The Gypsies just stand there silently, as if waiting for God to bless them too

March 21. 2023. – 02:16 PM

The Gypsies just stand there silently, as if waiting for God to bless them too
Mónika Miczura, front woman of Mitsoura – Photo: Lujza Hevesi-Szabó / Telex


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Mónika Miczura is the frontwoman of Mitsoura, one of the most progressive Hungarian world music productions of the 2000s. Since the nineties she has sung in the band Ando Drom, as well as on albums and concerts of other bands in Hungary and abroad, and has contributed to numerous theater and film scores. She was the voice of the invisible singer in Tony Gatlif's 1997 César Award-winning film Gadjo dilo.

You have an unmistakably unique voice. Were you trained in this special vocalization?

I never took singing lessons. I did try, but my teachers didn't recommend it either, because learning classical singing techniques would probably take away the uniqueness of my voice. Having worked with professionals continuously for 25 years, I have absorbed a lot of knowledge. Plus, I have an absolute pitch, which means that I can accurately recall pitch and tone without the aid of a reference note, which is said to be a rare talent. It's no virtue, but it comes in handy for a singer.

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You started out in Gypsy folk music, then evolved into a kind of Hungarian Björk, and today you combine traditional sounds with progressive electronics. Is the Mitsoura project your most authentic musical enterprise?

Absolutely. I live in a big city, I listen to contemporary music which influences me and I like to incorporate these influences into my own productions. It would be fake and pretentious if I still sang my songs in a colorful skirt, banging on a kettle, accompanied by a mandolin. What makes something or someone authentic? How many hundreds of years must pass before something can be called authentic?

Pure tradition is also beautiful, as long as it's not contrasted with modernity.

For me, tradition is not a dusty remnant of a bygone era, but an opportunity for current forms of expression. In the second half of the nineties I listened to Björk, Massive Attack and Portishead a lot. That's when I had the idea of breaking away from the traditional instruments and looking for musicians who could create the floating, atmospheric sound I've always longed for.

This effectively puts you in a class of your own among Gypsy musicians.

But I'm not proud of that. I do, however, see it as a problem that according to the pundits, as a Gypsy, one can only play Gypsy music, because that's what they are authentic in. Even 20 years ago, folk, jazz and restaurant music were prioritized, and it seems that even 30 years from now, Gypsy music will still be the same. Moreover, one of the positive stereotypes attached to Gypsies is that we "have music in our blood". Which is not true, nor are any of the other stereotypes, and this can be offensive or obstructive to some people.

When did you first encounter such stereotypes?

It became very clear to me when we formed the band, Mitsoura. We hadn't been able to play at home for years, and we financed our second album's release on our own.

And before that? How was your early socialization in this respect?

The first trauma I experienced on account of being a Gypsy was when I was seven years old, at school. On the first day, during the first lesson, the teacher told the class that she would like the Gypsies to stand up. I looked around and nobody stood up, I was the only Gypsy. I stood up. It was a strange feeling. The teacher kindly thanked me, and said I could sit down. I wasn't ashamed at that moment. I only went to that school for a year, but I remember that I did well, I was always praised when I read something out loud, and I was always teased during the breaks. It was like having a stamp on my forehead. Sometimes the other kids would pretend that someone had touched me, then kicked an imaginary ball, threw it at each other and screamed. I would sit on the bench alone and cry. Then a little girl sat down next to me and said, "I know you're not a Gypsy, you're just sunburnt." I knew I was a Gypsy, but I didn't yet know what that meant. I was scared to tell her the truth because I had already figured out that I was hated, although I didn't know why, so I always tried to avoid Melinda. It felt terrible to behave like that with her, but I didn't want to deceive her. The teacher could have written that letter C (Cigány=Gypsy in Hungarian) without making me stand up. (Decades ago in some Hungarian schools the teachers put a “C” next to the name of the Gypsy students in the class grade book. – TN)

Did you even know anything about the meaning of the letter C as a child?

