Romani and Traveller music – extract from No Place to Call Home

It was great to hear Sam Lee talk about his project, collecting songs from Irish Travellers and the Romani people, on Radio 4 this week. This is such important work, and Sam’s been patiently doing it for some years now. Romani and Traveller singers have kept the flame of our common folk music alive, for many decades, if not centuries. We all owe them so much. Here’s an extract from my 2013 book, No Place to Call Home, where I write about Romani, Roma and Traveller music and its importance, with an interview with Sam. The chapter, Revival, also looks at literature (poetry being something else and well worth following at the moment as well), religion and art generally.

Romani and Traveller music – extract from Revival, Chapter 14
No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers
Katharine Quarmby (Oneworld, 2013)


Identity was also in the mind of the Scottish singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl, whose ballad ‘The Travelling People’ has become almost an anthem. Without Gypsies and Travellers, MacColl argued, the traditional folk music of Britain and Ireland could have died out. These communities passed the old lyrics and music down, generation after generation, for centuries. In his day, MacColl had patiently collected field recordings of both songs and speech in Gypsy and Traveller encampments. Other singers, including June Tabor, soon followed his lead, as well as people from the communi- ties themselves, such as Sheila Stewart, Thomas McCarthy and the Orchard family. Now, some twenty-five years after MacColl’s death, such cultural preservation work is being honoured and valued. The young musician Sam Lee was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2012 for his debut album, A Ground of its Own, featuring songs collected from Gypsies and Travellers. Though not a Gypsy or Traveller himself, Lee had trained for four years under the legendary ballad singer Stanley Robertson, a Scottish Traveller.
The resurgence of interest in so-called folk music is not a peculiarly English phenomenon. New bands with Roma roots have formed across Europe, including the Romanian Gypsy bands Taraf de Haidouks and Fanfare Ciocarlia and the Macedonian brass band Kocani Orkestar. The annual Guca Brass Band Festival in Serbia hosts many up and coming Roma bands who perform in the traditional style, but there are also new fusion groups combining Gypsy and Traveller sounds with rap, punk and jazz, including Jewish klezmer. Night clubs play records by the Shukar Collective, Besh o droM and Balkan Beat Box – including a special Nuit Tsigane (‘Gypsy Night’) in hot spots such as Le Divan du Monde in Paris. Often, at Appleby and Stow, the young Gypsy men driving cars rather than ponies are listening to this rap or punk-inflected music out of Eastern Europe.
Sam Lee, however, has been more focused on the traditional string music beloved by the older members of the travelling com- munity – songs like ‘On Yonder Ill’ and ‘Goodbye, My Darling’ – that he had collected from all over England, Scotland and Ireland. Many of the songs touch on matters of love and separation – but also tell of a steely will to survive. As a young Jewish man from North London, he had been inspired to collect these songs in large part because of learning about the treatment of Gypsies and Travellers in Britain. ‘Many are the indigenous people of this country – although Gypsies are not originally from here, the Irish and Scotch Travellers are pre-Celtic, as old a community as you will ever get in Britain. But the treatment they have had was very [similar to] what happened to Native peoples in other places. For instance, in 1968, when sites were opened up here, that was the same year that the Canadian government forcibly settled the Canadian peoples, such as the Inuit … So there is that amazing time contiguity. There is also the nature of the lifestyle of the older Gypsies. Many were born in tents, and so many have lived outdoors, and because of that, they have this amazing affinity with the outside. To have that regularly enforced on such a deeply ancestral level, is quite a … nature–man relationship that many tribal peoples have.’
Lee had begun by patiently knocking on doors on sites where he didn’t know anybody. Mostly he’d had been welcomed, albeit with some caution, and as families got to know him, he experi- enced great warmth and hospitality. The fact that he was Jewish – ‘another wandering tribe’, as he termed it – seemed to help. During his apprenticeship under Robertson, his role was ‘keeper of songs’. Most folk singers raid the archives of field recordings gathered by other musicians, most notably those housed in Camden’s Cecil Sharp House, considered the home of English folk music. But Sam wanted to hear it from the Romani people themselves – they were not dead, just because their songs had been collected. He said that simple fact came as a surprise to some in the folk scene. ‘None of them believed there were any singers out there; they thought it was dead. They didn’t know about Gypsy culture; they thought that the precious oral tradition was dead, but actually it’s still there. I have recorded songs from fell-pack huntsman, farmers, not just Gypsies – music is alive everywhere. The folk music world just wants its safe world on Radio 2 … It likes soft, fluffy, comfortable stuff. I have brought loads of Gypsy families down to Cecil Sharp House and it’s terrifying for them. They sit down in the library and sing these ballads that they have no idea are hundreds of years old. And some people say, “Wow, it’s lovely,” but they have no idea what to do. It’s like bringing the dinosaur into the Natural History Museum and saying, “Hey, watch it dance,” and they say they only know about bones.’
He went on: ‘Mahler said, “Tradition is tending the flame, not worshipping the ashes,” and I think there is a huge amount of ash-worshipping in the folk world … Nobody is putting much effort into keeping the flame alight, and we mustn’t let it die.’


