The Rromani Connection website
Famous Romanies
Panna Czinka (1711-1772)

Panna, the daughter of a musician at the court of a nobleman by the name of Lanyi, was born in Sajogomor/Gemer. Barna Mihaly, her grandfather and a composer, was credited with the much loved Rakoczi Song [celebrating the early 18th century Hungarian freedom fighter Prince Francis Rakoczi]. He and two of her uncles died with Rakoczi in exile in Turkey. When Panna was a little girl, she was lifted onto tables to play her violin. She married a cello player and blacksmith when she was 15 and often helped out in the forge. Around that time, she set up her own orchestra and conducted it herself, attired in a man's uniform like the other musicians. Not only was Panna a magical violinist with a remarkable beauty, she was also a modest person with a true passion for music. It was these qualities, together with a simplicity in all her dealings, that won her adulation and she became a symbol of 18th century Austria-Hungary (but her swarthy skin and jet black hair also drew racist remarks). Her bow, it was said, spanned the country from Poland to the Adriatic, and that she "drew sparks from it, making the very stones shiver" with her vigorous playing. The Baron of Gemer gave her a house by the River Szabajo which she used only in the winter months. During the fine summers, she roamed the countryside, playing both for the nobility and with the bands of musicians who travelled with their brown tents from village to village. Her songs are still played, especially one that includes the lines: "Maybug, yellow maybug, I care not how well I live: just say when I can belong to my love". Panna died at 60 and,
at her request, was buried in uniform with her violin at a funeral that was a national occasion. Many poems, in both Hungarian and Latin, were written in her honour. A century after her death, the Emperor, Archduke Joseph of Habsburg dedicated an ode to her in German. Zoltan Kodaly also chose Panna as the subject of one of his operas.
Janos Bihari (1769-1828)

Janos, a native of Nagy-Abony/Vel'ke Blahovo near Bratislava, set up his own orchestra in Gyor, when he was just 15 years old. At 18, he married Banyak Simon, the daughter of a cimbalom player from Szerdahely. Banyak, a virtuoso, was once presented with a "cristallophone" (a cut-glass cimbalom) by the Empress Marie-Therese. Bihari soon became famous and in 1802 he left for Pest with his family ensemble of strings and cimbalom. Before long, his concerts were drawing large audiences and he was invited to play all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire and as far afield as Poland, Serbia and Italy. There wasn't an Austrian celebration, ceremony or coronation held without him. Janos played at viceroys' parties in Buda and Bratislava; in Vienna at a presentation of medals to the heroes of the Battle of Leipzig; for the diplomats at the Congress of Vienna in 1814; at the coronation of the Empress Marie-Louise; at a famous celebration in Margitsziget in 1815 hosted by the Duchess of Oldenburg; at the instatement of Hungarian officers in Eger in 1824; and at court and church festivities. Bihari was known as "the Hungarian Orpheus". At the core of his repertoire were the "verbunkos", or recruiting songs, fashionable as dance music, but he also updated the songs of the Hungarian uprising against the Habsburgs led by Prince Francis Rakoczi between 1703 and 1711, and he was equally capable of dazzling audiences with a minuet or a chacona. Bihari's luxurious lifestyle was that of a fairytale king and indeed "The King" was one of his nicknames. Janos was also a big gambler who bet entire fistfuls of money on a card game. Then came the day when his luck turned. He was 52 when his beloved son, also named Janos and who as a child had become his second violinist, died suddenly from an intestinal hemorrhage caused by cancer. The young man's easy life had led him into debauchery and alcoholism. This tragic loss of the child who had been Bihari's great hope was the direct inspiration for a song entitled "Death of my son", which later became famous as the "Song of the six champions". Fate dealt Bihari another cruel blow when, three years later, his carriage overturned between Hatvan and Gyongyos and left his left hand so badly crushed that he could no longer play. It was at this point that the world turned its back on him and eventually the combination of poverty, alcoholism and ill health lead to his death on 26 April 1828. It was believed that nearly all the mourners at his funeral were Rroms. Archduke Joseph of Hungary sent a lavish wreath and Liszt wrote several pages in tribute to the gifted musician.

Janos Lavotta (1764-1820)

Janos Lavotta was born in Pusztafodemes/Puste Ulany, near Bratislava. When he was a young man, he was sent by his father to Pest to study Romanian law. (Please note: it was possible for an 18th century Rrom  to become a law student, but there are some authors who refute Lavotta's Rromani origins because of this circumstance) He continued to play the violin while studying and had become so well known as a Virtuoso that, by the age of 24, he chose
not to pursue a law career. For four years he played an a theatre, where, feeling himself too confined, decided to travel across the empire, demonstrating how he planned to "renew" Hungarian music. After a failed love affair he was left a sad and broken man. He tried to establish himself in Debrecen, but met with little success. He died an acoholic at the age of 55.

