Fortune Teller: An Ode to the Romani People
Listen to the full song on your platform of choice:
Around a thousand years ago a group of people from northern India migrated west out of the subcontinent. Having a nomadic lifestyle, they traveled through Persia, the Middle East, and the Byzantine Empire, eventually arriving into Europe some centuries later. They were called various names by their host countries. The word Tsingani (from a Byzantine Greek word for “untouchables”) was used to describe them and produced a number of other forms such as Çingene in Turkish, Zigeunerin German, and Zingari Italian. In France, they were called Bohémiens, as they were believed to have arrived from Bohemia in the Czech Republic (this is also the source of the term “Bohemian” as relating to a particular artistic and impoverished lifestyle). In Spain these people developed Flamenco and were called the Gitanos. Readers of this writing may know them better by the English term “Gypsy”, which, along with the term Gitanos, originates from the word for Egyptians, as these people were mistakenly thought to have come from Egypt. The term Gypsy is nowadays often associated with negative stereotypes and has been increasingly rejected by the community in favor of the term Romani (with some communities also using Roma). In this post I have strived to use the term “Romani” but some of the sources and images I cite use the word “Gypsy” and I have kept those citations intact.
Recently, many around the world observed Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, in commemoration of the 6 million Jews that were horrifically and systematically murdered by Nazi Germany in what is undeniably one of the worst and largest acts of genocide in all of history. Many other groups suffered the terror of mass murder as well including Slavs, homosexuals, and religious and political opponents. What is less commonly known is that among other groups, the Nazis also killed an estimated 220,000 to 1.5 million ethnic Romani, a fact that Germany only first acknowledged at their annual Holocaust day of remembrance in 2011. The Romani Holocaust is known as the Porajmos, which means “the devouring”. While for centuries their origins remained shrouded in mystery and obscurity to Europeans, today it has been established by linguistic, cultural and genetic evidence that the Romani people come from India. Yet, today, separated by thousands of miles and over a thousand years of history from their homeland, the Romani are a people without a country who have faced discrimination, marginalization, and persecution for much of their existence since their ancestors left India.
There are various estimates for their worldwide population today but an estimate in the New York Times put their number at approximately 11 million worldwide, and cited them as Europe’s largest minority. There is no decisive explanation for why the Romani left India, but one explanation points to the invasions of India by Mahmud of Ghazni (Ghazni is a city in present-day Afghanistan) in the 10th century CE, with the Romani perhaps being uprooted as captives of war and forced westward through time. Whatever the reasons, the story of the Romani is one that repeats itself up to modern times. Today our news headlines are filled with stories of people seeking a better life for themselves forced by events beyond their control while facing opposition every step of the way. Syrian refugees are seeking asylum in Europe and North America after devastation caused by war, but face anti-immigrant sentiment. The Rohingya in Myanmar are being persecuted as an unwanted minority, often fleeing to Bangladesh and India. The troubling situation of Central American and Mexican migrants at the US-Mexico border is an example of the darker sides of humanity: tribalism, fear of the other, historical amnesia, and man’s inhumanity to man.
My original song, “Fortune Teller”, is inspired by the history of the resilient Romani people as a humble tribute to their experience and to the experience of all migrants today who are searching of a place to call home in the face of oppression. I first became aware of the Romani twenty-three years ago when Disney released their take on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”, in which some of the primary characters, Quasimodo and Esmerelda, are Romani. As a brown person, it was the first time since Aladdin where I saw characters in a major Disney film depicted that looked like me and I was intrigued to learn more about the people, whom the film depicted as persecuted and outcasts in the society in which they lived. I was fascinated to learn that I had a shared heritage with these people as a member of the Indian diaspora, and despite never having met a Romani person, I instantly formed a connection that has lived with me all these years. A recent trip to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris highlighted this connection in my mind and I started researching them again. I found an old History Channel documentary posted on YouTube called “Curse on the Gypsies” and was immediately drawn into their story. The Romani were unwanted strangers to every country through which they were passed, often hunted like animals in the Middle Ages, and in some places legally enslaved until the mid nineteenth century. Ever a resilient population, the Romani survived for centuries taking up a number of professions that made them indispensable to many of the economies in Europe they arrived into despite being shunned. Author Isabel Fonseca writes:
“The Gypsies were wanted, and detained—not for crimes, but for their talents. Tinsmiths and coppersmiths, locksmiths, blacksmiths especially, as well as the esteemed musicians among them, were valued and even fought over.”
- Fonseca, Isabel. Bury Me Standing: the Gypsies and Their Journey. Vintage, 1996. p97.
They have also been associated heavily with magic and fortune-telling. While the idea of magic is of course a tall tale, the tradition of Fortune telling has been traced to India by Romani scholar Ian Hancock, where even today many people turn to palmistry, horoscopes, and numerology to seek information about their fate. Hancock notes this as a portable skill that was also protective to some measure for the community:
“It was an easily transportable skill. It was also a protection up to a point because people would have been a little less likely to be mean if they thought you had some control over their destiny”.
