The Queen of Romany Music: Esma Redzepova
by Elizabeth Artemis Mourat
She sings with the power of lightening, the wisdom of a sage, the voice of an angel and the tenderness of a loving mother. She is Esma, a world class artist and cultural icon who carries the torch for her people wherever she goes. She has sung for presidents and peasants and always with the dedication and intensity of a woman who gives of herself from every cell. This dynamo barely brushes five feet but has moved pavilions of thousands and has introduced them to the magic of Romany music.
Esma Redzepova toured the U.S. this year, sponsored by the European Folklife Center (E.E.F.C.) in order to raise money for her worthwhile charities. She may not be known to Americans, but she is known throughout the world. In 1976, she and her husband Stevo were aptly crowned “Queen and King of Gypsy (Romany) Music” at the First World Festival of Romany Songs and Music in the Punjabi town of Chandigarh, India.1 This title is undisputed and has remained so to this day.
Who would have thought that this tiny, spindly legged child from a poor but honorable family would rise to such fame? Esma has a life story that movies are made of. She blossomed, thanks to the firm tutelage of her band leader, mentor and later husband, Stevo Teodosievski. Both of these magnificent performers came from different backgrounds. Stevo came from a family of impoverished Christian Macedonians, and he worked during his entire childhood at the type of child labor that should be illegal but is not. His family was disapproving of musicians, so he used to slip out at night and perch under the window of the local taverna. He would play imaginary arpeggios on his chest on a make believe accordion. Later, he helped to promote the folk music of his native country and popularize songs from the diverse ethnic groups who inhabit the fractured land once called Yugoslavia. A world renowned composer, arranger and teacher, Stevo has taught four generations of musicians and composed over 100 songs. And perhaps the thing for which we should be most grateful, he was the first performer to bring Romany (Gypsy) music to the public on a grand and commercial scale. He did this with the voice and charm of the sparrow-like child who won a Radio Skopje amateur hour contest when she was only fourteen. He thought she had a voice “like a silver bell.”
Esma’s conservative but loving Rom family feared the world of music and the negative influences that could assert themselves on an impressionable young girl. Forever courageous, but humble and shy, Esma knew that the music could and would become her new life. Somehow, Stevo convinced them all that he would care for her as if she were his family member. That is how this woman child went on the road, with one small suitcase containing one dress and one cocek (a Balkan Rom dance which has some Oriental movements) costume. The racism that stung Esma’s face with tears as a child, attempted to follow her on this journey, but somehow the music built a bridge on which the people who believed the stereotypes about Roma could cross. She never denied her Rom heritage, as many did, but rather announced it to the world with pride. Now, almost forty years later, Esma is weaving her magical spell on audiences all over the world.
Their love was kismet. They married after ten years on the road. Stevo admitted, “Who wouldn’t fall in love with the lovely and vivacious Esma? But there was more…We were tied by bonds of music and dance.” Stevo was demanding but fair as he taught music to Esma and all those who came into his life. He said; “I believe that talent is only a small part of success, that hard work, practice and exploring new forms are what you reap your fruits from and what brings professional longevity…I have implanted this credo in the souls of my pupils.” He described their concert preparation sessions as resembling “…the exercises ballet dancers do when they put lead weights on their feet. (The sessions) were long and hard, with bouts of self-doubt, and they were self-searching…But once up there on the stage, in front of the audience, the dead weights would drop off, and the leaps were light and effortless…”
There were many highlights in their career. The Ensemble Teodosievski performed all over Europe, Asia, Asia Minor, Mexico, Australia, Canada, India, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and the United States. They dined with Presidents and Prime Ministers and they made five movies. The ensemble performs Romany songs and folk music from Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Albania, Turkey, Greece, Spain and Israel. In India, Esma searched for her Romany roots and found thousands of people who understood her Romany lyrics. As a child she had been taught that the Roma came from “a faraway land of sunshine, a land where there was so much sunshine that it had burned our forebears a deep dark brown…” She found this land and the people loved her.
Esma has long been a humanitarian. In the beginning, she and Stevo would help boys, many of whom were “small, skinny…hungry and neglected,” and they would teach them to perform. Many would accompany them on tour. Stevo would be their mentor and acted as their “father figure,” and Esma would be as their mother. They often called her “Mama,” and she revelled in the role. This was to become a lifelong mission as she and Stevo continued to save children from the ravages of racism, ethnic cleansing and abject poverty that still plague Roma. Esma and Stevo eventually opened a school. There were 48 musically gifted boys who lived there over a period of thirty years who have had a better life because of them, and Stevo and Esma had adopted them all. At the school, “Music is the most important part of our lives because we are all poor, and that is the only way we can socialize. So we wake up with music, we lay down with music, we listen to music all day, and that is the way we keep closer.”
