“Saban Bajramović, the late, great, gravelly voiced, high living Roma blues legend was born in Niš, a nondescript, bleak, industrial town in east Serbia, from where he embarked on a musical journey around the world that would bring him fame and the chance to earn – and lose – a small fortune.”

Šaban Bajramović

Ibrahim Kaya

Šaban grew up in a shack in the center of Niš – the son of a poor shoeshine and a mother who worked in the Niš tobacco factory, who together could barely put a meal on the table for their seven children. With only a fourth grade education, Šaban at 19 was conscripted into the army, but escaped to be with a woman he loved. He was caught and sentenced to three years for desertion on Goli Otok, a barren, uninhabited island in the Adriatic that was the site of a political prison in Yugoslavian times. 

Prison was Šaban’s college, he is reported to have said – his “school of life” – There he read countless books, learned to play and write music and distinguished himself as a goalie on the prison football team, where he earned the sobriquet “the black panther” for his nimble moves. Soon he had insinuated himself into the prison orchestra that played, among other things, jazz (mostly Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and sometimes John Coltrane) mixed with some Spanish and Mexican numbers.

Upon his release in 1961, he began singing Macedonian and Slovene songs and playing the tamburica, a species of long necked lute, in the kafanas of Belgrade, where word quickly spread about his amazing voice. He soon started composing his own songs – Gypsy sevdah songs telling of the everyday life of Serbian Roma, their trials and tribulations, the women he left, his addiction to gambling, small victories and crushing defeats – the blues, in essence. 

“I didn’t have to invent anything,” Šaban said. “I just wrote what I saw every day.” He walked down the street, his senses keen, and when he got home he wrote about his impressions, testing his songs on his wife before letting them loose on the world. 

Asked where he took his inspiration from, Šaban told a Serbian journalist, “I take my themes from everyday life; our Roma. I sing the truth and then the truth hits home. These are not fairy tales what I sing, but the truth. When I sing them, then our Roma cry and sing.”

Šaban’s audience grew by the day, invitations piled up to sing at weddings and baptisms – from within and without the Roma community. He made his first record in 1964, with the recording act Crna Mamba (Black Mamba). He recorded Đelem, Đelem, the Romani anthem. The song went around the world. He started wearing dark sunglasses on stage.

Suddenly Šaban was famous, with more money than he knew what to do with. Several times he sang for Tito – who claimed to have an understanding for the Roma – and traveled the world performing in front of statesmen including Nehru and Indira Gandhi in India, where he received accolades as “King of Romani music.” Hispanics welcomed him as one of their own and in the United States, where Šaban was six times, he once performed three times in one day. He sang for the Chinese, the Portuguese, the Guineas… Beautiful women fought over him. However in his hometown of Niš, acceptance seemed to elude him. People gave him the cold shoulder and said he was stuck up had turned his back on his old friends. “They are all a bit boring,” Šaban retorted about his fellow Nišians.

Unlike most people who have risen from poverty, Šaban never seemed to have an appreciation for money. He spent it profusely, mostly on alcohol. And then he discovered the magic of dice and once lost a small fortune – a sum that would have bought a couple houses in Belgrade. Amazingly, his wife Milici kept cool. He kissed her and then everything was jake.

Šaban lived every day anew, and as an old pensioner in his early seventies residing in Niš he could confess to being a happy man, although he knew had made some mistakes along the line.

His greatest failure he is reported to having said was with regards to copyrights and collecting on his creativity. He said that more than half of his songs were stolen by other performers, including Goran Bregović and the Gypsy Kings. He could have earned millions in royalties, he said.

Still, Šaban’s relations with Bregović remained cordial. “We have excellent relations,” he told journalists. “He comes to me, I come to him. There is no problem. For me he’s not a thief.”

By the end of his life Balkan Roma musicians began to be feted abroad and Šaban was christened “King of the Roma”. Starting in 2000, he collaborated with Bosnian-based sevdah act Mostar Sevdah Reunion which kick-started his flagging career, giving a new lease of life to the living legend. In 2001, he recorded the album A Gipsy Legend with the group, released on behalf of World Connection, which gained international attention. 

