Muted. Silenced. Distorted. Untold. Inscribed in the voices and bodies of Romanian-Romani musicians, the history of Romani suffering (of slavery, genocide and abjection) becomes audible, tellable, shared, and acknowledged. Laăutarească music, a genre of Romani music from southern-Romania makes hearing their stifled stories possible. Though trauma is rarely explicitly named in lăutarească, its residue is imbued in the affective and melancholic sonic expressions of Romani musicians.
In 2000, Panseluța Feraru, one of the five Romanian-Romani female singers who inscribed the joy and the suffering of the Roma on shellac, vinyl, magnetic tape, and even CDs, recorded a song, on the French music label Long Distance, called De Ce Fugi de Țigan, Române? (Why Do You Run from the Rom, Romanian?). The song is a lăutărească manea, or what lăutari during the socialist period would call a turcească, paying homage to the Turkish roots of the underlying rhythm of the style. With the first verse of this song Panseluța asks her listeners to reckon with the racialization and discrimination of Romani peoples:
Why do you run from Roma, Romanian?
He is human just like you.
Even if his face is blacker, in his heart also beats a life.
The song succinctly captures the way in which the Romanian majority draws boundaries between self-Other, between “us” and “them.” In this song, performed a decade after the 1989 Revolution, Panseluța directly confronts the xenophobia of Romanian society in a way that socialist-era lăutarească music simply could not. Panseluța not only calls out xenophobia but highlights the colorism — the “blacker” face of the Roma — at play in this refusal of the Roma.
The dance-rhythm of this manea is tinged with a bittersweet melancholy. Each melodic phrase of the verse traces a downwards spiraling path that lends the song a tone of exasperation and weariness — the fatigue of being the perennial Other. The complex harmonies of both the vocal melody and the instrumental interludes on accordion are markedly Romani in their intricacy and dense chromaticism, characteristic of Romani performance practice. The čiftetelli rhythmic pattern of the manea provides a background against which Panseluta has room to perform emotive vocalizations in the chorus of the song, which are textless. These arpeggiated vocalizations are typical of Romani singing. Every element of the song — from the manea style, to the subject matter, to the musical execution — are markedly and unapologetically Romani. In singing this song Panseluta stakes a claim for Romani-ness in European space, by proudly performing her ethnoracial identity through sound.
The song is the second track off Panseluța’s album, Chants Lăutar De Bucarest (Lăutar Songs from Bucharest), which opens with an up-beat hora featuring lyrics about Romani joy during Romani weddings. Other tracks on the album include a cântec de ascultare (a song for listening) called Sînt Atît De Supârat (I Am So Sad) and another manea, Cît Am Suferit (I Have Suffered So Much). The songs encapsulate the way in which Romani musicians have used music to voice their exclusions, rejections, and suffering. The affects of the lyrics and the music on Panseluța’s entire album capture the spectrum of emotionality of Romani life. Panseluta sings lyrics about extreme sadness and isolation:
Unde să mă duc să ascund de lume
Să nu mă stie nimeni că mai traiesc?
(Where should I go to hide from the world / so that no one knows that I am still alive?)
She does so on an album that simultaneously celebrates Romani expressions of love and happiness.
Listening to the sonic expressions of Romanian-Roma allows us to think through and feel through Romani artists’ own engagement with a history of living with trauma. Panseluta’s song both in sound and in sense is about what it means to belong and not belong and how Roma, a racialized people, engage in the hegemonic structures forced upon them, how they navigate, relate to, and push against those dominant structures, and, in particular how they use music to do so. ■