Carol Silverman has been involved with Balkan and Romani music and culture for over twenty-five years as a researcher, teacher, performer and educational activist. An award-winning professor of cultural anthropology and folklore at the University of Oregon, she teaches and writes about Balkan folklore, ethnography, and human rights issues among Roma. Based on fieldwork in Bulgaria, Macedonia, and New York, her research analyzes the relationship among music, politics, ritual and gender.
She has performed with Zhenska Pesna, Trio Slavej and the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble, and teaches Balkan singing internationally. Carol analyzes the intersection of politics, social position, and the performance arts among Roma, currently the largest and perhaps the most maligned minority in Europe. She explores how Roma have forged a nuanced musical identity in diverse locations in the Balkans and in re-diasporic spaces, including New York City. Her recent book, Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora (Oxford University Press, 2012), won the 2013 Merriam Book Prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology.
In 2010 Carol received a Guggenheim Fellowship, with which she is researching the globalization of Balkan Gypsy music by analyzing its performance, consumption and production in relation to issues of representation. Her project involves fieldwork, participant observation, and media analysis in cities in the U.S., Western Europe and the Balkans. She will also look at the 2009 tour of rock musician Madonna.
As a performer of Balkan songs, Carol has given numerous concerts, workshops, and lecture/demonstrations on Balkan folk music and its cultural context in U.S., Canadian, and European cities. Recent professional work includes:
Carol is deeply involved in educational activities regarding the human rights of Roma. She speaks at national at international conferences and is on the Board of Directors of Voice of Roma, an NGO in California that promotes Romani culture and supports Romani refugees in Kosovo.
She wrote the following for the program booklet for the Roma Black Sea Festival, New York City, in September 2010:
Since the fall of communism, the music of Roma of Eastern Europe has become a staple at world music festivals and dance clubs in the United States and Western Europe. Talented Romani musicians who are consummate performers and innovators as well as technically superb artists now travel across continents for tours and concerts. But we should be careful not to generalize the success of a select group of famous artists to all Roma, or even to all Romani musicians. Despite the celebration of Gypsy music, anti-Romani sentiments are growing all over Europe. Since 1989 thousands of Roma have emigrated westward due to deteriorating living conditions in Eastern Europe; as a result, fears of “Gypsy hordes” are being revived and entrenched stereotypes of thievery have revived. In this heightened atmosphere of xenophobia, Roma are paradoxically revered as musicians and reviled as people; underlying these phenomena are the opposite emotions of fear and admiration shored up by historical stereotyping.
Today East European Roma face inferior and segregated housing and education, including tracking of children into special schools for the disabled. Poor health conditions, specifically shorter life expectancy, plague Roma; discrimination is widespread in employment (unemployment is 80% in some regions) and the legal system, and even educated people routinely express disdain for Gypsies; hate speech and racial profiling are common in the media.
Perhaps most troubling are the hundreds of incidences of physical violence against Roma perpetrated by ordinary citizens and also by the police. In response, a Romani human rights movement has emerged to address discrimination.
Europe’s largest minority (10-12 million), Roma are among its most persecuted peoples. Rather than merely an extremist view, anti-Romani sentiment is becoming more mainstream in Europe. For example, in the summer of 2008, the Italian government started to fingerprint all Gypsies living in camps in an effort to crack down on crime; in 2009 numerous fire bombings of Romani homes occurred in Hungary and the Czech Republic; and in 2010 the French government began evicting and deporting Roma to Romania and Bulgaria. All over Europe, nationalist parties are growing (often under the guise of populism) and the population is growing more polarized.
In the United States, racism against Roma is less pronounced but nevertheless exists; for example, “Gypsy Crime” units are found in police departments of several southern cities, and discrimination in housing and employment persists. The US is home to over 1 million Roma from every European country, and the New York City region boasts vital communities of Roma from Eastern Europe.
How can music help us mediate between these current poles of fascination and rejection? Hopefully, exposure to the richness of Romani culture will spur an interest in and commitment to Roma as real people with real histories and real problems. For centuries, music has been a viable occupation for East European Roma, and today it represents an important artistic zone bridging recognized artists, struggling communities, and Romani and non-Romani audiences.
Carol lives in Eugene, OR.