Saban Bajramovic was a giant among Gypsy singers, quickly becoming a legend in Yugoslavia. His deep, soulful voice and innate musical talent captured the imagination of General Tito and other well-known political figures and he was honored with the title “World King of Gypsy Music” by Prime Minister Nehru and Indira Gandhi during a visit to India. Yet his life was not an easy one. Born on 16 April 1936 in Nis, Serbia (then part of former Yugoslavia), he left school after just four years, acquiring his musical education on the streets and at parties, like many Roma musicians before him. He absconded from military service at the age of 19, having fallen in love, was court-martialled as a deserter and sentenced to three years in prison on the notorious island of Goli Otok. His sentence was subsequently increased to five and a half years when he defiantly stated in court that he could withstand any prison sentence imposed on him. Yet despite the hardships he endured there (regular fights left him with a motley collection of scars), prison proved to be the making of him. He learned to read and write and his natural skills as a footballer ensured his survival, playing goalkeeper for the prison football team and earning himself the nickname ‘Black Panther’. It wasn’t long before he found his way into the prison orchestra performing, among other things, jazz (Louis Armstrong, Sinatra, and even John Coltrane) alongside Spanish and Mexican music. He always maintained that prison had provided him with an education for life, allowing him to formulate his own personal philosophy, and was later quoted as saying that “a person who has never been in prison is not a person at all”.
Once out of jail he embarked on an intensive career in music. He made his first recording in 1964, and went on to record 15-20 LPs and around 50 singles. During his life he is believed to have composed some 700 songs including the official anthem of the Roma people ‘Djelem, Djelem’.
“Over the years, his music has been constantly stolen, copied, and imitated by both famous and unknown musicians. Promises and contracts have proven worthless. Actually, he’s never been interested in protecting his work. Where others would have earned millions, he’s lived as he’s always lived: from day to day, making music, going wherever he wants, and not recognizing any limits at all.” (Dragi Sestic – Mostar Sevdah Reunion)
With his first major earnings, he bought a white Mercedes and hired two bodyguards, although the story goes that it wasn’t long before his gambling habit lost him the Mercedes.
Bajramovic’s popularity soon spread beyond the Balkans and the release of A Gypsy Legend on World Circuit in 2001 brought his music to a wider audience. Netherlands-based Bosnian producer Dragi Sestic spent many months tracking down Saban in order to make this recording: “My father gave me a bunch of LPs of Saban from his collection and suggested that I record Saban (his favorite singer). After months of searching I found his telephone number at the end of 1999. It was an incredible experience: I never heard somebody singing so good in front of me – just from a meter away. I was amazed with his singing technique and the colour in his voice. It sounded ten times better than on the old LPs.”
“It is difficult to stay objective while listening to this masterpiece. The saying goes that no one should go down on one’s knees and bow one’s head before a living human being, but in this case an exception should be made.” Mladen Hlubna, Oslobodjenje (Bosnia), 6 December 2001.
A number of Serbian releases followed and despite his reputation as elusive and unreliable, he continued to make appearances until his health deteriorated. Sadly, in 2008, it was revealed that Bajramovic was suffering serious health complications, no longer able to walk and living in poverty in Niš. The Serbian government intervened to provide him with some financial support.
Saban Bajramovic died in Nis on 8 June 2008 aged 72, following a heart attack.
Mostar Sevdah Reunion and Šaban Bajramovic – Šaban -2006
No matter whether you meet Saban Bajramovic in person or through song – he is bound to lead you into another world. You hear him, you see him, and there you are, already on the other side. A friend of mine, Milos Stojanovic once played Saban’s first album with Mostar Sevdah Reunion, produced by Dragi Sestic, while I only listened, and enjoyed. Milos then said: “One should make a film on Saban!” and I said “Totally”. And so we passed to the other side.
Next, we had to contact and meet Saban, but this is the point where one enters another dimension, we had heard all myths and legends about him, he loves gambling, drinks a lot, and is hard to track down. Even when found, he quickly evades, leaves to a different country or another continent.
