Latcho Drom
directed by Tony Gatlif
(New Yorker Films, 1994;
re-released 2001)

Latcho Drom soundtrack
(Mercator/La Bande Son, 1993)

They are called Gypsy, Romany, Rom, Tsigane, Bohemian, Gitano and are known by other names as well. They live primarily in Eurasia where they have wandered and engaged in specific trades for centuries, if not millennia. They constitute a large underclass in European countries like Romania and Slovakia, the poorest of the poor.

They also produce music that is among the finest in the world, that has strongly influenced the European classics and jazz, and that is an intrinsic part of their culture.

Tony Gatlif's 103-minute 1993 film Latcho Drom (Safe Journey) is a homage to the music of the Rom people from Rajastan, India, where the journey begins, to Egypt, Turkey, into Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, and finally into France and Spain.

The CD gives us about two-thirds of the film's music and preserves much of the flavour; however, the visuals provide the necessary colour and context. There's virtually no dialogue, so the film is really an extended "music video" that presents the performers playing their music amidst scenes of Gypsy life in the various communities.

One technique Gatlif likes is to see the world from the perspective of a child. Some of the best musicians in the film appear to be adolescents, if that is a concept that even applies in a society where education levels are low and work begins early. Others are clearly seniors, or at least appear to be seniors, although with the hard lives they lead, they may not be. (There's no money for plastic surgery, botox, hair bleaching and the like.) In Egypt, after Les Musiciens du Nil perform, a woman finishes singing and begins to breastfeed a toddler, just offstage. So there's none of our contemporary bias that musicians have to be either young or forever-young "boomers."

The songs are a mix of lively, gritty and sorrowful. In Romania, Le Taraf de Haidouks sing about the last days of dictator Nicolae Caucescu on "Ballad of the Dictator." The Taraf also plays in the street with multiple violins, hammered dulcimers, spoons, and other folk instruments. In Slovakia, an old woman laments her incarceration at Auschwitz.

There is persecution and being hounded from place to place, but at the same time, there is joy as well as sorrow in the music. In Hungary, a gadje (non-gypsy) boy offers three coins to a group of musicians camped by a railway; while his mother sleeps, the band strikes up a dance for him. In France, the gypsy swing or Manouche music is reminiscent of Django Reinhart. In Spain, it has a distinct flamenco flavour, but bitterness; on "Pajaro Negro," La Caita sings "Why do you spit in my face/I envy the respect you give your dog." Meanwhile, in the visuals, a landlord works with the police to brick up windows of an abandoned building.

While the performers differ in their styles, all are worth hearing. The film is a visual feast, as well, with lively dancing and bright colours. There is constant, steady, if slow, motion as the film travels Eurasia the length of the historic migration of these peoples. It's a stunning musical journey. You'll be impressed by how influential this music has been. If you love music, and have never seen this film, what is taking you so long?

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 22 May 2004

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