "management" are constantly failing right at the limit of the given situation.

The fact that migration and climatic changes are one and the same phenomenon is not yet entirely understood. Beyond the possibilities of contemporary systemic and political methods it seems fruitful to take a look at different worldviews and migrational patterns from within Europe.

Throughout the recent years, while doing recordings in abandoned church-organs in Transylvania, I used to stay in a house in the village of Brateiu, which nowadays is mainly populated by a group called Cortorari (meaning those living in tents), or the Căldărari Coppersmiths as they call themselves. They are one of the few Transylvanian Roma groups that kept their traditional clothings, with older men wearing a long beard and women a flowery skirt and a headscarf. They mainly earn their living by doing copper works with a high degree of precision, by designing entire roofs with a similar copper architecture as I encountered in the southern Himalaya around the valleys of Kullu and Kalpa, opening towards the Indian Subcontinent. In the village of Brateiu, the Cortorar’s main income is crafting the legendary cazan– a high precision instrument to distill the essence of rotten fruits like plum and apricot. These truly beautiful objects are made entirely out of copper by using heat and hammer. Alien objects with a handcrafted character of their own. Throughout the artisans parts of the village a polyphony of rhythmic hammering is dancing with the birds along some Manele tunes (wedding dance music made by modern means). People from all over Romania come to buy these Instruments distilling the Essence of Things. The polyphonic structure of hammering showed similarities to the scape of the metal artisans quarter in Aleppo, Syria, where I used to record some years before.

From a European perspective it was the Roma communities keeping musical abilities through oral traditions, more than any national and composed tradition could have ever done. The traded game of sound without any fixed rules is dating back to early Hungarian court music, Ottoman traditions and beyond – merging them with European dance traditions and classical skills to form a ritual form for weddings and other formal gatherings. Haydn, one of the known grandfathers of Western music, teacher of Beethoven and Mozart, learnt himself from Roma families in regions of nowadays bordering Austria, Hungary, Slovakia. At least that's what he wrote about his motives.

House in Brateiu, Romania. Photo: Stefan Fraunberger
House in Brateiu, Romania. Photo: Stefan Fraunberger

It's not easy to write about Roma agencies beyond pity, cliché and political correctness. I am not aiming to introduce a romantic or a nostalgic view nor is this a genesis of emancipation from the past. While we progressed towards where we are (the ruins of Modernity), others went somewhere else, all of it happening simultaneously. Since forward seems to be the new backwards, we might have to consider our own developments as exotic in comparison to the world. Fortunately we are not driving on a one way highway, so there is the perspective of not getting lost in eternal repetitions of almost alike individuals on their way to work on Mars.

But there is now more to gain from trying to situate our own exoticism as one particular case within a general grammar of cosmologies rather than continuing to attribute to our own vision of the world the value of a standard by which to judge the manner in which thousands of civilizations have managed to acquire some obscure inkling of that vision. [1]

After we thought that history had come to a full stop and the material paradise had arrived for the whole globe, slowly we might wake up to the fact that it didn't stop after all. The systemic bypass of full stop seems to be an illusion, still it is the shaping political reality. If our constructed history haunted us to the post-apocalyptic paradise, to now be immune against change, we might as well have a look at modes of existence that never constructed or theoretically ended history, but just lived it, as it was. With all its stories, traditions and black holes.

Until today it's not entirely clear where the Roma people came from or where their origins are. As we know migration has to do with climatic shifts, with wars, with religious and political changes in the ruling classes, so this might be a reason for Roma people having come to Europe and especially Eastern Europe during the last 100 to 2000 years. In any case, it’s not the aim of this article to give geographical indications of origin.

Meanwhile in Europe, the Roma have been portrayed as nomads, outlaws, and even criminals. Considering the fact that we are talking about the biggest ethnic minority of Europe, we might come to the idea that some cliches keep circling around longer than their creators. It seems to be an established "tradition" in Europe (and the rest of the world) to coin the other as being part of an uncanny fairytale, a good night story for kids being taught the local versions of moralistic law and order. In these goodnight stories, when the "gypsy” appears, irrationality occurs, contact with demons and otherworldly forces – anything that seems to not fit into the materialistic cosmology of modern civilisation. If "they'' appear, the uncanny is about to happen. Murder, fear and immoral habits are on the narrational way of self definition. To attach irrationality to others, was and is the key factor of Modernity’s tremendous success. Therefore it seems healthy to have a look at "irrational" aspects being left behind by the big march to Mars. What's behind the construction of others being uncanny?

