Music of the Vlach Roma

In Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the term Vlach Roma refers to those Roma groups who, nomadic until well into the 20th century, have lived in the Hungarian language area for a long time and speak so-called Vlach variants of Romani. Their self-denomination often being only Rom (here, they chiefly comprise the Lovara ("horse dealers"), Čurara ("sieve makers"), Drzara ("rag-and-bone men"), Pochtanara ("cloth dealers") and Mašara ("fishermen"). They are also called Oláh (cigány) or Vlašicka Roma (Romani) in Hungary, and Vlašika in Slovakia. The linguistic classification Vlach Roma is more comprehensive than the notion mentioned above, encompassing all European Roma groups whose Romani dialects were influenced by Romanian, also including e.g. the Gurbet, Džambas, Kalderaš and Leaša in the Balkans. [History of the Vlach Roma]

Today the Lovara and other "Hungarian"Vlach Roma live in many European countries – e.g. Austria, Germany, France, Sweden, Russia, Poland, Croatia, Serbia, Romania (Banat, Transylvania) – as well as on the American continent; in some cases they have already lived there for more than a hundred years. Thanks to their common history and the long time spent in the Romanian and Hungarian language areas (Transylvania), they were able to retain, until this day, not only their specific Romani variants across national borders, but also an autonomous and largely homogeneous folk music.

Their specific music culture is primarily a vocal tradition, since – at least until a few decades ago – no proper musical instruments were used. This might also be due to the former way of life of the Vlach Roma, who moved around with their horses and wagons in the warm seasons in order to sell their goods and services to the settled population. However, making music was not a source of income for them.

Their traditional songs are divided into two main genres, the dance song (Rom. khelimaski gjili [d’ili, ģili]) and the slow, lyric song (Rom. loki gjili [d’ili, ģili]). These songs consist of verses, with their melodies based on major or minor scales. The fast dance songs are mostly in tight duple time (2/4), while the slow songs are performed in free parlando rubato. The song lyrics are usually in Romani throughout, but occasionally some lines or entire verses may be sung in Hungarian; code switching between Romani and other languages is however not common. A characteristic feature of both genres is the improvisational element inherent in their melodies and contents; moreover, singing is strongly related to the community, which is reflected in the structure of the lyrics and music.

Dance songs are accompanied by traditional techniques imitating various instrumental sounds or functions: rhythmic finger snapping, hand clapping, feet stamping, drumming on table or chair tops, beating on household appliances (e.g. milk churn; spoons), and the oral bass. Since about the 1960s also proper musical instruments, mainly the guitar, have been used to accompany dance songs as well as slow songs.

Similar to the loke gjila are (probably older) "psalmodic" songs, also sung in parlando rubato; their form develops from a simple, varied phrase (with tone repetitions and descending tonal steps; - Music of the Roma in Bohemia and Moravia). Though documented in sound recordings made in the Czech Republic and Hungary as late as the 1950s (Kovalcsik / Sztanó CC 1993; Jurková CD 2001), tunes of the "psalm type" (as well as slow songs with two- or three-line verses) are rarely sung today.

Only comparatively few ballads have been preserved among the Vlach Roma. In form they belong to the loke gjila, but contrary to the lyric songs their sequence of verses is largely fixed, even though the content-related details can also vary. The so-called "Song of the snake" (E sapeski gjili) is still known to most of the Rom today: a girl kills her own brother by cooking him a poisonous snake for the love of a womaniser, and then, abandoned by the latter, perishes. Allegedly based on a true incident, it is considered a terteneto ("true story"; cp. Hungar. "történet") in the narrative tradition of the Vlach Roma. [Audio-Illustration: Kutka tele paša paj] A more recent ballad, originating in Slovakia around 1960 and featuring the murder of the Rom Báno, likewise tells a true story. These examples as well as shorter narrative songs largely represent dialogues (partly alternating with interior monologue).

Traditional singing, mainly in the context of slow songs, involves introducing the song with a spoken formula addressed to those present. By using words such as engedelmo mangav, šavale ... ("I ask for permission, friends ...") or šaj ertin, šavale taj Romale ... ("Excuse me, friends and Roma ..."), the singer, male or female, asks for permission to sing, usually only after the audience has asked for it. A special dedication or general well-wishing, like t' aven saste taj bachtale ... ("you shall be healthy and happy ..."), is answered by those present with another traditional formula: t' as bachtalo, muro phral ("You shall be happy, my brother"), or only t' aves vi tu, muri phen ("also you, my sister"). A song is also concluded by a wishing formula, e.g. s' anda tumari patjiv! ("everything in your honour!"), or t' an bachtale, Romale! ("You shall all be happy, Roma!"). [Audio-Illustration: Chasajlas e Iboj]

Songs are performed at celebrations such as baptisms, weddings (while the band has a break), name days and birthdays, farewell parties for recruits, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, in some groups also during the death watch and the Pomana (commemoration of the deceased), and of course on family occasions or during spontaneous parties (mulatšago, cp. Hung. "mulatság") with relatives and friends. In some Rom communities, men and women do not celebrate and sing together on certain occasions. Amongst the Mašara in Northern Hungary, for example, the women are not allowed to participate in the mulatšago of the men; in most Rom communities, however, all sing together, even though the women have to sit at separate tables, as in the case of the Austrian Lovara. Sometimes also a Romni can take over the leading part, provided that her husband, her father or brother asks her.

