Saturday, June 25, 2011



Borders repress the Roma, but can't trap their spirit

Quebec director Serge Denoncourt was determined to put Gypsy Roma Urban Balkan Beats in the spotlight


The Gazette June 25, 2011

Some of the performers of GRUBB - a song-and-dance show by 27 Serbian Roma teenagers - rehearse Thursday at Place des Arts. Their music addresses issues of love and identity, joblessness and segregation, in the Romani language

When a musical troupe of 27 teenagers from Serbia hits the stage Monday night at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, it will be a long, arduous dream come true for Serge Denoncourt, the Quebec director who made it happen. Not that it's such a rare feat to discover raw talent in a faraway land, hone that talent and bring it home. But it is a big deal when the performers are Roms, one of the most marginalized peoples of Europe.

Gypsies, gitans, manouches - or Romani people, as they call themselves - are outcasts wherever they go. Stereotyped and reviled as beggars and pickpockets, forced to live in squats and shantytowns and ghettos, they inhabit the fringes of society. When the parents work, it's often as night labourers on the black market or as garbage collectors. Young Roms are shunned at school or don't go at all. The daughters are married off young. And the borders of Europe are tightening against them.

But the Roma are not as cut off from the world as they seem, as Denoncourt discovered three years ago when he went to Belgrade for the first time. He'd been invited to give a one-week master class in theatre arts for a Britishbased educational charity called RPoint, which runs a school for 400 Roma youths in Serbia. The kids Denoncourt met didn't speak much English, but they listened to hip hop, Turkish and Arab rap and American pop. They were part of the global village.

"I was completely blown away by what I saw," Denoncourt recalled. "Not just by the poverty and the way they're treated, but also by the desire of these young people to rise above it. They were proud be clean-cut, to go to school, to write songs. They wanted to live in a way people weren't used to seeing them, in a way people wouldn't allow them to live. So I decided to help them do that."

The result is GRUBB - Gypsy Roma Urban Balkan Beats - a song-and-dance show that blends hip hop with traditional Roma music; it starts a six-night run Monday at UQAM's Centre Pierre Péladeau. This is the first time the show - featuring 27 Serbian Roma teenagers - will be performed outside Europe, following on the heels of successful previews in Belgrade in May and, two weeks ago, at London's IndigO2 music hall.

The musicians are from Novi Sad and Nis, and the singers and dancers are from Belgrade. Everything is sung in the Romani language, with surtitles in French and English so the Montreal public can follow. In the songs, the teenagers explore issues of love and identity, joblessness, segregation, even a bit of history (the original Roma are thought to have migrated from India 1,000 years ago). And though it's not mentioned, the kids' religion - for the vast majority, Islam - also informs their consciousness as European outsiders.

Denoncourt, 49, enlisted several other volunteers from Quebec's artistic establishment to develop the show: Francis Collard (music), François Barbeau (costumes), Nico Archambault (choreography), Gabriel Coutu-Dumont and Olivier Goulet (sound design). They, in turn, were helped by three veterans of international showbiz: Italian quick-change artist Arturo Brachetti, British production designer Michael Curry (Cirque du Soleil, Metropolitan Opera) and British lighting specialist Patrick Woodroffe (who will do the 2012 London Olympic Games).

The teenagers were impressed by all the professionals, but they didn't have high hopes that they'd ever really get to put on a real show, nor be paid for their work. Denoncourt kept his word, though, returning to Belgrade once a month for two years to get to know the kids better and, with the other volunteers, shape their material. At the end, this past winter and spring, he spent four months in the Serbian capital, mounting the show from start to finish so that everyone was primed and ready to tour.

"It's not show business, really, because everything has been done with the kids' education in mind," Denoncourt said, noting that they have to stay in school in order to be in the troupe. "They've learned the discipline that theatre requires, the hard work, the constant repetition, striving for excellence, learning how to get along with others. It's been difficult for them, but the ones who wanted to come on board knew what they were getting into and stuck with it."

