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Documentary predominantly for fans of Gypsy music genre

By Sam Potter

Music, as one artist in Jasmine Dellal’s new documentary “Gypsy Caravan” puts it, is God’s greatest gift to mankind. One would be hard-pressed to find a person who doesn’t like music in one form or another. Music is a universal language which speaks to the soul and watching this magical communication work between a disparate group of people facing huge cultural and language barriers is the best element of Dellal’s new film.

“Gypsy Caravan” follows a collection of five renowned Gypsy acts who travel together in the first-ever assembled international Gypsy music tour. The groups include Maharaja, a trio of Indian musicians who perform traditional Indian ragas (religious chanting combined with complex rhythmic patterns); a flamenco quartet from Spain; Esma Redzepova, a famous female singer from Macedonia; and Fanfare Ciocarlia and Taraf de Haidouks, two brass and string ensembles from Romania.

Dellal sets up the film well with a group of Indian children engaging in what could best be described as a Gypsy jam session: rapid-fire, polyrhythmic hand drums mixed with micro-tonal melodies flying out of an oddstringed instrument. We are introduced to the heritage of the Gypsy, which stems from an ethnic group called the Romani. Originating in India, the Romani spread to Europe and Northern Africa around 1050 A.D. and carried with them their own language and a distinctive musical style consisting of intricate, complex rhythmic patterns and passionate, wildly erratic melodies with lyrics typically dealing with the Gypsies’ tribulations in attempting to be accepted by the society in which they resided. The early Romani had always faced prejudice when attempting to fit into the countries they entered and thus were quite nomadic.

The concert footage is dazzling and colorful, and the musicians all give passionate performances. As with any musical documentary, the enjoyment of the film depends primarily on the viewers’ affinity for the genre or artist on display. However, one of the most intriguing elements of the tour is the tour manager’s attempt to gradually integrate the various musical acts together. At first glance, the micro-tonal and decidedly non-Western strains of the Indian Maharaja group seems far removed from the passionate stomping and furious guitar of the Spanish flamenco. But when the two take the stage and bring the music to a whole new level, it’s transcendent. Suddenly one can spot the similarities between the two musical forms and it makes watching the performances all the more entertaining. This works to the film’s advantage, as the music begins to hold greater interest — even if Middle Eastern music isn’t necessarily your bag.

The musicians’ struggle to make ends meet and eradicate the prejudices that they face is interwoven with the concert footage, and it gives the film its heart and purpose. Many of the musicians’ stories are quite moving, such as how the string ensemble Taraf de Haidouks donates nearly all of its earnings to single-handedly support its struggling Romanian village. The musicians’ stories of bouts with depression, prejudice, drugs, heartbreak and death are quite similar to the lives of early American blues and jazz musicians.

After an hour and a half, however, the film falls into a holding pattern — two or so minutes of concert footage, an entertaining backstage shenanigan, a bit of insight into the performers’ histories and struggles, repeat. If you’re a fan of the music, the performances alone will keep you riveted. As a casual fan, I found myself longing for more insight into the struggles the musicians dealt with, and the film began to feel extremely long.

The narrative bits also make statements that could use a bit more elaboration. The film states that Gypsy/Romani music has had a profound impact on the entire music world, yet it fails to provide specific examples. Another annoyance is the film’s painting of the Gypsy people as victims while failing to acknowledge any alternative arguments. While I understand the Gypsies’ frustrations, the one-sided interviews were themselves a bit frustrating.

“Gypsy Caravan” is ultimately an educational, if incomplete and overlong look into a highly spirited and important genre of music. If you enjoy the music, you will be swept away. If you’re looking for meaty insight into the genre’s influence on popular music, you might find yourself unfulfilled.

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