Sadly, Stevo was claimed by illness last year after his ensemble had performed over 8,000 concerts, 1,000 of them for humanitarian purposes. Two months later, Esma went to the United States on tour to raise money for her humanitarian endeavors and for the children at the school, who she has always called “my children.” She has continued the work of teaching the skill, the trade and the art of music. Thus they can make a living in a world that often refuses to give them a fair chance. Stevo once said, “(I want to)train a generation of worthy successors so that when I stop working, the Ensemble Teodosievski will live on…” It has, Stevo, and so have the hundreds of fine musicians you taught and the thousands of musicians you inspired. The school lives on without Stevo’s presence, but with his spirit and blessing, and with Esma’s hard work.
Esma continues to help her people. In 1995, she sponsored the Association of Roma Women, ESMA, a self-help group for Romany women in her hometown of Skopje. They also help to promote the education of Roma from the grade school level all the way to the university. She calls the compound of her school her “dom,” which means “home.” On the grounds are “The Home of Humanity and Museum of Music,” the school, a health clinic, and a gathering place for support groups for Roma. She is active in helping to settle disputes among her people. Esma also helps to combat racism by defending her people publicly and privately. She was recently immortalized on a postage stamp which commemorated her efforts to help with placement for Rom refugees.
Esma often talks about her people and her family with dignity and pride. Her willingness to enlighten others about her culture is rare. Non-Roma will always be on the outside, but Esma is willing to let us in. Her father was from Kosovo, now Serbia, and her mother was Turkish from the countryside near there. She was raised in a Rom, Muslim and Jewish family. She describes a family home life full of love. “For Roma, love is like air and sunshine, something one cannot live without. Love was part of our life, just like poverty…Roma make good husbands…For a Rom, his wife is a friend, his lifelong companion, someone to share the blessings of love, happiness and good cheer…A Rom will not be ashamed to show tenderness to his wife in front of others.” Esma describes the one or two week long wedding celebrations, when it is; “the only time when the poor can be merry!” Family ties endure for life: “We think it is a sin for people to have to live alone and lonely when they get old, so my mother went to live with her sons when my father died.” The poverty was rampant for the Roma in Europe. Esma describes how it is “the long accepted fate of Roma, for children to work…” Many must leave school quite young so that they can contribute to the family’s income. However, “Roma do not give way to sadness easily…We start living as soon as we are born..We try not to grieve.”
Esma defines racism as, “the poisonous shafts of contempt and intolerance.” She tells of the early childhood memories when she first realized that she was “different” as she faced discrimination in school. She has become philosophical as she remembers the past: “I have learned now that people should not be judged by who they are, by their family or nation, but only by how much they are human beings. And so sad experiences are often good experiences!”
On several occasions, Esma and I spoke of how music is the healer, and indeed sometimes the lifesaver of her people. “Music is the only luxury of the poor…one of our rare pleasures which costs nothing. It brought some brightness into our dreary lives, it saved us some humiliation…When you sing you have no evil thoughts and when you are dancing you feel less hungry.” She remembers her family’s first postwar radio receiver and how this was, “their window into the world. The music was light like the sun.”
When Esma is in concert, she creates a special connection with her audience. She says that she “seeks a pair of kind, gentle eyes full of love. Then I sing only for that pair of eyes, I live for them. This, I think, helps me to not feel a stranger, for I never look upon an audience as just a crowd of people. That one pair of eyes, that is them all!” She often performed for the people from her homeland who live in other countries. She says of those concerts, “It is not just music we brought them, but the very air of their homeland, bread and water, the sky, summer and winter..Sometimes their happiness was so great it almost bordered on sadness. They really touched my heart…music touches the heart. Perhaps it is a good thing, people can give vent to their feelings, it makes things easier for them…” She says, “Music is our panacea,” and she has offered this gift in sixteen languages to the world. Esma concludes her book with this statement: “Living for song and with song I sometimes feel I have touched the sky…What keeps me from falling? Probably my love of singing. Song guards one against evils.”
