"I grew up amongst beasts of prey and elephants"
Rock Gitano is practically a legend and a permanent part of Zurich nightlife. For more than 15 years, he has been delighting audiences with Balkan beats and gypsy punk. Gypsy Music Network spoke with him about his career as a DJ, his origin as a Yenish and how he met Eugene Hutz.
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Hey, Rock, how’s it going? Please introduce yourself for those who may not know you.
My name is DJ Rock Gitano. I’m from Zurich and have been playing Balkan music and gypsy punk as a DJ for about 15 years now. The music of the Travellers is in my blood, since my roots are Yenish. My DJ sets are a colourful, bubbling mix of gypsy and Balkan music, punk, disco, rap, drum'n'bass and polka, which entices you to submerge yourself, sing along, forget yourself and dance.
In the meantime, I’m DJing regularly in cities such as Berlin, London and Munich. There were other places that wanted to book me as resident DJ, but that’s not my thing or part of my world. Responsibilities, routines, being tied down – I don’t like that. Yet, I find myself working as a DJ time and again in Helsinki, at El Lokal in Zurich or at Bar 59 in Lucerne. Whenever possible, I’m the party DJ for Gogol Bordello after their concerts when they are on tour in Europe. Also at concerts of the Zurich gypsy-punk combo Palkomuski.
You told me that part of your childhood was spent growing up in the circus. Please tell us a bit more about that time.
I was born in 1968 to Traveller parents. In 1969, within the framework of the Pro Juventute foundation’s programme and with the support of public officials, I was one of 586 children from Traveller families taken away from my natural parents and placed in a home. The aim of the programme was to raise the “Kinder der Landstrasse (Children of the Road)” to become so-called “useful members of society” and thus do away with the nomadic way of life. The coincidence, if you believe in such things, was that my later adoptive family was anything but middle-class and settled down and after a short while I ended up with my aunt in the circus where I stayed until I was 16. I grew up amongst beasts of prey and elephants. That meant getting up early in the morning and mucking out, cleaning and caring for the animals. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to learn Yenish there either, except for a couple of the same words used in the circus. Instead, I was taught the circus elephant commands in German, English and Singhalese.
There was often a lot of partying and making music going on apart from the performances. At private circus parties, weddings and birthdays, traditional Polish and Romanian gypsy songs were played. Since the music is so joyous, sad, beautiful, melancholic and romantic, yet also positive, and since it always binds me so strongly to my roots, even today when I hear this music it thrills my heart each and every time.
And were you able to learn Yenish in the meantime?
Unfortunately, I’m not completely fluent. I speak a bit, as I said, from what I learned in the circus. The local language of the place where the Travellers live provides a structure. In addition, the language also has something completely autonomous with regard to word formation, meaning and usage. That really can’t even be captured in a lexicon.
I understand. How did your musical career go later – when did you start DJing?
I started doing sets in clubs at the beginning of the 1990s. At that time, I was mostly into the electro scene, hanging out in the Dachkantine in Zurich. Even then my passion was Balkan and gypsy music. Since back in those days it was frowned upon to play Balkan/gypsy music in the usual clubs, I played it at birthday parties, making others and me happy. Once the alcohol got flowing, there was no stopping things! I’ve never felt such a vibe so full of joy and love of life at any electro or techno party.
At the beginning of 2000, I had my first official Balkan booking with Goran Potkonjak at Moods. It was from him that I got my DJ name Rock Gitano, since he knew of my background as a Traveller.
How did you end up being tour DJ for Gogol Bordello’s European gigs?
I met Gogol Bordello, or Eugene Hutz, at the time he was touring in his VW van playing small clubs throughout the country, spending time frequently in Switzerland. Back then he had fallen in love with a woman from Zurich, whose name shall remain anonymous out of respect. This person made the legendary Gogol Bordello logo with the slingshot that is still their trademark today.
Eugene was heavily into grappling with his Roma culture and searching for his roots. After a concert in the Rote Fabrik in Ziegel au Lac, we ended up talking about our origins – I with my Yenish, he with his Roma roots. We drank red wine until the wee hours and talked about gypsy music. The next time Gogol Bordello played in Zurich, I got to DJ after the concert. And so it has now become almost a tradition that whenever it is possible for me, I DJ following Gogol Bordello gigs.
OK. Will we ever see a Rock Gitano DJ compilation?
After many requests and to-ing and fro-ing, I finally set up a website in addition to a Facebook fan page this year with my first Rock Gitano DJ compilation. There, anyone can listen to the music that I make, play at sets...
Yes, I listened to it and liked it a lot. But a real CD that you could hold in your hands would also be something nice!
Yes. That’s why I decided to burn a relatively low number of CDs of the compilation in the Kulturbüro. The cover was designed specially by my flatmate, a still unknown, yet exceptionally gifted caricaturist. I will give them to gypsy music friends and a few promoters. You will certainly be the first to get one!
Thanks! We’re excited! Are there any Yenish songs that you play in your sets or is that something that is rare?
Not so much, since the typical traditional Yenish music, "Handörgeli" (squeeze box) folklore, doesn’t really go with my repertoire. By the way, the most famous Yenish (rock-)chansonnier is Stephan Eicher. He and his brother Martin Eicher became known with the band Grauzone in the German-speaking countries in the 1980s. Today hip hop is popular, of course, with Yenish youngsters. Every now and then I put on Tito Boss and his “Jänisches Läbe” ballad.
Perhaps there are still some undiscovered, contemporary Yenish musicians out there. All right, guys, send Rock Gitano your demos and maybe he’ll play you!
Oh, yeah, I’m always interested in something new and am happy that there are still so many people who appreciate my music and look forward to it.
What can we expect from you in the near future?
In future, I would like to commit myself more to the Travellers and how they are perceived by the general public. The Yenish in this country suffer from being thrown into a pot with big foreign clans and their bad reputations. And that is even though Swiss Travellers, for the large part, fulfil all clichés pertaining to the “Swiss”: they are well organised, respectable, pay tax, do their military service – and they clean up after themselves. I don’t mean to say by any means that foreign Travellers are responsible for all the negativity. Just like everywhere, there are a few bad apples that spoil the bunch.
The Swiss Travellers are primarily Yenish, but of the 30,000-some Yenish just 3,000 are still on the road. The majority have settled down. If someday, because of ignorance all Swiss Travellers were forced to adopt this way of life, then we would have failed our people miserably.
Beautiful parting words. I can only agree. Thanks for the interview. And Rock on!
Many thanks to you, too, for your support. And keep your ears open!




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