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Requiem for Auschwitz – fighting prejudice, with choir and violin
07-11-2012  Rob Cameron

Prague’s Rudolfinum concert hall is one of Europe’s most prestigious classical music venues – it kicks off the Prague Spring International Music Festival each year, among other things. Certainly its hallowed halls aren’t open to just anyone. So an appearance at the weekend by an orchestra made up of Roma or gypsy musicians was a rare event.

The Roma and Sinti Philharmonic Orchestra, photo: CTK The international Roma and Sinti Philharmonic Orchestra, going through one final rehearsal at the Rudolfinum’s showcase Dvořák Hall. Cellists from the Czech Republic sit next to harpists from Hungary – almost all of them members of the Roma minority, not playing the csárdás or the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt, but classical music...with a gypsy flair.

At a break in rehearsals I spoke to David Bubani, a violinist originally from Pristina in Kosovo. That evening he and the Roma and Sinti Orchestra were due to perform a piece called Requiem for Auschwitz.

“We are not only what’s called gypsy music, of the type many people know. We are also classical musicians. We can play Johann Sebastian Bach, or Mozart, or Debussy. And we can also play gypsy music of course. But here the purpose is telling the story that the Roma and Sinti and gypsy people also suffered during this war.”

Requiem for Auschwitz was written by the Swiss-born, Dutch-based Roma composer Roger Moreno, after his first visit to Auschwitz in 1998 left him emotionally drained and suffering from musical writer's block. The piece, he says, is dedicated to all the victims of Auschwitz; Jews, Roma, Poles, and everyone else who passed through its gates.

Auschwitz, photo: Barbora Kmentová “All those people dying there were in the same boat, whether they were Jewish, or gypsy, non-Jews, non-gypsies. So what is the difference in fact? They all died in the same way. So let’s make a kind of monument for all people. Maybe this work can even bring us a little bit – a little bit – more peace in this world, more tolerance between religions and between nations.”

Since its première in Amsterdam earlier this year, Requiem for Auschwitz has been performed at Tilberg in the Netherlands, and now Prague and Budapest. More performances are planned for Frankfurt, Bucharest and Cracow. At each stop the Roma orchestra is paired with a local choir – a symbolic defiance of the invisible barriers that usually keep Roma and non-Roma apart.

The concert is also accompanied by a number of other events, in a project supported by the European Union and Germany’s “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” Foundation. Jitka Jurková is from the Czech NGO Slovo 21 which handled the Prague side of things.

“We basically want also to show that the Roma are not how they’re shown in the media. Pretty often in the Czech Republic they’re shown as the poorest and most problematic group of inhabitants. We want to show them as also an elite and great and skilled people.”

Riccardo M. Sahiti, photo: CTK The Czech classical musical scene is a somewhat conservative one; certainly appearances by Roma musicians at the Rudolfinum, the country’s most prestigious venue, are rare. Partly for that reason, says Jitka Jurková, all 1,200 tickets were free – organisers were concerned a concert by a ‘gypsy’ orchestra would fail to sell out. That’s a telling indication of the challenges facing those seeking to overcome deep-rooted prejudice against the Roma.

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