When Esma sings, she has strength of spirit, sparkling eyes and the voice of a volcano. She is sometimes childlike in her sweetness and then just as suddenly, she is brimming with womanhood. Her musicians, all full grown now, are extremely well rehearsed. They sometimes playfully pass the melodies back and forth like boys kicking a soccer ball. They are sometimes reverent and serious. One of them proudly plays Stevo’s beloved accordion. Esma’s first set is in a Macedonian costume. There was always a playful exchange between Esma and the band. She sometimes patted them, pinched their cheeks, even cuffed them from time to time. They loved it. Without speaking Macedonian, the audience knew she was singing about love, rejected advances, flirtations and silliness. Esma returns in a cocek costume and completes another set. When she sings “Hairi mathe dikhe daje,” which is a song about a girl who is forced to marry an old man, she wears a black lace veil over her face. She quivers with emotion and anyone in the audience without a lump in their throat, would have to have no pulse. When the veil is removed, tears stream down her cheeks. Towards the end of her concert, she sings the song, “Delem…Delem,” which is the Romany national anthem. Many in the audience were moved to tears. The lyrics say it all: “In the heart of every Gypsy a fire burns, all through his life. Nothing can quench it, not even tears that wet your cheek.” The concerts are extremely well organized, fused with showmanship and polish and the repertoire is extraordinary. During the performance I felt so full, as if I had feasted on the finest of foods, and there were moments when I did not want to be anywhere else on earth.
I was fortunate enough to attend one of Esma’s voice classes. She entered the room with a confident and feminine air. When she demonstrated the first song, she blasted us like a benevolent tidal wave. We were stunned. Then within minutes we forgot that we did not speak her language. We somehow knew what she wanted, and we wanted to give it. Esma has the ability to communicate to others on a heart level. She brought the pathos, the passion and the joy of their music to us as she taught the Romany words and their translations. She fused feeling into every repetition of the songs and we felt it down to our shoes. At the end of class, she demurely blew us kisses and said “Bravo!” and we twittered like beaming school children.
Esma taught two songs in Romany: “Ibraim, Ibraim,” about a woman who loves a man who has forgotten her love for him, and “Devla,” about a woman who tells God she loves a man who does not love her in return and “blood drips from her heart.’” Esma demonstrated and taught some cocek dance steps. She emphasized the need for Rom women to be “elegant and feminine” in their walking as well as their dancing. She spoke of how this is their prize, and their value is judged by their femininity. Esma told us her mother made her walk with a book on her head when she was a child. She had to learn to balance it.
Esma told us many stories about her people and her life. The one that brought tears to us was when she described the veiled song mentioned above. She said this was a song about her beloved aunt. The aunt’s family was very much in debt and the wealthy man who held the note said he would remove it if he could have the young aunt as his bride. The family would lose everything and starve without this agreement. So, despite her love for another man, she married him. She was miserable throughout her life and performed many herbal abortions on herself in order to deny her husband and herself the joy of children. She died of a “broken heart.” We watched video footage of Esma’s energetic concert. When we saw the footage of her singing the veiled song, Esma’s eyes filled with tears just from watching it. She taught the class how to wear the magnificent cocek attire and even brought a few to sell. The time flew by and people all agreed to come back if she returns.
Esma and her friends came to my house for dinner a few times. Laurel Victoria Gray translated and helped me hostess. Esma was charming, kind and gracious. Once, she made a huge salad and spelled my name in olives across the top. In this informal setting, my most cherished memory is of Esma sitting on my couch with my petulant feline. My cat, “Trouble,” hates everybody, but she shamelessly sprawled across Esma’s lap, motionless, gazing at her with abject adoration. I thought to myself, “We are all smitten by this tiny woman, this legend, this icon.” Without even trying, Esma had cast a spell on us all.
1. I am using the words Rom and Roma in place of the words Gypsy and Gypsies because it is the more politically correct term and because Esma very much prefers it.
2. Esma and Stevo’s quotations are from personal interviews with the author, a Voice of America radio program dated 10/17/96, and the book, On the Wings of Song, written by Esma Redzepova and Stevo Teodosievski, edited by Dusan Maletic, published by Dom Kulture, Beli Mugro, Kocsani, Macedonia, 1984.
Copyright Elizabeth Artemis Mourat, 1998.
Elizabeth Artemis Mourat, has a masters degree in clinical psychology, and masters of social work, with post graduate work in dance movement therapy. She is a writer, researcher, teacher and performer. She is currently writing a book and creating a documentary film on the history of Turkish Gypsy (Rom) dance, history and culture. She has traveled to 33 countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Morocco, researching dance and culture. www.serpentine.org