During the recordings of the Mostar Sevdah Reunion’s first CD, Mostar Sevdah Reunion, I had taken my friend and co-producer, Faruk Kajtaz, to my parents’ house in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina. We were sitting there discussing a couple of technical problems when my father Safet burst into the room with a stack of LPs in his hand. He put them on the table and the only thing he said was, "If you ever get the chance, make a CD with him." They were LPs from the 1980s by Saban Bajramovic, the absolute king of gypsy music. Saban Bajramovic: the living legend. Anyone mentioning "gypsy" and "music" immediately thought of him. This was a man about whom there were so many stories, you no longer knew fact from fiction.
Like the one about a man who survived a year on Goli Otok – that barren piece of rock off the Dalmatian coast that’s scorched all day by a merciless sun from which there’s not a single place to hide. Goli Otok – a name that means "the naked island" – where the Communist authorities from Tito’s Yugoslavia dumped political dissidents and hardened criminals, knowing that they were sure to crumble there. Only a few didn’t, and one of them was Saban. Saban ,you never knew where he was or where he was going.
But wherever he went, his gypsy music was more compelling than ever and his voice enchanted anyone who listened. A living legend? Was he really still alive? Had he really been able to survive the hurricane of violence that had disintegrated Yugoslavia? And if so, where could he be? The war had resulted in several new countries, and communication among them was practically unknown. I looked at my father aghast. "Is he alive?" No answer. He only pointed to the CDs on the table, looked at me and disappeared.
In the weeks that followed, I listened every day to the voice of Saban and lookedat his picture on the covers his dark scar studded face with its bitter melancholic smile under the moustache. And every day, that fascinating voice that wouldn’t set me free. Back in the Netherlands, I gave a tape of a couple of his songs to the directors of the record company, World Connection. After listening a couple of minutes, they said, "If you find him, we’d really like to make a CD with him!" I couldn’t believe my ears – just like that, I’d been told to make a CD with the greatest gypsy singer of all time!
But was he even still alive? And how could I find a man who was practically impossible to track down even in normal times? After a six-month search, I got a telephone number from an address in Nis, his place of birth where he turns up every now and then. I wasn’t expecting anything, but I dialled the number anyway. You can imagine my utter astonishment when I suddenly heard the voice I had become so familiar with over the previous months. He didn’t want to talk with me at first, but somehow we got into a normal conversation and he told me that he would be singing at a gypsy festival in Sarajevo in
the middle of January.
On the 15th of January, Faruk and I were standing right in front of the man I’d been in search for six months. He looked older – a lot older than he had on the covers of his LPs. His famous moustache and gold teeth were gone. He was wearing glasses, a hat, a shawl and a long coat. He spoke slowly, almost whispering. Before me stood a Bohemian gentleman who looked nothing like the rebellious gypsy of thirty years ago.
But the musician – the singer – hadn’t changed. During the few minutes we were allowed to spend with him while here-hearsed for his performance, I heard improvisations that I’d never believed possible. He was using only half the power of his voice but it was a voice that had lost absolutely nothing of its power, opulence and utter enchantment in the last twenty years. It was absolutely pure, absolutely genuine. The man singing before me was a musical genius.
A couple of months later, I started recording Saban Bajramovic with Mostar Sevdah Reunion in the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar. During our work , my relationship with Saban grew increasingly friendly. With this new sense of openness that developed, I could come out and ask him about all those stories that had grown up around him over the years. I found out that he really had been born in Nis in the year 1936. His conservatory of music had been the street. That’s where he picked up everything he needed in musical terms. And his survival on Goli Otok was no made-up story either. He landed there after deserting from the army. Why? He had wanted to find the girl he was in love with but with whom a correspondence was impossible: he was eighteen and could neither read nor write. It was at Goli Otok that he started his real education. While a prisoner there, he got a lot of attention as the keeper of the prison football (soccer) team where he became known as the Black Panther.
Football? Well, a nasty scar more than a centimeter wide running from his chest, over his navel and all the way to his pubic bone gives you an idea of what kind of rules they played by. The scars on his face, souvenirs from Goli Otok as well as from nightly stabbings when knives were pulled to defend one’s honor or to protect oneself from jealous lovers, betray a life that hasn’t been easy – and not easy in regard to music either. He’s been lied to and threatened so often that he trusts nobody anymore. That’s why he no longer has any managers or promoters.
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.
By Dragi Sestic, producer of Mostar Sevdah Reunion
Reproduced courtesy of Mostar Sevdah Reunion
Photo 2 Saban Bajramovic, photo 3 Dragi Sestic