Also available, as a Newsweek Europe e-book about the rise of Evangelical Christianity amongst Europe’s Romanies:


Disability, co-production, journalism and ‘nothing about us without us’

A few months ago Mosaic Science magazine, which is published by the Wellcome Trust, asked me to look at sexuality and disability – how, in essence, disabled peoples’ access to intimacy is sometimes hindered, sometimes forbidden and sometimes mocked. I feel really grateful that I worked on this project – but it couldn’t have been done in the way I wanted it to be done without the help and support of disabled friends and allies, and also a shift in the way in which I do my own journalism. This has changed over the last seven to eight years, as I have come to understand the concept of ‘co-production’ and the resonance of ‘nothing about us without us’. Defining those terms, loosely – as co-production relates to journalism, it means that journalists keep open lines of communication with (in this case disabled people, but it could mean, say, Romani people, or any other marginalised group that often doesn’t get fairly represented in the media). Disabled people offer feedback on the work as well. It’s a two-way process, and I think that journalism is often improved in the process, without, of course, endangering the principle of free speech. “Nothing about us without us” was coined by disability activists during the struggle for civil rights but has since been used by other groups – and, again, for the media, is a useful concept. If you are writing about a group – particularly one that is marginalised and discriminated against – it’s vital that you involve the community in the process.

But first, a bit about me…and where I fit in to the narrative.

I rarely write about my own experiences of pain and impairment (I never write about those in my own family in any detail, because they are not my own), but recently I have written a bit more about my long-term neurological condition, relatively severe and chronic migraines, as I realise, more and more, that it has affected how I live my life, constrained either by pain, or the management of it. I first had a migraine when I was 12 or 13, and was entering puberty. Being adopted, nobody else in my family had any experience of migraines and my mum thought I had a headache. I was in so much pain that I actually wrote her a farewell letter that night – I thought I was going to die from the pain in my head. She really wasn’t to know – it was only later, reading the account of migraineurs, collected by the great Oliver Sacks, where he recounts tales of migraineurs who felt as if their head would split open that I realised that this was a common, if unpleasant experience. It’s now relatively well managed with epilepsy medication (odd, but true) and I’m looking forward to the menopause with excitement (I know that sounds a bit weird) as many women report that their migraines cease after the menopause.

Migraine is my first ‘black cat’ (I’m not so much of a dog person). Melancholy is my second – perhaps, again, linked back to that childhood experience of being adopted. When I finally found my Iranian birth father, decades after searching for him, and saw that broad, generous smile on his face, something lifted – a childhood and early adult melancholy (you can call it depression if you want) that I had lived with for so many years. It comes back sometimes and my family laugh and say it’s linked to the Iranian, poetic, over-dramatic side of me. That may be true.

I don’t mind my two black cats – I’ve lived with them for so long that we are really quite comfortable with each other. We’ve settled into a rhythm with each other, and they have shaped my existence. I wonder, sometimes – who would I be – who will I be – if the migraines do leave, after menopause? I am accustomed to never going anywhere without medication, avoiding bright lights and loud noises. Those habits have shaped my identity, so what happens when I don’t need them any more?

So when I write about impairment, and long -term conditions, I hope it is with some knowledge and empathy with my fellow-travellers. I think I haven’t written about it much because my own life is OK  – as I said, I have gotten used to my own black cats. But I do believe that you should always involve those who are party to a story in the making of the story, as much as possible. And you should build capacity – so often, when I write on a subject touching a particular community, I ask to write something (or make a film) with someone from the community, rather than just work alone. The next time around, I might not be necessary at all. Co-production takes time – it should mean working with people, discussing and wrestling with ideas, being challenged and then getting somewhere new with the piece of work. It’s still your work but it’s somehow shaped by those who are part of that story, in a much more authentic way.

To end, I think that the phrase: “Nothing about us without us” should be carved on the heart of every good journalist. It makes good business sense – fewer complaints – if you want to see it in those terms. But, more importantly, it’s just the right thing to do.