Do They Have It in Their Blood?

Upcoming documentary
PhD Research Project
of Petr Nuska

Film Teaser

Research Project

Transgenerational Transmission of Romani Musical Knowledge and Skills in Klenovec and Kokava (film study)

By Petr Nuska


The aim of my PhD research is to examine traditional methods of musical teaching and learning of professional Romani musicians in the region of Klenovec-Kokava (Slovakia). Their methods are analysed as an alternative educational system, which differs markedly from standardised curriculum-based institutional systems and therefore hones their musicality in a distinct way. The proposed research will continue to investigate the Romani musical culture of the region, where I have already established a strong knowledge base and solid informative connections during my MA research (Nuska 2015 and 2016). Nevertheless, I will substantially expand on the scope of my work, specifically by making the following four contributions:
Broadening and deepening ethnographic documentation and analysis, with a new focus on traditional teaching and learning;
Applying a distinctly original methodology – combination of participative apprenticeship in music training and experimental ethnographic filmmaking, where two different approaches, i.e. observational and participatory are creatively combined;
Re-evaluating how music education methods are categorised and understood;
Researching outcomes with potential to influence attitudes and encourage beneficial policy changes, as well as to challenge racist stereotypes.

The research is funded by The Leverhulme Trust, through Durham University’s Centre for Visual Art and Culture and is co-supervised by the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Music, University of Durham.


The Romani professional musicians of Klenovec and Kokava are well known all around Slovakia and, ever since recording a soundtrack for a Hans Zimmer Hollywood movie, their reputation has spread further afield. It might seem surprising, however, that despite their high level of musical capability, the vast majority of that region’s Roma do not have any formal musical education. Some people consider this fact to be conclusive evidence, proving that Romani talent is naturally inherited from father to son; it is, as Slovak people often say, “in their blood.”

In my MA thesis (published in December, 2016, see Nuska 2016), I was researching this legendary Romani musicality from a different perspective. Despite the absence of any formal educational system, I did not consider Romani musical abilities to result from natural talent but instead to derive from their own independent, alternative system of education, differing from the European standardised systems but certainly not inferior. Their system for fostering musical skills hones their musicality in different ways. The results of my research are summarised in the following diagram:

PhD research and documentary by Petr Nuska: Do They Have It in Their Blood?

My proposed research will continue to investigate the Romani musical culture of the region, where I have already established a strong knowledge base and good informant connections. However, I will substantially expand the scope of my work, specifically by making the following four contributions:

1) Broadened and deepened ethnographic documentation and analysis, with a new focus on traditional teaching and learning (cf. Ethnographic contribution)

2) Application of a distinctly original methodology (cf. Methodological contribution)

3) Re-evaluation of how music education methods are categorised and understood (cf. Music-Educational Contribution)

4) Research outcomes with potential to influence attitudes and encourage beneficial policy changes (cf. Impact Contribution)

1) Ethnographic Contribution

There have been many ethnomusicological and anthropological studies that explore Romani music traditions, focusing on various regions within Europe; see for example: Kovalcsik and Kertesz-Wilkinson in Hungary, Pettan and Theodosiou in the Balkans, Jurková, Davidová and Andrš in former Czechoslovakia. Central themes of enquiry have included: Romani musical adaptability and its rootedness in the endless need to adapt more broadly to new socio-cultural contexts (cf. Pettan 1996); the concept of musical “intelligence theft” (ciorãnia, Stoichiţă 2006); and emotionality, which is important in Romani ethnicity construction, social organisation and, consequently, musical performance (cf. Bonini Baraldi 2008).

The existing studies have exclusively focused on those instances where Romani musicians have been introduced to institutionalised education. For instance, Ševčíková’s series of ethnographies (for example, 2003) focused on exploring the integration of Romani pupils within the curriculum-based Czech music education system. The same issue of integration was also thoroughly examined by Gelbart in her Harvard-based PhD dissertation (2010). These various contributions have usefully established that: 1) Roma musicality does indeed tend to be stereotypically regarded in terms of inherited talent; 2) There are distinct differences between Roma and Non-Roma skill acquisition methods and resulting aptitudes. However, there has as yet been no attempt to explore the processes of traditional Romani musical education in detail via meticulous ethnographic documentation and comprehensive analysis, providing insight into the day-to-day insider perspective.

