Numerous Northern Soul favourites feature a gypsy theme. A song that has something of a tenuous connection is one of many Wand wonders, Billy Thompson’s Black Eyed Girl, which found a whole new audience after it appeared on Dancing ‘Til Dawn, one of the greatest of the early Kent soul compilations in the 1980s.
Black Eyes or Dark Eyes is the English translation of Ochi Chyornye, an enduringly popular Russian gypsy ballad, which started life in 1843 as a poem by the Ukrainian writer Yevhen Hrebinka, and 40 years later was set to a tune composed by Florian Hermann, which some will no doubt argue has its roots elsewhere: “Dark eyes, flaming eyes. They implore me into faraway lands. Where love reigns, where peace reigns. Where there is no suffering, where war is forbidden .. .”
The song has been performed by numerous people, while some have become closely associated with it, like the gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt (in France it’s known as as Les Yeux Noirs) and the extraordinary Polish singer Violetta Vilas. Back in 1917 the Russian writer Alexander Kuprin cited Dark Eyes as one of the “last flickering flames of gypsy singing” which had seemed so alive to him 25 years previously. In an article On The Passing Of Gypsy Song in Russia he argues: “What they offer us to-day from the stage and in cabarets, under the alluring name of a ‘gypsy ballad’ has lost its blood-connection with the gypsy camp and has been shorn of the spirit and very essence of that strange and mysterious tribe.”
Kuprin’s complaint seems strangely familiar. It would be interesting to know what he made of the success of the Russian gypsy singer and actress Lala Black (or Nadia Kiseleva, as she was born to her nobleman father and gypsy singer mother) whose life seems to have been as colourful and as dramatic as the stories written by the 19th Century Russian writers. Graduating from early productions by the famous, pioneering gypsy Romen Theatre in Moscow, like Life On Wheels, Lala found great success just before WW2 or The Great Patriotic War in the film The Last Camp, and her song The Drifter (or Rolling Stone) was a massive success. The Drifter, of course, is another title that will make Northern Soul sit up and sigh wistfully. After WW2 and until her death in 1982 Lala seems to have known all extremes of success and popularity, and her beauty and work still seems to inspire passionate panegyrics.
Kuprin would find much to inspire him in the contemporary collection Russian Gypsy Soul, put out by the Network Medien label as part of a gypsy-themed series of CDs. This is an extraordinary set of recordings, which covers an awful lot of ground, from the sacred to the profane, the traditional to the twisted. The Russian Gypsy Soul compilation is targeted directly at the world music market, which is understandable, but it does mean some adventurous souls will miss out on a collection that will meet their cravings for the unpredictable and uncompromising.