‘Do all recording studios have a thick paisley carpet?’ … Is the first thought I have as I step onto the comforting familiarity of the worn, rough red floor. Its August and as part of the Romnja Jazz project each of us, Tayo, Matilda and I, get time in a recording studio.
I’ve decided to record ‘The Ballad of Johann Rukeli Trollman’, a song I wrote as part of the 1st Roma Biennale ‘COME OUT NOW!’ organised by RomaTrial in cooperation with the Maxim Gorki Theatre, that took place in Studio Я in April 2018.
At the time I was staying off Bergmannkiez in Kreuzberg and forcing myself out on cold walks in the dull February winter light. As I scurried off to the rehearsals one morning I noticed a large plaque on the adjoining building to mine. On it was the figure of a man, braced to fight. The first thought that flickered through my mind was ‘he’s one of us’. Written on the sign was the brief story of Johann ‘Rukeli’ Trollman, a Sinto boxer who defied the 3rd Reich and was ultimately sent to his death in Neuengamme concentration camp. Pinned to the picture were two white roses. I was shocked by how drawn to him I had been from across the street, how I had instantly felt he was one of my own. When I returned home I researched his story further, reading an article by Christina Newland that detailed his struggles against the German Nazi’s. I was shaken by the injustices and persecution he faced, and filled with a sense of pride and love for the courage, dignity and defiance he had always shown in the face of such brutality. I began to write.
I was inspired by the Bob Dylan’s famous protest ballad about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and saw some parallels in their stories. I wanted to write something personal, for him, to him, in honour of him and spent days shaping the hard facts of his life into short rhyming lines, the result of which was 9 minutes of song. A bit too epic, even for Dylan. So a lot of editing ensued. I didn’t have any instruments in my apartment at the time so I wrote a lot listening to Melody Gardots ‘If Ever I Recal Your Face’, allowing the cinematic simplicity to sweep me along before I had my verse chords or melody.
The chorus line, however, was always there from the first moment I read the plaque outside my building. ‘Ruk’ in Romani means tree, and his family apparently named him as such because his “upright physique resembled the straight growth of a flexible and beautiful tree”. Already, before reading further into his story, I felt such a sense of who this man was.
Dance in the ring for me
You stand so straight like the strongest tree
Bring you to your knees”
During the edit of the song I realised I had to focus on one key moment of his story, rather than try and cover everything. I decided to go for Bock Brewery boxing ring, 9th June, 1933. Rukeli’s showdown for the light-heavyweight championship of Germany, a title he won against SS favorite, the Aryan Adolf Witt. The regime intended the fight to highlight Witts racial superiority by his winning of the title. Seeing the outcome was tipping in Rukeli’s favour the judging panel called off the fight and declared it a ‘No Decision’—neither a win nor a loss for either man. Apparently the crowd was outraged and rallied for an overturning of the decision, eventually forcing the judges to admit Rukeli’s victory.
However it was short lived, as within a week the title was stripped from him on racial grounds; Rukeli’s signature light footed style, a kin to that of Muhamid Ali and now regarded as the beginning of modern boxing, was disdainfully described as ‘dancing like a gypsy’ and therefore not German.
On the 27th of June a rematch was called, this time against Gustav Eder, a German boxer selected by the Nazi party. Rukeli was only allowed to fight if he did so like a ‘German’. In a heroic act of defiance Rukeli entered the ring painted with white powder, with his black hair dyed peroxide blonde. A daring mockery of the Aryan that would ultimately cost him his life. Rukeli did not fight in his winning style, using well trained elegance and agility, but stood firm and flat footed in what was then the German boxing technique until he was knocked out after 5 rounds.
The rest of Rukeli’s short life ceased to be any less rebellious, brave or defiant in the face of a torrade of injustices. After spending so long exploring the story of this man I was amazed to discover that his daughter, Rita, was alive and living in Berlin and had been invited to the performance of the song. It felt like such a circle of history to meet her and look into the face of this woman who so resembled her father. After the show I stayed back and played the song to her alone, as she placed her worn hands on my shoulders and gently kissed my head. It felt like history had its hands firmly on my back and to this day it is the most intense and meaningful moment I have ever sung.
It feels only right then, that this song should be recorded as part of a female Romani music project that looks to address structural imbalance and give voice and space to Romnja women. In this way the song can continue to be a part of reshaping our narrative and representation and honouring our heroes.