BUCHAREST, Romania — At first, fans politely applauded the Roma performers sharing a stage with Madonna. Then the pop star condemned widespread discrimination against Roma and the cheers gave way to jeers.
The sharp mood change that swept the crowd of 60,000, who had packed a park for Wednesday night’s concert, underscores how prejudice against Roma remains deeply entrenched across Eastern Europe.
Despite long-standing efforts to stamp out rampant bias, human rights advocates say Roma probably suffer more humiliation and endure more discrimination than any other people group on the continent.
Sometimes, it can be deadly: In neighbouring Hungary, six Roma have been killed and several wounded in a recent series of apparently racially motivated attacks targeting small countryside villages predominantly settled by Roma, also know as Gypsies.
“There is generally widespread resentment against Gypsies in Eastern Europe. They have historically been the underdog,” Radu Motoc, an official with the Soros Foundation Romania, said Thursday.
Roma are a nomadic ethnic group believed to have their roots in the Indian subcontinent. They live mostly in southern and eastern Europe but hundreds of thousands have migrated west over the past few decades in search of jobs and better living conditions.
Romania has the largest number of Roma in the region. Some say the population could be as high as two million, although official figures pin it at 500,000.
Until the 19th century, Romanian Gypsies were slaves and they’ve gotten a mixed response ever since: While discrimination is widespread, many East Europeans are enthusiastic about Roma music and dance, which they embrace as part of the region’s cultural heritage.
That explains why the Roma musicians and a dancer who had briefly joined Madonna onstage got enthusiastic applause. And it also may explain why some in the crowd turned on Madonna when she paused during the two-hour show — a stop on her worldwide “Sticky and Sweet” tour — to touch on their plight.
“It has been brought to my attention . . . that there is a lot of discrimination against Romanies and Gypsies in general in Eastern Europe,” she said. “It made me feel very sad.”
Thousands booed and jeered her.
A few cheered when she added: “We don’t believe in discrimination . . . we believe in freedom and equal rights for everyone.” But she got more boos when she mentioned discrimination against homosexuals and others.
“I jeered her because it seemed false what she was telling us. What business does she have telling us these things?” said Ionut Dinu, 23.
Madonna did not react and carried on with her concert, held near the hulking palace of the late communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Her publicist, Lizz Rosenberg, said Madonna and others had told her there were cheers as well as jeers.
“Madonna has been touring with a phenomenal troupe of Roma musicians who made her aware of the discrimination toward them in several countries so she felt compelled to make a brief statement,” Rosenberg said in an email. “She will not be issuing a further statement.”
One Roma musician said the attitude toward Gypsies is contradictory.
“Romanians watch Gypsy soap operas, they like Gypsy music and go to Gypsy concerts,” said Damian Draghici, a Grammy Award-winner who has performed with James Brown and Joe Cocker.
“But there has been a wave of aggression against Roma people in Italy, Hungary and Romania, which shows me something is not OK,” he said in an interview. “The politicians have to do something about it. People have to be educated not to be prejudiced. All people are equal, and that is the message politicians must give.”
— With files from Alison Mutler in Bucharest, William J. Kole in Vienna and Nekesa Mumbi Moody in New York.