The Romani people, formerly known as “gypsies,” are wandering merchants and entertainers who originated in Northern India and moved into Central and Eastern Europe. They are some of the most musical people in the world. In late August, I ventured to Istanbul in search of their haunting yet buoyant melodies.
I landed at the Atatürk Airport, and then travelled by train to the Beyoğlu district. I took the historic red tram straight down İstiklal Avenue to the Rapunzel Hostel.
From the outside, the inn looks like a typical apartment building. Inside, the place resembles an old stone castle. Utilizing my bare-bones Turkish, I negotiated a private room for $25.
The space was squat, yet charming, with a double bed, desk, lamp, and a wooden chair – all I needed. Since I was so jetlagged, I decided to start my exploration in the morning.
I woke to the sounds of dishes clanking. I proceeded down to the breakfast room and discovered I had overslept. A man clearing potato skins off of a cutting board told me to visit Haci Baba Restaurant, a cheap and traditional lokanta that serves Turkish food, located just down İstiklal Avenue. I made my way outside.
İstiklal Avenue is a stylish pedestrian street, which features boutiques, galleries, theatres, pubs, and all the essentials of a lively main strip. Haci Baba is a nostalgic restaurant with a glassed-in terrace, overlooking the courtyard of the Greek Orthodox Church next door. It offers traditional Ottoman dishes from a large menu, including soups, hot and cold appetizers, grilled meats, seafood and desserts. I was partial to their goulash, which was prepared with beef, parsnips, potatoes, and tomato. It was seasoned with garlic, caraway seed, marjoram, and sweet paprika. It cost only $10 and it came with a complementary slab of fresh, crusty, braided white bread.
For my main event, I traveled down İstiklal Avenue to Taksim Square. Dark-skinned people in colourful yet ragged clothing were setting up homemade-looking instruments. Small children in oversized shirts weaved in and out of the crowd.
I was given a mug of anise-smelling liquid called Raki. I swallowed a mouthful and felt the liquid blaze down my esophagus, warming me from the inside.
Soon I was swaying to the music. The songs ranged from devastatingly sad to raucously boisterous. True to the nomadic style of its composers, gypsy music is a mixture of techniques, blending swing and polka with soulful theatrics. One song, called “Korkoro,” performed by a young Romani boy, was particularly evocative. It conjured a deep feeling of sadness associated with a long history of struggle, but at the same time expressed an exuberance and gratitude for life.
Given their meagre finances and their accordingly low level of formal education, there is no doubt that the Romani people are among some of the most naturally talented musicians in the world. For a small price you can visit their world yourself.