"The greatest musicians in the Turkish world and in Greece were often Roma, and for centuries they hid their identity - it was better not to tell… our language was private, so people ignored it. They forgot it. We've forgotten."
Muzafer Bizlim, poet and musician, Macedonia, June 2008
Located on the outskirts of Skopje Macedonia, about 10 miles from the Kosovo border, Shutka is perhaps the largest Rom (Gypsy) settlement in the world. This 'Little Paris,' as the inhabitants sometimes call it, was built up in the wake of the 1963 earthquake in Skopje. In 1996, Europe's first self-governing Romani administration, Suto Orizari, was created in Shutka. It includes a city hall, 40,000 inhabitants, a hospital, and schools with Romani language classes.
Musicians at the Yearly Herdelezi festival in Skopje held in early May
In 2000, just after the war in Kosovo, thousands of Rom were displaced from their homes. Cultural Cornerstones began working with Rom musicians, in Shutka, to produce a collection of music recordings that would both share the beauty of Shutka's musical traditions with a wider audience and raise awareness of the violence inflicted upon the Rom in Kosovo. Our first cdThe Shutka Music Project: Heartsongs from the Gypsies of Shutka Macedonia was released in 2000, with profits benefiting both local musicians in Shutka and the California based organization, Voice of Roma, which works for the Human Rights of Roma in and displaced from Kosovo.
When most people think of the Roma, more commonly referred to as ‘Gypsies’, exotic images often flood the mind - Fortune Tellers, Palm Readers, Circus stars and a nomadic lifestyle characterized by the Horse drawn Carriage. For the most part, the true spirit of the Rom, still remains mysterious and unknown to the populations with whom they reside. Amidst the fascination with the mysterious and passionate lives of the Rom, also lie deep overarching prejudices. Much of Europe regards this largest minority as uneducated, primitive and to be engaged in thievery and other criminal activity.
As an insular and misunderstood community, the Rom have experienced much violence at the hands of those among whom they live. The most severe case of such violence was perhaps the purposive extermination of an estimated 500 000 - 1 million Roma by the Nazis during the Holocaust. More recently, during the conflict in Kosovo they were attacked and forced from their homes both by Serbs and Albanians alike.
The prejudices that set the stage for conflict and discrimination between Rom and Gadjos (non-Rom) are still pervasive throughout southeast Europe. More than once Macedonians were surprised when learning of Cultural Cornerstones projects with Rom writers, expressing doubt in the capacity of both the people and their language to produce high quality poetry. At the same time that the Roma project seeks to share the beauty of their culture and transcend stereotypes and discrimination inflicted upon them, the project also seeks to assert the value of Rom music and literary arts within the broader literary community. The value of Rom literature and music should be reconsidered. It should not rest merely on the exotic associations Europe has with the Rom people. Rather, on its artistic merit and the unique insight the Rom have of providing on the human experience.
Muzafer Bizlim displaying his Work, an attempt at a Romani translation of the Old Testament
Muzafer Bizlim expresses beautifully the path of the artist and the common concern of inspiration with every artist. This inspiration which clearly transcends racial and linguistic concerns, and makes the artist a key connector across societies. They can commonly relate to the space in the Human Spirit that allows for both the deep experience of life and its expression.
"We are talking about the spirit of a writer or a poet. When he sits down to write, he feels no restraints whatsoever. At that moment I do not feel as a Rom or a Macedonian, I feel only as a man who wants to write, to express, to discharge the energy that is within me. I think that these are common feelings for every brother and sister that writes."
It is this human faculty, the origin of creativity, which transcends cultural boundaries and it gives birth to plumes of vibrant diverse expression that Cultural Cornerstones works with in order to create greater understanding across political and social divides.
Currently, Cultural Cornerstones is working extensively with Muzafer Bizlim and other Rom artists, writers and musicians on projects to facilitate the preservation and publication of Rom songs and poetry as well as to project their valuable work into the larger artistic spaces in Europe.