By Araceli Tzigane
If you look up Šaban Bajramović on the Internet, you will immediately find that he is known as the “king of gypsy music”. I imagined it would be a title bestowed by popular acclaim, which is more than enough. But the fact is that he was honored with the title “World King of Gypsy Music” by Prime Minister Nehru and Indira Gandhi during a visit to India. Anyway, Bajramović does not need the recognition of any authority, because you only have to listen to his voice for a few moments to realize that he had an inimitable majesty. Bajramović was relatively long-lived, much longer than the standards for Gypsies in his region. He lived 72 years. When he died in 2008, “only one in 60 Roma in Serbia lives to see their 60th birthday, and not many live up to age 50, according to studies by several Roma rights groups” according to this work by Vesna Peric Zimonjic.
Bajramović was born in Niš, in what is now Serbia and at the time, 1936, was part of Yugoslavia. His father was a shoeshine man, his mother went around the villages reading fortunes and they barely managed to support the family. Two of his six siblings were interned in Nazi concentration camps during World War II for being Gypsies. He studied very little formally but learned a lot informally. He soon left school for the taverns, where he earned a few coins for singing.
At the age of 19, he deserted the army for love and this led to his imprisonment, with a sentence of 3 years, which was extended to 5 and a half years for his cockiness. You can understand this better, for example, here. There, he learned to read and write and joined the prison orchestra. By the way, the prison was a kind of gulag on the island of Goli Otok in the Adriatic sea.
When he got out of prison he devoted himself to music. His first record dates from 1964. Many compositions are attributed to him, it is said he composed more than 700 songs, but as with popular music in general, it is difficult to distinguish how much comes from popular heritage and how much from personal composition. Šaban did not bother to register his pieces, or perhaps he had the decency not to register as his own what was mainly the heritage of his people. In any case, he popularized pieces like Djelem Djelem or Opa Cupa and his expressive and natural way of singing is a gift that we can continue to enjoy.
In 2008, ill, he lived in poverty in his native Niš before dying of a heart attack. His wife and daughters had left the country years ago. The Serbian President Boris Tadic attended his funeral, paying his last respects to ‘The King of Gypsy Music’.
There is a monument dedicated to him in his birth city, Niš. It is this one in the picture.