As part of the celebrations for this years Roma Day, organised by RomaTrial, I had the opportunity to perform with the renowned British Romani author Damian Le Bas in ‘Gypsy Reports And Songs From Brexitland’ at the Maxim Gorki’s Studio R. Piecing together the right music for this event was really important to me as I wanted to compliment Damian’s readings while contributing to the larger narrative of the evening with the music. A few weeks before Damian and I started to email back and forth passages of text and song choices, slowly forming an image that reflected our joint experience as British Romanichals.
Brexit has made me get in touch with my Britishness; before it was always something I negated because of being a Romani too, its like I had a get out clause to not have to subscribe to the British cultural norms or collective identity, while at the same time benefiting from and being a part of them. The problems of British identity were not my problems, because I had my own racial identity to battle for. A big part of that identity for me was always music and song; it was a cultural touchstone that where I came from was somewhere different. I remember in ‘Show and Tell’ at school performing Atch Along Mi Chavio in the British Romani creole Poggidi Jib. I was always proud to feel like we had something else.
As the British Romani musical tradition is largely an oral one, Damian and I both knew Atch Along’s melody but going by different names and with different lyrics. Damian supposed the two halves had been separated somewhere throughout history, and when I started to put them together sure enough a narrative emerged. That’s how we ended up playing the so called Atch Along/ Kushti Romanes Mash Up and as a last minute addition- first rehearsed in the soundcheck- Damian accompanied with the spoons.
Recently I was asked in an interview how I felt about having restricted freedom of movement after Brexit and I realized that that question resonated quite differently with me, coming from the background of a people whose freedom to move, culture, and consequently traditional way of life, has been systematically eroded in the aim of creating an assimilated British population. So, this current state of frenzy where the British population are panicked and indignant about new restrictions on their movement, restrictions which the majority of the population actually voted for, seems somehow ironic. On the other hand, I am also equally one of those panicked and indignant people that didn’t vote for Brexit. Such is the nature of being biracial.
As the night at Studio R focused not only on our perspective as Romani’s, but also as Europeans soon to be Brexited from Europe, I wanted to also comment on my personal response to Brexit and the actions of the UK Government.
A song I had written came to mind because of how rooted it was in the place it occurred, which made me think more largely about the context of the evening in relation to the significance of place; our place in Europe as ex Europeans, as our place in Britain as Romani people, and our place in the world as a newly confused combination of those two things. For me Brexit was really a feeling of loss, of a loss of place, and that feeling is not new among the Gypsies. The song was called The Things I Lost On Gloucester Street, and it’s about the loss of love.
A song I didn’t play, and will maybe always wish I did, is a song called Night By Name which I wrote when I was sixteen about my Romani uncle, Chris Knight. A poet and artist, who in his youth used to go and sleep up on the common in Kent in his big green overcoat when he wanted some peace. He always smelled of woodsmoke and red wine, with tobacco and rizla and poems seeping out of his pockets. As a child my best friend and I spent many nights out in the crisp starlit evenings, while an old door was put down and her mum would dance flamenco, her skirts merging with the fires flames, as my uncle played harmonica and sang the blues in his life worn voice. Wine was always spilled and it was always too late for a school night and we would be huddle warm together, small spectators of this adults world. My uncle taught me most of the Romani I know, and also how to swing a good left hook by the age of 8. For me the song felt like the most intimate way I could communicate what it felt like to be a Romani child growing up in Brexitland. The week of the concert my uncle died very suddenly, and much too young, as seems to be the fate of many a good Gypsy man. So in order to keep it together, I decided not to perform the song at the concert.
I finished my part of the evening with a song called 9 Lives, originally about a group of cocaine snorting fashionistas, whose attitude to life somehow reminds me of the shortsightedness of our British government right now.