We didn't talk about it in the family. My first real experience relating to it had more to do with music. We had a lot of records, but until the mid-eighties there were only two Gypsy singers, Margit Bangó and Pista Horváth. I was a very sensitive child, so at the age of 7 or 8 I already noticed that there was something very wrong with Pista Horváth's lyrics, because the image of Gypsies that came through in these songs was not in harmony with what I saw around me. Pista Horváth was singing very cheerfully, with earrings in his ears, wearing colorful clothes, singing about how good the Gypsies who live in tents have it, how they pick up dead chickens to feed their little ones, plus about how the wandering life is the most beautiful in the world, and this is why Gypsies don't have permanent homes. I hated these songs, it must have been this wounded sense of self that opened something up in me. From then on, I experienced everything to do with being Gypsy through fairy tales. I still read a lot, but as a child I used to devour storybooks.

What did fairy tales give you?

I felt that they were the only ones that told me the truth. Well, not the eternal truth, but the harsh reality. I noticed, for example, that the queens and positive characters were always blonde, while the negative characters always had brown or black hair. Gypsies were portrayed positively – as good thieves who are always in the right place at the right time. Just like Sárközi, the scab-faced Gypsy from Egri Csillagok, (In English: “Eclipse of the Crescent Moon”, a novel about the Ottoman siege of Eger by Hungarian writer Géza Gárdonyi) who was also a dubious character. Even at the age of eleven, I was terribly ashamed of the fact that he was always trying to take advantage of the situation. I have since learned that this is what is known as disguised racism, which is the most despicable.

Where are we now compared to this, what is your experience?

We've had artificially controlled repressive policies for hundreds and hundreds of years. Why is it any wonder that we are still in this situation? Let me tell you something. Gypsies don't usually attach much importance to the New Year, but on New Year's Eve, at midnight, they always turn on the anthem. (Hungarian state TV traditionally plays the national anthem at that time, the first line of the lyrics being: “Oh, God, bless the Hungarians!” – TN) And then they fall silent at that moment, standing there in mournful silence with tears in their eyes. They don't say anything, the Gypsies just stand there silently, as if waiting for God to bless them too and put an end to this hatred. Then the anthem ends and life continues as usual.

Your style of interpretation is also extremely puritanical: you are almost motionless on stage.

I've sung like that all my life, I have never moved or danced. I never trained to be a performer. In the Gypsy community in Békéscsaba, Gypsy folk songs were sung only in intimate settings: at baptisms, wakes, funerals, pomanas [funeral receptions], where it was not appropriate to perform, but only to sing wholeheartedly. When I was 14 or 15, I was already singing on such occasions, which was usually the privilege of adults, but they practically demanded that I sing as well. Then, in '87, Kalyi Jag released their first album, which included traditional Hungarian Gypsy songs that we had only sung among ourselves before. What I had been living in until then had become art, and for the first time I felt that there was an unquestionable beauty that we Gypsies can give. As I listened to their album, a cloud seemed to part over me. But even before that, at the age of 13, I spent most of my free time listening to the record collection at the big library in Békéscsaba, where I discovered special Chinese, African, Indian and Arabic songs. I listened to them endlessly. I didn't understand any of the lyrics, but they touched me deeply.

And I think this can only mean that there is a great common spirituality of people in the world. I used to walk down the street alone, crying and singing these songs out loud, because I thought everyone needed to hear them.

I also really love Károly Bari's collection of Gypsy folk songs. I sang three of these songs at one of his book launches in the 1990s, and when I came off the stage, he came up to me and said that I was the only authentic interpreter of these songs. It was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.

Who do you consider your mentors?

I was fourteen when my choir director sent me to audition for the musical Oliver Twist at Jókai Theatre in Békéscsaba. I played the role of an orphaned child and sang a lot in the play. The town’s Gypsies started going to the theater because of me. Before that they thought they couldn't even enter there. Most of them were working in factories, at construction sites or working the land, the rest were working in the markets. I know that what happened to me meant a lot to the Gypsies of the county. My headmistress and my literature teacher encouraged me to apply to the literature and drama section of Horváth Mihály High School in Szentes, they were the ones who put me on this path. I sang traditional Gypsy songs on stage for the first time at one of the high school talent shows. It was a huge success. We moved to Budapest when I was 17. I found out that there was a Gypsy club for high school students here as well, and thanks to that János Balogh and Jenő Zsigó, the founders of the folklore band Ando Drom heard about me. I played with them for a year, then took four years off when my daughter was born, after which I returned to the band and we worked together for six more years. We toured all over Europe, and during that time I sang on the records of many local and foreign bands.

