«These Songs Tell About Our Life, You See»

Music, Identity and Gender in Finnish Romani Music

by Kai Åberg (Author)
©2016 Monographs 275 Pages


Based on intensive fieldwork among the Finnish Roma, the Kaale, between 1995 and 2015, this book explores their traditional songs. It presents an introduction to the subject of traditional Romani music and offers different interpretations of how the Roma themselves produce meaning for the songs. Performing the music is not a repetition of heritage – instead, the meanings of the songs are aimed at different contexts of everyday life in various musical practices. They not only maintain a community spirit, but also underline gender identity or create a boundary with the majority population.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Part I
  • 1. Introduction
  • Research Questions and Structure
  • Research Concerning Romani Music in Finland
  • 2. Theoretical Approach: Themes, Concepts and Methods
  • The Constructivist Perspective
  • Cultural Musicology
  • Perspectives on Identity
  • Musical Orientation
  • Locality
  • Gender
  • Summary
  • 3. The Finnish Roma (Kaale): History and culture
  • The Roma and Romani music
  • History
  • The Romani Language
  • Social Structure: Cultural Customs and Practices (Kinship, Customs, Marriage, Economic Structure and Education
  • Religion
  • 4. The Traditional Music of the Finnish Roma
  • Melodics
  • Romances
  • Performance Styles
  • Accompaniment
  • The Language of the Songs: Themes and Special Linguistic Characteristics
  • Part II
  • 5. Fieldwork and Scope of Empirical Data
  • The Fieldwork Material
  • Paths into the Field
  • The Themes and Processing of the Interviews
  • The Influence of Masculinity on the Material
  • Playing Music – A Shared Orientation
  • Television Documentary Work – A Dimension of Musical Communication
  • Specifications of Research Ethics
  • 6. Singers and Songs Telling about the Past
  • A Past Unfolding from the Present
  • The Many Meanings of Travelling
  • The Masculine Past and Present of the Songs of Power
  • Summary: Changes in Society, Changes in Musical Culture
  • 7. The Construction of Romani Community in Songs and Musical Concepts
  • Family and Kinship
  • Songs and Gender
  • Couples, Marriage and Weddings
  • Customary Practices: Respect and Modesty
  • Songs and Descriptions of Romani Occupations
  • Summary – The New Meanings of Traditional Songs
  • 8. The Sung Place – Place as Lived, Imagined and Described in Romani Songs
  • The Countryside as a General Context of Songs
  • The Places of the Songs
  • A Comparison of Regions In Finland
  • National Identity
  • The Social Space of Traditional Music
  • 9. “Gypsy Dance” as a Stereotype – Mystery, Secrecy, Passion and Sex
  • The History of the Ethnography of Gypsy Dance
  • Early Descriptions
  • The Impact of Romani Exoticism on the Ethnography of Dance
  • Gypsy Dance as Described by the Roma Themselves
  • Regional Differences of Dance
  • The Various Meanings of Dance
  • 10. The aesthetics of Romani singing
  • The Etic Approach and Interpretations of the Aesthetic Of Romani Song
  • The Emic Approach to the Aesthetic of Romani Song
  • The Slow Changing of Aesthetic Ideals
  • 11. “Gypsy” Stereotypes and Self-Irony
  • On the Background of Romani Stereotypes
  • The Stereotypes of Romani and Gypsy Music
  • The Romani Stereotypes of Traditional Songs
  • Stereotypes in Popular Music and Public Discourse
  • Excursus – Romani Stereotypes and Self-Irony
  • Concluding Remarks
  • 12. Conclusion
  • Sources
  • Research Material


This interesting work has continued over a long period and this book could not have come about without cooperation. First of all, I want to express my warmest, heartfelt thanks to the numerous Roma musicians, singers and instrumentalists, who have been honestly and straightforwardly involved in my several years of fieldwork. You have always taken a positive view of my work and I know that, among you, singing is appreciated and musical research is taken seriously. I hope that my research will also serve you just as much it does others interested in Romani music.