Not that there haven't been problems. In Quebec showbiz, Denoncourt has a reputation for having an abrasive temperament and a short fuse, and that intensity has been brought to bear in the tough love he metes out to the GRUBB cast. He demands total commitment, and is quick to ostracize those who don't give 100 per cent. His demanding attitude was on fiery display Wednesday after the troupe, newly arrived from Serbia, performed at Radio-Canada for a taping of Pénélope McQuade's TV talk show. It was the kids' first exposure to the media spotlight here.

In all the excitement on stage, one of the youngest Roms rapped out a line that earned him the derision of others in the troupe and, ultimately, Denoncourt. "Me nigga!" he said, imitating the ghetto slang of American rap. It was bad judgment, especially in prime time, but wasn't entirely misplaced. In the show, the kids rap that others call them a lot of nasty names, like Shqiptar, the derogatory "nigger" term that Serbs call Albanian Muslims and, by extension, Roms. The young performer had just improvised his own awkward affirmation of that in English, a language he can barely understand. No one in the studio audience noticed, and the incident would have ended there - except for what happened next.

Two St. Lambert teenage girls who'd raised more than $600 for GRUBB as a school project had come to the taping to present the cheque, and had asked to have their picture taken with the troupe. Upset at being mocked by the older kids for his mistake on stage, the young boy and another young member of the cast refused to be in the picture with everyone. When Denoncourt saw the boys sulking in a corner, he laced into them with all the invective he could muster, saying they'd insulted the donors, had ignored his order to act appreciative and humble in public, and should never have improvised in the first place.

As a result, the boys were separated from the rest of the troupe, sent back to the hotel in a taxi, grounded for the night, and even had their complimentary copies of the new GRUBB record (with their names and pictures and voices in it) confiscated. On the way out of the Rad-Can tower, Denoncourt took the CDs from the kids' hands and threw them in the garbage for the entire cast to see. Outside the building, Denoncourt chastised the boys again, reducing one to tears. He called them "little demons" who by their behaviour had essentially told their benefactors "F---you!" If togetherness is the message projected on stage, shaming, it seems, is part of the all-powerful director's method behind the scenes.

There's no question Denoncourt has had his share of frustrations in the long months he's spent getting GRUBB off the ground.

The girls were one. Denoncourt was never sure how many would leave the program to get married. In their culture, marriages are not done freely; they're arranged, and it's the father who decides how long his daughter will remain under his roof and when she will be married off to someone else from the community - in some cases, when they're as young as 14. Out of the 27 performers in Denoncourt's troupe, only three are girls.

At one point, he thought of eliminating girls entirely from the production, just to avoid dealing with unexpected defections. Sabina Uka, 18, is one of the lucky ones who stuck it out - initially, against her father's wishes. "I'm here because I love the music and dancing," she said in Serbian after the Montreal TV taping, with her dance instructor Darko Manasic acting as interpreter. "It's true that a lot of the girls leave to get married, but I didn't have to."

Another issue has been getting permission to travel. It was only in December 2009 that the European Union no longer required Serb citizens to have a visa to travel within Europe, but that openness might end soon. Too many bogus refugee claims by Serbian nationals, including Roma, in countries like Belgium and Sweden have made the EU consider making visas mandatory again. The GRUBB troupe didn't need visas to get to London last month, but those carefree days may be numbered.

Getting to Canada is another matter entirely. Though their show was three years in the making, the GRUBB troupe only got their Canadian travel visas issued June 15, less than two weeks before they were set to perform in Montreal. "We worked hard with the Canadian embassy in Serbia to prove that the kids had all their papers, that they didn't have a criminal record - we even invited the staff to rehearsals so they see everything was legit," Denoncourt said. (A special case had to be made for one kid who had done prison time as a minor, after his parents were caught illegally crossing the Hungarian border with him - not an unusual occurrence in that part of Europe.)

Another problem: the culture barrier. When Quebecers hear the word "Roma," they think of Italy, not Gypsies. And about all they know of Gypsy music is the old jazz of Django Reinhardt or the noisy Balkan brass bands they see in movies like Latcho Drom or the films of Serbian director and bandleader Emir Kusturica. It's a steep learning curve into the modern era, but seeing and hearing teenage amateurs sing and dance their culture is the perfect way to get the public over the lack of knowledge.