It seems odd to me writing about such phenomena from Austria, a country where almost no Roma are remaining, as "clean and symmetric nationalists" were applying genocide to homogenise the masses during the second European suicidal attempt. From a modern-day perspective it seems tricky, living in a state, once being provincialized and nationalized by ideology, to speak about problematic relations of traditionally diverse regions, as for example Romania. Still, it has been countries like the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire fully respecting ethnic diversity, thus being a reason for them being coined outdated by "modern nations", to finally become history during the first European suicidal attempt. What remained after several bypasses, was a bunch of nationalistic psychopaths – Left and Right.

Next to Aleppo Artisans Quarter, Syria (2011). Photo: Stefan Fraunberger
Next to Aleppo Artisans Quarter, Syria (2011). Photo: Stefan Fraunberger

In Romania, many belonging to the Roma population have fallen into poverty, lots are not registered or allowed to public health care, but subsequently victims of environmental racism. Indeed it seems to be a catastrophic situation, where hundreds of thousands are living without running water and no access to the public health system, simply because officially they are not existing, because they were not born "moderns".

Seeing some plastic bags, other trash and dirty water flowing down the streets, (hidden behind villages, we could almost call it slums hidden away from Euro-authorities) might arise the superficial assumption of environmental pollution being executed by people “without origin and history”. People from the civilised cage of reason, hiding their pollution in systemic holes, catalysed motors and backyards of modern-day satisfactions start pointing with the finger at "these dirty people, polluting our environment". In fact it is a very common thing to happen in Eastern Europe (not just there...) to talk about the "lower classes" as being dirty. So far, people that once were made slaves for the established groups, still living in the same "ghettos'' of the villages are being accused of polluting the beautiful "nature". In fact we know that the “holy market”, the church of reason and other forms of fundamental belief are the reason for heavy pollution, not the poor masses.

But enough about history, here are two personal encounters, one from the outside and one from within. Around the year 2010, I was sitting at the court of a wealthy Damascene public Bath House. While having tea, an elderly noble-man with playful clothings and a moustache reminiscent of Dali's vortex sitting at the next table, started a conversation with me. Finally he turned out to be the head of the Hammam, which was being run by his family ever since. He was part of urban Damascene wealthy Roma-families. "You know, that the prophet Muhammad reminded his comrades, while capturing Damascus, to be careful about this city as it is the Paradise on Earth" he told me. Later I asked him, supposing him to know his fellow Roma people in Romania, whether he knows the Bulibasha (Ottoman name for leader) Florin Cioabă from Neppendorf (Turnisor) in Sibiu. With a big smile he responded: “Well, Cioabă is not the only one – there are around forty kings and Roma emperors in Romania; most of them I know personally!" He proved to be right, and don't get me wrong: many different parties claiming to be leaders seem closer to democracy than an absolute systemic illusion led by the universal truth of the holy market.

The other shift in perspective was introduced to me earlier on when I used to live in Transylvania's provincial town of Sibiu, long before it was being repainted with German colours for Western tourists, searching for a healthy investment impression for ever-growing Euro bonds. However, at times when still more crows inhabited the city then humans, as soon as local Romanians found out about me being Austrian, many started telling me the obscure story of certain people coming from Romania to Vienna to start butchering swans in the public park of the former Royal castle Schönbrunn, to then lit up a fire with fresh wood from the royal gardens, to finally do a fancy barbecue and enjoy the nutritious white birds right on spot. I was being told that people in Romania would be very ashamed about all of this happening, and it should be very clear, and I should tell everybody in Austria: “It was not Romanians doing that, it was the Gypsies”. Very uncanny – indeed?

I guess, the only time this almost happened for real was when I intended to reenact this fairytale-swans-barbecue in the former royal gardens of Vienna as a public performance. But as history wanted it, while approaching the former royal swans with my bare hands, the birds started attacking me, so I left the scene and never came back.

