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New York Roma Enrich City's Culture

  • Adam Phillips

They are known by many names: Gypsies, Travelers, and Roma, which is how they prefer to be known. Whatever you call them, Roma are among the most widely dispersed and yet the least understood ethnic groups on earth. Romany culture and its influences have made a positive impact in New York, where thousands of the world’s estimated 12 million Roma make their home.

Romany style music and celebration are going full force at the Drom nightclub, the epicenter of a three-week New York Gypsy Festival.

It highlights the musical cultures of a people who migrated north from India about one thousand years ago and settled mainly in southern and eastern Europe, the Balkans and present-day Russia.

Producer Mehmet Dede said the festival is geared to those, like him, who are “Gypsy at heart.”

“And I would like to think that in New York City we’re all a little bit of Gypsy,” said Dede.

Just as the Roma have been influenced by the lands where they have lived, New York has been shaped by the immigrant groups that settled here, including the Roma.

Ismail Lumanovsky leads The New York Gypsy All Stars. He sees himself as a cultural ambassador.

“By playing Romany music, I want to offer the New York audience a very free way of looking to music, of expressing their feelings in the moment," said Lumanovsky.

The Gypsy spirit seems to work for New York’s downtown music scene.

“I think they have something like an energy you don’t find in any other music. So that’s why I like it,” said one girl.

“It’s kind of like the European blues,” said a man at the festival.

“They can feel music. You feel that they love playing,” said another man.

Petra Gelbart conducts workshops where she introduces Romany language, dances and music to non-Roma, or “gadje.”

She also likes to correct what she calls misconceptions.

“We’re not nomadic for the most part. We’re people who have been settled for hundreds of years or are certainly trying to settle and get jobs…" said Gelbart.

Roma have considered themselves outsiders and they have often been persecuted. They are frequently stereotyped as unkempt and dishonest.

An estimated half-million Roma were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. Today, anti-Roma violence is on the rise in western and southern Europe. Even in the U.S., some immigrant Roma fear prejudice. Gelbart’s mother worked at a bank.

"And she just wasn’t going to tell people she was Gypsy because, as she put, it ‘the minute something goes missing, who do you think they’re going to blame?’" said Gelbart.

Still, many native New York Roma, like dancer Pirozhka Racz, are proud to maintain some traditions for which Roma are known, including fortune telling.

Racz said that in spite of globalization, there will always be Roma.

"We haven’t let all of the sadness throughout the centuries change us. We’ve remained basically just the same, keeping the important things alive - generosity, sharing with family, music and the other arts that we do," said Racz.

And to judge by the increasing popularity of Gypsy-style music, dance, and even fashion, Roma will be part of the Big Apple’s flavor for years to come.

Link to related film trailer: "A People Uncounted"

VOA's Daniela Schrier in New York produced this package.