The Piper of Parliament

Panpipe virtuoso Damian Draghici ’98 swaps a celebrated music career for a seat in the European Parliament to campaign for Roma rights.
By 
 Draghici was elected to the Parliament of the European Union in May 2014.
Draghici was elected to the Parliament of the European Union in May 2014.

By anyone’s standards, Damian Draghici’s life chronicle would make a great movie. The story arc begins in Bucharest, Romania, with Draghici growing up in a very poor but musical Gypsy (Roma) family. In his late teens, he escapes the grip of Nicholae Ceaucescu’s oppressive Communist regime by walking alone hundreds of miles to freedom, finds work as a musician in Greece and ultimately receives a full scholarship to Berklee.

After graduating in 1998, his dazzling virtuosity as a jazz improviser on the panpipes grabs the attention of top musicians in Los Angeles and elsewhere. In 2001, a PBS producer films his spectacular homecoming concert with a 150-piece orchestra at Bucharest’s Centrul Civic attended by 72,000 of his countrymen. He makes some 19 albums for a major label and tours the world—frequently sharing the stage with major music stars. He becomes a state councilor for Roma issues to the Romanian prime minster before becoming a member of the Romanian senate. In 2014, he becomes the first Romanian of Gypsy heritage ever elected to the European Parliament.

Sitting down with me at the Petite France Hotel in Strasbourg, France, the day before his swearing in at the European Parliament, Draghici says, “This is all unbelievable to me, but it is just the beginning. I think a lot will happen in Brussels.” In his new position, Draghici’s top priority is to help improve the lot of Roma people throughout Europe who continue to experience widespread discrimination that, tragically, has been their condition for centuries.

A Little History

As applied to Roma or Romani people, the term Gypsy perpetuates the falsehood that the group originally came from Egypt to Europe. In truth, the early Romani people migrated from Punjab in northwest India through the Middle East and Northern Africa about 1,000 years ago and began dispersing into Europe and parts of Russia. They have a reputation as wanderers living in caravans—often romanticized in music and other media—because they have never had a specific ancestral homeland.

Persecution has followed the Roma through the centuries, with various European countries passing laws against their mode of dress and language, or mandating their expatriation. In some parts of Europe, they were enslaved or barred from certain occupations and from buying land. During World War II, the Nazis declared them racially inferior and wiped out at least a quarter of the population during the holocaust. While desperation has led to lives of crime for too many Roma, the entire population has been unjustly tarred with the reputation of pickpockets and worse. It’s not uncommon to find current news stories about civil authorities in Europe knocking down Roma settlements without relocating the families. Today, between 10 million and 12 million Roma live in the region, which makes them the largest minority group in the European Union. Through his political office, Draghici hopes to change perceptions about his people and create greater awareness of the richness of their culture.

Draghici started playing the panpipes at 11 years old. “Playing Gypsy music has been a tradition in my family since about 1850,” he says. “My great grandfather was one of the best panpipe players in Romania.” But as a child, Draghici found it difficult to limit himself to one instrument. “Most Roma children start playing an instrument at three, and I started with the hammered dulcimer or cimbalom,” he says. “Rather than becoming an expert on one instrument, I would switch to another every two years. I went from cimbalom to piano to drums to double bass. I was the one who wasn’t progressing like the other kids who played one instrument for seven years. But later in life, in some mysterious way in my professional career, I used all the instruments I’d learned.”

By the time he was 15, he was playing panpipes in nightclubs when some of his fellow musicians gave him a copy of The Real Book. He started learning standards and became obsessed with jazz. “I had [bootleg] cassette tapes of Bird, Miles, and Oscar Peterson, and loved jazz,” he says. (Search YouTube for videos of Draghici playing Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee,” Chick Corea’s “Spain,” and more.) When he was 17, Michael and Randy Brecker played at a hotel one night in Bucharest. “I went there with the friends who gave me The Real Book and met them,” he says. “To me, it was like meeting Luke Skywalker.”

Solo Flight

Many people told Draghici that jazz with its chromaticism wouldn’t work on the diatonic panpipes. He characterizes his discovery of how to play chromatically “a destiny mistake.” Necessity led to his discovery of notes in between the diatonic pitches of the pipes. “I had an old Russian turntable that I used to play music that I wanted to learn. I didn’t realize that it played everything a half-tone low. So if a tune was in G major, I’d learn it in G-flat. Later, that turned out to be a good thing, because I learned to play chromatically. We usually progress the most when we are uncomfortable.”

True enough. And when life in Romania became uncomfortable for Draghici, he took a risk that opened up new vistas. “The living conditions in Romania before the revolution were quite horrible for everyone—not just Roma,” he says. “But beyond having an issue with living conditions, I wanted freedom of expression—not just for my political or social views, but as an artist. I was not a conformist and that was not the right environment for me.” He requested a visa to leave the country but was refused. He decided to leave anyway and started out alone, on foot heading toward what was then Yugoslavia. He walked during the night to avoid detection and slept in the woods during the day.

