Out of Essex

London Gypsy Orchestra builds cultural bridges in wake of Dale Farm evictions.

Basildon District Council has been heavily criticised for its plans to evict Britain's largest Traveller community at Dale Farm in Crays Hill, Essex. The Council has been accused of "bowing down to local prejudice" against the Traveller community, which maintains that the decision to deny their planning consent has very little to do with preserving the "green belt" land that half the community resides upon. The fact remains that 90 per cent of planning applications from Travellers and Gypsies are refused by councils in the UK, which when compared with the 20 per cent of applications refused to all non-Traveller applicants from July to September 2010, indicates some level of discrimination.

Relations between Traveller communities and politicians have soured since the Coalition took control of government. In response to a question from a Tory MP representing constituents trying to close the Gypsy site, David Cameron stated: "I know he speaks for many people about this sense of unfairness that there is one law that applies to everybody else and, on too many occasions, another law that applies to Travellers."

Whether or not you agree with his sentiment, one thing remains certain: the future for Traveller communities looks bleak under the Coalition. Despite the difficulties faced by these communities, there exist grassroots efforts to improve relations between settled and Roma Gypsy communities. The London Gypsy Orchestra (LGO), founded in 2005, and directed by virtuoso violinist Gundula Gruen, has been running an ongoing celebration of Roma Gypsy culture in its Gypsy Exchange project in an effort to promote the richness of Roma Gypsy culture to the settled community.

The project, funded by Awards for All and facilitated by the director of the orchestra and members of the Czureja family, comprises of a series of music, dance and costume making workshops inspired by Romany culture. Participants have learned about many aspects of Gypsy life and culture directly from members of the Roma community themselves.

The 45-piece London Gypsy Orchestra performs original arrangements of traditional folk and Gypsy music from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. It is, to date, the biggest ensemble of its kind in Western Europe.

The Romany Diamonds are a traditional Gypsy family band of musicians and dancers started by Ricardo Marek Czureja and his son Benjamin who came to England from Poland thirty years ago. They perform traditional Romany music, ranging from traditional songs to original compositions. The prodigious combination of Ricardo's virtuoso violin and Benjamin's Reinhardtesque guitar combine to exceed belief, and certainly makes for fantastic entertainment.

"Our project has been both very enjoyable and challenging, and has ultimately generated tools to hopefully help overcome discrimination and prejudices, mistrust and ignorance by building bridges and working together" says Gruen.

The finale of the project is open to all and will take place at Notting Hill Arts Club on Sunday 17 April 2011, from 6.30pm. It will include staged music, dance performances, interactive jam sessions, and ceilidh. An open-mic platform will be available for any member of the community to share a performance from their own culture.

Tickets are available on the door or online, £8/6

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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