We found him at last, but then he is choosy, he will and he won’t, then he would like to re-negotiate the price, then he is ill, really ill, then he plays sick, then vanishes, and returns, then he really likes us, but then not too much. From time to time, when we are all fed up, he sings along while shaving or while filling his football lottery ticket, and then it seems again that anything is possible – we shall find a way to shoot the film as well as the record. But Saban doesn’t want to work with those he has worked with before. He has been cheated so many times and many have earned a fortune on his voice, while he hasn’t even earned his pension, he will never let anyone do this to him again. We introduced him to some young musicians but he finds faults in one wearing an earring, another never takes off his cap, the third talks too much, the fourth is too silent.
Secretly, we called Dragi Sestic. We called him in secret because we have no agreement from Saban, but we know that Dragi and his Mostar Sevdah Reunion have been his best sparing partners and that together they make the right Balkanic blend we would like so much to hear again.. Dragi is silent. He doesn’t believe much about the film, nor about the record. Last year some guys from BBC had come to make an interview with Saban, but Saban escaped.
However, tomorrow the phone rang. I haven’t heard such a nice Herzegovine accent since the war: “Listen, I haven’t slept all night. To me, Saban is like a great fatal love, you know, like, there is a woman, you love her and you’re crazy about her and your heart craves for her all your life, each time you think, but you can’t make it with her, it just doesn’t work .. Saban used to run off on me from our concerts. But if you really think that this is workable, and if you can keep him in one place for ten days, OK lets do it. I haven’t slept a wink all night.” Now we only had to persuade Saban… and Dragi wasn’t to know about it, nor was Saban to know about Dragi and the lot.
In the end we all agreed, gave our word, we’re going to do it. Although we all know that in Saban’s world, where we appeared on our own accord, any “word” has no particular value. The one and only value here, in this “other dimension”, is freedom. If you give your word, you give up your freedom to do otherwise. Here such things are simply not done.
In summer of 2005 we were in a studio in Mostar. All of us, Mostar Sevdah Reunion and Naat with his small thundering trumpet, and Sloba with his speaking violin as well as our little film crew; All the time we were working, shooting, and all, but in fact, what a good time we were having. Ten days with Saban, listening to him sing! What could anyone need over that?
When he is not singing, it’s another story. He complains about everything. Saban complains about his “Gypsy sort”, about our government and all other governments, about those who are rich, (while the poor ones are no better); he complains on all of his fellows, and on president Bush (the criminal, he killed so many people), complaining about the weather, the Americans and the Russians who lied about landing on the moon; and on anything else that comes to his mind. He either sings or is displeased.
But when Saban is displeased, how can we be content; in all his discontent we fear that he may flee. Although he has hypo-glycemia and does not move with ease, it makes no difference, he can still get lost in a wink.
Ljilja Buttler told us the whole story to his face, how he ran off from a TV setup. They were singing a duet, as now, it was frosty in December; they mounted Saban on a white horse and told him to wait in a nearby glade until he is given a signal; when he hears “Action” he should ride out of the woods and come up to Ljilja who will be sitting and singing by the fire. However, something went wrong on the setup and they forgot about Saban for a quarter of an hour; when they shouted “Action”, they found out that he had gone. They found the white horse though, but Saban was already in another action, far off. Ljilja is telling us this to warn us, while he laughs; it’s funny to him; “I can’t stand the maltreatment; immediately I look where to run.”- he says.
Then he tells us into the camera about his feats in fields of art, love for women, gambling, family, football. There I felt he was content. Really satisfied. “My wife knows about this ‘playing on the side’”.
Legend has it that each place he sang, he left a child. It is not quite true, he says, but God will forgive him for all these children he never met, because he had given them life. But to those pregnant, loving, abandoned women – he has sung and made songs about them.
And what about the money, so much money that was lost in gambling? “Who cares about money! Look what life is made of!” and then – “When are you going to pay me?” although we have paid him already.. Then again he complains about everything.
