Friday, October 02, 2009

NY Roma Gypsy FF ‘09: Guca & Maya

As dazzling as Django Reinhardt truly was there is more to the Roma-Sinti musical tradition than just Hot Club-style jazz. Indeed, Roma music is remarkably diverse, varying significantly by region, which is effectively illustrated in several films screening at the 2009 New York Roma Gypsy Film Festival, a refreshingly relaxed fest now in its third year.

Last night, the festival kicked-off with an unscheduled profile of the great flamenco dancer and choreographer Mario Maya. Though often mislabeled Spanish, flamenco is actually an Andalusian music developed by the Spanish Roma “Gitano” population. The innovative Maya integrated aspects of modern dance with the traditional flamenco forms dating back to the 1800’s, resulting in some spectacular performances, including the dramatic “Martinette” produced for Carlos Saura’s Flamenco.

While Maya’s Granada flamenco scene looks like a tightly-knit cooperative community, the Serbian Guča trumpet festival is most definitely a cutting contest. Once a year, the country’s top trumpeters join in serious battle, as captured in Milivoj Ilic’s documentary, Guča: the Serbian Woodstock., an Untold Story (trailer here), which makes a return engagement at the festival this coming Thursday.

The Guča festival showcases the traditional brass band music of western Serbia and the more Roma influenced Sevdah music from the Southern and Eastern provinces (as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina). Since Sevdah music is considered freer and more spontaneous than the western Serbian style, one of member of the festival jury likens the differences between the two forms to the distinction between Dixieland and genuine New Orleans style jazz.

Though not at all jazz, the music of Guča should be readily accessible to jazz ears, particularly those who follow the New Orleans brass band scene or frequently hear Slavic Soul Party at Barbès. Again like jazz, there seem to be definite notions of authenticity regarding the music. An ethnomusicologist who serves as the film’s expert commentator clearly favors the more traditional bands, offering criticism of past champion Boban Marković for diluting his music with commercial elements.

Sports comparisons are particularly apt for Guča because this is certainly not just an exhibition. The Golden Trumpet audience award, the festival jury’s First Trumpet award, and several other prizes are at stake. As documented by Ilic, it seems the bands of the 2005 festival are nearly evenly matched, making it difficult to forecast a winner. As one Guča fan puts it: “Music and sport make a nation.” Indeed, those who excel in each are uniquely capable of making emotional connections with scores of people they will never know. In Ilic’s film, all kinds of connections are apparently made at Guča.

More than anything, Guča looks like a heck of a party. The usually sleepy rural Serbian town attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors (including Miles Davis one year) to dig those crazy sidewise looking Dragačevo trumpets. Ilic nicely conveys that festival spirit, filming revelers passed out on park benches and the hoods of cars. Clearly, the music and carnival atmosphere has had a restorative effect for the troubled country and makes for an enjoyable music documentary. It screens this coming Thursday (10/8), as the NY Roma Gypsy Film Fest continues at Mehanata Bulgarian Bar in Manhattan’s Lower Eastside.