Garth Cartwright: Princes Amongst Men
May 8, 2005
PRINCES AMONGST MEN: JOURNEYS WITH GYPSY MUSICIANS, Garth Cartwright (Serpent’s Tail)
It’s a long way from the streets of Mt. Roskill to the mahalas of Macedonia.
Garth Cartwright grew up in the former where he began writing as a teenager, covering the current rock and rap for the New Zealand music press. He doesn’t say which came first, his disillusionment with western rock or discovery of the gypsy music of the Balkans, but he makes it clear that in the sounds of the Tzigane he heard the soulfulness and authenticity he found missing from the increasingly corporate rock of the west.
After moving to London, he set out on a quest to track down and meet the greatest living gypsy musicians and discover the forces that have shaped the music and its makers. This involved a trek through the war-torn Balkans, starting in Serbia and travelling through Macedonia, Romania and Bulgaria.
Cartwright is no ivory tower scholar and his first book no dry academic field study. Rather, it’s a rambunctious round of bars, street parties, weddings, funerals – wherever working gypsy musicians could be found.
Among other things, Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians is a catalogue of hangovers, as the writer attempts to keep up with the musicians and their audiences in their consumption of rakija, the local firewater. In more sober moments, he visits the musicians in their kitchens and living rooms where we meet such colourful characters as Esma Redzepova, the veteran star of Macedonian song who reveals that “Elvis Presley was a gypsy”, and the outrageous Aziz, a gender-bending Bulgarian pop star whom Cartwright compares to Little Richard. We share in their hospitality, see the decorations on their walls, taste the sweet coffee and hear how they and their families have survived political upheavals and generations of persecution.
Cartwright’s writing invokes all the senses and is full of images that you not only see but smell: a street party around burning gasoline-soaked tractor tires, a Bulgarian walking a pet bear.
Cartwright happily mocks himself as the ‘crazy gajo’, the white man infatuated with the gypsy sound, and he relishes the irony in his encounter with Balkan youths obsessed with western heavy metal and dance music.
But though he tumbles headlong into the world and music of the gypsies, he can’t help but experience it through the filter of the western sounds he grew up with. The parallels he draws between the gypsies and the Negro bluesmen of the American south are persuasive, and yet when every desolate landscape or potholed highway seems to remind him of a Robert Johnson or B.B King song, one starts hankering to know what the gypsy songsters might really be singing about.
By the end of the book, Cartwright is feeling so at home amongst the gypsies that he can claim, “in some crazy mixed-up way these are my people”. If, as a reader, you are not quite so sure, at least you will feel you have tagged along on a wild, sometimes dangerous journey down music’s uncharted back roads with a driven and dauntless guide.