Once shunned, Roma musicians are signing record deals and becoming club sensations.
Courtesy of Harald H Schroeder/Essay Recordings
Nica Cristea, or Cristian, as he goes by, is a Rom from suburban Bucharest who is often seen playing his handmade cembalo, or harpsichord, on the streets and in the cafes of Berlin's Neukölln district. He is a sharp dresser, always elegantly turned out in suit and tie, colorful shirt, and trilby hat. He doesn't speak a word of German or English, but will proudly show anyone who's interested the papers that certify him as a musician for the Romanian TV orchestra, his membership card in the Romanian musicians union, and a picture of his daughter, who lives in the same building as him along with Romanian Gypsy horn players.
Cristian is one of an estimated 20,000 Roma living officially and unofficially in Berlin, many of whom have recently arrived in the city with Bulgaria's and Romania's accession to the European Union. While Roma are an integral part of society in southeastern Europe, their presence is a new phenomenon in Berlin and is testing the city's much-touted principles of tolerance and hospitality. Berlin tabloids often publish stories about Roma beggars and criminal gangs, stories that many say contain racist overtones. Last summer, 50 Roma from Romania who'd set up camp in a Berlin park and later sought refuge in a Berlin church, were summarily deported back to Romania.
Yet while Berlin's Roma may be the bane of conservative politicians and the target of the city's tabloid press, Roma musicians are increasingly being embraced by the city's young, culturally minded, and club-going public. Roma musicians – now a regular feature on Berlin street corners and in subway cars – in many ways taking over the role of the traditional Berlin hurdy-gurdy man of yore – are invited into clubs by DJs. Some have even gone on to become club sensations with record contracts.
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