The Lovara woman Ruža Nikolić-Lakatos was born in 1945 and raised in Pápa, a small town in the vicinity of Győr. In 1956, the Lakatos family visited Hungary, and on that occasion fled to Austria. After a short stay in a refugee camp in Tyrol, they decided to move to relatives in Vienna. They had the possibility to rent a caravan on Ringelseeplatz, place of residence for many Hungarian, but also Austrian, Roma. There, she met her future husband Miso Nikolić. Together with their sons Mischa and Sascha they are the ensemble "Ruža Nikolić-Lakatos and The Gypsy Family", a band well-known even beyond the boarders of Austria. Ruža became the most famous Roma singer of the country, and she uses her celebrity for fighting for the Roma’s concern. As their "ambassador", Ruža wants to make the population conscious of her people with the help of her musical repertoire, and passes on traditional songs of the Lovara to younger generations.
This summary of her biography already shows that the singer Ruža Nikolić-Lakatos’ life was very eventful. Even her being born was only possible through a series of lucky circumstances. In an interview with Christa Stippinger (1993) Ruža Nikolić-Lakatos tells about that time (Hemetek, 1994):
"During Hitler’s regime, life was terrible for us gypsies. My mother was in the family way with me, in 1945, when someone got her out of the transport with my brothers. She had already been on the transport with my brothers. In 1945 I was born. The oldest brother jumped from the moving train with one of our neighbors, a gypsy. He killed himself that way, but thankfully my brother escaped with no more than a broken arm. (...) My dad went through a lot, he was in the camp. When he ran away from the camp with some others, he hid everywhere. They ate what they found on the fields. A woman and a man took him in and nursed him back to health. He was very ill for weeks. (...)"
Contrary to her ancestors who, like most Lovara, were horse dealers, the Lakatos family became settled after war and lived in a small flat in a Roma settlement in Pápa. [History of the Vlach-Roma] Her father and uncle, however, stuck to the profession of horse dealers. They bought and sold horses on the numerous markets in the area. Ruža Nikolić-Lakatos describes her childhood as being wonderful, but they were living in poor conditions. In their tiny one-room flat there was hardly space for the family, but because of the pronounced hospitality of the Lovara every once in a while friendly families who were even worse off were taken in. There were only a few beds, most of the time straw had to suffice.
Ruža was raised in a traditional Lovara family. The various customs, the oral tradition, and most particularly the music and dance were a central element of her daily life. Ruža’s father was a local celebrity as storyteller and attracted children and teens from the whole area when, in the evening - particularly in winter -, he told the tales that had been passed on from generation to generation. Whenever the opportunity arose, they danced and played their instruments. All members of the family were gifted with music. Ruža and her brother Fasoš, however, showed an extraordinary talent.
"When my brothers started, we sang and danced. Everybody wanted to show that he was the best dancer. That was the best of it, almost a competition. My brother Fasoš was the best dancer of the Roma, he won first prize in Csatka. That is the famous place where the Mother of God appears. (...) At the campfire they always had dancing competitions. (...) He would sing, my brother, he had a great voice. Then someone else would accompany him with the oral bass. And when they sang slow songs, without accompaniment, some other people helped, like a choir. Some people already had violins, but not us gypsies. In our family, we played the traditional Lovara music. (...)"
That which is possible for young men – singing or dancing without being asked to – was, and in traditional Lovara communities still is, not acceptable for women and girls. Most commonly, the girl’s father, and later her husband, are asked to tell their children and spouses to sing and dance, in order to give them paćiv (honor) and to adress jekh vorba (a word) to them.
Singing means being in the center and drawing other’s attention. It is an honor not everybody is entitled to. A woman who takes that decision by herself breaches a taboo. In the course of festivities and celebrations even the men wait until they are asked to sing and dance. They refuse at first, claiming to be hoarse or lacking talent, only to comply after several requests.
Ruža says that when she was a little girl her father unexpectedly asked her to sing for the guests present at a family party. Her father had noticed his daughter’s extraordinary talent when he had heard her sing during the housework. From then on Ruža was accepted as singer, and performed whenever the occasion arose.
The traditional Lovara-songs' [Music of the Vlach-Roma] is that of musical accompaniment of celebrations as well as daily entertainment in the families. The Lovara distinguish between loke or mesaljake gjila (slow or table songs) and khelimaske gjila (dance tunes). The slower songs emphasize the lyrics and are usually performed by women. The dance tunes, for which daily utensils like cooking spoons, water containers and pots are used as rhythm instruments, are usually the men’s domain. Even though Ruža Nikolić-Lakatos does sing dance tunes, she considers the table songs as the genre which most befits her.
When Ruža was eleven years old, the Hungary Uprising (1). Like thousands of Hungarians the Lakatos family decided to seize the opportunity of the open boarder and emigrated to Austria.
