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Balkan Gypsies captivate Berlin

Once shunned, Roma musicians are signing record deals and becoming club sensations.

By Robert RigneyContributor / April 27, 2011

Shantel (Stefan Hantel, with accordion) is a German DJ-turned-pop star with Romanian roots who’s become a musical sensation in Germany. Several years ago he moved away from house and techno music and toward the sound of Balkan Roma, bringing it into the German mainstream.

Courtesy of Harald H Schroeder/Essay Recordings

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Berlin

Nica Cristea, or Cristian, as he goes by, is a Rom from suburban Bucharest who is often seen playing his handmade cembalo, or harpsichord, on the streets and in the cafes of Berlin's Neukölln district. He is a sharp dresser, always elegantly turned out in suit and tie, colorful shirt, and trilby hat. He doesn't speak a word of German or English, but will proudly show anyone who's interested the papers that certify him as a musician for the Romanian TV orchestra, his membership card in the Romanian musicians union, and a picture of his daughter, who lives in the same building as him along with Romanian Gypsy horn players.

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Cristian is one of an estimated 20,000 Roma living officially and unofficially in Berlin, many of whom have recently arrived in the city with Bulgaria's and Romania's accession to the European Union. While Roma are an integral part of society in southeastern Europe, their presence is a new phenomenon in Berlin and is testing the city's much-touted principles of tolerance and hospitality. Berlin tabloids often publish stories about Roma beggars and criminal gangs, stories that many say contain racist overtones. Last summer, 50 Roma from Romania who'd set up camp in a Berlin park and later sought refuge in a Berlin church, were summarily deported back to Romania.

Yet while Berlin's Roma may be the bane of conservative politicians and the target of the city's tabloid press, Roma musicians are increasingly being embraced by the city's young, culturally minded, and club-going public. Roma musicians – now a regular feature on Berlin street corners and in subway cars – in many ways taking over the role of the traditional Berlin hurdy-gurdy man of yore – are invited into clubs by DJs. Some have even gone on to become club sensations with record contracts.

"This Balkan Gypsy sound is the new sound of Berlin," says British musician Joe Jackson, a Berlin resident and three-time Grammy winner. When he lived in New York, Mr. Jackson was inspired by the Latin music there, which he took to be the dominant sound of the city. Here in Berlin he sees the new Balkan Roma music as setting the tone.

This is a new phenomenon in Berlin. For two decades now, ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Berlin has been renowned internationally as the electronic music capital of Europe, famous for its yearly Love Parade techno extravaganza and all-night techno raves in clubs like the Tresor and E-Werk.

Today, Berlin's techno scene is still a main attraction for young tourists from abroad. But most music-scene insiders here will tell you that techno is not an authentic local movement anymore; real Berliners are increasingly seeking their kicks in Balkan Gypsy clubs.

Bosnian Robert Soko deejays once a month at a successful Kreuzberg Balkan Beats party, where young Berliners dance with abandon to Balkan Gypsy songs by Goran Bregovic and to Germany's new Balkan pop star, Shantel. Mr. Soko, who is a former Yugoslav war refugee and ex-taxi driver, started his parties in the early 1990s in a Berlin punk-rock club, playing Yugoslav cassettes to a mostly Yugoslav refugee crowd for 50 German marks a night – until New York nightlife impresario Steve Mass gave him a regular gig at his Berlin Mudd Club in the Mitte district. Increasingly, Germans started coming to Soko's parties, and by word of mouth the parties have grown to become a Berlin sensation at Soko's new location in Kreuzberg, where he often features live Gypsy acts from the Balkans and Germany.

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