Romani Day At St Mary's Music Hall

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The 8th of April marks International Romani day, observed worldwide as a day to celebrate Romani culture and to raise awareness of the issues facing Romani people.

Back in November Benjamin Curjeza, master musician and spokesperson for the north London Romani community, played at St Mary’s Music Hall alongside a number of Syrian refugees, as well as the London Syrian Ensemble. After the event he approached us with an idea to mobilise his considerable network of Romani musicians for a showcase of their musical heritage. International Romani day presented the perfect opportunity and on 6th April 2018 St Mary’s Music Hall hosted the first annual international Romani day concert.

The evening opened with a rare performance from highly revered accordionist Yonel, representing the Romanian Romani tradition. His opening number consisted of mind-bogglingly quick and dexterous melodies set (somewhat bizarrely) against the walking bass lines and insistent tinny beat of a Korg midi keyboard. The wonderfully haunting sound of the cimbalom, the central-eastern horizontal overstrung harp struck with wooden beaters (with whom Yonel had never played before) completed the trio perfectly.

Next up was another master accordionist, Russian born Igor Outkine, a striking figure with long blond hair and a booming bass vocal that shook the church’s flagstones. In a musical duo named Mazaika, with violinist Sarah, they played traditional mournful Russian Romani folk songs alongside some better-known melodies, with the musicianship on show once again breath taking.

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After the interval Benjamin brought together what, as compere, I could only introduce as the Gypsy Jazz Allstars; two guitars, three violins (including Benjamin’s cousin, a fifteen year old who in my view stood out as the most accomplished performer, even in such illustrious musical company) double bass, cimbalom, piano, and once Igor on accordion. The effortlessly sublime way in which the solo was passed around from musician to musician was appreciated with the cheers from the crowd as loud as has ever been heard at a Music Halls show at St Mary’s, raising the hairs on the back of my neck. The audience was (once again) overwhelmed to hear that the majority of musicians had never played together before stepping on the stage. Having played the three songs that they had agreed on backstage, the roar for an encore was too much to ignore, and so back they came for 10 more minutes of hastily agreed upon, but no less impressive, improvisations.

Benjamin’s band, The Romani Diamonds, from the Polish Romani tradition, concluded the evening, with the penultimate song being a wonderfully playful take on a myriad folk and gypsy musical styles, chaotically drifting between keys and time signatures at will, snatching the lead from each other time and again before coming back in together as one, with the deft synchronicity seen only with musicians who have played together innumerable times. For the final number, Benjamin was joined onstage by his 5 year old son and 92 year grandfather, still able to impressively hold a tune on the violin. Alongside his uncle on piano, it made four generations performing together - a fittingly moving end to an extraordinary musical night, and the appreciation shown by the Walthamstow locals paid noisy tribute.

It was at that moment, with standing ovation ringing in the ears, that an annual tradition was born. The date has been set, Saturday 6th April 2019, with a much larger festival planned that we aim to sit within the Waltham Forest Borough of Culture program. With the right support we would like to to bring prominent international artists from Poland, Romania and Russia over to showcase their talents, run workshops, and join us in the celebration.

As artistic director of the Music Halls project, it has been an enormous pleasure to work with Benjamin to bring the event together, and a genuine privilege to host an evening with such incredible, inspirational musical talent.

We look forward to April 2019 with much anticipation!

George Bell

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