"We've been on the news, we've been on Tout le monde en parle (the popular Sunday-night TV talk show on Radio-Canada), so people here are starting to know who the Roma are," Denoncourt said. "There are 12 million of them in Europe, and until now most Quebecers had no idea here who the Roma are, how alone they are and how little support they get. That's changing. We're getting a lot of attention. The Montreal shows are 80-per-cent sold already."

In an entertaining way, GRUBB has some explaining to do about another thing, Denoncourt said: stereotypes.

"It's like the kids say in the show: 'We're Roms. But when you think of Roms, you think of the people you see begging in train stations and stealing in the street. Us, you don't see at all. It's time you saw other Roms.' They're right. There is another image of Roms that can be put forth. Yes, there are beggars and thieves, but there are also kids who go to school, write, work, perform. They're trying to break the clichés."

Ibrahim (Bibi) Gasi is GRUBB's lead singer and, at 19, one of the oldest in the troupe. For him, performing is a way to show that Roms "have talent and can do something with it," he said after the Rad-Can taping. "We choose our own music. It's got to the point where people recognize us on the streets back home. It makes us feel much better about ourselves."

The first step was to be true to who they really are, not just imitate American rappers, recalled Collard, one of the professional volunteers. The successful Quebec music producer (Cirque du Soleil, Ariane Moffatt) was drafted in January to spend six months arranging the music, adding instrumentation and mixing the CD to professional quality. But first he had to talk the kids out of singing in English and using clichéd lyrics modelled on 50 Cent and other U.S. rappers they idolize.

The change was dramatic. "Before, they might have a line like 'I want to go clubbing and meet sexy girls' - you know, the most basic thing," Collard recalled at Rad-Can while the kids busied themselves on Facebook on a backstage computer. "We said, 'No, you have such an interesting background, we want you to talk about real life, about the real stuff.' So they went back to their texts, discovered they had a sense of humour, and came up with raps like this: 'If you want to meet a nice blond girl with a Gucci bag, don't tell her you're Roma...' It became a lot more fun, not just the regular hip hop."

Denoncourt knows first-hand how clichés can hurt. "Look, I saw how excluded these kids are," he said. "They can't sit down in a café, because Roms are simply not allowed in. They live in fear of days when there's a big soccer match in town, because they don't know if the fans will come after them and burn their settlement down. They live with the violence, the insults, every day."

He, too, has suffered for his art. Denoncourt rolls around these days in a wheelchair, the result of a hit-and-run accident in Belgrade he suffered a month ago when a car struck his scooter and left him with a badly fractured leg. He doesn't know why the driver fled. He's concentrating on staying well for GRUBB, seeing it through, and looking ahead to directing projects in the theatre. (He's booked for the next three years in Quebec and England.)

It will be hard saying goodbye to his troupe, but the story won't end there.

GRUBB has inspired copycat shows in Serbia, and a whole class of Roma understudies is waiting in the wings to ensure the show goes on, as it must, in their homeland or again on the road, possibly for a follow-up tour here to once again raise funds for RPoint. The important thing, Denoncourt said, is that 27 Roma kids now think of themselves as citizens of the world, not prisoners of misunderstanding and fear.

"In one song, they sing: 'We don't know exactly where we're from, but now we know where we're going.' They're going towards a recognition, by the rest of humanity, of who they are."

GRUBB (Gypsy Roma Urban Balkan Beats) runs Monday through Saturday, July 2 at 8 p.m. at Salle Pierre Mercure of UQAM's Centre Pierre Péladeau, with an additional 2 p.m. matinee on July 2. Tickets cost $52.50 plus taxes and fees. The performers can also be seen for free in a couple of "walking shows" on the jazz fest site along de Maisonneuve Blvd., at 1 and 4 p.m. on Thursday. Profits support educational programs in Serbia run by the British charity RPoint. For tickets and more information, visit and There's also a new self-titled studio CD of GRUBB, available in record stores and on iTunes.

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