To my ears, there was certainly evidence to support the hypothesis that Gypsies have been principal transmitters of common melodic patterns in Eurasia and the European cultures of the Americas. But then again, a lot of the melodies I heard had no connection to Gypsy music at all. That’s not surprising, since the octave and the five-note pentatonic scale, based on the cycle of fifths, are considered universal. They are the way the human ear organizes melodic sound in every culture. There is eighth-century Taoist zither meditation music that sounds like Delta blues, with the same pentatonic runs minus their emotional weight, and the Incas had pentatonic panpipes. Neither of these had anything to do with the Gypsy diaspora.
Music is the most elusive form of human expression, and its transmission is never a one-way street. The kamaica that the Manganiyar were playing here, for instance, probably originated in Persia. Modern Malian music is influenced by American blues. Cuban rumba affected Zairean music and was in turn affected by it. (Zaire is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.) All this crossing and back-crossing really muddies the waters, so it is almost impossible to establish what came from where. You cannot say this is where it all began, any more than you can say this is where the first drums were beaten. As I listened, I eventually stopped imposing what I was looking for and began to enjoy the music for what it was: beautiful, alive, and present.
Alex Shoumatoff is a T+L contributing editor.