If one wishes to establish a well-reasoned understanding of Romani musical knowledge and practice, I consider it absolutely essential to explore the details of teaching and learning, as experienced within the context of musicians’ daily lives. My research aims to fill this problematic gap in the academic study of Romani musical culture.

2) Methodological contribution

During my fieldwork period, I will continue with my long-term qualitative investigation into the Romani musicians’ practices, building upon the work that I began during my Masters. As before, this will involve the extensive interviewing of musicians, in order to access their memories and opinions. It will also rely on close observation of the processes of knowledge and skill transmission and display, with particular focus upon monitoring the progress of young Romani prodigies. In my PhD, however, I will apply an innovative methodological approach, uniquely combining two special ethnographic tools, namely participative apprenticeship and experimental ethnographic filmmaking.

For the participative apprenticeship aspect of my methodology, I will undertake Romani musical training and self-reflexively examine how my knowledge and skills develop. For this, I will focus on the accordion as this instrument provides deep insights into both the playful patterning of Romani melodies and the dense harmonies that underlie them. This advanced ethnomusicological tool relies upon bi-musicality – learning about music “from inside” (cf. Hood 1960) in a manner akin to developing bilingual capability – and has previously been used by Kertész-Wilkinson (2000) in the case of Roma in Hungary and by Tim Rice (1994) in the case of Bulgarian bagpipe playing. It is invariably a powerful method for generating deeper insights into musical processes.

The filmmaking aspect of my methodology will combine two different modes: ethnographic (observational) filmmaking and participatory video. For the former, camera use will work as an extension of standard participative observation with the traditional ethnographer-informant relationship being established; as usual, only the ethnographer will be positioned behind the camera. For the latter, I propose to deconstruct this relationship by putting the ethnographer (myself) in front of the camera. The ethnographers’ involvement in the process of music training will thus be captured through the eyes of the researched community. This draws upon but also develops the participatory methods outlined by earlier researchers (cf. Johansson et al. 1999) wherein the community plays a strong role in shaping the film-making endeavour in accordance with how they want to be represented. Combining these two modes will be a significant contribution to on-going discussions about the viability of objectivity in ethnographic video materials (cf. Pink 2007:97–116) and will challenge the genre of documentary as such.

During my masters, I piloted the application of these two camera-work modes and found that they had an encouragingly positive influence on the Romani musicians willingness to share and collaborate, also yielding fresh insights into their musicality. Accordingly, I intend to make them central features of my project, conceptualising my ethnography as an experimental film study. In addition, to ensure that the musical intimacy fostered with the musicians is vividly captured on film, I intend to use DSLR documentary filmmaking equipment; this achieves a highly immersive result, never seen before in ethnographic film (cf. Nuska 2015b).

Films about the transmission of musical knowledge have a long-standing tradition in the genre of ethnographic film; see for example the films of Hugo Zemp. More recently, there have been broader attempts to study traditional music-education systems comparatively, involving the methods of visual anthropology. For instance, the research project Growing Into Music compared traditional music education in six different geographical areas (Durán et al. 2011). The proposed project will evidently be of wide interest and relevance, both contributing to and challenging this growing body of work.

