Photo: Milos Momcilovic/Shutterstock

A Modern History of Macedonia Through Music

by Robert Rigney Jan 8, 2013

The Gypsy wedding band was slightly the worse for booze, the perpetual pom-pom-pom of the davul drum rhythmical, insistent, throbbed like a fever pulse in the sizzling heat, while the zurna — a kind of trumpeted clarinet with stops instead of keys and the instrument of choice among Turkified Roma — emitted a kind of dirge-like, screechy, piercing Oriental whine in a 9/8 Gypsy rhythm (“My head is like a zurna,” is what the Turks use to express a hangover). Meanwhile, at the church of Sveti Spas, an Orthodox wedding was taking place — Old Skopje offered up a mosaic of impressions.

Skopje is a divided city. The west is modern and Macedonian. The east has a Turkish air and is predominantly Albanian and Muslim. The Vardar flows through the middle and divides the old town from the new town.

Old Skopje looks Eastern and smells Eastern, maintaining a bit of the old Turkish flavor it had when Old Skopje was called Üsküp during the Ottoman period. Most of the people whom you see in its narrow streets are Albanian Muslims. In Turkish times nearly two-thirds of the whole population of Skopje was Muslim. Many of the Muslims left in the ’20s. The Christian newcomers settled on the south bank of the Vardar, and the old town remained, and remains to this day, predominantly Muslim. Some of the Muslims are Islamicised Slavs, but mostly they are Albanians.

On the one hand, the clash of cultures in Skopje makes its street life colorful. However, it has its dark side. National identity is a big issue in Skopje and in Macedonia and almost everyone, cosmopolitan artists and intellectuals included, has a chauvinistic streak. You could say history is to blame. Everyone wishing for a Greater Greece, Greater Bulgaria, Greater Serbia, Greater Romania, or Greater Albania, it seems, has laid claim to Macedonia.

Typically, in Macedonia these ethnic divisions are played out in an ongoing and never-ending war of national monuments, with each ethnicity unwilling to be cowed by the others’ hectoring memorials and sometimes tampering with history by erecting or dismantling historical monuments that confirmed or refuted their thesis.

In 2001, following the war between Albanian separatists and the Macedonian army, a huge cross, dubbed the Millennium Cross, was erected on the Vodena mountain which towers above Skopje to the east. Not to be outdone, the Albanians countered with a bronze equestrian statue of the 15th-century Albanian warrior and national hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderberg (1405-1468) in the c[h]ars[h]ija in 2006, which rears up facing the Macedonian part of town across the old stone bridge spanning the Vardar.

We came naked into this world and we will go back naked. And we don’t want to have a homeland. All the world is our homeland.

Caught between the Albanians and the Christian Slavs is Macedonia’s third biggest minority, the Roma. In fact, low standard of living aside, compared to their populations in many East European countries the Roma do not have it so bad in Macedonia. Macedonia is the Balkan nation with the most integrated Roma populations. In Skopje there is Roma TV and radio and schooling in the Roma language, and Macedonia is the only country in the world with Roma political parties, as well as Roma MPs.

There are two main Roma mahalas — quarters — on the periphery of Skopje, both of which were founded after the 1963 earthquake when a lot of makeshift housing was erected to accommodate those left homeless by the disaster. The first settlement is Topana, where Esma Redzepova was born.

Redzepova is probably Macedonia’s most famous living celebrity and, along with crooner Muharem Serbezovski, a living icon of Macedonian Roma music. She’s the Queen of the Gypsies, like the late Saban Bajramovic was the King. Born in 1943, at the age of twelve she composed “Chaje Shukarije” (Beautiful Girl), which became her most popular song, and by the age of thirteen had composed 30 songs in Romanes and in Macedonian. In the ’60s her songs swept Yugoslavia. She performed for Tito, was crowned Queen of the Gypsies by Indira Gandhi, crisscrossed the globe with gigs in China, Africa, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Mexico, Japan, all the time publicly fighting for world peace and open borders. She is today one of the most important Roma emissaries.

I met up with Esma before a show in Skopje. Small and sprightly, a veritable bundle of energy, she had just been awarded a prize by the Macedonian government for lifetime achievement and had this to say about Macedonia and the Roma:

I like to be very real. Not to push the things up or down. But I like to tell you the truth. Macedonia is the only country in the world where Roma people are a part of the constitution. We have ministers in the government. There are a lot of people working under the ministers in the government. Macedonia did a lot in education of Gypsy people. And which is very important Macedonia doesn’t assimilate them. The first Gypsy alphabet is coming from Macedonia and also the first Gypsy song in Gypsy language. The first Gypsy singer sang a Gypsy song on Radio Skopje. So the life of Gypsy people in Macedonia is very, very good. All other world countries may take Macedonia as an example and treat Gypsy people the same way. Gypsy people are cosmopolitan. They have never been involved in a war with any other nation. They are unique in this way. And they never occupied another country.