These two encounters seem to show a lot about culture including the other but at the same time defining its history by excluding it. Since the early middle age all of Euro-believes and regional ritual phenomena were being "missionised" (thus being another example of universal progress... ) to a single religion with two exceptions: the Jews obviously didn't need to convert to a counter-copy of their own religion, whereas the "Roma traditions" lived a wholly different cosmology with completely different perspectives on work, rituals, music, moral and relations to the world as it is.

All of these modes of existence, these modes of how to relate to the world had a tremendous influence on European culture as it shaped. Byung-Chul Han claims “there is nothing strange within the cultural Hypermarket of globalisation”. Difference is outside the heirs of globalised colonialism: the holy market of consumption doesn't know of different cosmologies, except it's very own absolute truth. Whereas the “fundamentalism of the place”, the “guiding culture” is a reaction to the neoliberal hype, to the Mars Globalisation of no home, no rituals and no place. Both views on culture are hostile to each other “but they have an overlap. They don't have access to aliens” from within. [2] The fundamentalists of the place and the Mars robots seem to have something in common: there is no spirit of difference from within.

This seems to be a classic "Interval Crisis", being the disruption of an interval leading to two extremes, overrunning things with jeans, sneakers, and cultural ashes locked in museums. When the limit gets mistaken with two definitions, the crisis of dead-end-objects hardens. This gives us enough material to question the relatively young terminology of cultures (vs. mono-nature). So why should things suddenly be defined through a global entity of similar modern beings in individualistic micro-cages vs. pre-modern emanations locked in modern nation-culture-cages? If we look in detail, if we look at the earth, things show a different face, things show speaking and interrelating limitations, not constructed systems. The realm of different cosmologies, the possibility of different world views interacting seems to be the key to understand the terror of the situation.

Since the 19th century work has become the central part of social behaviour. Game, occupation, character and modes of existence became replaced by the ability to work for an enterprise gaining profit by raping materia. First there were fundamentalist sub-divisions of the work-religion trying to bring paradise straight away, but finally the modern-day human world is believing in this cosmology of the ability to constantly work for uncanny reasons and thereby leaving behind the purpose of being in this world for a safe “bullshit job”. Social security and wealth is being measured by the amount of people earning money via “bullshit jobs”; bringing profit to a few and creating a truly beautiful Mars atmosphere being based on the modern day religion of work, growth and progress. Thus it doesn't seem odd if the cliché of the so-called canned and nationalised groups, accusing Roma of not being able to take part in social and economic progress. "Nomads wouldn't understand our civilisational degree". All of it being indicators for a "European cosmology" becoming a fundamentalistic claim for absolute truth, same as for example the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids did around 2500 years ago or the Egyptian Nil-culture did around 3500 years ago.

It doesn't matter whether people believe in a king, a religion or in other absolute truths. The result would always be devastating for the others (being the rest of the world). Considering these facts we might have to reconsider a proverb of a certain Kaldarash-Tribe in Transylvania: “Work is an occupation for the ugly white farmer”. Seemingly a very future minded analogy. Not just Europe, but the rest of the working world might have to secularize the religion of the economy and it's counter-revolutions. We could keep it like that: “Work is an occupation for yesterday's ideologies”. Well, you might ask an alternative. Creation and game seem appropriate.

[1] - Beyond Nature and Culture; Philippe Descola (2005)
[2] - The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present; Byung-Chul Han, 2020 Polity

About the Author

Stefan Fraunberger

Stefan Fraunberger is an Austrian composer and artist exploring themes of transformation and liminality in sound, focusing on their interior counterpoint in relation to perception and engaging in electro-acoustic dialogue with different instruments, beings and agencies beyond nature and culture.

He has a background in electro-acoustic music, Oriental studies, Arabic language, and Western philosophy. Having lived and worked in Aleppo, Sana'a, Tehran, Sibiu, Benares, Brussels and elsewhere, he is now based in Vienna.

@SFraunberger homepage
Share this Article
Next Article

Solidarity in Times of Pandemic

This is the exact moment to start paying attention.

Rabih Beaini
More Articles

The Peckham Barber

The story of Andrew, the gracious Cypriot Barber from Peckham, south east London.

Garth Cartwright

Song For My Father

As things return to “normal”, its likely most of us understand that some things will never be the same.

Garth Cartwright

Home and Music

Mothers know everything, they even invented a language of themselves.

Maria Balabaș