By Grayson Hester
Some say that music is the universal language, a dialect all people can speak and understand. Well, if that’s the case, then the Roma people are fluent.
Historically transient and internationally oppressed, the Roma people, located all over the world but heavily concentrated in Eastern Europe, are repeatedly denied expression of their voices in culture and in politics and live in particularly difficult circumstances. Cast out of mainstream society, the Roma, to an untrained eye, might seem completely voiceless.
A trained ear, however, would reveal otherwise.
Jon Parks, CBF field personnel serving in Kosice, Slovakia, has one such ear. And, with it, he has for the past eight years listened to the joy, exuberance and raw talent often found within Roma music. And now, he wants to share it with the world.
“This idea came to mind a few years ago as we worked with lots of different musicians here,” Parks said. “On a couple of occasions, I was sitting and listening to the amazing musicianship here, and thought, ‘Wow, it’s a pity that no one else will hear this except me.’”
The idea to which he referred is the Roma Voices Project, a new initiative launched this June.
The concept is pretty simple: Using his and his wife’s musical expertise, along with videography skills lent to them by a former Student.Go participant, they would record Roma musicians and post their songs online. As simple as it may sound, the project has actually been a few years in the making. Parks was already making recordings for his local school and church worship team when he realized “this could be something bigger.” This epiphany came in 2017, three years ago. In 2019, things progressed and now, in 2020, the website, blog and project have officially been launched.
Through social media and the power of word-of-mouth (or, in this digital age, word-of-hand), Parks hopes to raise awareness of the Roma’s unique situation, to amplify their culture, and to tell the stories of the people behind the songs.
The Roma in Slovakia, who are often stereotyped because of their music and often referred to by a slur that begins with a “G,” have an opportunity through this project to show the world who they really are and not who the world imagines them to be.
“It’s meant to spark some conversations around cultural differences and what it means to really see people and to hear their voice,” Parks said. “We’re learning some valuable lessons about that in America right now, lessons that need to be brought to Slovakia.”
As America continues to protest against White supremacy, racism, and police brutality, the Black National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” seems to echo the same sentiment. Oppressed people are not without a voice, as the problematic adage “giving a voice to the voiceless” might suggest. They are, however, without the amplification denied to them by those who stand to benefit from their imposed silence. The ultimate goal, then, is not simply to get the music shared, but to achieve justice for a people long-marginalized.
As is the case here in America, in Slovakia music remains an integral part of a community’s ability to express itself, to advocate for its needs, to critique its oppressors, to process its pain, and to communicate, artistically, their experience. And the Roma are nothing if not expressive. What the Roma Voices Project seeks to capture in video and song is what Parks has seen on a daily basis—a culture that values living in the moment, feeling joy and sorrow to the fullest, and believing that “timeliness is not as beautiful as togetherness,” he said. It’s a message our country—indeed, all countries—need to hear, especially in this divided and tumultuous age. But the only way people will get it is if people share it.
“I hope people will sign up to get updates when new content comes out—audio recordings, articles, interviews, videos,” Parks said. “If the Gospel of Jesus Christ has anything to teach us—and it definitely has much to say—it’s that the truths we need to hear most are often spoken by those from whom we’d least expect to hear. God is on the side of the oppressed, and it is up to the privileged to listen up.”
What’s on the other side is something not unlike the Kingdom of Heaven. And its music may just sound a little bit like the Roma Voices Project. “The world has a harmony that is already beautiful; but there are voices that are not lifted up as they should be,” Parks said. “When they are lifted up, and the harmony is complete, that’s when God’s kingdom shines through.”