The Romani Connection. From Tomatito to Esmeralda

One of the powerful cultural vitamin injections of this spring was a concert by the famous Flamenco guitarist Tomatito at Denmark’s Radio Concert Hall. It was breathtaking to see the maestro play his guitar with such ease, intense passion and emotion. Accompanied by his orchestra, Tomatito demonstrated how music, song and dance in perfect unison can bring about an authentic atmosphere charged with poetic rhythm. I think this unique sensation is called Duende in Flamenco terminology, meaning the soul or a heightened state of emotion. Duende was surely achieved during this concert on May 27th.

Flamenco music has a strong element of drama and tension, where emotions such as sorrow, pain, anguish, happiness, longing, desire and more are articulated with eruptive energy through the elements of el cante (singing), la guitarra (guitar playing), las palmas (handclapping) and el baile (dancing).

While listening, I began wondering, where such strong emotions stem from. To be able to understand, we need to learn about the history of the Roma, Romani people or the Gitanos as they are called in Spanish. They are also commonly known as Gypsies, but this word seems to have developed undesirable racial connotations. Flamenco is the cultural heritage and folklore of the Romani people, whom, based on the most common theory, migrated from the banks of the river Ganges in northern India in the 11th century. They continued their journey and nomadic existence from Asia to Europe and some of them continued to Spain and settled there in the 15th century. They brought with them musical instruments and songs. In Spain, they met the cultures of the Andalusians, the Sephardic Jews and the Moors (Arabs). It is in this flux of intercultural mingling, Flamenco seems to have emerged.

It seems that Flamenco was the Romani people’s way of expressing their cultural identity through their art. The sorrow and pain is rooted in the poverty and oppression they experienced as an outcast minority. Flamenco is a record of their history, which live through the song lyrics, music and dance inherited from generation to generation. My impression is that the Roma people are truly artistic in the soul. They do not care about the material world, their philosophy is living by the day and living for their art, song and dance, which often caused the society to blame them for loose living, laziness, crime and conflict.

The Romani people brings me to another cultural vitamin injection, which I indulged in this spring: Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame of Paris, also known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The beautiful story of the hideous looking and deaf bell-ringer of the church of Notre Dame, Quasimodo, whose ugliness is his greatest weakness and weapon and the enchanting gypsy girl La Esmeralda, whose mother and father were birds of the air. They are both outcasts of society.

Esmeralda does not know her origins, she thinks she is from Egypt, as gypsies were mistakenly believed to be Egyptians back then. She is a free spirit, who loves to sing and dance, and do amazing tricks with her goat Djali. She is a true Roma soul. Even though her fate was destined by a swap between herself and Quasimodo as babies, later as grown-ups, their fates cross each other again and again. The story unfolds in Paris in the Middle Ages, which Victor Hugo delivers a detailed birds eye view of, even though he wrote the novel three hundred and forty-eight years, six months and nineteen days later. The novel, not only is a wonderful story that will touch your heart, it is also a piece of historical masterpiece, an impressive work about the Medieval times. Reading through the pages heavy with names of people with impressive titles from the French aristocracy and the religious community, it is not possible to escape Hugo’s irony about these times, where ignorance, poverty and religious oppression were dominant.

It is through great art like Flamenco music and Victor Hugo’s writing that our sensitivities will be awakened and we will be reminded that both horrible and great things have happened in the course of history, when different cultures met. There is so much pain and beauty in both pieces of art. And so many lessons to learn.