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The Gypsy Trail: The history and legacy of Rom culture in Chicago

City Life, Northwest Side Add comments

By David Wittercover

A neon sign in the window of the frame house flashes “Readings by Maria,” while a wooden marker on the roadside, lit by a small spotlight, spells out the same message in hand-painted letters. After a quiet knock a short woman opens the door. Her skin is olive and her hair dark brown, but her eyes are blue. She wears a dark house dress, a simple necklace and has a blue scarf wrapped around her hair.

“Are you here for a reading?” she asks. After a quick nod she leads you into the house. A chandelier hangs overhead, illuminating mostly white furniture, some covered by plastic. Black-and-white photos of dark-haired men in fancy suits and pictures of children with dark eyes line the walls. A man talks on a white phone, oblivious to the visitors.

The woman sits at a black and gold embroidered table and opens a box of tarot cards. “Come, sit down. I will read the cards and tell you your future…”

This is the home of a fortune-teller located on Harlem Avenue near Diversey. For many, whether in print, films or gossip, this is the image of gypsies. Others may include women with low-cut blouses dancing seductively, like the one portrayed in the 1970s pop hit, “Gypsy Woman,” or roaming bands of con artists, vis-a-vis the Peter Maas book and resulting movie “King of the Gypsies,” or Stephen King’s “Thinner.” Web sites like allege gypsy fortune-tellers dupe unsuspecting customers out of thousands of dollars. Yet while some may fit this image, they are, like any other group, just a sampling of a race of people who have been around for more than a thousand years. Gypsies have been part of the Chicago landscape since the late 1800s, and today you can find them shopping, attending churches and working as musicians in jazz clubs, concert halls and European-themed restaurants throughout the Chicago area.

“This gypsy lore of people standing around campfires playing violins while women dance is all stereotyping done by Hollywood directors or sensational writers,” William Duna says. “It is not real, but they are images spread by non-gypsies intent on presenting them for their own purposes.”

Duna knows about the misrepresentation of gypsies. An adjunct instructor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, Duna taught classes in “The History of the Gypsies” and was featured in the Jasmine Dellal film “American Gypsy.” His greatest accomplishment may have been his appointment as the gypsy representative on the Worldwide Holocaust Memorial Council (part of the National Holocaust Museum) by President Ronald Reagan.

One of the most common misrepresentations is the term “gypsy” itself. An etymological derivation of “people from Egypt,” it is a term made up by Europeans to categorize a race, not unlike the American terms “Indian” or “Negro.” Although the people themselves use gypsy and Romani interchangeably, the proper title is Romani or “Rom,” which refers to the language used by the Romani.

According to Ian Hancock’s book “We are the Romani People,” scholars have linked bits and pieces of this language to those in the Hindi, Punjabi and Sindhi dialects of India around the year 1000. From there, they discerned that between 1000 and 1027 Mohamed of Ganzi led a series of successful invasions into India. The defeated Indian soldiers were attended to by camp followers called shiviranuchara, who cooked, mended weapons and largely entertained the soldiers. As both followers of the defeated Indians and devout Christians, the shiviranuchara were expelled from the region. As best as anyone can prove, these shiviranuchara were the first Romani. Recent films like “Latcho Drom,” “The Romany Trail” and “Gypsy Caravan” have traced the Romani’s journey through Persia, the Middle East and into what is now Turkey in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and then into the Balkans and the rest of Europe. But wherever they settled, most Romani became “Rrobijas,” or slaves. It began with the reign of Vlad the Impaler, a Transylvanian prince who was the inspiration for Dracula, and ended centuries later with the Holocaust.

“From one million to one-and-a-half million Rom were killed in the Holocaust,” Duna says. “This is only a ‘guesstimate.’ They got these numbers by measuring the size of the buildings and calculating how many bodies would fit inside.”

Rom have been a fixture in the Chicago area since the late 1800s, when they followed the large groups of Hungarian, and especially Serbian, immigrants to the Southeast Side steel mills. According to “The Encyclopedia of Chicago,” the Romani, who came from not only Serbia, but also Croatia, Vojvodina, Transylvania and Moldavia, had no interest in working in the mills. Instead, the women worked in their houses or out of wagons and tents telling fortunes and reading palms at carnivals and ethnic festivals. Some men worked sharpening knives and repairing wagon wheels and, later, tires, but mainly worked as musicians. As the Serbs moved from the Southeast Side, so did the Romani.

