“Playing with the Gypsies”

You know that you’re doing something right, in running a cultural organisation in a rural area when the Daily Mail takes pot shots at you. So I was mildly bemused that Richard Littlejohn had deemed an event at MEAL worthy of his informed and generous opinion. Last week as part of its 2010 Gypsy Arts Festival the museum hosted the Bari Rad (Big Night), the national final of ‘Travellers Got Talent’, an event of which Ant and Dec would have been proud. Performers included The G Salford Rappers from the Czech Republic, Polish Roma break-dancers, UK singer Scarlet Lee, violinists and accordionists. In his column a worried Littlejohn warned that, “Hundreds of Roma, Irish and English Travellers will descend on the town. The people of Stowmarket are keeping their fingers crossed that they leave afterwards”.

Bari Rad was great fun, a raucous and entertaining affair, and the museum was proud to host it. As it happened a few hundred Travellers did attend, as did a few gorgers (non-travellers) including some district councillors, one of whom was keen to tell everyone of his ‘gypsy heritage’

You take comments from bigots like Littlejohn on the chin, but more irksome was the attitude of the local police following the article, who contacted us all a-quiver, concerned over public order. The museum has held three Gypsy Arts festivals since 2006 showcasing UK and European musicians, dancers and artists of Romany heritage. Indeed the Suffolk Constabulary Community team attended a stall at the 2007 gathering keen to build trust between travellers and Police. All these events have been lively, friendly and provided a great opportunity for people to learn about Gypsy Traveller heritage. This years’ event was attended and enjoyed by the chairman of one and leader of another Conservative district council.

Compared to many areas of the country, relations between Travellers and the settled population in Suffolk are pretty good. This is due to a desire of community leaders, local councillors and the Police to hear each other’s opinions and concerns. People like Gloria Buckley, the first Romany woman to be awarded the MBE are powerful advocates for the community. Gloria is a patron of the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust, which collects and performs traditional music from the region. Gypsy Travellers made a major contribution to the musical heritage of East Anglia; the Romany singer Phoebe Smith has been cited as major influence by the celebrated folk performer Shirley Collins. Most of the songs performed at MEAL’s Traditional Music Day were handed down by way of an oral culture, which in many cases was conveyed from one part of the country to another by Romanies working as seasonal agricultural labourers.  A sizeable contingent of Gloria Buckley’s ‘people’ are present at  Music Day, singing and step dancing to tunes which would have been familiar many generations ago.

The museum has worked very hard to build links with Travellers. Last year the regional housing strategy for Travellers was launched at MEAL to a performance by a guitarist from the Gypsy Kings. The new displays in Abbot’s Hall will feature a huge beautiful floral tribute to the late Daniel Buckley, a respected Gypsy leader who died in the late 1970s. Trust built up over years is precarious and should not be diminished by carelessness. Suffolk County Council, in a need to economise, is considering disbanding the Education liaison team who are charged with seeing that mainstream schools cater for the needs of children of Travellers. Equally a little more time spent finding out about a community’s heritage might have made Police Community Support Officers less anxious and more sceptical about articles they’d read in the Daily Mail.

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