Newham’s Roma Orchestra helps fight ancient prejudice

12:00 12 February 2016

John Atotileto impressing on the trumpet

John Atotileto impressing on the trumpet


You can always rely on music to bring people together.

The Roma Bridging Sounds Orchestra is a Newham-based charity that tries to break down cultural barriers affecting the Roma communityThe Roma Bridging Sounds Orchestra is a Newham-based charity that tries to break down cultural barriers affecting the Roma community

It’s been seen again and again throughout history – from the Cold War to the Arab-Israeli conflict – and now it’s happening again in Newham.

But our version isn’t about bringing warring foes together, it’s about providing support for a uniquely persecuted minority.

“Many people don’t even know who the Roma are,” Tania Gessi, culture and arts development co-ordinator at the Roma Support Group (RSG), says. “They are often perceived as a group that takes and doesn’t contribute.”

Traditionally Roma people originated in Northern India and lived a nomadic lifestyle and have been much persecuted throughout their history.

The Roma community has experienced prejudice throughout its existenceThe Roma community has experienced prejudice throughout its existence

This prejudice, which Tania says she sees a lot of in the borough, is why the Roma Bridging Sounds Orchestra was created in 2014.

Its aim is to combat stigma by spreading the most famous product of Roma culture – music.

There are about 30 members in the orchestra, with players aged from eight to 25, and a third are from Roma backgrounds.

“They are masters of music,” Tania says. “But usually they’re buskers – so it’s great to get them into an official context and playing at places like the Barbican.

Darius, right, is being tutored by Ady, leftDarius, right, is being tutored by Ady, left

“There’s an incredible level of discrimination against them, so they’re often distrustful. But we’re slowly seeing a change in attitudes and an increase in awareness.”

But for all the politics, when the orchestra gets down to it only one thing matters.

“We’re making music with each other on a Saturday, which is an intensely social thing,” Nick Alan, the orchestra’s conductor, says.

“It’s not overtly about politics – it’s much more organic.”

The orchestra has played at the Barbican in the past and is due to release a recording of its musicThe orchestra has played at the Barbican in the past and is due to release a recording of its music

Though Nick says there is still more to be done, he is very pleased with the results.

“I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made here,” he says. “They have done amazing work and we’ve had such a positive response – but then how can you not like Roma music? It is so joyful.”

Given the extent of the prejudice experienced by the Roma, however, it is likely to require more than the work of Nick and Tania.

Laura Greason, policy and information worker at RSG, says change must also come from the top.

“There is a distinct lack of attention for Roma people,” she says.

“If you acknowledge a community has been here a long time, you have to provide services for them – central government must help.

“There is so much negativity about Roma that many actually hide their identity.

“But the orchestra is a wonderful project that creates friendships, shows off Roma culture and allows people to learn from each other.”

The Roma Bridging Sounds Orchestra is funded by the Arts Council and is being delivered in partnership with the Roma Support Group, Newham Music and the Grand Union Youth Orchestra.

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