The quick high-kicking, toe-tapping, whirling music of Hungarian Czardas, Romanian and Jewish Horas, Greek Sirtakis, Italian Tarantellas, Russian and Ukrainian Hopaks and Kolomeikas are all part of the extensive European repertoire of the Gypsy Rovers.
The Gypsy Rovers are Dick Okros, mandolin, Brian Tetlow, bass, Ron Minchin, guitar and Wilf Davies, piano. They perform their popular style of music for any occasion: Luminara, the former Victoria Folkfest, retirement residences, senior care facilities, the Greek Festival, Ukrainian New Year’s Eve dances and much more.
“We call ourselves the ‘Gypsy Rovers’ because we roam all over the place,” explains Dick. “Gypsies usually have a slow start to their music and then it picks up, gradually moving faster. We try to do that when we have the chance performing as Gypsy Rovers.”
Dick plays the mandolin but, for the appropriate themes, he also plays the bouzouki, the domra and the balalaika. Reflecting back on 20 years of venues and audiences, Dick says, “I think the last thing to go in one’s memory is music. Well-known melodies and tunes stay with us. One of the care facility we play at, many of the residents have lost their memory. I think we’ve done our job well when the people are still humming or singing the tunes after we leave. It brightens their day and that’s a good thing to do.”
One of Dick’s unforgettable moments as a Gypsy Rover was performing at the Victoria Volkssport Walking Club: an active, local multicultural organization. One year, the German army sent over a contingent of soldiers who did a 40-kilometre hike singing the “Happy Wanderer” the whole way.
Brian and Dick are two of the original Gypsy Rovers formed 20 years ago. “When we were first starting out, we were rather ‘green’ behind the ears so we volunteered our services to the Ukrainian Community,” recalls Brian. “We offered to play for our monthly perogy dinners, which are excellent. Initially, this was our rehearsal place and to gain experience playing for a crowd. We did this for several years until we recently decided to ask for a fee because we were attracting a number of people to the monthly Ukrainian Dinner. We are known as the house band for the Ukrainian Culture Centre.”
At the age of 18, Brian made the momentous decision to become a teacher rather than a professional musician. “I kept my music as an enjoyable hobby,” he says. “Math and music do go together. Lots of people play music but not many can do math!” In fact, three of the band members have math and music in their background: Brian taught math; Ron was a banker; and Dick was an engineer.
Brian’s worst memory was playing one year at Luminara, the Lantern Festival.
“That was our absolute lowest moment in our entertainment history playing in the pouring rain to an absent audience! A few people occasionally wandered by with umbrellas and stopped to listen.”
Ten years ago, two of the original Gypsy Rovers left the group to pursue other interests. Ron Minchin stepped in to play guitar. “When I switched to European music, it was quite an adjustment for me because this wasn’t my musical genre. I always played contemporary or ‘white man’ music,” he says with a smile. “European music is quite different - it can change tempo a lot and the musicians have to keep together.”
Ron played guitar and electric bass guitar for years when he was growing up in Ontario. Like the other Gypsy Rovers, he played in his high school band as well as a few rock bands in his youth. And, like the others, Ron knew he needed a “real job” after high school. It wasn’t until he retired from the banking world 12 years ago that he found time to pick up his guitar again. Dick describes Ron’s talents as “a virtuoso on the guitar when he does a lot of ‘runs’ and ‘fill-ins.’”
Ron adds to the fun of certain songs. As an enthusiastic audience begins clapping to a familiar Russian folk song, Ron casually pops a furry Russian hat on his head without missing a beat on his guitar. Later, in a spirited sing-along of the “Happy Wanderer,” he gives his audience a smile and wears his Alpine hat. And, when the audience sings “Edelweiss,” Ron pulls out his Austrian hat. “The ones I wear with the Gypsy Rovers are only a small portion of my entire collection,” he says. “I have a hat for nearly every occasion. Hats are one of my trademarks - it helps the visual entertainment.”
No one claims to be the leader of the Gypsy Rovers, but each member contributes his expertise: Dick has the ideas, Ron has the extensive library and Brian arranges the music for their instruments.
Wilf Davies, the fourth member of the Gypsy Rovers, is not a “talker” but prefers playing enthusiastic keyboard, accordion and piano whenever he can. There is a strong bond of camaraderie among the group. The Gypsy Rovers’ teamwork is seamless and they play their music effortlessly. Their combined talent playing a variety of instruments makes their European sound unique. Hearing their toe-tapping, hand-clapping, polka music emphasizes they can adapt to any theme. At an Oktoberfest dinner, the request for a “Newfie” song was humorously filled with a rollicking rendition of the familiar sea shanty, “Yo ho, Blow the Man Down.” The Gypsy Rovers’ universal appeal is that they genuinely enjoy every moment with their audiences and with each other.
For bookings or purchasing the Gypsy Rovers *Roving in Europe* or *Roving in Europe Again* CDs, contact Dick Okros at 250-477-2151 or Brian Tetlow at 250-479-1947.
DECEMBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER ISLAND
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