It was back around 1970 when UO anthropologist and folklorist Carol Silverman, an undergraduate student at City College of New York, became infatuated with Romani (Gypsy) music — as a singer and dancer.
Now Silverman, a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow and head of the UO Department of Anthropology, is author of a book that explores Balkan Roma through their music and, quite comprehensively, their history, politics and culture.
"Romani Routes" (Oxford University Press) looks closely at Romani music and culture, primarily in the Balkans, from the 1970s to the present — tracing the impacts of socialism, it's fall, and, now, the emerging challenges of rising anti-migrant sentiments, deportations and physical attacks.
"I got involved through music. I was a singer and became a scholar of Balkan music," Silverman says. Through the exposure to Romani musicians, in New York and in annual trips to Europe for Balkan folk festivals, "I couldn't help but notice the prejudice they face as soon as they get off the stage."
Roma, she writes in her introduction, are "a rich mosaic of groups that distinguish among themselves culturally and do not usually intermarry." Some are sedentary, some are nomadic "to varying degrees," some have taken on the language and culture of where they now live and some have adopted local religious beliefs. "Discrimination is sometimes the only thing that seems to unite Roma, and this is precisely what Roma seek to eliminate."
"Romani Routes" aims to de-exoticize Roma, she says. The people — who originated in India and are Europe's largest ethnic minority — are not just musicians. "Roma are doctors, lawyers, activists and teachers, like any other population," she adds.
Her many travels gradually moved beyond the music, with doors opening to let her spend time with families, attending their weddings and social events. As her presence amid the Roma grew, Silverman was able to explore the culture and politics more deeply.
She acknowledges in her book's introduction, however, that her perceptions were affected by her "access to resources, my non-Romani 'outsider' status, my gender, and my training." Before completing her book, she shared her progress with numerous Romani activists, musicians, members of the New York Macedonian Romani community and others to be sure the book would capture Romani life from the inside — an approach absent from earlier historical works.
Her favorite part of the book? Easy, she says. It's the final part, chapters 10-13, where she deals with the roles of famous Romani musicians and their collaborations in the international world music market.
Roma "now face challenges that they haven't faced before" with the rise of right-wing parties and anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner sentiments, she documents in her book. "The levels of prejudice in Eastern Europe are frightening," she says, "even among educated people, and, coupled with rates of unemployment as high as 80 percent in some Romani communities, this makes for a crisis situation."
And she is watching.
The Guggenheim Fellowship came just as Silverman was completing "Romani Routes." It has allowed her to spend several months in Europe, digging deeper into the globalization of Romani music by analyzing its performance, consumption and production in relation to issues of representation. "The paradox is that Gypsy music is increasing in popularity precisely at the same time that hatred of Roma is growing," she says.
As a performer of Balkan songs, Carol Silverman has given more than 200 concerts, workshops and lectures on Balkan folk music and its cultural context in major U.S. and Canadian cities. "I regularly teach Balkan singing in seminars and master classes. For the last 30 years, I have taught at the Balkan music and dance workshops in California and on the East coast, sponsored by the East European Folklife Center."
"I feel like I am a lucky person," Silverman says. "I took my hobby and made it my career. I dance and sing Romani music because I love it."
Her next book, she said, will address the question of whether Roma benefit from the current popularity of their music, continuing the conversation she raised in the last chapter of "Romani Routes."