ESSAYS > Gypsy Queens

It is a bleak autumn day in Budapest. We are standing on a suburban street laughing at a mongrel lifting its leg for the third time against the flat tyre of some old American limousine, at a cat stealing towards two cooing doves, at a boy racing across the street as though the devil himself was after him, and stumbling over the uneven kerb.

Christian Scholze with Ezma Redjepova

There is so little to smile about these days in this city with its monumental architecture. Even Mitsou seems melancholy. “My daughter cried when I left this morning. We’ve just got back from our tour and now I’m off to the recording studios every day. She says I’m hardly ever home. I want to be a good mother, but I love my work as a singer, too. It’s so difficult to juggle everything. Some people think I’m a neglectful mother. That hurts. The woman’s role in the Romany world is so clear-cut. You have your first child at about 16, just like I did. Then you have some more. You have to do all the household chores, your man is out and about all the time. It doesn’t let up until you’re old. Then it’s the younger women who sweep the men’s cigarette ends from the floor. You get some respect for your experience once life’s trial and tribulations have criss-crossed your face with deep lines. I had the choice, and I chose music. Now I live with my mother. Unfortunately, very few of our women manage to take that step. There’s a lot of creative potential there that remains untapped. I see it in our children’s workshops and creative writing courses. The girls and the women who take part have such a reservoir of creative lyricism and they can call it up so easily.” With that, Mitsou had summed up the findings of diverse sociological studies on the role of women among various Gypsy cultures.

Before we set off to meet the Gypsy Queens, a journalist warned us of the pitfalls of exaggerated romanticism and exoticism. Of course, everyone knows the cliché of the fiery Gypsy – the wild, dancing beauty with her dark, unruly tresses, blouse undone, eyes smouldering, pearls of sweat shimmering on her swarthy skin. In the world of advertising, film and painting, she is the ultimate seductress, offering us a brand-name product, being swept off her feet by some multi-millionaire, or beckoning us to indulge in the erotic fantasies of a secret pleasure garden. Though it is right to reject these stylised clichés that wrench individuals out of their everyday situation, the criticism of such exoticism often tends to be rather short-sighted in its blinkered focus on the mechanisms of projection and power. Our highly industrialised societies with their monotonous lifestyles and their high-tech cultural institutions nurture a form of apathy and individualism that feeds a longing for sense and sensuality, a yearning to travel in exotic realms. Yet the criticism levelled at exoticism often takes a psychoanalytical or structuralistic approach that reduces these longings to some childhood trauma of separation or the impossibility of overcoming one’s own horizon of experience. Such an approach fails to take into account the fact that encounters with unfamiliar cultures, with other forms of passion, and with a totally different perception of space and time, can actually generate a productive reassessment of one’s own life and even of the social structures we live in. Intercultural musical encounters – providing both parties concerned really do approach one another with open minds – can be highly political. Recognition of the potential of open-minded experience in intercultural encounters – without protective or even xenophobic cliches is sorely needed. The time is ripe.

The Gypsy Queens presented here love their art, live for their music and delight in their encounters with their audience. They want no more than that – but they will settle for nothing less either.

Skopje in Macedonia is a grey city of extremes: uncomfortably cold in winter and usually snowed under, unbearably hot in summer. The many soldiers in the aircraft on the way there, the road signs for Pristina, Kosovo and Belgrade, indicate the perilous position of this city. Add to that the hazards of nature. In 1963, an earthquake destroyed vast areas of the city, leaving thousands dead. Among the worst hit were the Gypsy families living in the old town quarter. The government housed them in a newly built settlement on the outskirts. Many families and clans from the surrounding area moved there. The settlement of Shutka, with some 50,000 inhabitants, is now the largest colony of Rom in Europe. The main street is fringed by an endless array of small shops that seem to have everything except regular business hours. Behind that lies a labyrinth of streets and alleyways. There are several private radio stations and two television channels on which electronic music predominates. Karaoke programmes featuring 6 to 12 year-old children dressed to the nines are particularly popular.

Esma Redjepova comes from Skopje. Her father was a shoe cleaner. Esma carried his shoe-polish box to and from his workplace for him, supplied the other shoe cleaners with polish and was nicknamed “the post”. Her father had lost a leg in an air raid on Skopje during the second world war. Before that he had been famed for his strength and for such feats as lifting a safe single-handed. “While my father was the song of my childhood, with the strong, handsome looks of a Gypsy fairytale hero, a good singer and a hard drinker, kind to his six children, a gentle giant easily moved to tears and ever ready to burst into laughter, it was my mother, strict and scolding, who kept us in line, and who we all feared a little.” Her talent as a musician, dancer and actress brought her to the stage at an early age. At the age of 11 she played a leading role in a school musical. At 14 she won a major new talent competition and was discovered by the famous musician, composer and bandleader Stevo Teodoievski. He promised father and daughter a great career, but explained that it would take discipline and hard work to get there. He was given permission to take Esma to Belgrade with him. It was the beginning of an almost fairytale career. The ensemble with Stevo and Esma became one of the most popular and successful ensembles in the entire Balkan region. Seven years after their first meeting, they married. Further tours followed, more than 400 recordings, and several awards. A lavish biography is packed with photographs of their meetings with world politicians and international stars. Stevo and Esma adopted no fewer than 47 orphans and street children and gave them all a musical training. She was so devastated by Stevo’s death that she seriously considered entering a convent, but eventually continued her career without him. Today, she lives in a palatial house that she has furnished as a “home of humanity and museum of music” and which she intends to bequeath to posterity. The ensemble for these recordings consists primarily of her musician sons. Whenever they seemed to be taking the family recording session less than seriously, she would remind them of Stevo’s call for discipline. An apology, a kiss on mama’s cheek, and musical peace would reign once more.

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