For the last few years, in early spring, I’ve seen signs around my neighborhood for the Roma Festival. I thought it was about the tomato of the same name and wondered why the event was held before the fruit it celebrated was even ripe. Of course it’s not about the tomato at all. Roma, in this case, means gypsy.
I don’t think of gypsies as a large part of California culture. The organization behind this day-and-a-half music festival, the Voice of Roma (voiceofroma.com), based in San Francisco, is interested in educating people about the gypsies and stopping human rights abuses in middle Europe, notably Kosovo and other war zones.
The Voice of Roma also wants to stop people from employing stereotypes of gypsies and also stop “romanticizing” them—so there goes my best story about gypsy magic and why my camera stopped working as soon as I got my hand stamped and stepped through the gate. Oh, well.
The timing for the Roma Festival is based on Herdeljezi, a traditional gypsy event acknowledging the coming of the warmer months.
When I first started seeing Roma Festival signs, the event was held in Forestville, California, a small town about an hour north of San Francisco. This year, however, it was in Ives Park, Sebastopol, which is. . .a small town about an hour north of San Francisco. The evening program was held at the French Garden, a restaurant on Highway 12 just west of town, which is developing a reputation for good organic meals with produce from their own kitchen farm. The French Garden is working very hard to establish itself as a music venue so this seemed like a good match.
At first I thought the festival was pricy; it’s $15 general admission, $12 for seniors. You get a hand-stamp and I assume, although I didn’t check, that this is also good for the evening events. Then I realized that the festival is 90% music and dance. So, for a day-and-a-half live music festival, I suppose $15 isn’t bad. There were food booths and one booth selling gypsy embroidery and some jewelry, and music CDs. That booth also had a couple of book on the Roma and some posters about the Kosovo gypsies in particular. There was also face-painting and henna tattooing going on, but mostly music and dance.
When I arrived, Edessa was playing and leading a dance lesson in the grassy meadow between two crescents of redwood trees. Edessa has been playing Balkan music since about 1991. They had a clarinetist, a woman playing an accordion, a guitar and a couple of drums. The woman who sang a couple of songs had a great voice. The music sounded. . .well, like gypsy music. The dances were mostly line dances and looked as much Greek as anything, but people were enthusiastically joining in. They could not have had better weather; clear, sunny, warm but not hot. Edessa played for about forty minutes while I was there. The act after them was a local flamenco group who had an awesome guitarist, another woman vocalist with a great voice, and four excellent female dancers including the instructor, La Fibi. They were great. It may just be my imagination that their flamenco seemed to borrow a little more from belly dancing than I remembered. They had no castanets, but the hand and head gestures were angular and imperious, so that seemed right. The shoes seemed right also, banging out a rhythm in time with the music. Are castanets passé in flamenco now? Or were they non-traditional to begin with? While I was there, the guitarist had one solo, and it was fast, intricate, fiery and everything you would hope for in a flamenco guitar solo. La Fibi said he has coined a musical mash-up of styles he calls “flametal;” flamenco and metal. Hmm.
Eugene Hutz, who fronts a crazy gypsy punk band called Gogol Bordello, was scheduled to play later in the afternoon but I didn’t get to stay to hear him. I heard rumors the next day, however, that things got a little wild during his French Garden performance. They call themselves gypsy punks for a reason.
About busting those stereotypes; no fortune-telling at this festival.
To my untutored ear, the music seems to borrow a lot from Middle Eastern music, which is no surprise, I think. I like the swirling energy, the haunting, minor key riffs, the way the music pulls on your body and makes you want to sway and dance. I like the passion the music communicates. Like zydeco, like the blues, like Appalachian music, this is true folk music; rooted in history, loaded with heart, in no way to be mistaken for a tomato.