Monika Lakatos, a celebrated singer of 'Olah Gypsy' music from Hungary, has become the first Romani artist to receive the prestigious World Music Expo (WOMEX) lifetime achievement award.

Soft-spoken but with a passionate singing voice, the 42-year-old hails from the tiny Olah gypsy community, a branch of the Romani ethnic minority, Hungary's largest at around seven percent of its population of 9.8 million.

“I am proud to win it as both a gypsy and a Hungarian,” the diminutive dark-haired singer, told AFP Saturday before she received the award at a WOMEX gala concert in Budapest.

Previous winners include Senegalese performer Cheikh Lo and Portuguese 'fado' legend Mariza.

The award was “timely” given the contribution of Romani artists to the world's musical culture, WOMEX jury member Balazs Weyer said.

Lakatos was recognised for her “outstanding artistry, as well as her social impact and personal dedication to keeping alive the Olah gypsy tradition,” Weyer told AFP.

“Her pure voice has such an immediate effect, you can see the change in the eyes of people listening,” he said.

The distinctive Olah singing style emphasises tone and spontaneity, with a repertoire of lyrical “listening” songs and danceable “whirling” ones.

Unlike more widely known strings-based Hungarian gypsy music, the Olah version uses traditional percussive instruments like water urns, wooden tubs and spoons, as well as a beatbox-like sound called “vocal-bassing”.

“The Olah style is the soul of Gypsy music, it's a living culture, life weaves the songs together,” Lakatos said.

Declaring love through song

Olah gypsies migrated from neighbouring Romania in the 19th century and now number only around 30,000 people. Most live in rural northeast Hungary near Nagyecsed, a village 250 kilometres east of Budapest.

Traditionally horse traders and travelling salesmen, many Olah gypsies now struggle with deep poverty.

Within its male-dominated community, Lakatos, born in Budapest but with roots in Nagyecsed, says its members respect traditions like not holding hands or declaring love in public.

“We do that through song and dance instead,” she said.

After learning traditional Olah Gypsy music with cousins and friends as a child, Lakatos won a national TV talent show in 1996 aged 17.

Now she fronts acclaimed ensemble Romengo and performs in a duo with her musician husband Mazsi Rostas.

A mother-of-one, her daughter also occasionally sings in another of her groups Gypsy Voices, which promotes young, mainly female, Olah singing talents.

“It's important that this musical culture is passed on at home, in case later generations are only able to learn about it from books,” she said.

Lakatos also celebrates what she calls her “dual identity as a Hungarian Gypsy”.
The Romani, often on the receiving end of discrimination, face widespread exclusion from mainstream Hungarian society.

But “our common language of music is a link bringing people together,” she said, adding that festival goers in Hungary often tell her after concerts that they didn't know about Olah gypsy music until seeing her.

“If people don't know a culture then maybe they can be afraid or suspicious of it,” she noted.

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