Little Money Street: In Search of Gypsies and Their Music in the South of France – Book Review

Fernanda Eberstadt
256 pages Hardcover
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Publishers, New York
Published: March 14, 2006
ISBN-10: 0375-41116-X

From the author of four novels comes this remarkable book, both impassioned and humorous, about the Gypsies of southwestern France - their habits, their haunts, and their haunting music.

In 1998, Fernanda Eberstadt, her husband, and their two small children moved from New York to an area outside Perpignan, a city set on a series of bluffs overlooking the river Tet, with one of the largest, if not the largest, Gypsy populations in Western Europe. Always fascinated with Gypsy music, Eberstadt became obsessed with the local “Gypsy rumba,” and with a Perpignan band called Tekameli, perhaps the greatest Gypsy band between Barcelona and Budapest. After eighteen futile months of trying to make contact, she was at last invited into the home of Tekameli’s lead singer, Moïse Espinas, and into the closed world of the Gypsies.

Here she found a jealously guarded culture - a society made, in part, of lawlessness and defiance of non-Gypsy norms - that nonetheless made room for her, “a privileged American in a Mediterranean 'underworld'.” As her relationship with the Espinas family changed over the years from mutual bafflement to a deep-rooted friendship, the author found herself a part of Gypsy life, moving about in a large group whose core included Moïse, his wife, her sister, and their children - at cockfights, in storefront churches, at malls, in their homes, and at their rehearsals, discovering lives lived “between biblical laws and strip-mall consumerism” - and always accompanied by the intense and infectious beat of their heart-stopping music.

Little Money Street is a spellbinding story of the Gypsies and the little-known landscape in France they have called home for centuries, and of one woman’s extraordinary journey among them.

Fernanda Eberstadt, who is a critically acclaimed novelist, proves herself a master of nonfiction as well with this book.

What began as an attempt to document the fortunes of a successful Gypsy rumba band quickly turned into something much broader for the author, as we can see.

Little Money Street tells it like it is in the life of the Romani in the Perpignan area of France, warts – and there are lots of them – and all.

It also, even to a Rom myself, showed things in our People that I had not even noticed proper though of which I am personally aware, such as the constant fear that one may have upset someone, especially a friend. I have always thought that to be a particular trait of mine only, a hang-up of some sort, but, apparently, this seems to be something in the genes of all of ours.

This book is very much in the vein of “Proud Outcasts: The Gypsies of Spain” by Merrill F. McLane, about the Cale (Gitanos) of the Quadix region of Spain.

One of the biggest problems that the Gypsies of Perpignan have, and the confusions that are bound up with that, is caused by the fact that they have all, in the main, fallen into the trap of pentecostalist Protestantism.

This book is hilarious to the extreme at times when one reads how the Gypsies, men and women, and children, act and react, and the author has such a lovely warm way of telling it. Knowing our Culture and Behavior I can, obviously, fell with it when it is seen from an outsider, and sometimes even cringe when reading as to the amount of information that is in there about our People. No, not by way of Culture and Traditions and such that should not be seen by outsiders but just in general.

I can but highly recommend this book to anyone, not just those interested in Gypsy music and the band “Tekameli”. Be, however, prepared to laugh and cry, often at the same time, when reading this book.

Review by Michael Smith (Veshengro), December 2007

N.B. This book was NOT supplied by the publishers, even though I had wanted to contact them for a long time to get a copy, but was purchased – for very little – at a local Charity Shop.