Rock around the bloc
by Tim Cumming
We are the only customers in this dark, wood-panelled restaurant near the railway station in Belgrade. It's Easter Monday in the Orthodox calendar, and the restaurant is about to close. Roma trumpet maestro Boban Marković is talking about how he started in music when his mobile rings and he has to make arrangements to play at a christening. Weddings, christenings and funerals are the bread and butter of the Gypsy brass band. No family event is complete without one, and the Boban Marković Orchestra is considered the very best. In May 2003 they make their British debut as one of almost 30 acts performing in the Barbican's X Bloc Reunion, a nine-day festival reuniting central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union with an eclectic range of sounds, from Armenia and Uzbekistan via the rich traditions of the Balkans to Hungarian electronica and throat-singing punks from Tuva. Many of these performers are taking to the world stage for the very first time.
The Boban Markovic Orchestra
Marković formed his first orchestra in the mid-1980s, changing the line-up constantly as he went ‘depending on how young and good-looking they were’. Since then, they have become one of the most famous Gypsy brass bands in the Balkans. The current line-up of flugelhorns, saxophone, tenor and baritone horns and spinning drum coalesces into an infinitely supple force, the music ranging from achingly tender ballads to a frenetic Balkan funk underpinned by the bass riches of Saša Ališanović on helicon. ‘I prefer the wilder concerts,’ admits Marković, ‘where people are standing and dancing, cheering. What I like most is when they go crazy and we don't stop playing, we forget we have to stop, we just play on and up.’
He cuts a striking figure with his stocky frame, beatific smile and pitch-black hair worn long and swept back. ‘I started playing trumpet when I was six years old and turned professional when I was 16,’ he says. He had no formal training, nor can he read music. The sketches he sometimes gives to his orchestra are just that - visual presentations of the sounds in his head. ‘Our music is passed on from father to son. My mother's father was a great trumpet player. I don't remember him, but everyone tells me he was a really great, very intuitive player. My father was not as good a player, but he was a great teacher and he really pushed me to work hard.’
All of the band hail from the southern Serbian village of Vladicin - home to over 60 brass bands from a population of less than 10,000. In the Balkans, music-making for the Roma is about survival as much as soul. When the trumpet came to Serbia 150 years ago, Roma musicians immediately adopted it as their own, redefining its sound and the sound of the region, playing everywhere from royal courts to village weddings. ‘On all important occasions, they call for the trumpet and the brass band,’ says Marković. ‘Everyone wants to play the trumpet and to be in a brass band because that means work and money and you can be a star. You can live, it's a living. Other bands, violin bands, don't have a job.’
When the restaurant closes, we stand outside to conclude the interview. I ask if this is a good time for music. ‘It's a chance,’ he says, after some thought, ‘because the music has not been spoilt that much during these difficult times. There's a lot that hasn't been discovered yet, and there are so many great musicians who are really living this music.’
Mostar Sevdah Reunion
One such group is Mostar Sevdah Reunion from Bosnia, whose birth in the ruins of Mostar in 1993 is one of the most remarkable stories in a festival full of them. Marković guests on their latest album, The Mother of Gypsy Soul, featuring Gypsy legend Ljiljana Buttler, her deep, almost subterranean voice buoyed and lulled by the band's consummate musicianship. She began singing professionally at the age of 12 when her mother fell sick. A year later she was abandoned, and at 14 she was a mother herself, supporting her family by singing in the cafes and bars of the Skadarlija district in Belgrade. By the early 1980s, she was a star in Yugoslavia. There were recordings, television, even a film of her life. But she retired from music in 1987, sensing the bitter winds of change, and by the time war broke out she had moved her family to Düsseldorf, where she worked as a hotel cleaner and restaurant cook - often on double shifts - her life as a singer left behind.
‘I loved her records when I was a kid,’ says Marković, ‘because she really sang beautifully the great Gypsy songs. I was honoured when I got the call to play on her album.’ Honoured, and so eager that producer Dragi Š estić remembers him driving more than 1,000km each way from Vladicin to Mostar to lay down his tracks, and all in just three days.