In the midst of this project, I lost a dear friend of mine, a mercurial colleague, and a source of inspiration for this book. I express my particular thanks to the late ethnomusicologist Katalin Kovalcsik, who originally accepted this work for her publication series Gypsy Folk Music of Europe. As a result of tragic events, this dream of ours unfortunately remained unrealized. My most sincere gratitude goes to Katalin, who on several occasions outlined a direction for my research and with whom I had the opportunity over the years to discuss the scholarly content of my studies and everyday matters alike. In addition, I have received comments on the various stages of my work from several people, who cannot be listed separately here; I believe you know your share and its immense significance for my work. I particularly wish to thank Professor Seppo Knuuttila, who commented on my work in its various stages. During the course of my research, I have discussed its themes with numerous colleagues active in different parts of Europe, including Ursula Hemetek, Christiane Fennezt-Juhazt, Zuzanna Jurkova, Irene Kerkezt-Wilkinson, Elena Marushiakova and Veselin Popov, Thomas Acton, David Thurfjell, Matti and Sheila Salo and Carol Silverman, to only mention a few. For the rapidly executed translation work, I warmly thank Owen F. Witesman and above all Jüri Kokkonen. I would also to thank all of anonymous reviewers for their comments during this long research period, which allowed me to improve the final version of the book. Many people have provided useful suggestions, observations and criticism in response to drafts or ideas that I was trying to work through at various times. Now that the work is finished I wish to thank the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation, the Finnish Literature Society and the Finnish Association of Non-Fiction Writers for funding.

I finally wish to thank those nearest to me, from whom I have always received warm, unconditional support and encouragement in my research. My greatest ← 9 | 10 → thanks go to my daughters Paola and Helene and my brother Panu. With me in spirit have always been my mother Elina and Teuvo, heartfelt thanks to you. I dedicate this book to the memory of Katalin Kovalcsik, with whom we originally launched this book project.

Lehmo, Finland, on Romani Day, 8 April 2015

Kai Åberg ← 10 | 11 →

Part I

← 11 | 12 →


← 12 | 13 →

1.  Introduction

Research Questions and Structure

This study is rooted in my long-term interest in the music of the Roma people; twenty years will have soon passed since my first fieldwork on Finnish Romani music and musical culture. My musical path has wound in many—perhaps too many—directions over the years, encompassing several different genres of Romani music. My occasional work with Romani artists working in Finnish popular music has enriched not only my personal musical identity but also my understanding of the multiple meanings of Finnish Romani music. The text in your hands also fulfils one of my dreams, to publish the first wide-ranging study of Finnish Romani traditional music and musical culture in English.

The object of study in this book are the traditional songs performed by the Finnish Roma—the Kaale—I have interviewed over the years and these singers’ own concepts of what their songs express, their history, their present, and their significance to Romani society. Traditional Romani songs are part of the common Finnish Romani musical tradition passed down from generation to generation and are sung primarily within the community. I feel privileged to have been able to come to know and study this unique and in some ways silenced field of Finnish folk tradition. When I speak of musical concepts I am referring to questions of the transmission of musical tradition, performance contexts, classification, and individual and communal characteristics (Merriam 1964).

This work is both an introduction to a subject—traditional Romani music—and a collection of interpretations of how the Roma themselves produce meaning for the songs they perform. Therefore, the structure of this study is also binary. Part I Chapter 2, “Theoretical Approach: Themes, Concepts and Methods” presents the theoretical approach of this study, including a discussion of the concepts and methods employed. Although the structure of the study, its central problems and underlying theoretical coordinates have seen radical changes over time, the basic question crystallized in the spring of 1995 during the initial stages of my research: How do the cultural building blocks of a singer’s or other interviewee’s interpretations of music come into being? How do interviewees interpret musical phenomena and internalize these interpretations in terms of their previous experience and culture? As the chapter headings themselves demonstrate, my presentation is both an introduction to the subject and an attempt to develop theory at a practical level that draws on a contextual approach (Berger & Luckmann 1966; Hacking 2009; Rice 2007; Acton 2004). I am interested in the ← 13 | 14 → historical, cultural, and social dimensions of songs and how subjects interpret their own music. Following Silverman (2012: 5), this book discusses the multiple meanings of Romani music as interpreted through performance by various actors, including musicians and their communities. The answer to this relatively broad question I feel is to be found through the aid of contextual constructivism (Hacking 2009). According to the constructivist approach I have adopted, singing, playing, and speech related to music, just like any other language, are practices that do not only describe the world but also imbue significance, while simultaneously analysing, reconstructing, and transforming the reality in which we live.

