Thirty miles outside of the Romanian capital of Bucharest, over rugged dirt roads and overgrown brush, past horse-drawn wagons and through herds of cows, lies the sleepy little Wallachian village of Clejani. Yet Clejani is far from your typical corn-and-potatoes farming hamlet. Aside from displaying the preserved head of the village’s wealthiest landowner in the basement of the church, Clejani also boasts one of the world’s most famous Gypsy bands and one of Romania’s best-known musical exports, the 13-piece Taraf de Haïdouks. But as brilliant as Taraf de Haïdouks is, they’re simply the latest incarnation of a local musical tradition that stretches back for generations in Clejani.
Gypsy—or Roma—music is a broad and borderless category that covers a lot of ground. Its roots are linked to Rajastani folk idioms, and shrouded in legend—Roma folklore tells of 10,000 Gypsy musicians brought from India to Persia in the 5th century, where after consuming all their provisions the king chased them out to “now wander the world, seeking employment, associating with dogs and wolves, and thieving on the road by day and by night.” Whether this tale is true or not, Roma people have a long tradition of making their living with music in Europe and the Near East. Roma music’s many different incarnations range from Spanish flamenco to France’s manouche jazz to the itinerant Hungarian musicians that once influenced the Romantic rhapsodies of Franz Liszt.
Roughly 20 million people around the world trace their roots to the Roma. More than half of that number reside in Europe, with the largest single population found in Romania, making Romania one of the most fertile hotbeds of Roma music on the planet.
But what distinguishes the music of Romanian Gypsies from that of their far-flung cousins?
According to Speranta Radulescu, director of musicology at the Peasant Museum in Bucharest, Roma music is a broad category that transcends borders and time. “There is no single Gypsy music,” says Radulescu. “Gypsy music in Romania is not the same in Spain or France. The truth about Gypsy music is it is local and circumstantial. It is a truly valuable here and now. And another time is not the same.”