Allison Hulmes profiles Bob Lovell, a singer/songwriter, recording artist, social activist and former Vice President of Romani Association of Australasia. Bob lives with his Wife Jayne in Auckland and is the first male Welsh Romany Lovell to be born in New Zealand. Here, following Bob’s recent visit to Wales, Allison reflects on how his music is working to preserve the Welsh Romanus dialect for future generations.
‘Ame Welsheskri Romani sar o patrainia oprey O baval ando butti temeskri ame Romani sar ame dik ki Cymru, sa amari Romanistan – We Welsh Romani Gypsies are the leaves upon the wind in many countries, we see Wales as our place of standing’
Bob Lovell is the first generation of our Welsh Romany Lovell familiya (family) to be born in Nevo Zeatan/New Zealand, after his dadus (father) moved there in 1947 to find a better life, realising that living the ‘old ways’ was getting harder. His dadus (my great-uncle Adolphus Lovell) spoke Welsh Romanus – the unique dialect of the Welsh Gypsies – even though non-Gypsy academics, primarily linked to the Gypsy Lore Society, had declared in the 1950’s, that the dialect had died out. Of course, Welsh Gypsies living the old ways – travelling the drom (road), hawking (trading), duckering (telling fortunes), knife grinding and hop-picking – would never have spoken to such people and with their colonial mindset, the Gypsy lorist’s also decided who they deemed worthy of speaking to. It is not surprising to us, that the dialect remained safe within the old families in Wales, living a traditional nomadic life, and it was passed on in the oral tradition, as Bob’s dadus did with him.
Bob is the last remaining speaker of what is left of the Welsh Romanus dialect, passed on in the old ways. The dialect has been written down in various texts, most notably John Sampson’s dictionary of the Welsh Gypsies, but it is not possible to really learn it from these sources, as the dialect lies flat and without dimension on a page. One may use the odd word or phrase, but to speak the dialect authentically, to understand it’s pronunciation, it’s rhythms and cadence as it was spoken, one has to be taught by a native speaker.
Bob has been dedicated, throughput his life, to preserving and protecting the dialect for future generations. He started to write songs using the dialect way back in the 1980’s when he began performing as a folk singer/songwriter. He also started to commit the dialect to paper in the 1990’s – following the death of his dadus, as he forbade him from writing it or from recording him speaking it – with the foresight that it would need to available in a form suitable for sharing with others.
Bob was unaware that any books had been written about the Welsh Gypsies or the dialect and was astounded to find that some had been written by members of the Gypsy Lore Society. These writings contained inaccuracies in relation to the dialect, and also our Romanipen (family, culture, mores and values) and were based upon romanticised notions of the Welsh Romani Gypsies, imposed by Victorian ethnographers. The inaccuracies written in the books caused his dadus/father great distress, when he learned of them shortly before his death, retaining as he did, his memories of the families spoken of in the books.
Many of these inaccuracies hold fast and are perpetuated to this day, and they do a dis-service to all of the old Welsh Romani families, many of whom are still living in Wales, raising families and proud in their ethnic identity. One of the reasons that Bob has been devoted to creating an original body of work, through his gilia/songs and parramisha/stories, is to reclaim our authentic Welsh Romani identity, to tell our stories, as they should be and not as they were imposed.
This is Bob’s third trip to the motherland of Wales. On both previous occasions, he bought a small van and took to the drom/road, visiting the old achin tans/stopping places of our family and ancestor’s, meeting with semensar (cousins) and performing his music at events important to our culture. He is the only person composing and singing original songs in the Welsh Romanus dialect and his songs provide a connecting line from the old ways, through to the need to evolve, whilst retaining our ethnic identity and culture.
This visit, which may well be Bob’s final one to his Romanistan/place of standing, has been focused on ensuring the dialect becomes a part of the new school’s curriculum in Wales, where there is now a legal duty to teach Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic history and culture in schools. As part of this process, we have been working with Welsh Government to ensure resources on the Welsh Romanus dialect are available to schools. Being Welsh as well as Welsh Romani I know all too well the harm caused to our ethnic identity and culture when our language is threatened. As part of this trip home, Bob and I visited school children in Maindy Primary Newport, an area close to the final achin tan/stopping place of our family. It was a joy to bring the Welsh Romanus dialect into a Welsh school, for what is likely to be, the first time ever, through Bob’s gilia/songs and parramisha/stories.
In many ways, returning to Newport was an act of repair after the past fracturing of our family, which had taken place in Newport in the post war years. Following our visit to the school, we went to the graves of our grandparents ,Bertha and Adolphus Lovell and Uncle Seth, who lay to rest beneath a wooden cross carved by Bob, during a visit home in 2007, we told them in Welsh Romanus, that the dialect is returned.
Bob has not been able to play his guitar since 2017 due to nerve damage, but since coming home to Wales, he has recovered his gift and has even composed a new song, inspired by some my activism around part 4 of the Police Act. This has been a source of great joy to Bob, as not being able to play his music has been a loss only other creatives can comprehend. Music lies at the kom/calon/heart of who he is it is restored, once he’d answered the call to return to his Romanistan – he answered the hiraeth.
It has been a joy and privilege to spend this precious time with my kako Bob, the footsteps of our ancestors entered my kenna/home and my kom/heart with his arrival and will remain deep within me, when he leaves for the latcho drom/long road back to Nevo Zeatan/New Zealand.
Bob is unique in retaining so much of the old Welsh Romanus and his gift of the dialect being preserved and passed on to future generations children in Wales, is being realised. It will foster greater understanding of our culture and presence in Wales.
Parruke tute/diolch yn fawr iawn/thank you kako Bob Lovell/Kumalo.
Bob Lovell singing an original song about his and Allison’s GG Grandmother Rosie Small, who was locked up in Bodmin jail with her small children, charged with vagrancy, can be heard here. Copies of his latest CD are available from: email@example.com