3) Music-Educational Contribution

My research also tackles a significant ongoing trend within music education discourse – namely the tendency to conceive of a clear boundary between “oral” and “written” musical cultures. My work demonstrates that this distinction is no longer valid: a great many cultures that originally focused on oral transmission have been gradually adopting and adapting traits and methods from text-emphasising cultures. The Romani musicians from Klenovec and Kokava are no exception. Meanwhile, a great many people in text-based cultures are turning towards oral methods: for example, people all around the world are learning how to play musical instruments through YouTube and similar platforms, adopting educational habitus that are closer to the Romani ways of acquiring musical skills than to the formalised systems of institutionalised musical education. Despite the extent of this phenomenon, it has scarcely been acknowledged, let alone properly analysed, within academia; by exploring in depth how the Romani musicians employ both oral- and text-based methods in mutually complementary ways, my research aims to make an important contribution in this area.

4) Impact Contribution

This research project also seeks to make a difference to the ways in which people perceive, respond to, and interact with Romani musicians and the Romani people in general. The findings will be presented in a clear and direct manner that is easy to engage with, in the hope that they can constructively inform Czech and Slovak educational policy, evincing curriculum changes to ease the situation of Romani pupils, who evidently have difficulties with the current system. Ševčíková’s and Gelbart’s ethnographies did much to change music education policies elsewhere and it is anticipated that this project will do likewise.

Last but not least, my film will contribute towards breaking down biological-deterministic myths about Romani musical talent and Romani culture in general; these perceptions are certainly unhelpful, being intimately linked to racist stereotyping. These musicians do not “have it in their blood”; rather it is through dedicated hard work that they achieve impressive mastery. Similarly, all the problems with Romani non-conformity, poverty and criminality are not determined by their genes (as many people in Slovakia really think) but rather by their socio-cultural environment, which we still do not properly understand.

Core Research Questions

1) What are the traditional methods of musical learning among Romani musicians and how do they differ from those of institutionalised music education?

2) How do these methods work to promote advanced musical skills (such as art of improvisation, key mobility etc.)?

3) What is the relationship between Romani music-making, Romani social organisation and Romani ethnicity?

4) To what extent and in what ways have the Romani traditional systems of skill transmission been changing? How do these changes relate to more global trends in music-education?

Research Scheme

PhD research and documentary by Petr Nuska: Do They Have It in Their Blood?


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Researched Location

Klenovec and Kokava are towns in the Poltár district, county Banská Bystrica. Both have around 3,000 inhabitants and are only 11 kilometres apart; they lie quite literally over the hills from each other. Since time immemorial, Kokava and Klenovec have been great rivals in all possible aspects. There are many jokes that are told in Klenovec about people from Kokava and vice versa. The rivalry is omnipresent and it can be sensed even between communities of Romani musicians.

This region has always been rather poor and employment opportunities have been unstable. This might be the reason for which musicianship for the local Roma has always been the most respected craft. Even the historical roots of Romani settlement here are connected with music. As I was told by several locals, in 18th century, a Klenovec-based Hungarian aristocrat, whose name was Kubinyi, called two or three families of Romani musicians from Jánovce, giving them permission to settle in his manorial garden. At that time, it was very fashionable for Hungarian nobility to have a band of Romani musicians to accompany various soirees with their music. Kubinyi’s house still exists and so does his garden. Paradoxically, the place connected with noble soirees turned into the place of deepest poverty – Romani settlement Dolinka – where approximately 200 Roma live in desperate conditions. People from Klenovec often sarcastically note that Kubinyi’s farming went out of control.

Romani families from Kokava have the same roots as those from Klenovec. Thanks to their shared surnames (Cibuľa, Oľáh, Radič), we can track down original fratrias of musicians coming here to practise their trade. The official number of Roma in the towns is unknown. Mayoress of Klenovec stated that during population census in 2011 there were just two or three people who declared themselves as Roma. Unofficial estimate of mayoress of Klenovec, however, is 800 Roma (including 200 living in Dolinka), which means about one quarter of all inhabitants. The situation in Kokava is more or less similar. Musical activities, whether professional craft or free time hobby, are something so common for the local Roma that Klenovec and Kokava are often regarded as synonym for region of musicians.