“I was not well informed when I left,” he says, “I didn’t even know the geography. But somehow—with the help of God—what was supposed to happen did. I learned later that the Romanian government had an arrangement with the now former Yugoslavian government to capture escaped Romanians in return for a few bushels of wheat or something.” He completed the trip of hundreds of miles after a week of hard traveling. “Sometimes being scared makes you move faster because you’re not looking backwards,” he says. “I was 18 years old when I had that experience. When I talk about it now, I see it as something you’d do when you are very young. I don’t know if I would do it again.”

He made his way to Greece and started playing panpipes on the streets and at tables in restaurants. He later began playing traditional Greek music on piano in nightclubs. After a few years, he’d saved enough money to enroll at Philippos Nakas Conservatory in Athens, a member school in the Berklee International Network. There, he studied jazz with teachers who had returned home to Greece after graduating from Berklee. They encouraged him to apply to the college. He played an audition for Steve Lipman, Larry Monroe, and others and was offered a full scholarship. During his three years at Berklee, Draghici exploited the ability to play fast bebop lines on panpipes—a feat no one had successfully done before—and it turned lots of heads. He graduated summa cum laude.

A Triumphant Homecoming

Next, Draghici relocated to Los Angeles and became friends with the top L.A. session players. An introduction to a producer for PBS led to Draghici’s being featured in a huge outdoor concert in his former home, Bucharest, Romania, backed by a 150-piece orchestra. The music he wrote for the event blended pop with jazz and Gypsy styles.

The live concert and subsequent DVD were a great success and PBS arranged a tour of the United States. Draghici was offered a recording contract with EMI and signed with German management. “They got me working on one of the biggest tours in Europe: Night of the Proms,” Draghici recalls. “That year was the 20th anniversary of the proms, and I was sharing the stage with James Brown, Cindi Lauper, Joe Cocker, and Shaggy. We did 100 concerts in front of 20,000 to 30,000 people each night.”

Draghici made a string of jazz albums before moving back to Romania and forming Damian and Brothers, a group that played traditional Roma music. “For three years, from 2006 to 2009, we played some crazy Gypsy music,” he says. “We gave 625 concerts in 36 countries throughout Europe and Asia, it was a huge success.” In 2007, Draghici was chosen as a Roma ambassador for the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All. “I was performing with the Gypsy band, and at first I didn’t take being an ambassador seriously,” he says. “But I saw that what we were doing on stage conveyed a message. People would see us, and it would change their perception. I was outspoken, and people were accepting my point of view better than they would have if I was a politician because I was in a different setting.”

Damian Draghici circa 2002 as a performing musician
Damian Draghici circa 2002 as a performing musician

A New Mission

People began telling him that he had potential as a politician. He laughed it off at first but later realized that his fame and musical accomplishments positioned him to become a champion for Roma rights. “I felt I had a mission to represent my people to help them gain access to a better life,” he recalls. Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta told Draghici that he needed his input and appointed him state councilor on Roma issues in 2012. Later that year Draghici was elected a senator in the Romanian Parliament. Then, in May of 2014, he was elected as a member of the EU parliament with backing from the social democrats in Romania.

To prepare for his new post, Draghici immersed himself in current affairs and enrolled in a master’s degree program in public administration. Over the course of his five-year term, he will spend Monday through Thursday of each week in Brussels, Belgium, at the official seat of the parliament. On the weekends he will return to Romania and meet with his constituents. Once a month, he will attend the parliament’s plenary sessions in Strasbourg, France.

His primary goal is to promote social inclusion for Roma people across Europe. “I want to bring all the stakeholders to the table and figure out the best steps to take for the next generation,” Draghici says. “We need concrete measures. In the past, politicians have gathered statistics and made studies, but taken no actions that would help. In music you can learn about theory and modes, but in the end, you need to pick up your instrument and play. People have been studying the Roma and their habits for years; now it’s time for the gig.

“Things have been getting exponentially worse for Roma people in recent years,” Draghici says. “We’ve seen hate crimes and the rise of extremists in Europe. It’s difficult for people living in the conditions the Roma do to make a living. Some of them commit acts that none of us are proud of. But I believe we need communication between the majority and the Roma to understand what is needed. Politicians have thought they knew what was best for the Roma, but they have to go to the people and ask what they need. Some may want to give them cars when what they really need is a table with some food on it. Basic things are more important.”

Being a jazz musician, Draghici is aware of the history of African Americans and their contributions to American culture. He sees a parallel between their struggle and that of Roma people and plans to shine a light on their cultural contributions. “Gypsy music is what it is because it comes from strong feelings,” he says. “The music is a conglomeration of lots of history, joy, and pain. It’s similar to the experiences African Americans distilled in their music. There are many similarities between the two cultures.”

Draghici hopes to promote Roma culture through a musical, books, or an artistic movie to foster understanding. “I want to change stereotypes,” he says, “but not through a documentary. I’d like to see a romantic comedy—something like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That was a movie where people could laugh or cry and get insights to Greek culture. I want the majority of people to see that we are all alike: human beings.”

Draghici has specific objectives and does not plan to be a career politician. He wants to complete his “dream album,” which he began in 2010 with clarinetist Eddie Daniels and fellow luminaries Stanley Clarke, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, Russell Ferrante, Luciana Souza, Chris Botti, and Bob Mintzer. “It’s 70 percent done,” he says. “I will go back and finish it someday.”