Prague is currently hosting the thirteenth annual Khamoro festival – a celebration of Roma culture coupled with serious debate about conditions for the Roma minority. Gypsy musicians from as far afield as Hungary, India, France and Norway feature at this year’s festival, which began with a re-enactment of a traditional Romani wedding.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in Prague, a troupe of gypsy musicians led a procession into the Mánes gallery on the banks of the River Vltava, to help recreate a traditional gypsy wedding, or bijav in the Romani language. Khamoro organisers, working from period photographs and other materials, recreated a wedding from 1945 – a sombre year for Czechoslovakia’s Roma, who were decimated in the Holocaust. Tomáš Bystrý is Khamoro’s head of PR:
“What we’re seeing here are all the customs of a traditional Roma wedding, what people ate, what was served at the wedding feast, what was traditionally said before the ceremony and during it, for example – the young couple would beg permission from their parents to marry, the parents would then give the couple their blessing, making the sign of the cross, before finally seeing them off into a new life as a couple.”
Most of the 250,000 or so Roma living in the Czech Republic today can trace their roots to rural gypsy communities from eastern Slovakia. Thousands of Slovak Roma migrated to Czech towns and cities after the Second World War, many leaving their customs behind.
That uprooting has contributed to the sense of alienation felt by many Czech Roma, who were forcefully assimilated under communism, and then banished to the margins of society under capitalism. Today, most live in sub-standard housing, have little formal education or decent job prospects. Jelena Silajdžić from the NGO Slovo 21 which organises Khamoro, says the festival is about much more than just music:
“The aim of Khamoro, of all this project, is to show not only music, this is a mistake when some people say ‘oh, this is a music festival’ – No, this is just part of this festival. The aim of the festival is to show and discuss Roma topics, because there are a lot of problems in this area, not only in the Czech Republic but all over the world. To be a Rom isn’t so easy. It’s very very difficult.”
It is of course the infectious rhythms of the gypsy bands that draw the crowds each year, whether it’s the concerts in Prague clubs or the musical parade that snakes its way through the capital’s streets. Khamoro presents a fleeting but valued chance for the Roma to openly celebrate their unique culture.