The first subchapter (2.1), “The Constructivist Perspective,” presents the theoretical framework I have adopted: social and cultural constructivism. In general, constructivism can be considered as a perspective according to which knowledge of reality is shaped and mediated by social processes (cf. Berger & Luckmann 1966; Feixas, Procter & Neimeyer 1993: 143; Hacking 2009: 63; ethnomusicologists such as Rice 2007: 24; Järviluoma 1997). In the study of music, constructivism has generally been connected to the examination of various dimensions of identity (Silverman 2012). According to these perspectives, even the most concrete facts related to music can be analysed as socially constructed.

The following subchapter (2.2), “Cultural Musicology” continues and deepens the theoretical themes and develops them methodologically. According to my approach, the ways in which different styles of music with their various musical practices are designed and conceptualized are culturally specific. The objective of studying music as culture implies an analysis of the connection between the performed audio material and the cultural environment that shapes it (Merrian 1964; Nettl 1983; Moisala 2009: 242).

The next subchapters, “Perspectives on Identity” (2.3), “Musical Orientation” (2.4), “Locality” (2.5), and “Gender” (2.6) concretely frame these dimensions of analysis which I delve into in more detail in later chapters on Romani songs and singing culture. From the perspective of contemporary cultural research, addressing identity is processual, in other words people repeatedly attach themselves to systems of signification that are accessible to them and from this basis both understand themselves while making themselves understandable to others. The modern era is marked by a continuous change of knowledge of the different areas of life of people, and social praxis (Hall 1999: 24–26).

In Chapter 3, “The Finnish Roma (Kaale): History and Culture”, I present a brief history of the Finnish Roma (see Pulma 2012; Rekola 2012; Tervonen 2012) as well as cultural features such as language and its significance to the Romani ← 14 | 15 → community (see Granqvist 2007; 2012), along with cultural practices such as respect and modesty (see Markkanen 2003; Viljanen 2012; Grönfors 1981; Vehmas 1961). This chapter also briefly investigates the position of the Roma in Finnish society (see Nordström 2012; Friman-Korpela 2012), education, and religiosity (see Kopsa-Schön 1996; Hedman 2012; Lindberg 2012; Thurfjell 2013), along with developments in these areas among today’s Romani population.

In Chapter 4, “The Traditional Music of the Finnish Roma”, I give as background for my description of the cultural significance of the music, a presentation of Finnish Romani traditional music and its key features (see Jalkanen & Laaksonen 1972; Jalkanen 1976; Åberg & Blomster 2006; Blomster 2012). As in the rest of the world, also in Finland the folk music of the Roma is inevitably connected to the local music culture. For example, the older song layer – modal songs – is related to the old sleigh songs of Southern Ostrobothnia (southern part of Finland). The topics of the songs, as well as any folkloristic material, widely reflect the former Romani way of life and culture. Thereby, the reality of former generations and the norms of the community have been passed down verbally from one generation to another. The lyrics of songs consist of poignant love songs, songs of horse trading and markets, and boasting songs sung in the event of conflict.

Because of the potential for truly participatory participant-observation through actively joining in a society’s music-culture (sounds, concepts, social interactions, materials – a society’s total involvement with music [Slobin & Titon 1992: 1]), I believe we as ethnomusicologists are well positioned to offer unique perspectives on postmodern fieldwork processes for all ethnographic disciplines (Cooley 1997: 4). In the empirical section, Part II, I consider the meanings Finnish Romani music gains as music produced by the Roma themselves, song lyrics, and narrative descriptions of songs. The perspective in this section emphasizes points of view internal to Romani culture. The empirical portion of the study begins with the fifth main chapter “Fieldwork and Scope of Empirical Data,” in which I focus on questions related to my fieldwork. At the beginning of the chapter, I present my data, interview, and observation techniques, and data processing methods. This is necessary because an approach in which results are stated as having simply emerged from the data, without shedding any light on the underlying chain of reasoning, undermines the credibility of the work (Barz & Cooley 1997; Clifford & Marcus 1986).


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
Kaale traditionals songs Roma
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 275 pp., 42 graphs

Biographical notes

Kai Åberg (Author)

Kai Åberg is Adjunct Professor of the Study of Traditional Music at the Department of Finnish Language and Cultural Research, University of Eastern Finland. His special research interests are Finnish Romani music and music culture.


Title: «These Songs Tell About Our Life, You See»