Singing is the expression of voja kerel, i.e. "giving pleasure" (literally translated) or "celebrating" (in the figurative sense). This phrase, also often found in many songs, describes the extraordinary emotional state of happiness, good luck, grief and consolation that is reached while singing and celebrating.

Apart from the khelimaske gjila, which are of course sung to accompany dances, the melodies of the Vlach Roma are generally not related to certain functions, occasions or customs. There are only very few occasion-specific genres attested in early recordings, such as lamentations of the dead, which belong to the songs of the "psalm type" (Kovalcsik / Sztanó CC 1993), or lullabies corresponding to the loke gjila (Jurková CD 2001). Similarly, as with most of the other Roma groups, only few examples of children’s songs have been collected (Cech et al. 2001; Fennesz-Juhasz / Heinschink CD 2002). This is probably connected with the specific (musical) socialisation in traditional Roma communities, where there is no strict separation between the spheres of adults and children. The children are integrated into social events right from the start; only just able to walk, they are encouraged to dance at celebrations and at an early age get to know the traditional songs by joining in the singing.

The late 1970s saw the emergence of a folklore music performed by professional ensembles and based on the traditional music of the Vlach Roma. This style became popular with the Roma in Hungary and the neighbouring countries as well as with an international audience. The initiators were the Budapest group "Kalyi Jag" (Rom. "Black Fire"; founded in 1978; The musicians around Gusztáv Varga, members of Vlach Roma from north-east Hungary, enrich their interpretations of traditional songs by additional instruments like the guitar and the mandolin, and also by polyphonic singing; moreover, they perform songs of other Roma groups in their characteristic style. The example set by the members of this popular ensemble, who have given concerts all over Europe, was followed by numerous other groups. One of the most famous groups in this context is "Ando Drom" ("On the road"; founded in Budapest in 1984), who, besides the Vlach tradition, also include elements of various other Roma music styles (from Hungary, the Balkans or Spain). [The music of the Roma in Hungary]

Up until the end of the 1980s, the traditional Lovara songs were sung in Austria only in the family context or during large celebrations within the community. It was particularly Ruža Nikolić-Lakatos with her family ensemble (The Gypsy Family) and Ceija Stojka who, through their concerts and recordings, made them known to a wider audience. They also sing self-composed songs in Romani (neve gjila – "new songs"), which incorporate some traditional, though mostly popular elements and music styles such as Schlager, popsongs, jazz and Latin American melodies and rhythms. The neve gjila, but also traditional songs, are accompanied by acoustic guitars; various other modern instruments may also be used (e-bass, percussion, drum computer). In recent years the well-known (jazz) rock guitarist Harri Stojka – after producing two CDs of his father Mongo way back in the mid-1990s – has won wide acclaim for his own compositions sung in Romani. Together with his band Gitancœur (vocals, violin, keyboards, solo and rhythm e-guitar, e-bass, drums, percussion) he integrates different elements of pop, jazz, rock and hip-hop, sometimes also borrowing elements which are more readily associated with the Roma (e.g. flamenco; Indian sitar sounds).

In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, traditional songs of the Vlašika are even today only exceptionally presented to the public, at cultural presentations and festivals; in this context the Makula family from Kendice and Petrovany as well as the young Lovarkinja Lenka Kotlarová from Brno may be mentioned.


Balázs, Gusztáv (1995) A nagyecsedi oláh cigányok tánchagyománya – The Dance Tradition of Vlach Gypsies in Nagyecsed (= Cigány Néprajzi Társaság – Studies in Roma [gypsy] ethnography 3). Budapest.
Cech, Petra / Fennesz-Juhasz, Christiane / Halwachs, Dieter W. / Heinschink, Mozes F. (eds.) (2001) Fern von uns im Traum ... / Te na dikhas sunende ... Märchen, Erzählungen und Lieder der Lovara, Klagenfurt.
Hajdu, András (1958) Les Tsiganes de Hongrie et leur musique. In: Études Tsiganes 4 (1), pp. 1-30.
Hemetek, Ursula et al. (ed.) (1992) Romane ģila. Lieder und Tänze der Roma in Österreich Beiheft zur gleichnamigen Kassette (= IDI-Ton 23), Wien.
Hemetek, Ursula (ed.) (1994) Amare ģila – Unsere Lieder. Ruža Nikolić-Lakatos. Beiheft zur gleichnamigen CD (= Tondokumente zur Volksmusik in Österreich, Vol. 4, Romamusik 1), RST-91571-2, Wien.
Hemetek, Ursula (1996) Zur Improvisation der Romane ģila (Lieder der Roma). In: Haid, Gerlinde / Sulz, Josef (eds.) Improvisation in der Volksmusik der Alpenländer. Voraussetzungen - Beispiele - Vergleiche, Innsbruck, pp. 103-118.
Kertész Wilkinson, Irén (1997) The Fair is ahead of me. Individual Creativity and Social Contexts in the Performances of a Southern Hungarian Vlach Gypsy Slow Song (= Gypsy Folk Music of Europe 4), Budapest.
Kovalcsik, Katalin (1985) Vlach Gypsy Folk Songs in Slovakia (= Gypsy Folk Music of Europe 1). Budapest.
Sárosi, Bálint (1977) Zigeunermusik. Zürich / Freiburg i. Br.