"At the time of the uprising, in 1956, we came from Hungary to Austria. Before, my oldest brother and his wife went away, the all my brothers and my sister, then me and my mother. Before that, they had taken all the gypsy men to the police station, because they had participated in the uprising. We thought they would kill them all. My father thought they would kill us like in the Hitler era, and so we went over the boarder. We were political refugees, we were recognized as such here. (...) When we came over the boarder, I only remember that people welcomed us. They distributed food and gave us clothes. We went over the boarder by foot, and didn’t bring a lot with us. At that time, the boarder was still open. We, that was my parents, the niece and I. The niece was two years old. We came to a camp in busses. We searched for my brothers. In Eisenstadt we met my brothers, and then we were together, and we heard that we had family in Vienna. Next we came into a barrack camp for refugees in Wörgl (Tyrol). The people brought us something every day, and they took the children with them for meals. Everybody was helpful. (...) So we went back from Wörgl, and an aunt in Vienna took us in, in the 21st district."
The Lakatos family moved into a caravan on Ringelseeplatz. "On that place, in the 21st district, where the caravan stood, there were only gypsies. We were all friends. (...) That was a nice time, despite everything. Life there was poor, but happy."
There, Ruža Lakatos met her future husband Mišo Nicolić. She got pregnant, but Mišo had to go back to Yugoslavia, because his residence permit was limited; Again the political situation of the time made an already not-so-easy life even more difficult. Mišo Nicolić was called up for military service and he wasn’t allowed to leave the country. However, he managed to flee to Italy. Through France and Belgium he reached Germany, where he was taken in in a refugee camp. With their six-month-old child Ruža moved to her husband. Soon after, Mišo Nikolić found work and the life of the family became more stable.
Ruža still remembers the time of separation from her husband as a very difficult one. In traditional Lovara society her pregnancy was considered a terrible disgrace (Ladž) for the whole family. Additionally, both families were strictly against the marriage and wouldn’t accept their children’s partners.
"We stayed together despite so many difficulties. Today, I am highly regarded by all people. We have experienced everything, the bad and the good."
The young Nikolić-Lakatos family stayed in Germany for the time being, and joined a group of Kalderaš who were carpet dealers. [Trading]
"With the Kelderara
) we moved from town to town in Germany. [Roma Groups
] They all had caravans, we only had a tent. And we always spent the night on campgrounds. And once it was raining, and my daughter was still small. I still breast-fed her. My heart was bleeding because I could see that those in a caravan could cook something warm, and had a dry place. I thought to myself that we were the poorest there. But still we were like kings for them. My husband was the guide, and me the Lovarica
, the singer."
When Ruža and her husband had saved enough money they moved back to Austria and bought a house near Vienna. At that time, she didn’t think about public concerts, the less so before a Non-Roma audience. Her talent was displayed only in private.
The turning point in the life of the singer Ruža Nikolić-Lakatos was a meeting with Ursula Hemetek, a music ethnologist. She had already heard about the extraordinary talent and repertoire of this young Austrian Lovarica by Mozes Heinschink, and wanted to persuade her to take part in a public event, singing one or two traditional songs. Ruža refused, but she attended the concert with her husband and children. Mišo Nikolić describes this evening in his autobiography "Landfahrer":
"The event started. Since I had drunk one or two mugs of beer I plucked up courage and told Ruža that she could sing even better and that was why she should sing now, only two songs, a slow and a fast one, and her brother and her cousin could dance to it. Ruža refused, but I insisted, and finally she went to Ms. Uschi and told her that she would sing after all. Ms. Uschi was very happy about it. (...) “Ladies and Gentlemen, and now Ms. Ruža, who will sing one or two songs for us!” So we went to the stage, I took the electric guitar and Ruža the microphone. (...) When the song was over, the audience went wild. They clapped their hands and stamped their feet and shouted for an encore. (...) After that day we started singing and performing also for Non-Roma. Me and my three sons Joschi, Sascha and Mischa accompanied Ruža on the guitar. (...) We realized that the people liked our traditional music. Before and after performances they would come to us, talk with us and ask a lot of questions about our culture and our tradition."
From that time on Ruža and her family performed more and more regularly at events and festivals. Ruža could fall back upon a great number of traditional Lovara songs which she had sung from her childhood on, and which were a natural part of her life. The beauty of those table songs and dance tunes, as well as the authenticity with which they were performed and interpreted enthralled the Gadže audience. In the course of time Ruža and her family included a third genre of songs into their repertoire – called neve gjila (new songs). [Music of the Vlach Roma] Those self-invented compositions united traditional elements and modern musical influences like jazz or Latin American set pieces. In the mid-90ies, the first CDs were published ("Gelem, Gelem", "Rusza Shej") and the ensuing concert tours even brought them to Asia.
"Ruža Nikolić-Lakatos and The Gypsy Family" is the best-known Roma ensemble in Austria, and famous among lovers of Roma music in the whole of Europe. With their music and popularity they bring the Roma into people’s conscious minds, and make sure that the traditional Lovara songs are not forgotten. Most of all they delight their audience with their wonderful music.
"In this way my wife Ruža turned into an ambassador of our people. She fascinates the audience with her voice, she radiates from the stage, and bestows upon them her songs. Sa ande tumari paćiv! "To your honor!"" (Mišo Nikolić)