It’s going to get better, he says, but we are not going to live to see it. But those who do, will be ok. It will happen when people learn to use telepathy. In the future, everything will happen by telepathy. Anything you imagine, will happen. You wish to travel somewhere, you think about it, and you are there. I would now go to visit my daughter in Denmark, to see what she is cooking.” It’s going to be a good world, some time in the future” In that world, even I would not be a gypsy anymore!”
I say “Roma” he says “Gypsy”. I say Roma again, he repeats ‘Gypsy”. So we play tug-of-war; ok sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Oh shut up, I’ve been a Gypsy all my life, and now you upgrade me to Roma! Who are those Roma? Where do you find them? The only ones I know are Gypsies!”
Now, here lies the mystery. To be a Gypsy – is it the most troubling, hardest thing in the world (“Life is hell for us, Gypsies”) or is it the best there is (“Tomorrow if I die, I won’t be sorry. I have lived a good life because I was a Gypsy.”)
He speaks so, then he goes on to sing, and we hear all that he has not told us, all that, even drunk he would never tell anyone. All those feelings!
Both MSR and those two nut cases, Naat and Slobo on their instruments are provoking complicated questions, poking and pushing, challenging him. Really challenging him! And here Saban unravels his whole story, the only one he has.
Only when he sings, Saban tells us how much he really loved all those women, and all together, he tells about love, and how life is a heavy burden, and you have no idea what to do when you’re so small and insignificant, and when you don’t know what, you dance and you sing and it feels fine.
The gang from Mostar Sevdah Reunion already know about these Saban’s secrets. As they have their own, they compete in the studio, whose is nicer, whose is sadder or merrier, told by Mustafa’s harmonica or by his clarinet; told by the strings of Miso or Sandi’s guitar, Slobo’s and Nedjo’s violins, Kosta’s bass, Sejo’s percussions, Naat’s trumpet. It is the Balkans!
You listen to the music, you recognize the sadness, the great sorrow and just as you think – this is it, there is no further; after such misfortune, nobody would go on living; you listen to the music and you realize there is no more hope – only sweat and tears. But in an instant, without warning, all is thundering in great joy and excitement. Where did this come from, you ask yourself, but it doesn’t matter; you just feel the zeal, the joy creeping on you and taking you in full swing; the sorrow is forgotten already. And all over again. What would this world do without the Balkans?
What would the Balkans do without Saban? And what would Mostar be without Sevdah Reunion or without Naat, Slobo, without those trumpets and violins, without such music. Nothing, it would be completely different.
If you listen carefully, you will hear from Šaban the most amazing story, the one about freedom; a Gypsy story! Telling us that one is free when he is liberated from all that has been so far and from all that is going to be from now; he is free NOW.
You will hear. Makes no difference that you don’t speak Gypsy language. He doesn’t even say the words; he sings it.
You will hear and, believe me, you’ll feel better. Now.
Mostar Sevdah Reunion presents Šaban Bajramović - A Gipsy Legend - 2001
Dubbed the “King of Roma music”, Serbia’s Saban Bajramovic was the best-known male Romany singer of his generation. He was adored throughout the Balkans for his sobbing, gravelly wail in a career spanning more than four decades, during which he wrote around 700 songs and released more than 20 albums.
Hugely popular in Tito’s Yugoslavia and among international expat communities, he was forced into obscurity by the Balkan wars of the 1990s, before making a comeback with the album A Gypsy Legend (2001), which relaunched him as a late-flowering “Balkan blues” star of world music. “Saban lived by his own rules,” observed the writer Garth Cartwright, who interviewed Bajramovic for his book Princes Amongst Men (2005). Infamously distrustful of the entertainment business – which no doubt often ripped him off – he was surrounded by legend and nicknamed “No Show Saban” for his own erratic approach to contractual obligations, often bunking off gigs and tours to moonlight on the gypsy wedding circuit if the money was right.
Such wild and unreliable behavior once saw him banned from Yugoslav television and also probably prevented him from becoming better known outside the Balkans in later life. Even so, he did manage to turn up for his only UK gig at the Mean Fiddler in London in May 2006, looking every inch the gypsy lounge lizard in a white suit, and sunglasses that masked a scarred and lived-in visage.
