Printed 01.07.2022 12:36
In Europe, the Roma have always made a living by performing the professions which they brought with them from India. After the arrival of the Aryans, India was a county where the inhabitants were divided into castes known as jati. Each jati had its specific caste dharma - a set of unwritten rules about what activities it could and couldn't perform. Often the caste wasn't allowed to perform these activities which were connected with the traditional professions of other castes (jati). In this way, each caste's "professional area" was protected. Although professional movement among the Roma has been common for some time, until recently, unwritten customs regulating the inter-group behaviour of individual Romani "jati" were very similar to the inter-caste relationships in India.
In India, the Roma belonged to a caste that worked in trades such as: blacksmiths, tinkers, leather workers, grooms, horse traders, musicians, bear and snake trainers, potters, basket weavers, street-sweepers, washerwomen, fortune-tellers, brickmakers, trough-makers, and so on. It is generally the case that all of these professions could be practiced only occasionaly, that the demand for these services was uneven and lasted only until the market was saturated.
In this country, about 90 percent of the Roma living here until WWII were permanent residents who had come to the country from the Balkans along the Danube and begun to settle down around from the 17th century. At that time there weren't such great differences in the countryside between the arriving and previously settled populations, so it's possible to talk about a certain assimilation of the Roma with the original inhabitants. By the language environment in which they lived, it was possible to distinguish the settled Slovak and Hungarian Roma from the nomadic or semi-nomadic Czech (Bohemian-Moravian) Roma. The environment had an influence on their language, but their culture remained similar. An entirely special group was the so-called Wallachian Roma, who lived only nomadically and hardly dealt with other Roma at all.
In the 17th century, towns started to settle the Roma in town and villages for bartered services (sharpening the halberds of the guard, cleaning towns, working as brute labor or grave-diggers), later they received consent to practice their professions. The most significant trade of the Slovak Roma was blacksmithing. They worked with by archaic method that they brought with them from India. They sat on the ground while working, and would use old materials (scrap iron) that they could get for free as their raw materials. At the end of the 19th century, Slovakia had perhaps the greatest concentration of blacksmiths in all of Europe. They produced mostly nails, chains, wagon pieces, hoes, and various mountings. They rarely made horseshoes. Today, only some Roma devote themselves to blacksmithing, concentrating primarily on making artistic objects - mountings, candle-holders, latticework, and so on.
Another form by which the Roma made a living was from spot work in the fields of village farmers or small landowners. This was a matter of occasional field work, for instance, during the harvest of potatoes, rape-seed, or placing or breaking up of stones for the construction of roads for the village. This mutual cooperation by the Roma and non-Roma inhabitants was confirmed often by godparenthood.
The arrival of collectivization and the founding of the JZD agricultural cooperatives brought an end to this cooperation and the Roma, about whom there was now no interest, began to draw away from the world of the "whites". Among other trades plied by the Roma in the Czech lands, as well as Slovakia, were the making brooms, baskets, wicker and mats, cleaning and working with leather, honing knives, making unfired bricks from clay, water and chaff, and making wood charcoal. The women went around to farmers to clean out their ovens (due to their small size, they could fit inside the ovens), wove simple lace on simple looms, and picked strawberries, blueberries and other fruit with their children. Then they went to village farmers to offer their handicrafts and picked fruit, most often in exchange for food and clothing.
Jekhfeder pativ luvutariske.
Another significant, even if often only complementary, way of making a living for Slovak and Hungarian Roma was music. Only men played in Romani bands, mostly from one family (the father - most often the first violinist as well, his brothers, sons, sons-in-law, and brothers-in-law), and at least four-piece. The basic instrumental content was a first and second violin, viola, and a bass or dulcimer, or possibly a clarinet. They played for the non-Roma populace at weddings, parties, baptisms, banquets and funerals, for which they were paid. They played the local repertoire for the gadze, and so they actually became the carriers of Slovak folk music. Among themselves, they played slow Romani songs about hard life, love, grief and suffering. As an old Romani proverb says: Gadzeske basavav andro kan, Romeske andro jilo or "For the non-Roma play for the ear, for us play for the heart".
Another type of village musicians were the individual "players", who went to play in the villages under windows on the violin, and so the music was really only a pretext for begging. These musicians were of the lowest type and were held in contenpt by the other musicians.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th century, the best musicians made up a special social class of professional urban cafe musicians, the so-called "gypsy aristocracy." These were the offspring of musicians who had performed at the aristocratic and royal courts and who the feudal lords had settled on their territory during the period when it was the fashion for a court to have its own Romani band of musicians. These musicians became almost assimilated and to this day the Roma place emphasis on the musical emphasis of their children - many of them study at conservatories (the largest number of young Roma study at the conservatory in Presov).
The Wallachian Roma, on the other hand, traditionally made their living as horse traders, the women cleaning down pillows and reading fortunes from cards and palms. Nowadays, many of them deal in various forms of middleman operations, but also theft and fraud.
The majority of Roma today work in unskilled blue-collar professions in the construction industry, in the timber industry, on the railroads, in excavation work and in street sweeping.
Copyright © Radio Praha, 1996 - 2003