- Hancock, Ian. “Curse on the Gypsies.” Peltier, Melissa Jo, director. In Search of History, performance by David Ackroyd, season 3, episode 38, 1999.
While fortune tellers presumably serviced people outside the Romani community in order earn an income, I was intrigued by the idea of a Romani person turning within the community to a fortune teller for help. Worn out by his condition of persecution, feeling caught in a perpetual game that he’s unable to win, he asks the fortune teller for guidance and reassurance to keep him sane. My main verse reflects these sentiments:
Fortune teller hear my name
Tell me how we play this game
Can you find my lucky star?
I’ve been searching wide and far
Hand in hand between the lines
What is it that you divine
O fortune teller keep me sane
Goin’ on the road again
Ian Hancock writes:
“Traveling is part of our history. Our ancestors trekked for thousands of miles from India to Europe and out into the world, so there is certainly some truth to the stereotype of the ‘traveling gypsy’. But a distinction must be made between traveling on a journey, with a purpose, and traveling because local laws in an area forbid one to stop and therefore leave no choice.”
- Hancock, Ian F. We Are the Romani People Ame Sam e Rromane Džene. University of Hertfordshire Press, 2017. p101.
The next few lines in my song embodies this idea:
Wandering to survive
I’ve been roaming all my life
To find a place where I belong
Hoping they would hear my song
Fortune teller tell me why
I can hear the people cry
Quietly within their hearts
Silent as they play the part
In these lines I also refer to the Romani’s professions in music and entertainment, imagining people who “play the part” while crying inside, but no one is hearing the true song they are singing, to be accepted. I wanted to convey a sense of perpetual motion and traveling, with the background groove being a repetitive kick drum on the first and third beats and a synth drone-like rhythmic sound accompanying the kick. The guitar lick overlaying the rhythm was evocative of the pioneering spirit romanticized in the “Wild West” and also had hints of the Indian raga (scale) Jog, which roughly is similar to a major blues scale.
After the chorus there is a rhythm break with metallic sounds which I wanted to represent the metalworking skills of the Romani people.
The Rhyme Scheme
The next section of my song is the story of the migration from India into Europe, performed in a melodic rap. Through linguistic evidence, scholars have traced the probable path taken by the Romani from India into Europe. The Romani language is classified as an Indo-Aryan language, with its roots in Sanskrit, thus sharing a common heritage with other languages of South Asia such as Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali, Marwari, etc. . In fact, coming across various Romani language words in my research, I was astonished at just how many Romani words I recognized from knowledge of Hindi. Based on vocabulary layered onto this Indo-Aryan base from other languages (Persian, Greek, Armenian, Turkish, etc.), scholars are able to trace the paths of the Romani from northwest India into Persia at the coast of the Caspian Sea, then to the foothill of the Caucasus mountains (present-day Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia), into Byzantine empire (present-day Turkey), and finally into Europe. I also evoke the image of the Romani wagon horse drawn caravans (Vardo). This is using some poetic license as it seems the wagons date to the 19th century and thus may not have been the mode of transport for the Romani on their way to Europe. The verse starts:
Divorced the motherland
No time for remorse on the other hand
Plotted a course through the river sand
The force of every man drawn by horse of the caravan
No support for the vagabond
Breaking the fragile bond of our cultural legacy
We land upon a new identity
Frenemies battle on from Babylon to the castles of the Catalan
They turn their back upon our melodies
Again I draw upon the fact that the Romani were unwanted in every country they landed in from “Babylon to the castles of the Catalan” (i.e. from the Middle East to Spain). My use of the word “frenemies” refers to the fraught relationship between the Romanis and the people of their host countries with the people rejecting them yet valuing their skills. This thread continues on in the next lines:
Here at last
Working as an outcast
They live off our toil yet the people harass us
There’s no magic
Tell her it’s tragic
I draw attention to the stereotypes associating the Romani with magic, when in fact there doesn’t appear to be any magic at work. Hancock writes:
“Consider for one moment — if we really had magical powers, why haven’t we used them to improve our own situation? To bring an end to antigypsyism, and to acquire wealth?”
- Hancock, Ian F. We Are the Romani People Ame Sam e Rromane Džene. University of Hertfordshire Press, 2017. p104.
The words “Miss Fortune, Tell her” are a play on the words “Miss Fortune”, “misfortune”, and “Miss fortune teller”, with luck often personified as a female in the term “Lady Luck”.
The rap is followed by a lamenting voice in a Hindustani classical style. After the reprise of the main verse the song goes into an interlude featuring the accordion, one of the instruments often played by Romani musicians, with a melodic line inspired by the sounds of Gypsy Jazz, a style of Jazz started by the famous Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt. Interestingly, the accordion was a very prominent instrument in Hindi film music (i.e. Bollywood music) in the decades of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. My father having grown up in that era learned to play the accordion, and to this day I have a special affinity to the accordion as it was an integral sound in my home growing up.
The Album Art
I designed a paper fortune teller for the album artwork, as I felt the structure lent itself to showing various aspects of Romani history and culture that felt drawn to in the making of this piece.
Note: To my knowledge all images used were in the public domain or under a Creative Common’s license with permission to modify.
