Gypsies, many of whom prefer to be known as Roma, have been on the move for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, fanning out from their base in northern India to the far reaches of Europe and North America. (There are a million in the United States alone.) But rarely have their wanderings followed such a tried-and-true path as they do in Gypsy Caravan, Jasmine Dellal's documentary about a 2001 concert tour that sent five groups from four countries traveling across this great land of ours. When not receiving standing ovations from sold-out houses, they spread the news about Roma culture to those who, thanks in part to that Cher song, thought all gypsies were tramps and thieves. Something of a backstage musical, Gypsy Caravan takes us behind the scenes, introducing us to performers who embody the rich variety of the Roma diaspora.
Meet Esma Redzepova, whose throaty contralto got her dubbed "Queen of the Gypsies" many years ago, when Macedonia was still part of Yugoslavia, and who, to put it mildly, knows how to work a crowd. And meet Antonio el Pipa, flamenco dancer extraordinaire, from the Andalusian region of southern Spain. Needless to say, he knows how to work a crowd as well. But so do the Fanfare Ciocarlia, a brass band from Romania, and Taraf de Haidouks, a string band, also from Romania. Such thrilling virtuosity belongs in Carnegie Hall...or on some street corner somewhere. From India comes Maharaja, whose ragas suddenly seem less exotic, more familiar, of a piece with everything else we've been hearing. Ethnomusicologists should have a field day trying to figure out what ties all these musical threads together.
Emotionally, what connects them is a deep understanding of life's ups and downs. Romas have what Madison Avenue would call an image problem, and Dellal allows the performers to speak to that problem, even bringing on Johnny Depp (who shared a trailer with the members of Taraf de Haidouks while filming The Man Who Cried) to help make their case. She also includes little profiles of all the major performers - home visits that suggest nobody's getting rich off these world tours, although whole villages rely on the income generated by them. Fame and fortune aside, these people make music because it speaks to their souls. Roma culture may have been definitively captured in Tony Gatlif's enchanting documentary, Latcho Drom. But Gypsy Caravan reminds us that these vagabonds are still out on the road, searching for that home away from home.