Latcho Drom Revisited
by Aisha Ali
If you are longing to visit exotic places in search of interesting music and dance traditions, but can’t get away just now, seeing the film Latcho Drom could be a satisfying solution. Certainly anyone who has a fascination for gypsy lore will not want to miss Latcho Drom, which the subtitle tells us, means “Safe Journey” in Romany. Without relying on the spoken word, the film offers a feast of stunning visuals and memorable folk music re-enacting the migration of gypsies on a route from India into Upper Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France and ending in Spain. (It is also a must for those of you who loved Jeremy Mare’s 1981 production On the Romany Trail, which covers a similar migration presented as a documentary.)
Each episode is connected by returning to a road, traveled either by horses, carts, wagons, trains or vans linking one culture to the next. Other recurring transitions are achieved by flocks of birds taking wing to a ubiquitous sky, and the network of children in different parts of the world acting as messengers, and leading us to the site where a music and dance event was about to take place. This may seem contrived, and yet in Egypt I have been met by such children, who by some mysterious means knew I would be arriving; and when I followed them through the fields, they led me to a celebration. I was impressed by the candid unselfconscious expressions the camera caught of ordinary children throughout the film.
Discussing Latcho Drom was a topic of interest to many among my close circle of friends, since some of them are film makers of a similar genre, and most of them are either themselves folkloric performers or ethnomusicologists. When we learned that some of us had previously filmed certain artists appearing in different parts of the film, I questioned each of them on the section they were most knowledgeable about. Many felt that the attempted story telling was the film’s greatest weakness. What was interesting to note was that while everyone agreed the film was very good, some least enjoyed the section that he or she knew best. Of course, when one is familiar with the culture, it is more difficult to overlook what is being staged or filmed out of context even when it is in favor of a more photogenic venue or to make a transition work more logically.
Dr. Amy Catlin and Nazir Jairazbhoy, professors from UCLA who are Indian folklore experts, told me that the Indian section combined two distinct groups: the Langa and the Manganiyar, brought together for this occasion by the distinguished folklorist Komal Kothari, who is credited for the arrangement of the music. Nazir tells me there is no memory of these groups ever being nomadic, and the opening scenes were probably filmed on the outskirts of the village called Barnawa where the Langa live. Their families have been in the same Rajasthani area for a very long while, and at one time were probably warriors, who had been conquered and subjugated. Today they are known as “client musicians,” and are still part of a feudal type of system whereby they are paid in grain and livestock for their services. The ritual with oil lamps in the tree, and the swinging of 13 cymbals hitting their bodies was performed by the Kamad women, who are Hindu, and their performance could be viewed as a type of worship, as it is when they perform at the Ramdev temple. The music played on the gourd instrument known as the been is associated with snake charmers, and the girl with bells on her ankles whirling beneath the tree, is possibly one of the Kalbelia dancing women who belong to a snake charming community. My friends could not say for certain that any of these performers are gypsies, but believed it possible that some, especially the Kalbelia, could be related to the traditional gypsy groups known as jogi, nat (naut) or dom, who do balancing acts or are puppeteers, acrobats, and strong men.
The night before my second viewing of the film, I had been watching Dr. Daniel Neuman, a visiting Professor from the University of Washington at UCLA, edit some field footage that he had taken in 1991 when he was a guest of Komal Kothari. One of the subjects of the video he was making entitled “Mostly Muslim Musicians,” just happened to be Khazi Khan Manganiyar, the Rajasthani singer in Latcho Drom who dazzles us with his articulate facial expressions and vocal pyrotechnics during the final section of the Indian footage. Catlin and Jairazbhoy also knew Khazi and had recorded him some time ago. They told me that he would normally be singing only to a group of men, and that the scene with the lovely ladies in saris was obviously staged. Although when Catlin and Jairazbhoy first recorded Khazi he had not yet been out of his village, Neuman, who described the singer as a very professional musician but not a gypsy, reported that he was now a worldly traveler who toured frequently.
In Upper Egypt, I recognized the site where the dance scene took place as being in the village on the west bank known as “New Qurna” (not the district where the Nawar gypsies live.) The buildings were designed by Hassan Fati, Egypt’s well known architect who brought craftsmen from Nubia to teach the local Fellahin the forgotten skill of erecting elegant domed houses for the poor, made entirely from mud and straw. So although the site was not typically Egyptian, it did have ethnic integrity and was photogenic. I was happy to discover that the male singer/dancer in this episode was none other than Said Abdel Khrem, now in his 30’s, who appeared in my video “Dances of Egypt” at the age of 14, singing the same song and doing the same dances. I had often wondered what had become of him, as I never saw him again on any of my subsequent visits to the Luxor area. I watched for his name in the titles and on the CD notes, but he wasn’t mentioned. Other familiar faces were those of Gypsy musician Muhamed Mourad with his rababba group, including Shamdi Metqal as well as non-gypsy musicians such as Rais Qinawi with his mizmar group, all of whom were included in “Dances of Egypt” as well as my audio recordings “Music of the Ghawazee” and “Music of the Fellahin.” What was unusual was them playing together as one group. (Incidentally Both Mohamed Mourad and Moussa Mohammed from this film are now touring the U.S. with Abdel Rahman EI Shafie’s group, “Festival of the Nile”, where they are joined with musicians from various parts of Egypt.) However, even in Los Angeles when a studio makes a film with a Middle Eastern theme, it is not unusual for them to hire diverse entertainers who are associated with the subject. Several of my dancer friends had reported that they didn’t think the Egyptian female dancers were very good, but I disagree. My friends may have been influenced by the fact that the Ghawazi were represented in ordinary dresses without the embellishment of many coins, sequins and beads. Both women moved in a style similar to the Banat Maazin, although one of them also did some Saidi type movement with its characteristic lilting spring. They indeed behaved as Gypsy women dancing at an informal family gathering. Each had well defined hip separation, an obvious feeling for the music and could create energetic shimmies with little effort. It’s true that this particular Ghawazi style may have a limited repertoire, but the movements are done with both subtlety and gusto and the results can be mesmerizing.
