Survival of the fiddlers;The big picture

24th April 1998 at 01:00
Politically repressed, stripped of their rights and robbed of their land, Romanian gypsies cling to their music. It's a means of survival and a badge of identity. Three quarters of the families in the village of Piriul de Pripor live off their musical wits, and inscriptions above the doors of their houses show the instruments played therein.

This group of child musicians, a "taraf", strikes up a tune on the way home from school on the local "bus". Their musical skills will determine their future income - the pay of a streetside entertainer is performance-related and there is fierce competition between families to be the best. Practice, and lots of it, makes perfect.

village elder Nicolae Zlataru says:"Being a gypsy in Romania is difficult, a dishonour, the life of a second-class citizen. Fortunately we still have the joy of our music."

When he was a boy, Nicolae's parents would send him up a tree, take away the ladder and make him play his violin until he got it right. Instruction isn't so strict these days, but most children learn to play an instrument from an early age and sleep with it by their beds.

The violin is considered the noblest instrument, but no taraf is complete without an accordion, and the guitar is becoming increasingly popular. So, too, are synthesisers or "rhythm machines", much to the disgustof traditionalists.

But, like generations before them, these children have learned to play by ear and none of them can read music. "They don't need a teacher," their schoolmaster bemoans, "they need a conductor!"

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