At a Glance
Phnom Penh Hippie Orchestra Saturday April 30 at The FCC Phnom Penh. Show starts 8 p.m. No cover.
In its purest form, the word “gypsy” — which refers to Europe’s Romani people, who trace their origins back to the Indian subcontinent — evokes an intoxicating blend of mystery and romanticism.
Forever strangers in a strange land, this vast ethnic group originally migrated to Persia between 224 and 642 AD. By the 15th century, some had reached Western Europe. By the 20th century, others had made it as far as North America.
As their cultural migration — and subsequent evolution — continues, one constant remains: Romani music, the distinctive sound of which has influenced everything from the classical compositions of Franz Liszt to the genres of jazz, balero and flamenco.
Central to this rich musical tapestry is the nomadic spirit associated with gypsies of all hues — and it is this spirit that the Phnom Penh Hippie Orchestra aims to encapsulate.
Drawing on musicians from the UK, New Zealand, Germany, Japan, Russia, Australian, Italy, Sweden and France, it presents world music with genuinely global credentials.
Founded in 2010 by violinist Matthias Wagner, a German “with 6% Italian blood”, the orchestra’s mainstay is traditional folk music, some of which dates back more than 800 years.
These wandering entertainers — on guitar, bass, violins, cello, mandolin, balalaika, flute, clarinet, trombone, accordion, percussion and drums — conjure up a rousing chorus of high-energy Eastern-European, Arabian, Jewish and American songs that can breathe life into the most jaded of souls.
“The common ground is the gypsy spirit behind the music,” said Matthias. “People who are always on the move, such as the Jews 1,000 years ago, as gypsies usually are.”
Inherent to that spirit is the extraordinary multitude of influences absorbed by the Romani as they travelled the globe, adding layers of Greek, Arabic, Turkish and Spanish musical forms to the sound of their Indian roots. “Our spirit is having songs from different angles of the world.”
Boasting as many as 12 members, the orchestra’s make-up is constantly shifting.
Peace Through Music
“There is always a good mixture of instruments, but people rotate in and out. We are always on the road. Our sound changes, but the songs can be played by different musicians — it’s always open.”
“Peace through music,” the orchestra’s philosophy, is a metaphor, explains Matthias, who has been playing classical music since the age of six. “It is common sense that music calms people down and can bring people together.”
This nod to unity is far from token: genuine Romani people may be conspicuously absent, but among the orchestra’s members are a Cherokee Indian born in New Orleans and a New Zealander of German extraction. It is this inclusive attitude, as much as the orchestra’s musical finesse, which distinguishes these most sophisticated of gypsy spirits.