There is one sentence which is very common for Gypsies: We came naked into this world and we will go back naked. And we don’t want to have a homeland. All the world is our homeland. Sometimes I like to say that animals are more clever than people are. An animal may cross a border without showing any document. As well as the most poisonous snake may move without any barrier. But we the human beings make barriers between us. I am cosmopolitan.

The second and by far the most famous Roma mahala is Shutka. With 30,000-40,000 Roma inhabitants, it is sometimes called the biggest Gypsy village in the world and was elevated to fame with Emir Kusturica’s 1987 film Time of the Gypsies, many of whose most colorful scenes were shot in Shutka.

But Kusturica’s film presents a by-and-large deceptive picture of Shutka, one of squalor and third-world favela-like conditions. In fact, Shutka is not a slum. It is rather the abode of a kind of Roma middle class, with many, albeit gaudy and tasteless, four-story “villas” complete with rampant stone lions and Ionian columns constructed by successful returned Roma gastarbeiter, or local entrepreneurs. It must be said, however, that the well-off in Shutka are only so by Macedonian norms. One inhabitant I spoke with, the Shutka rapper Al Alion, feels he is not bad off at all, though he only makes 300 euro a month, which is enough to live on when one considers that the only ones in Macedonia who earn more than 500 euro are employees of foreign firms.

It was the beginning of July when I found myself in Shutka, and so at the height of the wedding season. As evening fell, everywhere I turned it seemed there was a wedding party going on, with Christmas lights strung out across the streets and Roma women got-up in fancy Oriental gowns, dancing arms linked with pimped-up, sharp-dressing Roma men, some hoisting gin bottles, and children darting to and fro between the legs of the adults.

The singer, blinded in one eye by money, cried: “I’m blinded in one eye! God help me become blind in the other!”

The stereotypical image of a mahala Gypsy wedding in the West never omits a Balkan brass band. Popularized by the music of Goran Bregovic and the films of Emir Kusturica, in fact this kind of music died out in Shutka with the ’80s. As all over the Balkans, the days of big wedding bands with traditional brass instruments are numbered. Up until recently, the king of Roma wedding music was gnome-like sax maestro Ferus Mustafov with his brand of electric wedding music: sax, clarinet, accordion or keyboards, electric guitar, bass guitar and drums, and a singer, of course. At the same time, Turkish Arabesque music was big among the elderly Roma population.

With the war in Kosovo, Albanian Roma refugees, fleeing persecution by Kosovo Albanians, started pouring into Shutka, and with them came tallava, a kind of psychedelic Oriental wedding music popular in the regions of Peja and Gjakova in Kosovo. Tallava features a singer who is likely to go on for hours improvising praises of the newlyweds, the guests, describing in detail the wedding presents, all this to the accompaniment of — to a Western ear — fairly monotonous keyboard improvisation and clarinet solos. Some “songs” can go on for 40 minutes, the rhythm very groovy and just staying that way interminably, inducing a kind of trance-like atmosphere and ending with the singer and musicians positively plastered with baksheesh. I saw a lot of this while in Shutka.

Peter Barbaric is a Slovene DJ, who put on the first Balkan Parties in Slovenia in ’91, the year Slovenia split with Belgrade. In the ’80s he brought Ferus Mustafov to Slovenia, extracting Balkan Roma music for the first time from the Gypsy mahala and presenting it for an urban, intellectual audience. He has made numerous trips to Shutka and lately discovered a lot of young Roma who’d spent time living in Germany practicing hip-hop in Shutka. His discoveries led to a CD compilation of Roma hip-hop from Shutka, featuring brass and Oriental samples, blending East and West in a really compelling fashion. According to Barbaric:

Before I had this idea of blending the two genres there was a gap. The brass band didn’t have any idea about the rappers even though they lived 200 meters away from that studio where this guy recorded rappers every day. They didn’t want to have anything to do with them. They are some bizarre guys. The rappers at that time didn’t want to have anything to do with the brass band musicians. They were ‘primitive’. They were ‘not urban’. I merged these two musicians and now they feel it’s fun to play together.

I left Shutka with the setting sun. A wedding was in progress in front of a half-finished house of exposed brick. Roma women elaborately coiffed and dolled up in glittering sequined dresses danced hand in hand to the tallava of a Gypsy wedding band. As the singer praised the beauty of the bride, elastic bands were stretched over the heads of the musicians and bank notes stuck underneath until the singer, blinded in one eye by money, cried:

    “I’m blinded in one eye! God help me become blind in the other!”

Sure enough, a generous wedding guest came up and stuck some more baksheesh over his second eye, and the singer went on oblivious to what was going on around him.

As I left Shutka behind me I could see the snow atop the Shar mountains, now glowing purple in the setting sun as the sound of tallava wailed away in my head like a drug, the sound of yet another Gypsy wedding, the sound of the East, the soundtrack of Macedonia.

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