A Requiem For Europe's Worst Prejudices, Behold The Gypsy Philharmonic

Ronny Blaschke

PRAGUE - A few minutes before the concert starts, Riccardo Sahiti says he can’t believe all this is real, that it’s not a dream. He’s standing in the ornate conductor’s room of the Rudolfinum in Prague – one of Europe’s premier concert halls. All around him are photographs of his idols – conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Leonard Bernstein.

Sahiti is 51 years old but he’s as nervous as a schoolboy facing exams. He walks over to the piano, closes his eyes, plays the first few notes of the piece he’s about to conduct. His wife comes over to smooth out his full black hair. There’s a knock on the heavy wooden door, and when it opens the loud buzz of the audience chatting in the hall fills the room. Sahiti adjusts his coat jacket one last time, kisses his wife on the cheek, and heads for the conductor’s podium.

The concert is sold out, and Sahiti’s appearance is met with a long round of applause. On the podium, he looks the musicians in the eyes, smiles, and they smile back. Nearly 10 years ago to the day, Sahiti founded the Roma and Sinti Philharmonic. It started out as a small project, which was hardly taken seriously. Now Sahiti stands before 60 musicians, from Germany, Romania, Hungary. All the orchestra members belong to the ethnic minority called Roma or Sinti: Gypsies; some of them have been abused, others bullied. At the Rudolfinum, they are playing for the public, but also for themselves – and against centuries of stereotypes.

Riccardo Sahiti grew up near Pristina in Kosovo. Musically inclined, he was lucky to have wealthy parents who could afford to buy him a piano and send him to study at the conservatory in Belgrade. He practiced up to 15 hours a day, and in 1988 won a scholarship to study in Moscow.

When war broke out in Kosovo in 1992, he fled to Frankfurt where he auditioned for a place in several orchestras. He was always turned down. The director of one music school told him: “You have a lot of talent, but you don’t fit in here.” Sahiti asked if that was because of his Roma origins but didn’t get an answer. "It might have been a lot easier if I’d had been German or American,” he says.

At the start of the new millennium, Sahiti decided to engage in an original form of protest. He knew that there were a few Sinti and Roma musicians in the big orchestras like the Vienna State Opera, the Leipzig-based MDR Symphony (Germany’s oldest radio orchestra) and the Romanian National Orchestra. He invited them, and musicians who invited other musicians. He would let them stay in his apartment, and at night in his living room, crowded with concert posters and his record collection, they talked late into the night.

During the day, they rehearsed and handed out flyers. Then, after months of planning, in Nov. 2002 in Frankfurt, the Roma and Sinti Philharmonic gave its first concert. None of the musicians asked to be paid. "The concert hall was packed; people actually came out to hear us,” says Sahiti holding back tears.

Hiding their origins

Johann Spiegelberg was one of the original members of Sahiti’s orchestra. Spiegelberg has a Jewish mother and a father with Roma roots. Spiegelberg is not his real name, which he does not want revealed.

"I’ve had some bad experiences, I have to think of my son,” he says. He grew up in Romania, on the Black Sea coast, and received a first-class musical education. For two decades he has lived and worked in a large city in the eastern part of Germany where, he says, now and again people still make him feel he’s not one of them. He relates how recently he was on his way to a concert, wearing his coat jacket, and when he drove into a gas station to fill up his Mercedes a couple of youths spotted him and called over: “You people live well in Germany, at our expense." He says he didn’t respond to the taunt.

The Sinti and Roma orchestra is a way of showing "that we’re not criminals," Spiegelberg says, adding that this stereotype revolts him. And although famous Sinti and Roma like singer Marianne Rosenberg, jazz musician Django Reinhardt – and conductor Riccardo Sahiti – are made much of, according to Spiegelberg, many less well-known musicians of Sinti and Roma heritage keep quiet about it out of fear of prejudice. In Prague, for example, the orchestra had trouble renting double basses because rental firms thought they might never see the instruments again.

Passing on a cultural heritage

On the evening before the concert in Prague, some orchestra members gathered in the lobby of the hotel. They compared instruments, chatted about Beethoven and Schubert, sang, laughed. "It’s like a class trip," Sahiti laughs. He says rivalries such as one sees in other orchestras are absent in this one because "we all want to pass on our cultural heritage."

It is a considerable heritage. Over 80 operas were inspired by Roma. Jewish Klezmer music, Andalusian flamenco, the Cuban rumba were also all inspired by Roma. Despite this, Roma culture is often written off as being about little more than fiery violin players or Carmen in Bizet’s 1875 opera. In Germany, no state institution teaches Roma music or literature, or even the Romani language. Sinti and Roma were only recognized as one of Germany’s official minorities in 1997. The Philharmonic is the only orchestra of its type.

In Prague, the Philharmonic played the "Auschwitz Requiem," a powerful piece for orchestra, four soloist singers and a choir, composed by Roger Moreno, a Swiss Sinto. "Writing it took so much energy, " Moreno says. "I sometimes wonder how I was even able to finish it."

He remembers being called a “smelly Gypsy” when he was in school, and that many doors were closed to him as a musician. So with his wife, he created an ensemble to play traditional music. After his first visit to Auschwitz in 1998 he decided to write what would be a "living monument" to Holocaust victims. "Very few people know that the Nazis murdered 500,000 Sinti and Roma," he says. He wrote six of the eight stanzas of his requiem right away, then suffered ten long years of “composer’s block” before he was able to complete the work.

The Roma Philharmonic premiered the piece last May in Amsterdam during the annual celebrations marking the end of World War II. Never before in the Netherlands had the Roma received so much public attention: Queen Beatrix even invited Moreno for coffee.

The Philharmonic was signed up to play the “Auschwitz Requiem” at Frankfurt’s Old Opera House, with plans to play in Kracow and possibly Berlin in January. Much has to be improvised, as the orchestra has no permanent rehearsal space, no office. Sahiti dreams of creating a music association with a choir, ballet, and a cultural campus, but lacks financing.

The 100,000-euro cost of the Prague concert was paid for by European sponsors and Czech activist groups. Most of the tickets in the 1,000-seat concert hall were handed out free to people leading anti-discrimination initiatives, foundations, and politicians – there are hardly any “regular” concertgoers.

While the Czech media did report quite extensively on the orchestra’s appearance, says Jitka Jurková, a member of the organizing team, "they barely said a word about the political message. The orchestra was portrayed in the usual way, as something ‘exotic’." She doesn’t believe that the concert will do much to decrease animosity to the Sinti and Roma.

But none of this is an issue on the night of the concert. Sahiti raises his arms; the music starts. How much he enjoys his work is clear to the last notes of the requiem, which ends with soft bell-like sounds. Slowly, Sahiti lowers his arms. The applause lasts for nearly 15 minutes. Tomorrow morning the orchestra moves on to Budapest to give a concert there.

As he moves about the empty stage collecting some sheet music forgotten by his musician colleagues, he looks up: "This is just the beginning..."

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

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"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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