About the habits of the Roma, musical jokes at concerts and the phenomenon of the Romani music, Janusz Czachor speaks with Miklosz Deki Czureja, a violin visrtuoso
You are called the king of Csárdás. Everyone who knows your music and goes to your concerts knows about it. Yet, not many people know who you owe this title. Please tell me, how did you become the king?
It was really spontaneous. I didn’t plan anything and I was a bit surprised with it. I was playing Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás at the concert in Munich that took place as part of the Romani music festival. At that moment, Sir Yehudi Menuchin, an American violin virtuoso and conductor, called, It is the king of Csárdás! And so it stayed that way. Csárdás is a type of music that the Roma took over, made popular and injected with their spirit. I think that no one can play Csárdás better than the Roma. I know this music because my father played it and passed it on to me.
But the title of the king of Csárdás you didn’t inherit from your father – you owe it to your talent…
I think that I owe it not only to talent, but also continuous improvement of playing the violin. I learn all the time.
How did you start your career on stage?
I came into the Romani Song and Dance Group “Roma” in Poznań. Initially, it was an amazing group. They performed real Romani music using the Romani technique. Yet, we parted as after 1978, the group changed its repertoire and style. It didn’t suit me. I wanted people to get to know the Romani music, whereas what was left was going in the direction of the Romani disco polo decorated with colourful Romani clothes. It is good marketing and an idea for business, but it is not the Romani culture. I set up my own group and I am faithful to the Romani music.
In the course of your career you have performed concerts with numerous personalities from the world of music. Who do you appreciate the most?
Turto Rica has been the best cymbalist. Michał Urbaniak, Sanda Ferync, Sándor Deki Lakatos with his son are eminent musicians as well. I remember one story linked with Lakatos. Once I asked him, “why ‘Deki’”? He told me that he used to live with his uncle, Sándor Lakatos, and they had been mistaken for one another, when parcels or letters had been delivered. For this reason, he had added to his name “Deki”, which means simply “Junior”, in order to distinguish himself.
Was it similar in your case?
Yes. When I came back from the US, the film that I was supposed to star in was being shot in Poland. We had arranged everything, done screen tests, etc. Eventually, on the day of filming, a taxi was to pick me up from my house and the driver took my father instead of me. People are said to have been surprised because a slim, handsome, young man was to come, whereas a fatter and short one arrived. My dad didn’t admit that he was not me and it was a mistake and because he could play the violin, he was simply welcomed. When I finally arrived at the television, it had already been too late and I let my dad do this job. However, I asked Sándor Lakatos if I could also use “Deki” with my name and he agreed.
You compose, arrange, improvise. Chords, records, notes… For a musician it is a standard, but such knowledge requires fundamental education. What was your educational path? How do the Roma develop their talents?
In Poland, young talents are usually looked for. 6- or 7-year-old children start education at musical school. They know nothing and they can’t carry the violin… Education from scratch lasts for, let’s say, half a year. Teachers teach in a way determined by the system, they follow the curriculum. In the case of the Roma, this first stage of education lasts for the proverbial “two days”. Those who want their children to play look for a certain personality among their Romani friends and they send them to this person for lessons. My father was 5, when he was sent to a violinist for lessons. Only after half a year he could play all Strauss’s waltzes as well as other works of classical music. Having achieved that, he learnt notes. He was incredibly talented and he had absolute pitch. The equivalence of 5 years of education at a Polish school is 9 months in the case of the Roma. Of course, I mean education outside the school system now. Personally, I also attended the musical school in Nowy Targ and then, I finished the Prague Music Conservatory.
I understand that if anyone in a Romani family learns playing a musical instrument, the family supports this education…
If a child is to become a violinist or cymbalist, the whole family makes sure that this child is concentrated only on learning the instrument. Yet, there is no compulsion, everything depends on the will. The Romani families are very musical, but competition also exists in them. If one brother doesn’t play an instrument, whereas the others do, they make fun of him. Even in a family, everyone overtakes the others and everyone wants to be better than the others. It mobilizes for improving one’s skills, but families also play together and then, there is time for jokes.
Once I was playing a concert on the stage and suddenly, a cymbalist with a double bass player changed my notes. At such time a man is confused and doesn’t know what is happening because unexpectedly, something that this person was supposed to play doesn’t match. I turned to them and they were laughing. Such experience teaches us. It teaches us listening to and feeling the Romani music. It is completely different in classical music. One is supposed to replay everything very meticulously and no space for change exists. I learnt it at musical school, I play it, but I love the Romani music.
However, during your concerts, you use various themes, fragments of very difficult virtuoso works of classical music, but also of folk, highlander, or jazz music. Why?
These are some kind of musical jokes, fragments of classical works combine the spirit of the Romani music with music generally. It is sometimes a tribute to the listeners, for example, while I am playing Csárdás, I also play a short fragment of highlander music, when I have such audience. I learnt playing in the Romani way from my father, he passed this spirit on to me. I went to school, I was learning in the classical way for a few years and I forgot about the Romani music. I was developing in the direction of the classics as I thought that it would be my future, that I would play and make a living in this way. Now I try to combine these elements.
Family concerts are almost a Romani tradition. Your children also play. Do you often have the opportunity for giving concerts together?
Yes, we often play together, but my children have their own musical achievements as well. My daughter, Sara, is a cymbalist. She receives awards and praise, she gives concerts at philharmonics.
Recently you have become engrossed in violinmaking. How did it start?
Once I heard a story about a Roma who made a violin in Oświęcim without professional tools. It is an amazing story. I decided to try. Maybe it is not ideal, but I have a self-made violin and it plays the music.
The Roma have their origins in India, while in Poland they have lived for 1000 years. Many years of wandering behind you. How has it influenced the Romani music?
This wandering means numerous countries, people and cultures. That’s what we have reaped from. It is reflected in real Romani music and clothes. Inspirations from Germany, Russia, Hungary, or France are audible in the Romani music. Liszt, Brahms, Strauss were the Roma. Today it can be said that the centre of the Romani music is Hungary. It is the place where this music is still developing.
Apart from the title of the king of Csárdás, you have received numerous awards. Which ones and for what?
I have received St. Brother Albert’s Medal, the Gold Cross of Merit, the title of Honorary Citizenship of Poznań. All of them are important for me. I have received them for promoting the Romani culture and initiatives for the Roma. We have established a foundation and opened a musical school. We want to enable the contemporary Roma to feel Poles as well.
And isn’t it like that?
Not exactly. When a Roma steals something, all media talk about it. If I play a good concert, there is silence. People call me “this Roma”, while I have been a Pole for several generations. Stereotypes still exist and it hurts. The Roma are not thieves, but they encompass people with such tendencies, like everywhere. Unfortunately, we still encounter this opinion and exclusion.
But you have your audience in many places in the world, including Poland. Not only do the fans of the Romani music go to your concerts because musical impressions will satisfy everyone. What is so unique about it?
The Romani music stands for the centuries of tradition, it is something interesting. I am not a counterfeit, a fake. Each work is permeated with me, includes the history of my people and those who have inspired the Roma. It is unique because it goes straight from the heart, the soul, without playback. There is no space for commerce here. It is simply good music performed in the virtuoso way.
Miklosz Deki Czureja – a violin virtuoso, the founder of the European Roma Orchestra, a Roma culture animator. It is worth reading his autobiography entitled “The Condemnation of Miklosz, that is the secrets of the king of Csárdás”, but, above all, it is worth listening to his music.