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O Dewel

It was almost a decade ago that I first heard "O Dewel," a Romani gospel piece sung in a variation of the macro-language Romani, as spoken by the Sinti and Manouche people of Western Europe.

The encounter was hearing Manouche polymath Tcha Limberger, a master violinist, guitarist, and improvisor known for playing at an extremely high level in countless genres, who is also a brilliant speaker and who once joked about the cannon of Romani gospel: "I think if all the music was like this, more people would go to church".

Description: Syd Birrell - Organ, Denis Chang - Guitar / Vocals / Conducting, Tcha Limberger - Violin / Vocals, Chris Bezant / Will Dickerson - Rhythm Guitar, Paul van Dyk - Bass

I fell in love with Sinti music because of the famed two-finger Romani guitarist, Django Reinhardt, who was pivotal in the emergence of jazz in 1930s Paris. Django’s playing was not only hugely influential in Jazz but also in Romani communities, which adopted swing rhythm, instrumentation, tone, and technique in homage to Reinhardt.

After meeting Limberger in 2014, I became enamored with the music behind and beyond Reinhardt. Others who fell in love with the song asked Limberger and music producer and educator Denis Chang about usage rights for these songs and if they could record their own versions. Almost all comments were answered with a plethora of "I don’t know who wrote it or really where it comes from."

I asked myself, "How many of these songs don’t have known authors?" A simple yet dangerous question as it sparked an arduous rabbit hole into the origins of countless "traditional" pieces all to try and understand where "O Dewel" came from. After the initial few months, I had one lead.

Irene Ypenburg, a friend, video blogger, artist, composer, and organizer extraordinaire, recounted that the late Pupa Schafer, who sang "O Dewel" with her family at religious ceremonies and life events, is supposedly the lyricist. Ypenburg told me the melody was taken from an old Dutch pop song from either the ’50s or ’60s and that "O Dewel" is essentially a contra-fact (a repurposing of a melody or chord progression).

Description: Pupa Schafer signing in Romanes

Contra-fact and re-use occurs in almost all communal and participatory genres. Charlie Parker’s "Donna Lee" is an adaptation of "Indiana," a song that came years before. Much of Bob Dylan’s repertoire is lifted from melodies from early Americana. To understand why contrafact is so popular in Romani music, we should understand the position many Romani have found themselves in during centuries of violence and socio-economic persecution.

Ethnic minorities like Sinti and Roma don’t have the same socioeconomic mobility that white Europeans do. Structural racism, enslavement, genocide, and hate crimes have built mistrust between these worlds, and as a result, many across the Romani diaspora have found success in music.

Romani music, Klezmer, Lautari, and other genres by diasporic people were at one time held in high fashion. White European composers of the 18th and 19th centuries would often lift these "folk melodies'' and publish them under their own names. Examples include the melodies that Brahms adapted from Mark (Rosenthol) Rozsavolgyi, a Jewish-Hungarian composer regarded as the father of Czardas. Interestingly enough, the composition "Czardas" was penned and published by an Italian composer.

Since then, the tie between diasporic music and virtuosity has been romanticized and reduced to a largely pejorative and one-dimensional image. "Unless we use the circular definition of ‘music played by and/or attributed to Romani people,’ there is no musicological genre that encompasses all Romani music. The very divergent styles performed, historically shaped, and constantly reshaped by Roma include flamenco, jazz manouche, Russian ‘romances,’ Balkan (not to mention Middle Eastern) music, Hungarian czardas, as well as fusions with jazz, hip hop, Western art music, and numerous national ‘folk’ genres. There is no ‘Gypsy scale,’ rhythmic pattern, or harmonic structure that unites them all, and these musical styles often have less in common with one another other than they do with the music of a given geographical region (e.g., Hungarian Romani vs. Spanish Gitano music)." - Romani-Ethnomusicologist Petra Gelbart via

For purposes of illustration, Imagine a wedding band. A wedding band plays the popular songs of any given moment; eventually, they play the songs so much that they become ingrained in the musician’s mind and hands long after the popular life span of the piece. This has been the tradition of Romani, Klezmer, and Ashkenaz musicians in Europe for centuries. Long after the popularity of whatever song "O Dewel" came from, Dutch Sinti communities still appreciated it and knew it well; thus, they changed the lyrics to suit them and kept singing it after it had been forgotten.

With good investigative skills, one can actually find this happening in real time. Hascha Reinhardt’s "Gei Hams Noch Har lauter Ketene" takes the melody from Fiddler on the Roof’s "Sunrise Sunset." Schnuckenack Reinhardt’s classic "O letscho Kurko" comes from a 1931 Soviet Polish tango by the name "Utomlennoe Solntse," which was rumored to be the inspiration for Billie Holiday’s "Gloomy Sunday."

Description: Utomlennoe Solntse


Description: Gloomy Sunday - Billie Holiday

Description: O Letscho Kurko - Schnuckenack Reinhardt’s

Ypenburg recalls an opening line, "Nooit zal ik jou vergeten" (I will never forget you), which had been the basis for changing the lyrics to Romanes to be about never forgetting God. As it turns out, there are hundreds of Dutch songs from this era with that line or title, and none of them seem to match up. All recordings with the line had different melodies, and all published lyrics had drastically different syllable counts and meters. Whatever song had been the original melody, it seems not to have withstood history and never made its way to a digital format. After months of searching YouTube, Spotify, Dutch pop charts from 1950–1960, museum archives, and listening to many Dutch pop songs, I found I was digging up nothing.

At square one again, I decided to email Limberger and see if he had made a similar finding since. He informed me that he had been looking for eight years and had still found nothing. Since his search for Dutch popular music of the 50s had gone out, he had begun looking into New Orleans music from the '20s. Limberger had contacted Evan Cristopher, an authority on the genre, who also claimed that he had the faintest idea where the melody could have originated from.

With all leads dead, I decided to turn to the older Dutch population to see if they had any ideas. I shared "O Dewel" with record collectors and several friends’ Dutch parents, who couldn’t place it either. I contacted Dutch folk music societies, made perhaps one too many actually-very-long posts in music groups through Facebook and Reddit, and found nothing.

Maybe Limberger had been right. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong decade or in the wrong part of the world. I was starting to believe that perhaps it wasn’t Dutch after all. This led me to contact Jimmy Grant. Grant is a California-based guitarist and a dedicated Sinti-Romani music record collector. He said it was familiar and that he possibly heard the melody on a French Romani record but still couldn’t find it.

I eventually came across a recording that was older than Limberger’s or his family’s. This came from an old German Sinti family band from the 1980s. I passed the link along to Limberger, who was convinced it was further away from the source as the melody was simplified in ways common to bands of that time and place.

With my head hung low, I decided to attack the problem with brute force. I changed my social media algorithms to suggest discographies and playlists from Tante Leen, Willy Derby, Johnny Jordaan, and other pop figures in the exploding dance hall scene of post-war Amsterdam (music that I honestly don't care much for). Yet, for months, all I did was listen to these Dutch love songs and waltzes about tulips, canals, and lost love. making sure I exhausted the discographies and live recordings through hours of listening.

It wasn’t until one moment deep in the night that I came across a new Tante Leen song, "Nog Steeds," while YouTube was on autoplay. I heard a poorly compressed, 280-p camcorder video of a street organ (an instrument much like a player-piano but with pipes) honking a carnival-like tone to which I could exactly fit the Romani lyrics.

Description: Tante Leen; Nog Steeds on Street Organ

Leen's original version wouldn't appear online for another two to three years.

And to be honest, I didn't really enjoy this version of the song.


Description: Tante Leen; Nog Steeds

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