It took Š estić 18 months and innumerable phone calls and meetings to persuade Buttler to sing again. Now, with Mostar Sevdah Reunion, she is returning to the stage after 15 years - and for the first time outside the former Yugoslavia. The roots of the MSR project lie in the worst days of the Bosnian war. In the summer of 1993, after the shelling of Mostar's bridge, candlelit concerts were held near the mosque on the east side of the river (‘the side without electricity, water or food’) where veteran sevdah singer Ilijaz Delić and accordionist Mustafa Santić played their haunting Balkan blues, weaving sevdah's aching harmonies over the cacophony of war. They played in hospitals, schools, fire stations, even on the front line, unplugged in the most brutal sense.
The memory of these impromptu concerts cast a spell. Š estić spent up to 18 hours a day broadcasting sevdah to the ruins of his home town on War radio, one of the city's last remaining broadcasters. Five years later, after marrying and settling in Amsterdam, he returned and took Delić and Santić into the recording studio at the Pavarotti Music Centre, built with proceeds from War Child. They cut three demos and were heard by Brian Eno, a key figure in making the music centre a reality. More sessions followed, augmented by musicians Delić had worked with in Belgrade and the ‘queen of Romani song’, Esma Redzepova. Sevdah demands intensity from listeners and performers alike. The word comes from the Ottoman empire and means desire or ecstasy. Others define it as sorrow with dignity. For Redzepova: ‘When you are touched by sevdah, you cry, you laugh, you turn your emotions into something deeper.’ She is regarded as one of the greatest living Romani singers. Crowned the Queen of the Gypsies at the first world festival of Romani songs and music in India in 1976, she has performed worldwide for more than 40 years and still clocks up more than 250 performances a year. ‘I'm like a camel, you know, I don't need anything to keep me walking.’ Also remarkably, during those 40 years she and her late husband Stevo Teodosievski adopted 47 Romani street children, all of whom went on to study with him at his music school. ‘Not all are professional musicians,’ she tells me, ‘but all of them know how to play - and all of them play.’
Her origins are as rich and cosmopolitan as her music. ‘My grandmother came from Iran, she was a Jew. My grandfather owned a factory in Skopje that made tights. They had nine daughters, and the last child was a boy. He was my father. My mother was a Gypsy. She was a Muslim and my father was a Catholic.’ Her father lost a leg - and a living as a porter - when he was caught up in a gunfight. ‘He used to tell us stories about kings and queens, and there were songs with every story,’ she says. Even at three she dreamed of being a great singer. Despite poverty, she attended school, where the power of her voice was first recognized. At 12, she was informally adopted by Macedonian band leader Teodosievski, who promised her parents that he would turn her natural talent into a great singing voice. She studied with him for seven years, ‘mastering the techniques of breathing, singing, how to use the diaphragm, how to manage to sing everything that I have in my heart’.
She made her professional debut at 19. When she was 23, she and Teodosievski married. ‘I was lucky to find Stevo. It was the miracle of my life. He gave me the classical training of an opera singer, but I am a singer of old music. I am a classical Roma singer, and I describe all the customs of Roma life in my songs, the stories and fairy tales. They are the heart of my repertoire.’ She has virtually placed herself into public ownership as a force for good, singing to bring unity to a region that has seen enormous suffering: ‘My music is cosmopolitan, and I'm honoured to tell you that. I've sung all over the world, it's how I've earned money, and I share it. If someone needs surgery, I'll pay for him if he has no money. I try to give my best to save human life.’ On her latest album, Chaje Shukarije, Redzepova combines astonishing solo readings of traditional Roma songs with self-penned compositions backed by accordion, brass, guitar, double bass and percussion. ‘Our music is close to India,’ she says, ‘and it has the rhythm of Indian music.’ With a voice as big as a mountain and music like wild mountain weather, she takes to the Barbican stage on a triple bill of divas including Tuvan singer Sainkho and new Uzbeki star Sevara. It promises to be an unforgettable night.
A world away from the Barbican, as twilight falls over Belgrade where Buttler once sang as a girl, two tiny Roma boys dressed in matching grey suits work away at a violin and an accordion. An old man grins and pulls faces in front of them, dancing to his own tune. Their technique is raw, but they play with certainty and feeling, and are in a complete control of their resources. The soul of the music comes through the blood as it has done for centuries, father to son.
Boban Marković, Live in Belgrade, is on Piranha. The Mother of Gypsy Soul is on Snail Records. Chaje Shukarije is on World Connection. This article appeared in The Guardian (London), 23 May 2003