The transition from Alexandria to Istanbul was hardly noticeable, as the architecture of the two cities is so similar. An Egyptian sitting next to me thought that we were seeing street scenes in Alexandria until young girls selling flowers began to call out in Turkish. To some it may have seemed strange to see an all male audience in a Turkish coffee house with their attention completely focused on the musicians, in spite of the fact that a beautiful young girl, probably one of the musician’s daughters, was belly dancing at the back of the room. Under normal circumstances it would seem that someone would have noticed her, yet in this culture it is not necessarily so. As the coffee house is the domain of men, the all male audience comes to hear music, to be with other men, and to sip their coffee and discuss men’s things. I questioned my Turkish friend Coskun Tamer, the musician who organizes the annual Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp in Mendocino and travels to Turkey several times each year. He pointed out to me that the Turkish footage was probably 15 years old judging by the scenes in the street, posters in shop windows, and the way people dressed. He thought that the orchestra playing in the Cafe was typically Turkish Gypsy and that it was filmed in a Gypsy neighborhood such as the Sulukule district. He said that the audience were also gypsy and commented on the fact that they were giving such rapt attention to the musicians because they love music and take it more seriously than the average Turk. He explained that whereas belly dancers would appear in a cabaret, they rarely would in a coffee house. Although it seemed staged to him, he didn’t feel that it was unlikely that a gypsy girl would practice dancing while her family members played, especially since it would be expected of her to become a performer. He said that Gypsy entertainers were very family oriented and worked together, usually performing at weddings, circumcisions and other common rituals. He also said that belly dancers performing in nightclubs outside of the Gypsy district were usually not Gypsies, especially the modern type who wear very scanty costumes.
Valariu Apan is a Romanian musicologist who plays the panpipes. He thought the film was too politically oriented with too much emphasis on the ostracizing and persecution of gypsies. He said the Romanian sequences had nothing to do with gypsy music and that what we heard was traditional Romanian folk music played by Lautari (fiddlers), professional or semiprofessional musicians who may or may not be gypsies. But as we spoke he agreed that, after all, it is customary for Gypsies to learn the art traditions of the culture where they settle and preserve them. He said that the Romanians have always played their own music but only for themselves and not for money. Valariu also mentioned that Romanian Gypsies performed at weddings and festivals more often than they would in a cabaret. I asked him about the odd manner in which the fiddle player was pulling a loose string, and he told me that sometimes as a gimmick the fiddler ties a piece of horse hair around the G string to achieve that raspy sound. Valariu recommended a book written in 1969 by G. Ciobanu which is about the Lautaris from Clejani.
No one in our close circle was really authoritative on any of the material from Hungary, Slovakia, or France. I thought it was interesting in one of the French scenes to see the gypsy musicians praying to the black Madonna who is said to represent the Indian goddess Kali (ed. note: or the Buddhist dark-faced Green Tara). Because there was so much more that we would like to learn about the traditions represented in Latcho Drom, some of my friends said they would have been happy to have had some kind of text available.
Susan Marshal, a dancer/film maker who lived for a time in Granada, said she saw the picture six times and needed to go again. The flamenco dancer Margarita Rojas couldn’t remember details, only that she liked it. Marshal, like Newman, loved the flamenco section best, and admired the fact that Gatlif choose to show relatively unknown performers from the Amaya family, singing and dancing under “ordinary” circumstances. Like the rest of us, she thought the dancing was excellent and was pleased that he showed dancers of all ages.
In spite of my own conservative attitudes concerning folklore, I enjoyed the film’s creative visuals and it didn’t bother me that the settings had been altered. Seasoned entertainers will perform in a similar manner regardless of whether the venue is part of an actual traditional event, elaborately staged or merely selected for convenience. What matters most is how comfortable the artists feel with their direction and their audience. Ultimately most of the experts I talked to agreed that despite Gatlif’s romanticizing, the artists were authentic, and never really compromised their folk traditions.
Aisha Ali is an Arab-Italian American dancer and folklorist. She was featured on the cover of Habibi, Vol. 13,No. 2. She has been performing Middle Eastern dance since the 1960’s, and has traveled extensively in the Middle East, producing several musical albums(Music of the Ghawazee, Music of the Ouled Naïl, Music of the Fellahin, and Music for the Oriental Dance), and videos and films of ethnic dance (including Dances of Egypt, and the forthcoming Dances of North Africa).www.aisha-ali.com