I still remember our first visit to the Lunik 9 settlement in Kosice, Slovakia.
By that time, nearly eight years ago, the neighborhood was already known as one of the largest Roma slums in Central Europe. It seemed out of place – an ugly holdout of poverty in a beautiful, developing city.
But what captured me that day was not the squalid living conditions. I was prepared to see piles of trash and children without shoes. These are the kinds of conditions Roma live in all across Europe.
No, what captured my attention that day and on every visit since was the music, flowing from every door and window.
Young musicians on the steps, strumming and singing songs in Romani. Snatches of many different songs playing from impromptu PA systems.
Roma pop music blaring through the tiny cell-phone speakers of nearly every passing teen.
It’s a wash of sound that is somehow both chaotic and joyfully unifying.
Music is the heartbeat of Roma communities, sometimes noticed but always present. Music is a part of almost every moment, whether special occasions or day-to-day activities.
Music is what first drew us to consider serving among the Roma of Eastern Slovakia. And music is, I believe, the way the Roma people will continue to find their voice in the world.
That’s what the Roma Voices Project is about.
Roma typically have no problems being “heard.” They speak and sing with clear, bright voices.
Sometimes at night, we can hear Roma voices lifting up joyful songs from Lunik 9, nearly a half mile away from our home.
Yet, the Roma are usually ignored at best, discriminated against at worst.
They could make our world a richer place; they bring a colorful approach to life, inventive adaptation, a deep and resilient faith and a strong sense of family and community.
But these voices are drowned out by the much louder cacophony of stereotypes, cultural differences and poverty. How will the world ever hear the voice of the Roma?
In our work, I’ve gotten to know many Roma musicians, but their songs are mostly unheard.
I’ve listened to Roma children singing in a school choir, and I knew only a few people outside the school walls will ever hear their soulful songs.
I have played alongside talented boys from Lunik 9 who have powerful stories to tell and realized no one outside their neighborhood will listen to them.
I have worshipped to moving songs of faith written by Roma believers and see they’re so wrapped up in the struggle to provide for their families that they rarely find the time or resources to share them.
We want to tell their stories and share their songs. That’s why over the past two years we’ve spent making recordings, videos and interviews.
The result is the Roma Voices Project. You can find all these songs and stories on the project’s website.
Though most of the songs are in the Romani language, the materials are all available in both English and Slovak.
But the project is more than just these materials. It’s a hope, a desire for the voice of the Roma to be heard in a beautiful and compelling way.
Our hope is that through Roma Voices, Roma musicians will be encouraged to keep developing their talents, like the young members of the Galakticka Children’s Choir whose eyes lit up when they first heard their own recorded voices.
Our hope is that through Roma Voices, these songs will be heard around the world, bringing inspiration through the beautiful gifts of these musicians.
Our hope is that through Roma Voices, their stories will spark new conversations here in Slovakia, in the U.S. and other places in the world, about the plight of the Roma people.
Their situation is challenging and complex, but never beyond hope.
Come listen and experience their songs and stories and join with us in hoping and working for a better future in which the world is inspired by the voice of the Roma.
Jon Parks and his wife Tanya serve as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel in Kosice, Slovakia.