Esma Redzepova, Queen of the Gypsies, 1943-2016 RIP

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Esma Redzepova performing in 2011. Photo by belgianchocoloate (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr
Esma Redzepova performing in 2011. Photo by belgianchocoloate (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The great Romani singer Esma Redzepova passed away earlier this month at the age of 73. She began her career at the age of nine, and eventually sang in ten languages and recorded over 500 songs through her long career. The voice of the Romani (also spelled Romany), Redzepova was a powerful performer who captured the joys and sorrows of her people. As the New York Times music critic Jon Pareles once wrote in a review, Esme Redezepova “has a huge voice and the ability to wring larger-than-life emotions from her songs…. She’s the kind of belter who can sob through one song, singing about the pain of a young woman sold into a loveless marriage, and then immediately promise to make everybody dance.”

Redzepova was born in 1943, in Skopje, Macedonia, which was then part of Bulgaria. The Nazis had taken over the region in 1941, portending bad things for Romani gypsies, many of whom went to the gas chambers; some Romani twins were subjected to ghastly medical experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele. By various twists of good fortune, however, she and her family were spared from the ruthless fate of so many under Hitler’s regime. In 1956, at age 13,  her school principal urged her to enter a singing contest on Radio Skopje, which she won. One of her listeners, Stevo Teodosievski, was smitten by what he heard, and eventually became not only her manager but her husband as well.

51ujnwny28lRedzepova performed in every venue imaginable–orphanages, refugee camps, hospitals, and concert halls. Television also helped spread her fame. In 1976, at the first Gypsy World Music Festival with participating Roma musicians from over 20 countries, she was crowned Queen of Romani Songs by India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, partly because she sang some of her songs in Hindi. She also was a frequent presence on Macedonian and Yugoslavian television, where her colorful attire, stage presence, and powerful singing won her many thousands of fans. Redzepova was also a humanitarian, giving thousands of benefit concerts. She adopted and raised dozens of foster children, founded a music school with her manager-husband, and was dedicated to the continuity of Romani music and culture.

She won many western fans from her stint in the two U.S. tours of Gypsy Caravan in 1999 and 2001, which featured five different Romani groups. I remember that the Southern California shows took place in Orange County. The tour featured Romanian group Taraf de Haidouks, the Rajasthani group Musafir, and another Romanian group called Fanfare Ciocarlia, among others. After the official concerts, the groups performed in the parking lot to earn a little extra spending cash. I loved that. I saw her perform at UCLA’s Royce Hall again years ago; she was the most joyful, poignant, and energetic Romani singer I’d ever heard. She helped to celebrate and preserve Romani culture for all of us to enjoy.

Redzepova wrote her most famous song, “Chaje Shukarije” (Beautiful Girl), when she was nine years old and recorded it on a 1961 album. It was an instant hit. She was not happy, however, when the song was featured in Sasha Baron Cohen’s movie “Borat,” which had licensed it from her production company without her consent. Here is a clip of “Chaje Shukarije.” Note the kid drummer. How could anybody not have loved this wonderful woman?