The Second World War disrupted his childhood, and the orphaned Bajramovic only completed four years of schooling, living by his wits on the streets and first making use of his pitch-perfect singing voice at Romany festivities. Frustrated by the illiteracy that prevented him from writing to a girlfriend, he deserted the Yugoslav army as an 18-year-old and thus earned a five-and-a-half year prison sentence. This included one year on the notorious Adriatic island of Goli Otok, where he learnt how to read and write and also cut his teeth with the prison band, later referring to it as his “university of life”.
On his release, he started singing in the music bars of Nis and at weddings, and made his first original recording “Pelno me San” (“I Am Imprisoned”) in 1964. Bajramovic quickly became a Romany icon, fronting his band the Black Mambas and earning a reputation as hard drinker, gambler and “consumer of life” who sported gold-capped teeth and left a string of wrecked cars in his wake.
His success peaked during the 1970s, but by the early 1990s, competition, from new electronic “turbofolk”, and piracy had undermined him. His profile crashed during the Balkan war, but eventually Dragi Sestic, an Amsterdam-based Bosnian producer tracked him down, coaxing the singer back into the studio to record A Gypsy Legend with the remarkable neo-folk ensemble Mostar Sevdah Reunion.
Its success prompted reissues such as Gypsy King of Serbia (2002), Gypsy King and Drunkard (2004) and Herdelezi: 18 Original Recordings 1969-1984 (2007). Bajramovic also toured the United States in 2004, and made guest appearances on Legends of Life (2005) by his Serbian colleague Ljiljana Buttler and Queens and Kings (2007) by the Romanian gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia.
Aside from a number of film appearances, and singing the theme tune for Emir Kusturica’s Black Cat, White Cat (1997), Bajramovic was also the subject of the documentary Saban by the Serbian filmmaker Milos Stojanovic, which details the making of his newly released second album for Sestic – also called Saban.
“Saban is a gorgeous album… It’s so rare to find good recordings of Saban and he himself appears in such poor health that this album may well be his last testament. I will treasure Saban, listening again and again, every time finding something new and of beauty.” (Garth Cartwright, fRoots magazine)
SONGLINES – August-September 2008 (Top of the World) The ten minute jam Saban vs MSR is the musical equivalent of your hat being blown off in a gale and the voice and guitar magic of the track that follows it ..
Listening to Saban’s music is an experience that doesn’t offer any comfort or an answer to “the mystery Saban” on the contrary (…) Where does he come from? Where his subtle, highly artistic songs came from, those Romany poems filed with refined images and symbols, like they were from Chagall’s paintings? Where does this singing style come from, his technique, colours and shades of his voice? Questions, one after another, in the endless chain of unanswerable questions.
Sadan Bajramovic is definitely an old-school gypsy singer, with several decades of experience behind him. But don’t confuse age with taking it easy. His voice might not have the sharp edge it once did, but the energy is quite apparent, and there’s no lack of commitment to the music, especially as he’s backed by one of the best gypsy groups around on this set of mostly well-known gypsy songs. His version of “Djelem” is nothing short of stunning, but an emotional spin on an old favorite. But it’s just one among many jewels here, with everything electrifying, and the backing, mixing Rom music with some jazz, is every bit as effective as the singing. But it’s the final cut, “Pitao Sam Malog Puza,” which is the real killer, with Bajramovic letting loose some fearsome howls and singing as if his life depended on it. Female gypsy singers have received a fair amount of notice in the past. If you want to hear one of the male greats, this is the place.
It is difficult to stay objective while listening to this masterpiece. The saying goes that no one should go down on one’s knees and bow one’s head before a living human being, but in this case an exception should be made.
Mladen Hlubna, Oslobodjenje, Sarajevo, Bosnia, 6. 12. 2001.
The next 66 minutes were one of the rarest moments in my life. I was crying because of the sheer beauty of this music. Together with Mostar Sevdah Reunion, the great gipsy singer created an exceptional album, probably the best ever produced in this Balkan area.
Miljenko Jergovic, Jutarnji list, 10. 11. 2001, Hrvatska