Sound Recordings

Ando Drom (1995) Kaj phirel o Del. Ando Drom Foundation AD 01 BP 95.
Ando Drom (1997) Phari mamo. Frankfurt (Network Medien CD 26.981).
Bari, Karoly (ed.) (1996) Anthology of Gypsy Folk Songs I-IV. Hungary and Romania (4 CDs with Booklet), Budapest (EMI Quintana QUI 903095).
Bari, Karoly (ed.) (1999) Gypsy Folklore I-X: Hungary and Romania. Collected by Károly Bari (10 CDs with Booklet [English, Romani]), Budapest (Private Publishing).
Davidová, Eva / Šenkyřík, Tomáš (eds.) (2003) Giľa – Ďíla – Giľora. Písňe olašských a usedlých Romů. Songs of oláh and settled Roma. CD with Booklet (Czech, English, Romani), Brno (Muzeum romské kultury).
Fennesz-Juhasz, Christiane / Mozes F. Heinschink (eds.) (2002) Kodo phende e Romora … / Dies erzählten die Rom ... Lovarenge paramiči taj gjila. Märchen und Lieder der Lovara (Romani Projekt CD 2), Graz.
Hemetek, Ursula (ed.) (1992) Romane ģila. Lieder und Tänze der Roma in Österreich. Kassette mit Beiheft. Wien (IDI-Ton 23).
Jurková, Zuzana (ed.) (2001) Vlachicka Djila. Nejstarši terénní nahrávky hudebního folkloru olašských Romů z České a Slovenské republiky – Die ältesten Feldaufnahmen der Musik der Vlach-Roma aus der Tschechischen Republik und der Slowakischen Republik (CD with Booklet [Czech, German, Romani]). Praha (Academia).
Kalyi Jag (1987) Gypsy Folks Songs from Hungary. Budapest (Hungaroton LP 18132).
Kalyi Jag (1989) Lungoj o drom angla mande. Budapest (Hungaroton LP 18179).
Kalyi Jag (1995) O Suno – The Dream. Gypsy Folk Songs from Hungary. Budapest (Hungaroton HCD 18211).
Kalyi Jag (1998) Romano Kamipo – Cigány szerelem – Gipsy Love. Budapest (Hungaroton HCD 18245).
Kovalcsik, Katalin / Sztanó, Pál (eds.) (1993) Püspökladányi cigány népdalok – Hungarian Gypsy Folks Songs. Collected by Imre Csenki, Rudolf Víg and Pál Sztanó (Cassette with Booklet). Budapest (Hungaroton Classic Kft. MK 18172).
Nikolić-Lakatos, Ruzsa (1994) Amare ģila – Unsere Lieder. Ed. Ursula Hemetek (= Tondokumente zur Volksmusik in Österreich, Vol. 4, Romamusik 1). CD with Booklet. Wien (RST-91571-2).
Nikolić-Lakatos, Ruzsa and The Gypsy Family (2000) Ruzsa shej. Wien (Privately published, CSM 9944-M7).
Nikolić-Lakatos, Ruzsa and The Gypsy Family Gelem gelem. Wien (Privately published, CSM Y0133-P12).
Stojka, Ceija (2000) Me Dikhlem Suno (CD with Booklet). Non food factory nff 2303 (Distribution: Hoanzl).
Stojka, Harri and Gitancœr (2000) Gitancœur (CD with Booklet). Wien (Geco Tonwaren H 115 [Distribution: Hoanzl]), 2000.
Stojka, Harri and Gitancœr (2002) Live @ Radio Kulturhaus (CD with Booklet). Wien (Geco Tonwaren H 186 [Distribution: Hoanzl]), 2000.
Stojka, Mongo and Rom 2001 (1995) Amari Luma (CD with Booklet). Sing Sang Records SSR 4023.
Stojka, Mongo (1997) Nevi Luma (CD with Booklet). Groove Records 97060-2.
Image Printable version
Image Cover of a CD by the band "Ando Drom"
Image Kutka tele paša paj (E sapeski gjili) – Down there by the water (The song of the snake)
Image Kutka tele paša paj (E sapeski gjili) – Down there by the water (The song of the snake)
Image Chasajlas e Iboj – Iboj has disappeared
Image Soro ratji mulatino – I will celebrate the whole night
Image Sumnakuni phurt keradem – I had a golden bridge built
Image Perel tele, čore, tji loli papuča – Your red shoe, girl, shall fall
Image Na šinger, na šinger, Boja, muro gadoro – Don’t cut up my shirt, Boja
Image Trin gone kočaja – Three sacks of corn cobs
Ruža Nikolić-Lakatos (Mariazell [Styria]/Austria), 2002