In both towns, there are well-known folklore ensembles – Kokava-based Kokavan and Klenovec-based Vepor. Both of these ensembles deal with folk Slovak music. The Slovaks achieved many successes and are respected rivals on folklore musical competitions. Considering the fact that both towns are rather small and not far from each other, it is remarkable that these ensembles have such continuity. For instance, in nearby Hnúšťa which has more than twice as many inhabitants, there has never been any folklore ensemble. Roma are traditionally (and almost exclusively) part of both ensembles on the musicians’ posts. Local folklorists say that Romani bands are one of the key aspects which make ensembles from Kokava and Klenovec so exceptional and for which they are considered as local stars.

Recently, this region rife with musicians has caught even the world’s attention when a Kokava-based band Kokavakere Lavutara led by Vlad Sendrei (one of my participants) co-recorded soundtrack of the film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadow (2011) under the baton of Hans Zimmer. This, again, confirmed the unique position of the local musicians and allowed the reputation of Klenovec and Kokava as “the region of musicians” to thrive.

The main reason, however, for which I have chosen Klenovec and Kokava for researching transgenerational transfer of musical skills, is the noticeable continuity in preserving the musical craft. We can talk about three-generational community of active musicians, horizontally and vertically interconnected. In spite of the number of generations which have passed by since the first families of musicians came, musicianship is still considered to be the best Romani craft.

Music Education in Theory

Concerning research on Roma in the context of music education, several music-pedagogical contributions have been written in which Czechoslovak Roma were confronted with music-educational system. For instance, Ševčíková’s series of ethnographies (e.g. 2003) stimulated a change of Czech musical-educational curriculums so that the Romani pupils could easily be a part of the educational process. This issue was thoroughly examined also by Gelbart in her Harvard-based PhD dissertation (2010). All these contributions have pointed out that 1) musicality of the Roma is regarded by the general public (including teachers and experts in education) as a positive stereotype often explained by biological-deterministic explanations about inherited talent and that 2) differences between Roma and Non-Roma in how they acquire musical skills and abilities do exist.

My research is also dedicated to the theoretical discussions on differences in music education, especially comparison between strictly formalised systems of literary traditions and informal systems of oral tradition.

Schooling and Direct Learning vs. Informal and Indirect Learning

Merriam (1964), divided the process of music-knowledge transmission into education and schooling, where education is defined as a directed learning system which accompanies an individual for the most part of childhood and adolescence, while schooling consists of these educational processes which are held at specific times, in particular places, for certain periods, by specially trained people.

Berliner (1975:136–140) suggested there are always two parts of musical learning – direct learning (learning through direct observation and listening to a teacher) and indirect learning (learning by independent practising and by performing the music). These two parts are culturally universal, none of them omissible. The difference, however, lies in the different emphasis in these two parts of musical learning.

Slovak standardised musical education is highly formalised and it puts a great emphasise on direct learning. It takes specific time (lessons) in specific places (schools) and it is taught by specific people (teachers) who teach in a specific way (approved methodology). The time taken by students for indirect learning (i.e. home-practising and performing) is controlled by a teacher and is always planned according to a schedule which is appropriate for the particular level of the student. This formality is enforced by methodical handbooks and, consequently, by law, especially by the so-called Teaching Plan [Učebný plán] which is approved by the Ministry of Education (cf. Holas 2004:96–98).

In the case of Romani musicians in Klenovec and Kokava, on the other hand, there is a significant emphasis on indirect and informal learning. It is assumed that this simple fact has an important influence on how their musicality is being developed. My PhD research will closely examine the role of the informal way of musical teaching and learning in particular parts of Romani musicality.

Analytic vs. Holistic Approach

Van den Bos (1995) constructs two prototypical models of music-educational methods – the analytical and the holistic. While the starting point of the analytical model is to acquire separate abilities for playing the instrument, the starting point of the holistic method is to play the music. The same aim is attained via different routes.