Annotated paper fortune teller design and final album artwork for Fortune Teller.
Below is a reference of what each triangle in the fortune teller is representing:
Romani blacksmith (source: Romabase)
Romani Churi or knife (churi is also a Hindi word for knife)
Indus Valley Dancing Girl. This is a prehistoric bronze sculpture from the ancient Indus Valley Civilization in northwest India and present-day Pakistan. It is estimated to have been made at around 2500 B.C. and I included it to represent some of the oldest roots of the Romani people in India. I flipped the image of the dancing girl to position it in a way identical to the Spanish Romani woman depicted in cell 12. (source: Wikimedia Commons)
First arrival of gypsies outside the city of Berne, described as "getoufte heiden" (baptized heathens). Published in 1485. (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Romani woman performoing during the Khamoro - World Roma Festival - in Prague. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, original photo by Jialiang Gao)
A Gipsy Family. Facsimile of a Woodcut in the "Cosmographie Universelle" of Munster., in folio, Basle, 1552. (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Man playing an accordion (Source: Pexels)
Wandering musicians in the wine gardens of Transylvania (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
International flag of the Romani People, approved approved by the representatives of various Romani communities at the first World Romani Congress (WRC), held in Orpington in 1971. The flag consists of a background of blue and green, representing the heavens and earth, respectively. It also contains a 16-spoke red chakra, or wheel, in the center, representing the transient migrant tradition of the Romani people and is also an homage to the flag of India, added to the flag by scholar Weer Rajendra Rishi. (Source: Wikimedia Commons).
Painting by Spanish artist Francisco Iturrino called “Two Gypsies” (in Spanish, “Dos gitanas, una con mantón de Manila amarillo oro y otra con una pañoleta (esclavina) estampada en bermellones.”). (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Johann Trollmann, a German Romani boxer from the Sinti group. He became the light-heavyweight national champion in 1933, defining German Adolf Wilt for the title. The Nazis would not tolerate a German' being defeated by a Romani, and he was mocked in the press and forced to a rematch and ordered to fight in the ‘German style’ and ‘not to dance like a Gypsy’. In protest in he died his hair blond and whitened his face with flour as a caricature of an “Aryan”. He stood still taking five rounds of blows from Wilt before collapsing in defeat. Trollman was eventually deported to a concentration camp and where he died in 1944.
Words of Gelem Gelem, the Romani anthem, composed by Serbian Romani Musician Žarko Jovanović, survivor of the Romani Holocaust. The first words are as follows:
Gelem, gelem, lungone dromensa
Maladilem bakhtale Romensa
A Romale, katar tumen aven,
E tsarensa bakhtale dromensa?
A Romale, A Chavale
I went, I went on long roads
I met happy Roma
O Roma, where do you come from,
With tents happy on the road?
O Roma, O Romani youths!
An 1852 advertisement for the auction of Romani slaves in Bucharest. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
There is so much more to say about the connections between the Romani and India, from the deep Indian musical legacy, echoes of a Hindu past that lives on in the Christian worship in some Romani communities (e.g. the word trushul, from trishula, used to describe Shiva’s trident, used as the word for the Christian cross), and so many other cultural practices and it cannot be done justice in a single blog post. The same goes for their long history out of India and their journey through suffering and resilience. The Romani have been marginalized for much of their existence and continue to be a marginalized community to this day. Author Becky Taylor commented on her writing of her book Another Darkness, Another Dawn: a History of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers:
Writing this book was a salutary lesson in the dangers of believing in a progressive view of history: things don’t always get better, especially if you belong to a marginalized ethnic group…despite developments in education and attitudes towards minorities the modern world has failed to engender anything like acceptance of the place of Romani peoples within its societies.
- Taylor, Becky. Another Darkness, Another Dawn: a History of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. Reaktion Books, 2014.
I have much to learn about Romani culture but I hope those who are part of the community take this as a humble tribute from their brother in the diaspora of all people of South Asian origin.
I thank all the scholars, authors, and other contributors who produced the sources below that I used in my research. It all started with the “Curse on the Gypsies” documentary I found on YouTube (sadly this is not available through any streaming service and the only other option would be a VHS cassette. In addition, purchased three books to further educate myself including We Are the Romani People by Ian Hancock, Bury Me Standing: the Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca, and Another Darkness, Another Dawn: a History of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers by Becky Taylor.
Hancock, Ian F. We Are the Romani People Ame Sam e Rromane Džene. University of Hertfordshire Press, 2017.
Fonseca, Isabel. Bury Me Standing: the Gypsies and Their Journey. Vintage, 1996.
“Curse on the Gypsies.” Peltier, Melissa Jo, director. In Search of History, performance by David Ackroyd, season 3, episode 38, 1999.
Ríos-Terheun, Victoria Eugenia. “The Question Is the Answer: Who Created Flamenco” Harvard FXB Center for Health & Human Rights, The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 9 Apr. 2018, fxb.harvard.edu/2018/04/09/the-question-is-the-answer-who-created-flamenco/.
Taylor, Becky. Another Darkness, Another Dawn: a History of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. Reaktion Books, 2014.