Almost three years on from Kal's ground-breaking debut album band leader Dragan Ristic appears both weary and excited about the forthcoming release of Radio Romanista. Relaxing in the shadows of a downtown Belgrade bar, Ristic admits the last few years have been hectic ones. "We went from being this tiny Belgrade band, not even really known in our home town, to touring Europe and the US, hearing DJs blast our music in clubs, playing festivals, meeting all kinds of people, getting to spread the word and music of the Rom."
Kal's success on the world music circuit has been matched by fame in Serbia, something Ristic views as a double edged sword.
"Kal's rise has lead to so many demands: being an educated Rom in Serbia means I get called upon all the time to speak for my people. I don't shy away from this but when you are asked to represent a minority who are marginalised, persecuted, often denied access to education or employment, then the position carries extra weight."
Yet Ristic is proud that Kal's sound - rooted in the lyrical, adventurous style of the late, great Serb Gypsy soul icon Saban Bajramovic - is leading to many young musicians looking back to their roots.
"In Serbia most of the young Gypsy musicians are playing pop-folk trash behind some bimbo or himbo whose entire career is built on looking sexy in a video. They're losing their culture, what fathers taught sons for generations. With Kal's success - and in Serbia we're blowing up, attracting kids who like rock and techno alongside an older generation who appreciate traditional music, selling official CDs in a market overrun by pirates - we're proving the music of your ancestors is still valid, still lives."
For Kal's debut Dragan drew upon a pool of Belgrade Roma musicians and singers, including several striking female vocalists. For this album he relied upon the musicians who now compromise Kal's touring band.
"What you get here is our live sound. We spend a lot of time touring and when we're back home we're playing clubs along the Danube, bars that put on live music. This has really shaped our sound, it's rock'n'roma! I strongly believe this album leads a new wave of Gypsy music. All of my life I have been acting like the bridge between two different cultures, Romani and non-Romani. I strongly feel my Gypsy identity while understanding I live in a world of mass communication, globalization, where everything should be considered as a media message, even emotions."
As songwriter and activist, Dragan puts his political beliefs into his songs, using the stereotype of the "Gypsy musician" to challenge audiences.
"If I say 'Gypsy' what's your first association? Music? OK, let's try to break the clichés about Gypsy music by listening to Kal. If you expect from me music because I am a Gypsy then I'll do it but don't think that I'll not use it to say very important things about my people. All around the world Roma people are being harassed, their houses burned, walls built in order to segregate neighbourhoods. Don't just look at us as entertainers. Don't consider us thieves. We are a peaceful people, survivors of European racism, but we're no longer going to stay silent and entertain you. My generation is ready!"
The Roma, Dragan emphasises, are always adapting to different cultures and Kal's polyglot band leader sings in Romany, Serbian and French. Here's his brief on what some of his songs concern:
Ding Deng Dong
The story of a Roma boy from Serbia who has an uncle living in Vienna. For most Romani people in Serbia their biggest dream is to go to Vienna for a better life. Every day his uncle promises the boy that he will bring him there, but he never does. Finally the boy gets himself a visa and goes to Vienna. He tries to reach his uncle by phone, but his uncle intentionally never picks up the phone. At last the boy goes to his uncle's front door and rings the bell (ding, deng, dong,) Again, his uncle does not open the door even though he sees the boy through peephole in the door!
That's the name of the promised land. In my own imagination I have my own country Romanistan. Imagine that we have in that country our national radio station Radio Romanista. Imagine...
The narrator is living in Vienna and makes a date with his Romani girlfriend at Prater, a very popular amusement park. Arriving he sees her with another boy so decides to jump into the Danube river! He has money, lives in a beautiful city, but can't buy love.
This is my political pamphlet, one of the reasons why I decided to play music. It's punk, pure, punk...more than punk. Don't expect me to just be a musician. This is the concept!
Author Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians (available in English, French, German)
Journeys With Gypsy Musicians