Teachers teaching rather according to analytical method rely on separation of the main skill (i.e. playing the musical instrument) into many subskills (such as posture, rhythmical control, reading written music, musical theory etc.). Most of the know-how is transmitted by notation. On the other hand, the holistic approach does not split up the skill into subskills but it deals with music as a whole in its natural context. Teachers using this method transmit their skills orally or just by showing them to pupils that could imitate what they can see and what they can hear.

As pupils are not able to play the particular piece immediately as artfully as their masters, they learn the piece roughly first and, by the time, they can add some more advanced elements of performance (more musical ornaments, better musical expression etc.). That is what Van den Bos calls concentric curriculum. The opposite of the concentric curriculum is the linear curriculum, typical for analytic approach. As for this method, pupils do not learn, so to speak, real repertoire but a pedagogical repertoire. This special kind of repertoire is constructed for methodological purposes, i.e. tailored to the particular level of a certain pupil.

The Slovak system of musical education tends to be rather analytic. Linear curriculums always lie between pupil and the aim of the education (i.e. managing a musical instrument). An important characteristic of Romani music-educational system in Klenovec and Kokava is its tendency to take a holistic approach; more particular, to learn music in its natural context, omit curriculums and start directly with real repertoire. My PhD research will consider whether and how this approach is responsible for the emergence of the advanced musical skills (such as art of improvisation, key mobility etc.; discussed in the next sub-section).

Participatory Performance as an Educational Medium and Acquiring Competence of Cooperation

Turino (2008) defined two general types of musical performance: presentational and participatory. He defines participatory performance as “a special type of artistic practice in which there are no artist-audience distinctions […]” and where “primary attention is on the activity, on the doing, and on the other participants, rather than on an end product that results from the activity.” (p. 28). In contrast, presentational performance “refers to situations where one group of people, the artists, prepare and provide music for another group, the audience, who do not participate in making the music or dancing.” (p. 26).

Turino considers European classical music as an archetypal example of presentational performance. The Slovak standardised system of musical education, mainly intended as preparation for the European classical music (i.e. presentational performance), uses participation as an educational method just minimally or not at all.

On the other hand, it has been shown that informal sessions of musicians, in the surveyed locality (commonly known as bašavely), where musicians do not play for anyone particular apart from themselves, plays an important role in musical-skills transmission. The participatory performance here represents an educational medium where musical skills of Romani musicians are being transmitted and developed with the emphasis on competence of cooperation. My PhD research will discuss how this participatory music making develop Romani musicality.

Improvisation and Key Mobility as a Significant Trait of Romani Music Making

Improvisation is another significant trait of Romani music which set their musical performance apart from majority. Pettan (1996), for instance, who dealt with Roma (Gypsies) in Kosovo, described their way of dealing with music as follows: “Gypsies handle a tune as raw material, out of which they tend to create a new product […] In the process of molding the product, Gypsy musicians consider all musical features changeable […] Their goal in music is not to imitate a tune, but to create a personalised version of it” (p. 56–57).

The ability of improvisation demands a different educational approach which bears some resemblance to other musical genres (e.g. jazz improvisation, cf. Berliner 1994). It is assumed that the ability to improvise in the case of Romani musicians in Klenovec and Kokava stemmed especially from cooperative learning and listening-based methods of transmission which are typical for their music-educational system.

Another trait, which sets their musical capacity apart from the average, is the key mobility; an ability to carry out immediate transposition and play any musical piece in any given key. This ability is acquired, similarly to the ability of improvisation, through a specialised learning process. These educational methods which lead to the emergence of these musical capabilities will be scrutinised in my PhD thesis in details.

Petr Nuska

PhD research and documentary by Petr Nuska: Do They Have It in Their Blood?

My professional interest is visual anthropology; a discipline combining research with creative audio-visual work. I graduated with a degree in anthropology with expertise in both qualitative and quantitative research in social science. I also graduated in New Media Studies where I have obtained a background in multimedia, including digital film, video or sound. My current PhD research is funded by The Leverhulme Trust, through Durham University’s Centre for Visual Art and Culture and is co-supervised by the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Music, University of Durham.