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Roma tell their own story in Berlin

Robert Schwartz JS
June 12, 2017

Roma have often kept their identity secret in order to avoid discrimination and exclusion. But now artists are self-confidently presenting their culture in Berlin.

European Institute For Roma Arts And Culture Berlin
Image: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Cimai is one of the most famous Roma musicians in the world. In the mid-1990s, he and his Balkan brass band, Fanfare Ciocarlia, began a 70 country tour that can only be described as triumphant. The story of the Romanian Roma band is like a fairytale: "When the German showed up in our village, we made a few recordings. Then we just hoped we might be able to play our music abroad someday," says Cimai; trumpet in hand as if he were ready to play at any time.  

The "German" was Henry Ernst, a sound engineer from Leipzig. Together with his friend Helmut Neumann, Ernst helped get Fanfare Ciocarlia on stage in Germany and around the world. Before a concert in Berlin, Cimai says it was the happiest meeting of his life. Helmut Neumann also gushes about his introduction to a culture that was unknown to him until that moment: "I learned a lot from the villagers in the band. If every German could learn just a little bit from the Roma, the world would be a much better place." Cimai says that learning from one another is very important for his people, too - both laugh. Then they ignite a musical firework in front of a boisterous Berlin audience.

Roma music from Central and Southeastern Europe, whether former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania or Hungary, was always a great export. Yet it was rare that one could learn more about Roma art and culture than what one saw and heard at annual cultural festivals. That is about to change.

Romanian folk band Fanfare Ciocarlia
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/E. Palomo

'Roma artists can achieve more than politicians' 

This fall, the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) will begin work in Berlin. In contrast to previous, more traditional approaches to Roma and Sinti culture, this project seeks to move beyond simply providing a glimpse into minority culture and instead establish an interactive platform that will be created with and by Roma artists. It is hoped that this will give visitors the opportunity to enter into direct contact with Roma artists, and make the cultural identity of this minority group more visible throughout Europe.

Berlin Eröffnung Europäische Roma Institut für Kunst und Kultur
Paintings by a Roma artist Image: Getty Images/S. Gallup

The project was initiated at the German Foreign Office in Berlin. The Council of Europe and US billionaire George Soros' Open Society Foundation are the institute's main sponsors. Serbian politician Zeljko Jovanovic, the chairman of ERIAC's board of directors, told DW what is so special about the institute: "Here, we will finally be able to tell the story of who we are in our own words." The platform is designed to enable smaller organizations across Europe to present themselves and their culture as well.

Nicoleta Bitu, who was one of those who fought for the creation of the institute, is the director of the Center for Roma Studies in Bucharest. She has been campaigning for the needs of Roma and the protection of their human rights since the end of the Communist regime in Romania. "Roma artists can achieve more than politicians have been able to over the two and a half decades," she tells DW. Politicians guarantee the framework and financing, but it is the artists who will speak directly to the people, "making souls and minds sing."   

Inclusion through art

No doubt, the best way to destroy stereotypes and foster inclusion is to let Roma define who they are and present their culture themselves. But do Roma share a common European cultural identity or do they represent many different identities that exhibit local and regional influences? Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, says that need not be a contradiction. In a DW interview he said that it is important to support Roma culture in general, with all its different and shared facets. "Roma can be proud of their language and culture - and they should show that to the rest of Europe."

That which European politicians have only partially accomplished in their attempts at inclusion thus far, is to be carried to success by the self-confident presentation of Roma arts and culture by members of the minority group itself. Simultaneously preserving and building identity is an ambitious aim - one that can hopefully help European Roma finally break though the vicious circle of social exclusion and racial discrimination that they have faced for too long.