Stand up people: Gypsy pop songs from Tito’s Yugoslavia
November 6, 2012Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the historical compilation of hard-to-find Roma pop classics is set for release in 2013
For the past year, British music aficionados Philip Knox and Nat Morris have been indulging in a dulcet love affair with a relatively obscure pop culture niche. After stumbling upon a bootleg copy of ‘Romano Horo,’ an early 1960s single by Esma Redzepova (the self-proclaimed ‘Queen of the Gypsies’), these two star-crossed music junkies fell head over ears in love with Roma pop music from the former Yugoslavia.
This long-distance love triangle spawned a journey to the former Yugoslav republics to recover the endangered gems from the jaws of oblivion and preserve them for future hip-twisters and head-bobbers.
Beginning in the 1960s and lasting until around 1980, this particular breed of pop music flourished in Tito’s Yugoslavia, where Roma culture was able to collide with contemporary European and American influences. Feeding off these and other diverse sources, while keeping their feet grounded in the rich and colorful Roma heritage, these Gypsy virtuosos spun some dainty delights, music as tight now as it was forty odd years ago.
The emotional range and talent of these artists will send you on a journey of self-discovery: you’ll cut the rug to some sylvan accordion keys, weep relentlessly to the swoons of tragic lovers, and maybe even find your next favorite morning bus ride foot tapper. In short, Tito’s Roma rockers give Fleetwood Mac a run for their money.
Knox and Morris spent last year travelling the Balkans ferreting about for old LPs and bootlegs cassettes. Their travels took them from the outskirts of Skopje to the heart of Belgrade, from stanky alleyways to gaudy mansions, from flea markets to gypsy weddings, all in the hopes of squirreling away some almost-forgotten ear candy of the Roma variety. Heck, they even got to meet the Gypsy Queen herself.
After collecting their euphonic booty, the duo ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the release of a compilation of the music they collected, the result of their yearlong adventure. Now we can all feast our senses on the visceral wealth they brought back with them.
In the meantime, Knox sat down to answer some questions about his wacky escapades:
What is it about Roma music that got you jazzed up in the first place?
Roma music is incredibly diverse, with different regions fusing and incorporating different musical traditions. Nat and I had always been interested in the Balkans, and there were lots of great Roma bands from the region who had broken through to the UK: Koçani Orkestar, Fanfare Ciocārlia, Mahala Rai Banda. They’re all amazing. I suppose part of the reason that the ROma have such a great musical tradition is that they were exlcluded from mainstream jobs for such a large part of their history. But, also, music really is a central part of life for Balkan Roma.
I suppose part of the reason that Roma music has become a global success is its rawness and passion. But it’s also about subtlety and control, it’s about tone. That’s what makes it so compelling.
While traveling through the Western Balkans did you ever get lost in translation? If so, do you have any stories to tell us?
Many times. Everywhere we went we would ask people about old and often forgotten Roma singers and instrumentalists, about where we could find ploča gramafonska (vinyl records), or for directions to a buvlijak (fleamarket). Although we found a couple of great record stores and collectors, for the most part peole thought we were insane. Kind-hearted people would tell us to wait while they brought us an MP3 CD of all the Roma music we could want, and it coudl be hard to explain that we wanted the vinyls because those songs couldn’t be downloaded.
Our worst case of lost-in-translation blues was when tried to hitchhike from Belgrade to Sarajevo. We had to be in Sarajevo in two days for meetings, but we were broke. We hitchhiked as far as Northern Bosnia on the first day, and were told that we could get a short bus ride to a place where there were cheap coaches to Sarajevo. We asked the driver to drop us there, a crossroads of tiny mountain tracks with a petrol station. The arsehole of nowhere. The guys in the petrol station were the first unfriendly people we’d met on that trip.
We eventually convinced them to call us a taxi to the nearerst place to stay – the taxi was their friend, a tattoo artist whose car had no back seats. The hotel, in Milica, was owned by a mining franchise, with framed pictures of mining machinery everywhere and a huge statue of Vladimir Putin in the town square. We were only a few miles from Srebrenica. Dark times.
Anything interesting to eat or drink while abroad?
I love Macedonian food. Lots of amazing tomatoes and aubergines and garlic. One day in the market in Skopje we bought a delicious hard sheep’s cheese and had it on bread with black honey from bees fed only on tea flowers. One of the best meals ever.
As far as drink goes, I have a weakness for rakija. The best stuff is always made at home, and of all the home-brews we tried, my favourite was made by the grandfather of the owner of Yugovinyl, a brilliant little record shop in Belgrade. When we whent there to check out his record collection he plied with the stuff until the bottle was empty. This is probably why we bought so many records there.
What was the funkiest smell you encountered? How about your worst bathroom experience? Give us the scoop on your poop.
The worst smell in the Balkans is the stink of bullshit coming off most of the politicians. We were in Macedonia for its national holiday last year, where they unveiled an enomrous and obscenely expensive bronze statue of Alexander the Great in the town square.
Meanwhile, up the hill in Šutka, the biggest Roma settlement in the world, there are still huge infrastructure problems, bad roads and rolling blackouts. Of course, Alexander the Great wouldn’t be a political bargaining chip for the nationalists if it weren’t for Greece blocking Macedonia’s claims to be called Macedonia or associate itself with anything that might be considered Macedonian. Corruption is rife in Serbia, Bosnia, everywhere, and people’s lives aren’t getting any easier. Very stinky indeed.
They say nightlife is pretty wild around these parts. Tell us about your craziest nocturnal romp with the Romas.
We had an amazing night in Crni Panteri [Black Panthers] in Belgrade. It’s a live music venue right on the Sava – but it feels like it could be in deepest Mississippi. Most of the staff and musicians are Roma, though they don’t always like to openly self-identify as such.
On the weekends they mostly play Serbian folk music, always a crowd pleaser, and people are dancing on the tables by midnight.
We went another time, mid-week, where the vibe was much more intimate but very raw. We stayed still five in the morning chain-smoking and drinking with the owner and roaring along the words to Roma music classics from the region – the players really weren’t holding back.
At one point a massive motor yacht turned up and docked beside the bar and all these young Serbians jumped in. Everyone was sharing the fun and the love of the music. It was a great night.