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What a U.S. Musical Tradition Can Teach Us about Roma Culture

  • John Lacy's funeral
    October 9, 1931, John Lacy’s funeral. The hearse followed the musicians as they played Lacy’s favorite song “Soven Soven, chave mamangen miro bo ogif zeleno, odad mulias” (“Sleep children sleep, do not ask for bread, the wheat is green, and father is dead”), a funeral dirge or lament played at funerals for well over 100 years. No one remembers who wrote the song but it can only be played at a funeral, and a musician can only learn to play the song at a funeral. © Special Collections, Cleveland State University
  • John Brenkacs Gypsy orchestra.
    A photo of the John Brenkacs Gypsy orchestra, the best known and most sought after orchestra of their kind in the United States and also well known in Europe. The members of the orchestra from the left are: Albert Balog, Geza Duna, Louis Balog (cimbalom), Rudy Rigo, and Primas John Brenkacs. The orchestra made eight records in the 1920s on the Columbia label. In 1934 they were called to Detroit, Michigan, for the opening of the Hungarian Village restaurant. They remained there until 1936 when they were called back to Cleveland for the opening of the “Great Lakes Exposition, World’s Fair” where they remained in Cleveland for two years. The orchestra is pictured here in the official 1936 Great Lakes Exposition souvenir guide. The cimbalom player Louis Balog, mentioned in newspaper articles and journals, is credited with teaching many Roma how to play. © Special Collections, Cleveland State University
  • Braddock musical group.
    A photo of the Roma community in Braddock. Roma started to immigrate to the Pittsburgh area around 1890. By the early 1900s they had purchased an entire block of homes. Local Roma called it “The Braddock Yard.” Many authors, journalists, newspaper reporters, and people who studied Roma visited the Braddock community and wrote stories on them. The community lived in Braddock until the 1960s and eventually moved to Detroit, Michigan. According to the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese it was common practice for individual churches to take pictures like this. © Steve Piskor
  • Cleveland’s Hungarian Roma picnic.
    August 4, 1927, Cleveland’s first Hungarian Roma picnic held at the Malasky farm. The two cimbalom players set up back to back are George Richko (front) and Louis Ballog (back). The Primas (lead violin) is Willie Horvath, other musicians are, Rudy Rigo, Albert Balog, and Ziggy Bela. The Roma women in attendance dressed in traditional outfits, the main dish was goulash, and over 500 people attended. © Special Collections, Cleveland State University

The history of Roma people in the United States remains unfamiliar to most. Maybe even less familiar is the Hungarian-Gypsy musical tradition brought by many of those Roma to the United States over 100 years ago. A new book, Gypsy Violins by Steve Piskor, himself from a long line of Hungarian-Slovak Roma musicians, seeks to uncover this vibrant past and preserve it from sadly increasing obscurity.

The history of American-Hungarian music begins in Braddock, Pennsylvania, in 1887 with the influx of Hungarian-Slovak workers taking up the employment opportunities offered by Andrew Carnegie. Most of the Roma musicians among them came from Kassa, Hungary (now known as Kosice, Slovakia). Youngstown, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and New York also became home to many of these musicians. Among the fans of cimbalom music—part of the Hungarian-Gypsy musical tradition—was Henry Ford.

Gypsy Violins has collected scores of archival photographs of funerals, weddings, baptisms, parades, and celebrations in which this music played a crucial role. Many of the pictures have never been viewed by the general public. Also in the collection are over 200 pages of historically-significant newspaper articles. 

In depicting a once thriving community, Gypsy Violins reminds us that the survival of cultures—however vibrant they may be—is never guaranteed. Though faded in the United States, in Europe today Roma culture perseveres despite a backdrop of state sponsored evictions, discrimination, and exclusion. This culture must be protected if the European Union is serious about its commitments to Roma, Europe’s largest minority of about 10 to 12 million people. “Who are you if you don’t know anything about where you come from, about your origins, your family, your language, your own culture?” reflected a young Roma man from Macedonia at a recent retreat on Roma pride.

Gypsy Violins preserves the culture of an old generation of Roma from obscurity and reminds a new generation of Roma pride in the past and what’s needed to protect this culture in the future.

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