My big fat Gypsy fortune

16 June 2016

1:00 PM

16 June 2016

1:00 PM

In his latest documentary for the This World series, the Romanian film-maker Liviu Tipurita could have been forgiven for treading carefully — and not just because it meant him entering the world of organised crime. After all, his previous film in the series, the uncompromisingly titled Gypsy Child Thieves, was ferociously denounced by Roma groups for showing how some Roma parents send their children into European cities with strict instructions to beg and steal — the charge being not that this was necessarily untrue, but that it might confirm ugly prejudices.

So how would Tipurita tackle the equally awkward facts behind The New Gypsy Kings (BBC2, Thursday)? The impressive answer was by investigating them as calmly as possible so as to bring us an extraordinary documentary that alternated between the eye-opening and the hair-raising. If he does get accused again of playing into the hands of illiberal types, then that wouldn’t be entirely unfair. Yet, as George Orwell once pointed out when attacked for the same thing, ‘playing into the hands of’ is a phrase too often used as ‘a sort of charm or incantation to silence uncomfortable truths’.

The programme, in fact, began comfortably enough with Tipurita in a Romanian Gypsy village where he met Fanfara Ciocarlia: a traditional band who’ve toured all over the world and whose saxophone player explained that ‘the thing that makes me happiest is that my children go to school’. But even here, there were signs that such party-line wholesomeness wouldn’t last for long. Talking of the discrimination they still faced in Romania, one band member told Tipurita that ‘we suffer because, to be honest, the Gypsies also cause problems’.

Sadly, too, Fanfara Ciocarlia’s old-school charms are increasingly out of fashion back home. Instead, the Gypsy singers now getting rich are the ones who specialise in manele, a harder form of Roma music that sounds a bit like hip-hop (with fiddles), and has the lyrics to match. Serving as a typical example was a video featuring a manele star called Adrian Minune in a stretch limo, surrounded by miniskirted lovelies and singing about his ‘countless large banknotes’.

Admittedly, the video might have been more convincing (although less funny) if Adrian wasn’t a small, tubby, middle-aged bloke who apparently needs his wife’s help to get his socks on. Even so, his boast about the banknotes was by no means empty. As we saw, he and the other manele singers make most of their considerable money at lavish parties, where they improvise songs about the guests and their families in return for large wodges of cash that they brandish proudly as they perform. ‘From cart to Ferrari,’ said Adrian later, reflecting on his life. ‘From tents to palaces.’

Still, there’s no doubt that the songs really are bespoke. One of Adrian’s commissions was to improvise a lyric in praise of a woman described by her businessman husband as ‘one of the most powerful witches in the world’, but who’s now in prison for bribing a judge to free her two sons.

In this way, Adrian can make thousands of euros a night. But where, wondered Tipurita, does all that money come from? Well, one fairly hefty clue came with a song containing the words, ‘We’ve all gathered/ What Mafia talent!’ Another was when Tipurita met Fane Spoitoru, straightforwardly introduced as the former crime boss of Bucharest. At his grandson’s wedding, Spoitoru came in for particular manele praise (one song in his honour included the lyrics ‘This is my King/ This is my God’) — and we soon found out why. In the 1990s, when not in prison for wounding a policeman with a samurai sword, Spoitoru had run the café where many of the manele stars got their first break. Ever since, they’ve wisely relied on his patronage — and his protection.

For proof of just how wise this was, Tipurita brought us the story of a great traditional band called Taraf de Haïdouks, once championed by Johnny Depp. Unfortunately, when a Romanian newspaper suggested that Depp had paid them $100,000 to play his LA club, other Gypsy gangs — among them, ‘a bear tamers’ clan from Bucharest’ — took this as the cue to break into the members’ houses, terrorise their families and steal all that they had. Now, the lead singer is making bricks for sixpence a time, and looking after her grandchildren while her daughter is in London pursuing a career in begging.

And if that wasn’t enough to chill the Farage blood (or play into the Farage hands), the daughter in question reappeared at the end to explain her plans for the future. ‘I want to take my children to London,’ she said, ‘because the benefits and living standards are much higher. All of our Roma people, all of them, have gone to London.’

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