There's nothing more soulful than gypsy music. Be it a simple duet of voice and fiddle or the hurricane blast of a Balkan brass brand, the music of the world’s ultimate free spirits is intoxicating.

Moving westward out of Northern India more than millennium ago, the gypsies arrived in Eastern Europe in the 14th century. Over the next several hundred years, the Roma – as they refer to themselves – spread across Europe, West Asia and even to the Americas and were consistently exploited and used as labour but tolerated for the contributions to the arts, particularly as craftsmen, fortune tellers and musicians.

Despite a colourful history of nomadism, ingenuity and resilience, the Roma experience is one of suspicion, persecution and marginalisation. Tens of thousands of Roma are believed to have perished in Nazi death camps during the 1940s, and even today, most host countries continue to maintain a culture of discrimination against them.

Over the years, scholars have advanced a number of theories on their origins, linking them to cave-dwelling primitives and wandering Jews. But by the 18th century, similarities between the Romani and several South Asian languages suggested an Indian origin. And as the science of linguistics, genetics and comparative cultural studies developed, this theory has strengthened and today it is universally accepted.

In February, during the International Roma Conference and Cultural Festival in Delhi, Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj referred to the gypsies as the “children of India”. Encouraged, the festival concluded with a call for the government of India to recognise the roughly 20-million-strong Roma community as part of the Indian diaspora.

While we wait for the government to consider that recommendation, let’s tune in to some truly spectacular music from this global community.

Talab Khan Barna
Kaman Garo Kanhaji


The 1993 French documentary Latcho Drom, which means safe journey, from which this clip has been taken, traces the history of the Roma from their original home in the Indian subcontinent through Egypt, Turkey and eventually, the Balkans. For many in the West, this was the first sympathetic portrait of the community they had encountered. Filled with some of the most brilliant music ever filmed, Latcho Drom is definitely worth seeking out.

With their fabulous headgear, bright sarees and sparkling jewelry, the Manganiyar, folk musicians of Rajasthan, have been linked to gypsies and share with them the musical legacy. In fact, studies have traced genetic and linguistic connections between the Roma and Rajasthan.

Oliver Rajamani with Nagavalli Medicharlla
Cabello Negro


Born and educated in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Oliver Rajamani today lives and works out of Austin, Texas, one of America’s premier music centres. Blending gypsy, Flamenco, Indian, country western and the blues styles (phew!) Rajamani definitely deserves credit for not discriminating against any genre.

Rajamani has worked with top Flamenco artists in Spain as well some of the biggest names in American roots or country music including Willie Nelson, Edie Brickell and Gypsy stars such as Dotschy Reinhardt.

In this live performance, Rajamani displays his tremendous talent as guitarist, singer and composer. He is able to create a space in which India and Europe seem to be reflections of each other rather than distinct nations with separate traditions. The seamless cultural exchange is astounding.

Unknown Artist
Song for Mercy (Beás Himnusz)


A moving hymn sung in Romani with understated vocals and sparse instrumentation, this ballad evokes images of faith and hope underpinned by a deep sadness. The title, that translates to "Song For Mercy", suggests this sort of song is probably a familiar theme for Romani musicians who are used to being pushed to the margins of society, often falsely accused of crimes they have not committed.

Mahala Rai Banda
Ding Deng Dong


Like in India, the brass band was introduced into the Balkans, the European heartland of the Roma, via the military. In this instance, it was initially the Ottoman Turks and later, the Austrians who paraded their soldiers up and down to the accompaniment of trumpets and drums. And the Roma kept playing the instruments once the former occupiers returned home.

Led by violinist Auriel Ionita, a traditional lautari (gypsy) musician, the band Mahala Rai Banda has stormed out of Bucharest, Romania, to become one of the liveliest, most loved ensembles in Europe. With a sound not dissimilar to an Indian wedding band but with rich dollops of reggae and ska rhythms blended in, (though not evident in this clip) Mahala Rai Banda is pure excitement and bubbling joy.

Gypsy All Stars and Bhanwari Devi


Guitarists and vocalists Mario and Georges Reyes formed the Gypsy All Stars to keep alive the tradition of the Gipsy Kings, one of the biggest global acts of the '80s and '90s. But it was not just about survival. The brothers, along with Cedric Leonardi, all of whom have family connections with the Gipsy Kings, wanted to return to the source of their music in India and give it a contemporary facelift.

Here, in a truly exciting fusion of Roma and Manganiyar traditions, the Gypsy All Stars team up with the amazing Bhanwari Devi from Shekawati for a rendition of the Rajasthani folk song, Kattey. The rhythms and flow in this piece are all Roma, which makes Bhanwari Devi’s performance all the more impressive. The ease and grace with which she is able to sing her part while making space and keeping pace with her new-found collaborators (apparently they had met only a week earlier!) has all the attributes of a natural, mature artist in full control of her powers. Another stunning piece.

Django Reinhardt
Jattendrai Swing


We wind up our deliberations with perhaps the world’s best known Gypsy musician, Django Reinhardt.

Born into a poor Manouche (French Romas) family, Django was a self-taught musician who grew up to be one of jazz music’s first and most revered guitar soloists. This despite his having lost the use of two fingers in an accident, which required him to develop an entirely new approach to playing.

In this clip, where he is accompanied by his long-time musical companion, Stephane Grappelli on the violin, we are treated to a few minutes of his legendary skill and artistry that are enough to make us smile for the rest of the weekend.