Pilgrimage of the Gypsies

Folk Routes: Pèlerinage des Gitans (May 1998)

By Peter Anick (originally published in Fiddler Magazine)

Legend has it that around the year 40 AD, a boat was set adrift from Palestine bearing the Saintes Marie-Jacobé and Marie-Salomé, as well as their black servant Sara. Without food or sail, they reached the shores of France’s marshy Camargue region. Sara’s relics can be found today in a 12th century fortified church in the heart of the small resort village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Every year, during the week preceding May 24, thousands of gypsies make a pilgrimage to the town to pay their respects to their patron saint, Sara-la-Kâli.

It was luck, curiosity and the hope of hearing some authentic gypsy music that lured me to join this pilgrimage in May of ’98. As I drove the long straight road from Arles toward the sea, I had little idea what to expect. Arriving around dusk in Saintes-Maries, I found the town awash in caravans, not rustic painted wagons but modern motor homes of all shapes and sizes. I headed instinctively to the church in the center of town, where crowds of people at various locations around the square revealed the presence of musicians beating out flamenco rhythms on their guitars, accompanied by clapping and an occasional dancer. I sought in vain for a violin, however, and eventually wandered into the church itself, where a stream of people were descending into a small crypt carrying candles. It was here that the gypsies offered their prayers to Sara, reverently touching the figure’s many layers of clothing and holding up their children to allow them to kiss her face.

Sainte Sara in the crypt below the church in Les Saintes-Maries de la Mer. This is where the scene of Dorado and Tchavolo Schmitt playing "Kali Sara" was filmed for Tony Gatlif's movie about Gypsy music, "Latcho Drom".

One of my own prayers was answered almost immediately, for upon leaving the church I heard the strains of a violin. Turning the corner, there was a group of three guitars, bass, and fiddle playing a gypsy dance tune with all the flair of Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. It was the Ensemble Engé from Alsace and, though I didn’t know it at the time, their campsite would be my home away from home throughout the remainder of the weekend. That evening we shared tunes around their campfire, exchanging American fiddle standards like "Ragtime Annie" and "St. Anne’s Reel" for Jazz Manouche renditions of "Minor Swing" and "Roumanish".

The following morning, yet another gypsy band was dazzling tourists alongside the church. This was Urs Karpatz, whose members hailed from all over Europe and had a repertoire to match. The twin virtuoso violinists played a number of familiar pieces, Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, Monti’s Czardas, and Danicu’s Nightingale, intermixed with more "authentic" tsigane melodies with their exotic rhythms and undecipherable lyrics. Other band members contributed fiery solos on clarinet, accordion, and cymbalum - the Hungarian hammered dulcimer often seen in gypsy café orchestras.

The Camargue is a unique part of France, both physically and culturally. If one is willing to miss some of the music, a hike along the marshes and seemingly endless beach affords a chance to see the flamingos, bulls and white horses the region is known for. Bullfights staged in the seaside arena are performed "Camargue-style". Bulls are not injured and it is up to the razeteurs to dodge the bull’s charges, often by leaping high onto the side wall of the arena at the last possible moment.

A Manouche caravan from the 1930's, probably similar to that in which Django Reinhardt traveled when he came to Les Saintes-Maries de la Mer as a boy. He later composed a mass to be played at Sainte Sara's church but it was never completed.

Between such distractions, I learned more about Manouche music from chats with Engé Helmstetter (guitar) and his brother Tchatcho (violin). "Jazz Manouche," Engé explained in French, "is a style originated by Django Reinhardt and among us, in Alsace, in Germany, there has grown a tradition to play the Jazz Manouche in his style. Before that, the tsiganes in Alsace or Germany had played the czardas, the melodies de pays de l’Est (Eastern melodies), and also waltzes; and with the arrival of Django, the gypsies took up jazz also. We, personally, work to create compositions that try to preserve the spirit, the soul of Django, that is to say, his manner of interpretation. We try to put in some music from the pays de l’Est and something personal. You must always give something new in your music."

Tchavo, my professor of Manouche. "Ta vess bartholo!"

I asked about standards in the repertoire. Tchatcho suggested Doina, Two Guitars, and Dark Eyes, but Engé pointed out that "the Jazz Manouche is not a question of standard pieces. It is a question of how you play." As I listened to the Ensemble Engé in different settings – a church ceremony, a family reception, and the nightly campfires – I grew to appreciate what he meant. His intense staccato guitar lines reminded me of the percussive Hungarian cymbalum, accompanying Tchatcho’s dark and equally intense violin lines. On the third evening, a Slovenian folk group, Sukar, stopped by the caravan and contributed to the night’s music making with their singing and tamburitzas. They jokingly sang a beautiful arrangement of the Beatles’ "Girl" which made it sound as if it had always been a gypsy lament.

On the morning of the 24th, I managed to cram myself into the stone church for the crowded morning mass which marked the official opening of the pilgrimage. That afternoon, a procession led by fiddlers repeating a hymn and gardians on horseback accompanied the statue of Sainte Sara through the town’s winding streets to the sea. Having been forewarned, I tossed my shoes into my backpack, rolled up my pantlegs, and waded into the sea along with musicians, horses, festive pilgrims, and eventually Sara herself.

Sainte Sara is carried through the streets of the town, led by the "gardians" on horseback.

It was difficult to tear myself away from the campfire that last night. I had come to Saintes-Maries to hear gypsy music, but I was leaving with a greater understanding of the gypsies themselves – their sense of family, religious faith, love of nature, and their deep passion for music. I asked Englo, who had been making this pilgrimage every year for as long as he could remember, whether he planned to stay much longer in Saintes-Maries. He shook his head, "We gypsies believe that one should not stay in one place too long. One should always leave with a little regret in one’s heart."


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