Roma kids blend ancient melodies with their reality at the Jazz Fest
Serge Denoncourt, an internationally renowned theatre director, has just broken his leg. The pain in his voice is palpable coming through the crackling telephone line from Serbia.
But as he describes his latest project soon to premiere at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, a healthy resonance returns and it is clear that he is impassioned by this latest artistic endeavor.
GRUBB, Gypsy Roma Urban Balkan Beats, is a multisensory experience, a revelation of the reality of European Roma kids through music, song, dance, design and theatre magic. But Denoncourt says the main goal is not the show: “The main goal is education.”
Denoncourt was recruited three years ago by RPoint, a U.K. non-profit organization that designs educational and artistic programs with Roma children to facilitate their access to education and a better future.
“Their goal is to bring kids to education,” Denoncourt said. “They told me these kids were a lot more enthusiastic about music than most. They all sing and dance or play an instrument. Our kids are bribed by music to go to school; music is a bargaining chip with them.”
At first Denoncourt was reluctant, since, by his own admission, he was a single man at the time, doing whatever he wanted, and humanitarian causes were just not on his mind.
“I agreed to do a master class. I met the kids and their families. They are really poor people, yet when you see them they are well dressed, very clean. Some have no running water or electricity but they are well groomed. It’s about dignity and resilience. I was very touched.”
One 9-year-old told Denoncourt that he used to have dreams, but when he realized he was a Gypsy, he stopped, because he felt he was “not allowed” to dream.
“To me that was unbelievable,” recalled Denoncourt. “I stopped everything in my life and decided to give some of my time. A lot of my time.”
Denoncourt, set designer Michael Curry, lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe and others who have worked with some of the biggest names in show business, have donated their time and skills to help the kids create this show. They provided guidance and structure, but the words and music are the kids’ own. “Those kids we have are talented. They wanted to do hip-hop, they were not interested in traditional Roma music. They said: ‘Whatever we do, we are seen as gypsies,’ so I suggested we find a middle way between their roots and traditions and rap. It worked.”
The show includes a gypsy violin, a brass band and some haunting ancient melodies. All proceeds from the show will be used to set up educational or vocational programs for young Roma.
A 2007 Unicef report about Roma children on Breaking the Cycle of Exclusion states that these people are the most deprived members of European society and that the cycle of exclusion begins even before they are born. In Serbia, a Roma child is far more likely to be born underweight, (8.8 per cent vs. 1.5 per cent in the general population), and their growth stunted (25 per cent vs. 6.6 per cent non-Roma).
The kids grow up in improvised, overcrowded housing, where 35 per cent of Roma settlements have no running water and 10 per cent have no access to electricity. Upon entering primary school, many are already facing challenges severe enough to cause them to drop out, among them the systemic discrimination by children and teachers that causes them to feel unwelcome at school. Only about one per cent of Roma kids go on to university and it is estimated by Unicef and Save the Children that 30 per cent of Roma kids never go to school.
As well, the report states that Roma children are “grossly over-represented” in “special schools” and not necessarily because of a diagnosed learning disability. The report calls these schools “educational dead ends to which children have been consigned.”
The lack of education sets these kids up to become unskilled labourers at a time when hi-tech skills are becoming indispensable and traditional crafts are dying out. This lack also perpetuates negative images of Gypsies and widens the cultural and economic chasm that exists between Roma and non-Roma members of society.
Denoncourt was struck by the fact that when asked which profession the kids aspired to, they all said they wanted to be bakers.
“It’s because bakers work at night rather than in the daytime with the public, and this way they might have a real chance to be hired.” Denoncourt says part of the advocacy he does involves accompanying young people to job interviews and diffusing negative stereotypes a potential employer harbours.
In getting the kids to express themselves, Denoncourt encouraged them to share their feelings about discrimination. This became part of the show, with the kids talking to the audience, exploring and challenging negative images.
“They say: ‘When you talk about the gypsies, you see those people begging at the train stations. You never think about me who goes to school, who wants to work.’ It’s pretty touching to see a 15-year old kid say: ‘You never think about me.’ ”
Part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, GRUBB runs June 27-July 2, at Centre Pierre Péladeau. 514-871-1881, montrealjazzfest.com