The Gypsies

by Willy Wenger

The Legend

  • The Gypsies lived near the Ganges River and their strong leader was respected holding sway over ail the land. The leader had an only son, named Tchen. At that time, a very powerful king reigned in the country of Hind, and his favourite wife had given birth to a daughter, whom they named Gan. After his death, Tchen decided to marry Gan. Although she wasn’t his sister, he considered her like one. The population separated into two factions, and a sorcerer foresaw invasions and catastrophe. Shortly after, invaders destroyed the country, just as the sorcerer had predicted. Tchen’s opponents chased him and his partisans out of the country and the sorcerer declared that they would never sleep two nights in the same bed, nor drink the same water two times in a row; that they were condemned to wander the earth forever.
  • Emil Volkers

    Camping gypsies near Düsseldorf, Germany, c. 1905, by Emil Volkers

The Origin

Throughout their wanderings, for reasons that are obscure, the Gypsies themselves thought that they came from Egypt. It wasn’t before 1783 that the Grellman studies showed indisputably their Indian origins. Their language is very close to Hindi, and specifically to that which is spoken in Northwest India. Ancient Hindi is actually closer to the Romani spoken currently than it is to contemporary Hindi. As it happens, the Romani language constitutes the only “book” and collective memory for the Gypsies — enriched here and there with new words borrowed from the cultures they’ve rubbed up against.

The Wandering

The first migrations spread in the direction of Iran and Armenia, then on to the Byzantine Empire. A few groups remained in Arabia, while smaller communities left for Syria, Egypt and Africa. But around 420 AD, long before these migrations, Gypsy musicians had already been invited by the Shah of Persia to what is now Iran. The exodus actually extended over a very long time, since the first significant departures appear to have taken place in the 7th and 8th centuries, when Arabs from Iraq, Iran, and central Asia invaded Sind. There were more and more invasions, first from Afghanistan during the 11th and 12th centuries, then from Ghengis Khan and his hordes, who devastated central Asia. During that period, the Gypsies doubtlessly left their country in greater numbers than ever. Tamerlan was the last of the great conquerors to send the populations fleeing massively. Once left India, the Gypsies wandered from country to country in groups of varying sizes. Sometimes they were forcibly enlisted into armies, but they always managed to keep their Gypsy identity.


The Gypsies arrived in Armenia during the 11th century. Many of the words in the language most widely used by them are Armenian in origin. They first appeared in Constantinople (also Crete) in the early 14th century, then the Dubrovnik area around 1362. Since the Turks had conquered most of the Balkan region, Gypsies naturally turned up in Thrace, Bulgaria, Serbia and Rumania, usually as slaves. It wasn’t until 1851 that they became emancipated. They could be found in large European cities as early as the 15th century: Hamburg, Lubeck, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Strasbourg (where as many as 14,000 of them settled), Zurich, Bern, Brussels, etc. They arrived in Paris during August of the year 1427, claiming to be of Egyptian origin. One of their leaders, André, declared himself “Count of Little Egypt” at Chatillon-en-Dombes. One group was driven out of France and arrived in Spain in 1425, only to see themselves ordered out of the country in 1449. Because they refused to leave, drastic measures were taken — even blinding them under the reign of Philip V — before deporting them to Africa, Brazil, Virginia, Martinique, and other places. The motivation for such persecution was multifarious — in particular, the Gypsies were accused of fabricating the nails that had crucified Jesus, which “justified” their wandering and eternal damnation.

The Music

  • It is very important for the Gypsy people to preserve their identity. Nevertheless, they adapt very easily to their adopted country, especially the religion and the way of life. This is also true for the music. Correctly speaking, Gypsy music doesn’t exist in a true form. It has definitely its own style, which is very often melancholic, almost like the Blues. Those who can afford to, use popular instruments (violin and cymbalom in Central Europe, guitar ln Spain and in France), those who can’t, use whatever they get their hands on. Anything will do when they celebrate.
  • GPO rehearsals on november 2014

    GPO rehearsals on November 2014

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