Belo Laci (1762-1867)

Coming from Alberti-Irsa, Laci was born into an old musical family and began his career as a paid musician in Pest castle to the fabulously wealthy Count Szamu Belezsnay. The communicative power of Laci's playing marked the era and he was often accompanied by his son Berci, who was not only a violinist but a brilliant and tireless dancer. Two of Laci's enduringly famous compositions ("Mishka in his green boots runs through the mud" and "There's no bird finer than the swallow, the pretty brown girl") established him among the ranks of the primas [ensemble leaders] who gathered in tents on the banks of the Danube for the coronation of Emperor Franz II on 1 March 1792. Outliving his son, Laci's death occurred amid a respectful and attentive entourage.

Antal Csennak (1771-1822)

A native of Bohemia, Csennak was more than likely the child of settled Rroms (Romungre) as Liszt records that he was not born "under the cloth of a szatra [tent]". Some said he was an illegitimate son of the Count Illeshary as he had apparently been seen to "blush on several occasions when that name was inadvertently mentioned in his presence". This hardly constitutes proof of the theory but, coupled with the respect he bore for the Count, it may have led some writers to assert that he was not a Rrom - although it is also possible that his Rromani origins embarrassed those forced to admire him as a great Hungarian. Around 1840, a friend of Liszt's wrote that Csennak was a man "in whom Hungary should glory, and does rightly glory, for his genius is essentially Hungarian for he was the country's greatest and most immortalised composer". The same writer remarked on what he called "something of a cult" surrounding Csennak's memory and the "sublime style" associated with him. The story of this master of the
csardas couldn't have been more tragic. Having taught classical violin in Vienna and then in Pest, he took the decision one evening in Godolo Castle, after listening to Janos Bihari and his ensemble, to concentrate exclusively on Hungarian music. Antal embarked on a glittering career and quickly became a favourite throughout the country with his compositions being taken up as soon as they appeared. He travelled around the villages of Puszta, collecting Hungarian Rromani melodies at cabarets,  weddings and Rromani neighbourhoods.  People described Csennak as "a meteor, a sun shining in all its glory" and a source of pride to the entire country. Sadly, though, unrequited love for a lady from Eger led Csennak to heavy drinking and mental disorder. He continued to play and compose beautiful music, including a piece entitled "Unhappy Love" in A minor and took to wandering aimlessly, a ragged, barefoot tramp who could astound listeners with his playing, drawing from his violin wild cries of grief. On one occasion he burst into a church where a band was playing, snatched the violin from the prim├ís and finished the piece in spirited style. The congregation recognised him, took him under their wing and gave him respectable clothes to wear, but years later he died a vagabond and beggar, playing in a second-rate cabaret. He left behind him an incomplete piece entitled "The Death of Csennak", with a note at the foot of the page asking that "Bihari should finish it". He was buried in Veszprem.

Dr Ian Hancock: Romani scholar, activist and highschool dropout
07-01-2005 - Brian Kenety

Perhaps the world's best-known Romani scholar, Dr Ian Hancock never graduated from high school. A ninth-grade dropout, he nevertheless became the first Roma in British history to receive a PhD. Brian Kenety caught up with the visiting scholar in Prague this week.

Admitted to a doctoral program at London University some 40 years ago on the strength of his extraordinary gift for linguistics and as part of Prime Minister Harold Wilson's fledgling experiment with "affirmative action" Dr Ian Hancock has since devoted much of his adult life to dispelling ignorance about the ethnic group into which he was born. He has represented the Roma people at the United Nations and as a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. The noted linguist is founder and director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where he has been a professor of English, linguistics and Asian studies since 1972. Growing up in England, Professor Hancock was told to hide his Roma or "Gypsy" identity; now he celebrates his ethnic heritage and has made it his mission in life to help ensure that future generations of Roma do the same.

"I now, as I look back on my life, find it very sad that I was told to hide my identity not many ethnic groups are told: 'pretend to be something else' and to me this is very, very sad. We have to stop this; we have to feel better about ourselves before other people can feel better about us."
"Now, how do we, as Romani people, begin to make these changes. Parents, even if they have other priorities in their lives, should be aware of the value of education for their children. They might not see changes within their lifetime, but their children will, and their children's children will, even more."

Dr Hancock was in the Czech Republic this week as part of a visiting scholars' program funded by the U.S. Department of State, through which he will also travel to Slovakia. He is meeting with Romani students and organizations, delivering lectures on Romani history at several universities, and consulting with government officials working on Roma issues. Prof Hancock, the author of hundreds of articles and books, has written a handbook called "We are the Romani People" which is designed to help instill a sense of pride in young Roma. It also serves as a guide for teachers and social workers working with the community to help them better understand the group's history - a history of persecution, he says, but also of triumph.

"If you look at the facts of Romani history; it's pretty sad. There has been the slavery that I mentioned, the Holocaust, the transportations, the sterilizations, the mass killings, the pogroms; and, we're still here. We still have our identity - without a country, without an army, without a government, without an economy - we're still here. We have our language and our culture; and to me, this is a triumph of survival."

Dr Hancock sees education as the key to improving the socioeconomic status of the Roma. He says it is equally important that the community do more to help itself, including raising funds, and regrets that many "Roma initiatives" are organized or run by non-Roma.

"Personally, this is an embarrassment to me. It would be a good place to start - in the direction of being self-sufficient - if, for example, money for a prize could be generated within the Czech-Romani population to recognize an outstanding Romani student."

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