In spite of centuries of social discrimination, the Roma (or “Gypsies”) of the Balkans are legendary for their soulful and virtuosic music. With the ability to incorporate musical motifs from local and neighboring ethnic communities (i.e., Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, Greek, Turkish, Kosovar, Albanian, etc.), the Roma create a unique musical synthesis that can please a variety of audiences in many different celebratory, performance, and ritual contexts. Romani music is often characterized as having specific makams (or melodic modes), complex asymmetrical dance rhythms, intricate ornamentation and improvisation, and spontaneous interaction among musicians and audiences, particularly audiences who participate in communal line dancing.
Master Romani musician Rumen Sali Shopov’s musical training took place in the homes and streets of his mahala, or neighborhood, in the Turkish-Romani quarter of Goce Delchev, Bulgaria. He began drumming as a little boy, on instruments made from cans, for community processions. Romani music is not taught formally and does not have a system of notation, but is passed on from musician to musician, generation to generation. Rumen’s primary mentor was his uncle, Mustafa Kobalishtaliev, the best drummer in the region and the first Romani instrumentalist in the Nevrokopski Ensemble, Bulgaria’s first national folk ensemble. Also having learned from his cousin Avdraman Teshovski and directors of the Nevrokopski Ensemble, Kiril Traikov and Zaprju Ikonomov, Rumen was performing as concertmaster of the Nevrokopski Ensemble by the age of 18.
Of his career as a Romani musician, Rumen says, “Simply put, Romani and Balkan music is my life. [It] has allowed me to support my family, and has put me in the center of many important celebrations (weddings, funerals, etc.) that are the most remembered moments in people’s lives.... Throughout history, many Roma have been excluded from mainstream professions, but music has been one way that Roma have been able to succeed, support families, and establish prominence in the world at large.”