Then you left the group and formed your own band, and today Mitsoura might as well have a much stronger international presence than it does. What does this depend on?

I've never had a manager, and without a manager one can't organize a tour. But I have no reason to complain, because although we play very few gigs, but in the coolest places. A lot of people know and love Mitsoura all over the world. For me, the most important thing is to keep my own identity, which involves a lot of sacrifice. One has to be able to say no, but I believe it's worth it. I've turned down a lot of invitations in my life. A lot of artistic work is full of stereotypes and I am hypersensitive to these, as many know this about me.

Around 2014, however, you found yourself at the gateway to world fame, but not in a good way. You actually sued Beyoncé.

I can't talk about that because I'm bound by confidentiality, and I've been warned that if I say anything incriminating in public after the court decision, I could be sued for defamation to the point that they would even collect on my great-grandchildren.

Photo: Lujza Hevesi-Szabó / Telex
Photo: Lujza Hevesi-Szabó / Telex

There was some news about the case though, both in Hungary and in the US at the time, and the Wikipedia page of Beyoncé's song Drunk in Love mentions a few sentences about it too. You can no doubt tell the story itself.

I'd really rather not. The bottom line is that the New York Supreme Court dismissed my case on the grounds of artistic freedom. But what I did achieve was that the song was blocked, or more precisely, it cannot be commercially released – that was the reason given in the argument as well as that the 'sample' in question fell within the framework of artistic freedom. But you know, the world of art is a strange place. In the nineties, there were several records released internationally on which I sang, including some that were sold with my face on them – and I didn't get a single percentage from the sales. And it's an awful lot of money. And not just me, but this also goes for my fellow musicians at the time. We were singing Gypsy folk songs, and although they were not our own compositions, our creativity, talent and hard work greatly contributed to the success. I did get recognition though: I was named one of the five best Gypsy singers in the world, but I never received any financial reward. Res omnium communis, or in English: we are public treasure.

In the early 2000s you were reportedly the first Roma to be on the cover of a women's magazine in Hungary. How do you think it is possible that 20 years have passed since then and today it is still newsworthy for a Roma woman to be on the cover of a magazine?

It was for Cosmopolitan Hungary, I was one of the winners of the "You are the best!" award. We really shouldn't still be talking about who is a Gypsy and who isn't. I must admit that I don't like the word 'Roma' being forced on me either. I understand that nobody wants to be called a member of the lowest social class, but this is just covering up the problem. Nothing will be better if someone honors me by calling me a Roma, which, of course, means 'human' in the Oláh language. My mother tongue is Hungarian anyway, not Oláh. And on the other hand, I don't like it when people try to tell me how to live out my Roma identity, or that I should learn our "language". Self-identity is not defined by language. Excuse me, but what if I prefer Spanish instead of Lovari, or one of the African languages, because I'm more interested in that?

You turned fifty this year, and considering your perfectly ageless character, it seems quite unrealistic. What is your experience about that?

I don't care about my age. I read a lot about quantum physics, about the relativity of time, and I wonder, what is the value of time? How is it that someone lives more in twenty years than another person lives in eighty? I feel that I am living every minute of my life to the fullest, so I am not really fifty, but three hundred or five hundred, I don't know. Even when I’m quiet, I'm living, experiencing every minute. I read a lot, I analyze constellations and reflect on what makes the world go round.

Do you ever go to church around Christmas time?

I went regularly until I was eleven. But one day, after confirmation, I took the liberty of asking Father P. in the confessional who the slaves were and how they should behave with their master? He immediately threw me out. After that I never went to church again, except on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve the whole Gypsy community was always there. I haven't been to church since. I know the beliefs of the world religions, but I am not committed to any of them. What I wanted to ask the father at the time, I subsequently learned from The Life of Brian.

The Alrite speech-to-text voice recognition application was used for this interview, as part of a paid collaboration.

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