In Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali and Romany, the words for counting from 1 to 4 are identical.
Romany, an Indic language, has nothing to do with Romania, or Rome: It belongs to the Romany nation (often referred to as Gypsy), people whose ancestors traveled out of South Asia through the Middle East and into Europe, starting 10 or so centuries ago. "Roma" is the noun; "Romany" is the adjective that's properly applied to the language, the people and, here, the music.
Via Romen is a North Carolina-based quartet that makes "Nuevo Russian Romany Music." The band includes a basic primer like the one above in all of its stage shows. Vocalist Petra Gelbart and guitarist Vadim Kolpakov are Romany folk artists and activists—Gelbart from Prague, Kolpakov from Moscow. The other members—guitarist Alex Gorodezky and violinist Arkadiy Gips—are Ukrainian Jews from Kyiv.
Like the members themselves, Via Romen's debut CD, My Two Homes, brings together different cultural backgrounds. Reigniting a long history of Jewish-Romany musical collaboration, their CD pays homage to jazz and to Latin modes like tango, samba and flamenco. The sound is not so much a recipe with flavors of this or that tossed in as it is an intense conversation. Old World and New World techniques, phrasings and idioms maintain their integrity while mingling in a concentrated essence.
"We don't want to be a traditional Gypsy music band," Gorodezky says. "All traditional music used to be new. Our goal is to create 21st-century music."
But a traditional band was exactly what Via Romen was, until founder Kolpakov met Gorodezky by chance at a community concert in Raleigh four years ago.
"It was chemistry, really. Because of our backgrounds, we were really able to talk to each other musically," recalls Gorodezky of the encounter. "It was like putting on your slippers, you know. It was very comfortable."
At the time, Gorodezky was still mostly playing his jazz electric guitar in Raleigh's global fusion band ELM Collective. Kolpakov, on the other hand, was teaching the traditional seven-string guitar at UNC-Charlotte. It's a skill he picked up firsthand from his uncle, internationally renowned seven-string guitarist Alexander "Sasha" Kolpakov.
"The thing is, I came from a little different tradition," explains Kolpakov of the collision of styles that drives Via Romen. The seven-string guitar, created at the end of the 18th century and tuned to open G, has a long history in Russia, but up until now has largely been abandoned in modern music. By keeping the instrument alive, Kolpakov earned himself an endorsement deal recently with the Kremona line of Orpheus Valley Guitars, the company that designed a custom Kolpakov model seven-string.
"Alex came from classical and jazz training, but of course he knew the old style of the music in Russia," says Kolpakov. "When we started to play together, I thought we should create some new style of music."
What came out is a rich acoustic sound reliant on the rhythmic interplay of guitars and the melodic layers of violin and female vocals. My Two Homes, digitally released last fall, showcases the union of folk music aesthetics with a jazz concept.
"It's not really that we're playing like Charlie Parker when we're playing solos. When we play improvisation on a Jewish tune we play Jewish phrasing, or chromatics from Gypsy songs if we play Gypsy songs," Gorodezky explains. "We're not trying to make it easier. We're not trying to make smooth jazz out of our stuff." Moments on the album vacillate between Hungarian Gypsy jazz, Brazilian rhythms or a Romany children's choir and shades of Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans or Astor Piazzolla. They're not trying to sound complicated.
"This is coming from our heads," he continues. "The music drives the whole thing, not the idea. You try not to spoil what comes out."
What's more, Gelbart often adds her own new lyrics to songs, whether they are passed down or originals. "Malyarka," for instance, offers a traditional melody that sways with Latin clave rhythm, gentle swing and jazzy violin embellishments. Out of the blue comes Gelbart singing, in luscious, full-bodied Romany style. Her English lyric—"Pack up your bag and run away with me, yeah/ The forest trees will hide us, then we'll be free, yeah"—feels as fresh and freewheeling as '60s rock.
"I think it's really important to develop the language in terms of the poetry, and not just to keep recycling the lyrics that are 100 years old," says Gelbart, an ethnomusicologist and director of New York University's newly formed Institute of Romany Music.
As Gelbart points out, she is adding her voice to an emerging global movement of Romany artists today who are creating musical dialogue with other traditions, from jazz to the many diverse Romany regional traditions, ancestral Indian music and popular fusions such as Czech rapper Gipsy.cz, and "gypsy punk" band Gogol Bordello. Kolpakov even performed a Romany rap on one of Gogol Bordello's albums. His uncle Sasha's trio, which includes Via Romen's Kolpakov and Gips, followed in Gogol Bordello's footsteps in 2008–2009 to tour with Madonna, bringing Romany arrangements of pop hits like "La Isla Bonita" to worldwide audiences.
"It has come full circle. Now there are what I call Pan-Romany styles developing, where Romany musicians are becoming interested in what other Roma [historically and in different parts of the world] are doing," explains Gelbart. "Roma that weren't exposed to flamenco before are doing rumba flamenco styles, which is partly what we do."
"We're going to do more," Kolpakov says, "and continue to modernize. The younger generation are actually looking for something like that. They're looking for new beats, a new move. So we want to mix it up."