Calls started coming in from Europe and America, not only from within the diaspora community, but from World Music promoters. “I think I am going to stagnate, rest a little,” a weary Šaban told a Serbian journalist. By now Šaban’s wild life was beginning to take its toll. He had two strokes and open-heart surgery. He was even moved to give up drink. But he still had his famous gravelly, bruised voice, which had matured over time through years of crooning, boozing and smoking, like an old whisky. 

In 2005, Miloš Stojanović and Dragi Šestić directed their biopic film, titled Šaban, which gained notoriety in Eastern Europe. For the purposes of that documentary Dragi Šestić produced the album for Snail Records with the title “Šaban,”, which won a World Music Award.

Speaking to me over the phone from Mostar, Sestić, told me how working with Šaban was both a pleasure and an honor but an incredibly trying experience, owing to the artist’s famous unreliability, earning him the nickname “No-show Šaban”.

“He was a genius,” Šestić told me. “He was a John Lee Hooker of Balkan music. He was the man. The real killer. An amazing person. He had a crazy life and was an incredible singer. If he lived in America he would surely have been world-famous. “But now the problem was how to find him. Was he alive? I didn’t know. Because there was a war in the meantime. Who knows what’s happened with him. And somehow I found out that he is alive. Somehow I got a telephone number. And I think six months later we met for the first time in Sarajevo. So it was the year 2000. January. And it was the Roma new year. There was a celebration. And he told me, ‘I’m going to be in Sarajevo, so maybe we can see each other’. I went there, and I still remember, he had a nice hat and some kind of coat and scarf. And I thought, ‘This is not the Šaban that I know’. Because he had had these golden teeth. But when I met him he didn’t have the teeth anymore. So he didn’t really look like the Gypsy that I had in my head. Talking, almost whispering. And I was thinking, ‘Can he sing?’ 

“And somehow we agreed on recording terms. Which was pretty easy. He wanted a thousand Deutschmarks per song. And I told him, ‘Just wait a moment, Šaban,’ and I phoned my World Connection, this Albert Nijmolen. I said, ‘Albert, he is asking a thousand’. Albert said, ‘Fourteen songs. Fourteen thousand. Okay’. You know how it was – Mostar Sevdah Reunion was doing it for free. I was doing it as a producer for free. I didn’t care about money. Because that was my obsession: I wanted to record this man. Even now, I would do it always for free, for Šaban.

“So we made a deal, and I said I just have to get up for the sound check. And he went to these two guys – they were with synthesizers, and I heard this terrible sound of synthesizers, and I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ But Šaban took the mic in his hands and then he starts singing. In one minute he was doing all kinds of improvisations with his voice. And I was like – amazing. Amazing! 

“So six months later we went to the studio in Mostar. The musicians gathered around Šaban for one song, just to warm up. Just like, let’s sing. Really, tears started coming to my eyes. It was like with actors, when they say, ‘Camera loves him’. Well, the microphone loved Šaban. 

 “I did two albums with him. And I am totally honored that I had the chance. In June there was in Sarajevo a special celebration – eighty years of birth of Šaban Bajramović. There was also Bregović and a few more people, ethnomusicologists and the president of Romas from Bosnia. It was some kind of in memoriumfor Šaban Bajramović, celebration of his birth, etcetera. And everyone was talking about these two albums. And I realized that come what may, people would always ask me – just as you are doing now – about Šaban and these albums and these recordings of him; this cooperation. And suddenly I realized I had become part of the history of Balkan music thanks to my cooperation with Šaban. And when I hear those songs today, I think, ‘Did I record this? Was I the producer?’ Because those recordings were bigger than I ever thought they were going to be. It’s something essential for World Music. He was – I mean…fantastic, fantastic.” 

Šaban died in 2008. He was 72 years old. His funeral was attended by then president Boris Tadić.