Garth Cartwright fondly remembers the life and career of Macedonia’s Gypsy queen
Esma Redzepova, the Macedonian singer and humanitarian who proudly wore the title ‘Queen of the Gypsies’, has died aged 73. Redzepova lived an extraordinary life; the most high-profile and eloquent spokesperson for Europe’s Roma people, a confidante of president Tito and later a cultural ambassador for the Republic of Macedonia, she released hundreds of records and performed thousands of concerts. Across the Balkans she enjoyed an iconic status.
Redzepova was born at the height of World War II in Skopje’s old town. A prodigious performer, she entered and won a school talent competition in 1957. Stevo Teodosievski, an ethnic Macedonian accordionist and band leader, was so impressed by her performance that he approached her parents (who were initially reluctant to let their daughter sing) and asked if she could perform in his band. Aged 14 Redzepova went on tour. She became a Yugoslav star when ‘Chaje Shukarije’ (Beautiful Girl) – an infectious, upbeat song Redzepova had composed – became a hit (it’s now a Balkan standard). She and Teodosievski then set in motion a musical apprenticeship that trained 48 Roma boys – many of whom would, for a time, play in Ensemble Teodosievski (only five boys were actual wards of the couple). Redzepova popularised ‘Djelem Djelem’ as the Roma national anthem when she performed it at the first International Gypsy Congress in 1969 and her concerts – she held the stage as only a true diva can and let her multi-octave voice wail – were always stunning.
Teodosievski’s death in 1997 and Yugoslavia’s collapse devastated Redzepova. She reinvented her career, recording with Balkan pop singers and folk bands while surfing the wave of Western interest in Balkan Gypsy music. When ‘Chaje Shukarije’ appeared over the opening credits of Borat it surprised everyone (including Redzepova – she eventually got paid). The albums she released over the last 15 years on various West European record labels were often patchy with World Connection’s double CD Queen of the Gypsies gathering her classic Jugoton recordings and thus being essential (her contributions to the Network double-CD Gypsy Queens is of a high standard) but she never disappointed in concert; her last UK performance was at London’s Royal Festival Hall in October 2009 as part of Gypsy Queens and Kings where she, as always, was star of the show. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (for her work with Kosovo Roma refugees), Redzepova was as inspiring an individual as I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. She will be greatly missed.
Read more about Esma Redzepova’s prolific career in our Beginner’s Guide in #107.