By Adi Halfon
TURKEY. Wednesday morning’s sun shines on the old crowded buildings of Bostan, a poor neighborhood in the city of Istanbul. Many Romas live in the area. The tea house “Nazlitas” is located in one of the narrow streets. Inside it there are about a dozen of Romas, sitting around plain tables, playing backgammon, drinking tea and watching television. The atmosphere in the place is very masculine and a bit rough. They don’t have normal jobs. Some of them are unemployed, some sell flowers or shine shoes for a living. Others are musicians. That occupation, it appears, is very popular in this community.
It is not easy to be a Roma in Istanbul. Not just that most of them belong to a low social class and often feel discriminated against. “Whenever there is a burglary, people immediately blame us”, says one of the guys at the tea house. “But yet”, he continues, “We feel loyal to Turkey. We feel this is our land. Our kids serve in the Turkish army, we are Romas and Turkish at the same time”. Another guy intervenes: “My uncle serves in the army, he had a high rank. However, once the army found out that he is a Roma, his promotion was denied and he was dismissed”
There is something interesting with the Roma people in the tea house. They are all eager to speak, to make their complaints heard. Nevertheless, they do not trust the media. None of the men agreed to tell their names, as if something would happen to them as a result. “Turkish journalists came to this neighborhood and took pictures, but nothing had changed”, they say. At the house of Kazim Turkmen, the 56 year old leader of one of the Roma communities, similar things are stated. “You come here to ask us questions about our life”, says Sengul Turkmen, Kazim’s wife, “but then you will go and just write how poor we are.”
At the tea house, one of the older guys tells his life story. He is 57 years old, and started to play music when he was thirteen. He is a son of a musician, and now his son also follows his way. “People here keep their ancestors’ occupations”, says one of them. “The knowledge of how to make music used to be passed from father to son. Nowadays we understand the importance of education. My son, for example, studies music in the university.” His saying seems to be true, all the men in “Nazlitas” are relatively old, except one person. Ozgur Akgul, a 32 year old Roma music expert, agrees. “You can definitely notice the young generation of Roma musicians is becoming more professional”.
Turkmen estimates that around 75% of his community are playing music. “For most of them”, he says, “Music is not the only occupation, since they don’t earn a lot of money out of it. Even so, playing music is a way to make a living, and also something people enjoy to do”. Akgul gives another explanation for those incredible figures: “The Roma musicians are integrating in the Turkish society much better than any other Romas”, he says, “Because there is an high demand for music. Some of their traditional occupations, like making baskets, are not relevant anymore. Music, on the other hand, is something people will always listen to”. Akgul is making a documentary film about Roma musicians, which will be screened next March. His M.A. thesis was about Roma music and identity.
“When music started to be an industry, there was a huge demand for new singers. Then the Turkish people discovered the Roma singers”, he says. “Music helps the Romas to change their negative image. Once Roma musicians become popular, they are changing the stereotypes people have about them”, claims Akgul. He gives an example: “Some of the Roma singers are not pointing out their origin, because of these stereotypes, and sometimes they even change their family name to a Turkish one”, admits Akgul, “However, there is a very popular Roma singer called Husnu Senlendirici, who kept his name and always put emphasis on his background. He helped a lot in changing the image of the Romas”.
The Roma songs contain a lot of satire and sarcasm, mostly concerning issues of relationships. The Roma singers, it appears, influenced the market. “The nine eights rhythm, which is a clear Roma style, became extremely popular in Turkey”, reveals Akgul. But not everything turns out to be positive. In the process of integrating in the society, the community tries to adapt to life style changes. “I was in Greece, and I couldn’t communicate with the local Romas, because I don’t know the Roma language”, complains one of the people at the tea house, “The Greek Romas told me I am not a real Roma”.
Turkmen also feels the world is not what it used to be. “The role of a community leader is a traditional one. Our community still has one, since my people respect me for being active for the community”, he says, “In other communities there are no more leaders. They are being replaced by organizations which help the people in their daily needs”. And despite the integration process, the Roma remain a minority which continues to have social needs. “Even in Istanbul”, says Turkmen, “Some are living in tents at the outskirts of the city”.
Music leads to integration. And integration creates some problems. But whether those troubles can threaten the Romas or not, nobody in the in the community would dare think of stopping the creatin of music. “I support the idea of integrating through playing music, it helps people to communicate with each other”, concludes Turkmen, “After all, the role of musicians in the society is irreplaceable”.