During the 1970s and 1980s they frequented two particular areas on the North Side. One was the neighborhood near Wellington and Lincoln Avenues. Residents say that even into the 1970s gypsy caravans could be seen marching down Lincoln, heading towards a funeral at St. Alphonsus Church. Up until just recently, Little Bucharest Restaurant held their annual outdoor festival on the grounds of St. Alphonsus featuring whole pigs and lamb cooked on a spit over an open flame, with plenty of guitar and violin music.

In the 1990s, Rom could be seen in even greater concentrations in the Lincoln Square area. Mostly Serbian, their headquarters was a now-shuttered restaurant called Romska Noc’ at 4343 North Lincoln. Decorated on the outside with the circular patterns of the Romani, and on the inside with red velvet and decorated mirrors, you could usually peek inside and see women in long patterned skirts, with large earrings and black hair covered by scarves, smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

Today, the Romani culture seems to have moved west, from the Lincoln Square area to Chicago’s Portage Park west into Norridge and Harwood Heights.

Many Rom gather to worship at the Chicago Gypsy Church/Chicago Christian Center. Services are held at the Forest Glen Community Church at 4920 West Foster on Sunday and Thursday evenings. In many ways, it resembles a traditional African American or Southern Baptist Evangelical Church featuring testimony from both the preacher and converts about the power of Jesus. The only difference is the music. The ever-present guitar is accompanied by Eastern rhythms, hand-clapping, flag-waving and the worshippers who jump up and down, dancing in a fury like a scene from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Another place where Chicago’s Romani population congregates is the Montrose Cemetery, at 5400 North Pulaski. Dedicated as a non-sectarian cemetery, it contains monuments for Japanese, Korean, German, Assyrian and others of many races and faiths. Yet the most spectacular aspect of the cemetery is a row of memorial markers on the north end. Although nobody has officially confirmed it, the area has been dubbed “gypsy row.” It begins with the Bogdonov grave. Measuring at least ten-by-fifteen feet the granite structure is marked by a giant bronze relief of St. George and the Dragon. On either side are two pillars, one topped by a globe and the other, a clock. All around it are vases and bright, colorful bunches of flowers. Moving west other spectacular monuments are not only graves, but also works of art made out of solid granite measuring at least ten-by-ten feet and featuring large writing in gold leaf, surrounded by beautiful flowers. Some of these elaborate graves, which would cost $15,000-$30,000, even have granite or wooden benches next to them.

Perhaps most notable is a monument that features the words “King George” written in gold leaf. Above it is a large picture of George Konovalov wearing a tuxedo. Legend has it that all gypsy tribes appoint a “King,” who rules over his people as a combined judge, financier, mayor, matchmaker and many other positions. Although there is no spokesperson to confirm that Konovalov was either Romani or a “gypsy king,”* it does indicate that this centuries-old custom may still prevail in parts of Chicago’s Romani community. Traveling west you see tombs with Russian or Slavic last names. Many of them feature larger-than-life-sized photographic likenesses of the deceased, including the Pavlov grave, which features a full-sized photo of the couple surrounded by clouds of smoke under a crescent moon and two crosses. All of the graves are meticulously kept. Fresh flowers are continually placed around the headstones. At the turn of the twentieth century it was the custom for many Chicago families to spend their Sundays picnicking on or near the graves of departed family members. Today, many in society see this as “creepy,” yet the Romani, it seems, do not forget their deceased loved ones. For those who live in the suburbs, there is also a large collection of Romani graves at the Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park.

The easiest way to enjoy Romani culture in Chicago is through listening to the music at clubs and restaurants. In fact, music may be the Romani’s greatest and most lasting contribution to the world.

“Gypsies have always improvised musically,” Duna says. “They are very creative, spontaneous and have a keen sense of harmony and melody. As for rhythm, you see in movies like ‘Latcho Drom’ how the gypsy rhythms influenced the time signatures and musical patterns of not only Indian and Middle Eastern music, but Greek music, Turkish music, Russian and Jewish Klezmer, and most of the folk music in countries like Romania, Hungary and the Balkans.”

This is the gypsy music with which many are familiar. A violin that changes from slow, haunting melodies to fiery crescendos with notes that burst forth like embers of a crackling bonfire. The accordion, which can swing to jazz or play a romantic ballad, brings to life a Parisian café. Then there is the gypsy guitar. A centuries-old instrument, it was made famous by gypsy legend Django Reinhardt. It is said that nobody plays guitar better than the gypsies.

