The Musical Life of Greek “Gypsy” Musicians

Member to Member

Volume CIII, No. 2February, 2003

Charlie Keil

When would a professional musician not want to be called a professional musician? It sounds like the setup to a bad joke.

But for Romani musicians – who some call Gypsies – there are profound distinctions between professional musicians and what they call themselves – “instrument players.”

So what’s the difference between an “instrument player” and a professional musician?

For the past 35 years, my wife Angeliki and I have been visiting a Romani neighborhood in a Greek Macedonian town called Iraklia on the map – better known to locals as Jumaya (which means “Friday market” in Turkish). Every Friday more than 100 stalls are erected at the crossroads in the center of Jumaya and people come from miles around to shop. While most people are looking for food bargains, utensils, clothing, brooms, reed mats and chairs, a few shoppers are also seeking a special trio of two outdoor oboes (zurnas) and a bass drum (dauli) for a wedding, baptism, Saint’s Day celebration or a special event of some kind.

We first heard this music in the 1960’s and fell in love with the sounds and dance rhythms. Since then, we’ve been following Romani musicians to a gig or two whenever we visited my wife’s hometown of Thessaloniki. Finally, in the late 1980’s we decided to write about these musicians and their 2,000-person neighborhood. They have lived there for at least six generations doing agricultural labor, fishing, craftwork, peddling and supplying music for parties.

Only after we had done our first interviews with musicians did we realize that they didn’t think of themselves as musicians. Consistently referring to themselves as “instrument players” (organo pektes) or even simply as “instruments,” they gave the impression that playing an instrument was like making brooms, weaving mats or hoeing a row of cotton – just a skill, a craft, a way of making a living.

When I asked about the differences between musicians and instrument players, the answers were clear:

  • Musicians read music; we don’t.
  • Musicians take breaks and we play continuously. (In fact, the horn players master continuous breathing as the first skill and a trio may play for over an hour without stopping.)
  • Musicians often play what they want to play and we always play only what is requested.
  • Musicians sit indoors and can use amplifiers; we work outside a lot and can move around.
  • Musicians have contracts and know what they will be paid, whereas we play mostly or only for tips.
  • Though they don’t call themselves musicians, these instrument players do have a code of conduct. The basic rules of engagement are very simple:
  • Please the patron. The customer is always right. Every effort must be made to play the tune requested, or at least the dance genre the tune represents.
  • Patrons take turns. Keep dancers’ requests in a proper series. Never lose the sequence or respond to a bigger tip by putting the big spender’s choice ahead of dance tunes requested earlier.
  • Equal shares. The three players pool their tips after work and divide the total equally.
  • Interchangeable parts. If one member of a regular trio is absent another player can step right in because all experienced players know the core repertoire of songs, dances and rhythms. First and second zurna players can switch parts a few times during an evening’s performance.
  • Friendly competition. Whoever spots a patron first in the square gets first crack at him.
  • Don’t infringe on another group’s negotiations. At a coffeehouse we watched one trio negotiate an agreement with potential patrons while members of trios sitting at other tables looked on, waiting to see if the bargaining would break down. There is a lot of joking and teasing between players as to who is getting the most work and why.

While these rules or guidelines are quite strictly adhered to, there is no organization backing them up and efforts to form an esnafi (Turkish for “guild”) in the decades before and after World War II never made any lasting impact on working conditions, largely because parties and weddings may or may not be high paying but are always very sporadic and seasonal. Most instrument players must do other jobs to support their families.

After centuries of service the demand for these trios is still there (though more uncertain recently), largely because they move around so easily and can lead processions to and from church, take the music to people in their homes or accompany the traditional wrestling matches that usually end a Saint’s Day in Greek Macedonia. People would feel foolish putting a CD player in a wedding parade or alongside the wrestlers.

We hope that our work and research are documenting a multicultural tradition that will continue for many generations to come.

Keil’s book about Romani musicians, “Bright Balkan Morning: Romani Lives and the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia,” was recently published by Wesleyan University Press. He wrote the book with his wife Angeliki. An accompanying CD was produced by Steven Feld, and Dick Blau took photographs for the book.