"The Buena Vista Social Club for Gypsy music.”
That’s what Cinematic Intelligence Agency called “Gypsy Caravan,” a nearly two-hour documentary that follows a busload of Roma musicians on a triumphant tour across America. That quippy description is both easy and on the money.
“Gypsy Caravan: When the Road Bends” -– which already has a shelf full of film festival awards -- was written and directed by Jasmine Dellal, whose “American Gypsy” was widely acclaimed. It makes its Brew City premiere at the Milwaukee International Film Festival Sept. 26 and 29.
The film was photographed by Albert Maysles and occupies itself mostly with the onstage and backstage happenings during a weeks-long tour featuring Gypsy musicians from Spain, Macedonia, Romania and India, including the brilliant brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia, Taraf De Haidouks, astonishing Flamenco dancer Antonio El Pipa, Maharaja and long-famous Gypsy singer Esma Redzepova.
After a brief overview of the story of the Roma people -- widely known as Gypsies -- Dellal launches into the tour and we meet this range of brilliant musicians. Most come from divergent musical traditions and speak different languages, but are united by their common heritage and, in most cases, language.
Dellal captures the inspiring and amazing way these musicians also find common musical ground. At the start of the tour, each group plays its own set. By the end, cross-genre collaborations are ignited both backstage and during the concerts.
While the music is to a note engaging, alternately joyous and melancholic, the meat of “Gypsy Caravan” is in the vignettes that show the hometowns and often the home life situations of the various bands and individual musicians. Taraf's international concerts help support its village and proceeds from its first CD paid for the electrification of the hamlet.
The group’s elder statesman and violinist Nicolae Neacsu is the spirit of the film. He lives for his music and his superior musicianship is matched by his charm and compassion. His music supports his family and pays for the education of his numerous grandchildren.
His most devoted disciple is his favorite student, Caliu, who is second violinist in the group.
Great footage of Redzepova, from Romanian TV in what appears to have been the 1960s, provides a window into the sugar pop music of another world.
The American concerts, which took place in 2002, sold out in most venues; a fact that is not lost on viewers who are often reminded of the insulting and prejudiced ways in which most Americans (and Western Europeans; Hitler also sent Roma to die in concentration camps) are raised to think of Gypsies.
It must have provided no small amount of satisfaction for the musicians to get such royal treatment. Certainly the music they gave to America was equally satisfying.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.