The true Romani playing in Chicago include:

  • Tony Bellog: A regular performer with Alphonso Ponticelli’s Swing Gitan at the Green Mill on Wednesday nights, Bellog is from a legendary family of gypsy violinists. He has played with the Miami and Las Vegas symphonies as well as national folk festivals. Although Ponticelli is not Rom, his harmonies with Bellog may be the closest thing there is to resurrecting the sounds of Django and Stephane Grappelli, whose “Hot Five” revolutionized jazz.
  • The Megitza Quartet: Led by the haunting vocals of Malgorzata Babiarz, this combination of stand-up bass, accordion, guitar and percussion blends Romani music, European folk and Flamenco, and captures the spirit and tradition of Rom music better than any new band in Chicago. Often joined by gypsy virtuoso Roby Lakatos, they will play the Evanston Ethnic Arts Festival July 19.
  • Nicolae Feraru: Feraru plays the cimbalom, an ancient instrument that is a cross between a dulcimer and vibes. Feraru emigrated to Chicago due to anti-gypsy sentiment in 1988. The sight of Feraru pounding the small mallets on the giant, engraved wooden instrument as the tempo rises to a gypsy fury is surely a sight to be seen. Feraru has performed at the Chicago World Music Festival and at restaurants including the Café Continental in Chicago. His son, Laurentiu, is also a cimbalom player.
  • Juliano and Danillo Milo: Juliano Milo also performs regularly with Alphonso Ponticelli’s Swing Gitan at the Green Mill as well as at the Old Town School of Folk Music. A former member of the Yugoslav Romalen Orchestra, he is also part of the band Gypsy Fire, which includes his wife Sherry and son Danillo, an incredible violin player and graduate of the American Conservatory of Music. Both Feraru and Milo will be performing with The Steve Gibbons Gypsy Project at Chicago’s Summer Dance on July 30.

Although the music was also influenced by the Moors and Native Spaniards, Duna and many scholars credit the gypsies with combining fiery guitar, dance and pounding rhythms to form both the style of music and the term Flamenco itself.

“At the time of King Phillip V [1701], gypsies in Hungary came to Spain to fight in what was called the Flemish War,” Duna says. “It was fight or die, and they fought for almost twenty years. When the gypsies returned they were known as ‘the lost flamencos,’ or survivors of the Flemish Wars. At first, they were allowed to own land, but then they were made to work as entertainers for the wealthy. Flamenco turned into a sort of protest music by the gypsies. The women danced with stern faces, not making eye contact or turning to face the audience. And the foot-stomping and guitar-pounding was not to keep time, but a sign of disrespect.”

While there are no known gypsies working regularly as Flamenco dancers in Chicago, The Old Town School of Folk Music, Katarina’s, The HotHouse and the Instituto Cervantes—as well as many local tapas restaurants—feature Flamenco performances.

As for the fortune-teller, Maria, it was almost as if I brought back my grandmother and sat down with her to drink tea and receive warm, kind, experienced advice on life. The price was reasonable, and she agreed to take less money. I purposely gave her little or no information about my life, but she told me “you are very good with words, both written and spoken.” So much for another of Duna’s “misrepresentation of gypsies.”

“People say gypsies are all fortune tellers, car dealers, steal and don’t go to work or school,” Duna says. “But there are many gypsies who are not part of the Hollywood stereotype, but people who are businessmen, students, working in law enforcement. I even know a gypsy who works in investment banking, but he still cannot tell people he is a gypsy. After all that is said about us, who would give their money to a gypsy?”

Addendum—A day after this was published, the city sent out this announcement:

Chiwoniso will no longer be performing in Millennium Park on Thursday, July 9 as the opening act for Lura as part of the Music Without Borders world music series.  There were some flight/travel issues that unfortunately could not be fixed, and we regret that she is not able to perform.

We are fortunate to have a new opening act — local Eastern European folk and gypsy group Megitza Quartet featuring Andreas Kapsalis.  They will open with a 30 minute set at 6:30 pm before Lura hits the stage at 7 pm.

* Four years after publication, we were contacted by someone who said that Konovolav was his great-grandfather and that he was NOT a Romani but a Bulgarian war hero.

2 Responses to “The Gypsy Trail: The history and legacy of Rom culture in Chicago”

  1. Gypsy Culture: Learning from the Romani | M.E. Anders: the Fit Mystique Says:

    […] If you want to read an interesting article about the Romani in Chicago, I suggest: […]

  2. gypsy Says:

    Hi, I just read your story on George Konovalov, And i was shocked when i read it because that is my grandfather. I just want you to know that he was the king of the gypsies in chicago & in europe. My grandfather was a great man, he took care of his people.

    If you want anymore info, feel free to ask.

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