Author records Romany music, culture


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When Eastern Europeans immigrated to America in the 19th and 20th centuries, they brought stringed instruments and a cherished repertoire of Romany music that is still played today in ethnic clubs and at weddings and funerals.

But the generation of people who treasure this soulful roots music and play it often are slowly dying off. In a valiant effort to record his family's way of life and culture, Steve Piskor, 58, of Cleveland, spent decades researching and writing a book, "Gypsy Violins" (self-published, $17.99).

Part history, part family scrapbook, it's a heartfelt love letter to the Hungarian and Slovak musicians who played in the Western Pennsylvania communities of Braddock, Homestead, Johnstown and Uniontown plus Cleveland, Detroit and New York City. Now, there's a large Roma community in Las Vegas, partly because there are so many jobs there for musicians.

Mr. Piskor will sign and sell copies of his book from noon to 6 p.m. today during the 12th annual Hungarian picnic sponsored by the William Penn Association at Scenic View, a 182-acre rural retreat in the Somerset County town of Rockwood. A wide array of food will be sold and music will be provided by George Batyi and his Hungarian Gypsy Orchestra. The event is open to the public.

As one of five children, Mr. Piskor grew up on the West Side of Cleveland in a neighborhood of poor and working-class people now known as Ohio City. His father, Julius, grew up in Homestead and his mother, Esther Balog, hailed from Braddock. Julius Piskor worked in a steel mill.

"He came home with his pants burnt every day," Steve Piskor recalled.

Through relatives in Cleveland, Mrs. Piskor found work for her husband as a musician, and the couple moved there in 1950.

"My mother's cousin was starting a Latin band back then. He played with them for about 30 years. Then he went back to playing gypsy music," Mr. Piskor said.

Between the 1920s and the '60s, Cleveland had a huge Hungarian population. With his parents and four siblings, Mr. Piskor regularly listened to Roma music at local restaurants. As a high school student during the 1970s, Mr. Piskor recalled, "People would ask you, 'What are you, who are you and where did you come from?'''

Those questions sent him to the Cleveland library, where he began researching the Romany people's history and learned about the Gypsy Lore Society, which was founded in England in the late 1800s. Steve Balkin, a professor of economics at Roosevelt University in Chicago, maintains a website devoted to Romany culture (http://sites.roosevelt.edu/sbalkin/roma/). He grew up on Detroit's west side, where he learned to love Romany music at a restaurant called Kovacs in the Delray neighborhood.

Mr. Balkin encouraged Mr. Piskor to stick with his project and finish the book partly because he believes Romany musicians are the best in the world. As a teenager, he was mesmerized by the musicianship of Django Reinhardt, the internationally known Romany jazz guitarist.

"As a generalization, most of them do not read music, but they play with a soul and ornamentation and direct emotional communication from the heart that you don't get from other musicians," Mr. Balkin said. "You would either be tapping your feet or your eyes would be watering. And for me, even the tapping feet music, my eyes water when I hear it because I know that I'm listening to the last period in American history where this music will be played live. The musicians who know the repertoire, who know it and who play it well, are dying."

Mr. Balkin's fondest hope is that a visionary impresario will do for Romany culture what musician Ry Cooder and world music producer Nick Gold accomplished in showcasing the talents of a multitude of unknown Cuban musicians in the 1997 classic "Buena Vista Social Club." That recording, listed on Rolling Stone magazine's 500 best albums of all time, introduced American audiences to performances by singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo plus pianist Reuben Gonzalez.

Mr. Balkin compared the discrimination African-Americans have suffered in the U.S. with the disdainful attitudes some Europeans still hold today about Romany people. Many Americans, he said, love blues music but would not want African-American families living in their neighborhood. As for the Romany, "Europeans value their music but don't value the people or the culture."

Admission to the Hungarian picnic sponsored by the William Penn Association is $12 for adults, $5 for students, free for children under 12. The site's address is 118 Scenic View Lane, Rockwood, Pa. 15557. Scenic View is about an hour east of Pittsburgh off the Donegal exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.


Correction/Clarification: (Published September 11, 2012) St. Thomas Church in Braddock appeared in a picture taken in 1940 of Romany violinists walking in a funeral procession. The caption published in Saturday's editions misidentified the church. The image accompanied a story about Romany culture and music.
books

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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