It is with genuine sadness and regret that I heard the news today of the untimely passing of Džej Ramadanovski, who died December 6 of a heart attack at the unripe age of 55. Džej’s death is but one in a long line of Roma musician casualties over the last ten years. Džej certainly burned the candle at both ends, and he paid the price.
I had the rare honor of interviewing Džej in 2019 before one of his last concerts. He was overweight, easily fatigued, and – during our interview – clung tenaciously to his oversize glass of vodka, which he lapped up like water before taking the stage. Still, he had a bit of the old verve in him. If only he could get over his twin addictions of booze and cigarettes, one thought, he’d have a few more good years in him.
By the end of his life, Džej had more than 150 songs to his name, almost every one a hit. He was a big star in Serbia; everyone knew him. Coming of age during the era of turbo-folk, he had something of the genre’s upbeat, high octane feel, although he was primarily a singer of ballads, which he sang for an exclusively Serbian audience of Gypsies and non-Gypsies alike.
A funny guy, who could make you dance, he was described as being “Roma to the core”, in the words of Serbian producer Marko J Konj, the embodiment of “the real rock & roll lifestyle.” He cast himself as a Serbian Gypsy James Brown, even worked James Brown lines into his folk ballads. And yet he never catered to Western tastes, even during the fad for Balkan Gypsy music some years later, if not for any other reason than he had already ruined his health by that time; the nineties had done him in.
Džej had a turbulent life. Originally of Macedonian descent (his grandfather Camil Ramadanovski, a native of Macedonia, moved to Belgrade after the Second World War), he was born, bred and spent in his own words, “half a century” in the Serbian district of Dorćol, a legendary Belgrade “mahalle” famous for its taverns and slightly nefarious underworld characters. Džej, who ran away at an early age and lived on the streets of Dorćol, engaging in petty crimes, says he only narrowly escaped being a career criminal.
“When I started to appear on tv shows I was afraid people I had tricked and robbed would recognize me and I would get sentenced to million years,” recalled Džej.
Music was his redemption. His father played clarinet, and he was early on discovered by Raka Đokić, the famous manager of Serbian folk star Lepa Brena, who rocketed the young Džej to stardom in Yugoslavia. Đokić, Džej recalled, would only give him money piecemeal, afraid he’d blow it all in one shot gambling.
In the early nineties, Džej suddenly found himself a mega-star (in the narrow, yet no less glamorous confines of the Yugoslav music world)
“At my first concert in Tašmajdan (a Belgrade stadium) in 1991, there were 13,000 visitors,” said Džej “and at least 4,000 people without tickets in front of the stadium.”
Džej was very much a child of the nineties, an era that was marked in Serbia by extreme economic hardship, inflation, sanctions, rampant black marketeering and unbridled criminality, so much so that Belgrade earned the sobriquet, “Chicago on the Danube.”
In a nightlife that was defined by flashy river raft discos and increasingly mental and drug ridden parties, Džej rose to the top.
Everyone in Belgrade adored the diminutive, swarthy, bald-headed, dashing folk star with a huge laugh. A Serbian friend of mine recalls seeing Džej queue-barge a long line at a Novi Beograd rostilje (grilled lamb) joint, announcing he’d pay for everyone’s lunch. He once filmed a clip at Belgrade market, dancing on the tables with mustachioed farmers who had come in from the Šumadija and the Vojvodina with their plums and cucumbers, figs, apricots and tomatoes.
His style was so-called “folk” – Serbs used the English word to describe their indigenous popular music, which blends folk instruments, such as accordion and homegrown vocal styles with Western pop.
Gradually the style became more and more high octane and beat-laden, giving rise to the label “turbo-folk”, a term coined by wacky Montenegrin art rocker Rambo Amadeus, who actually came up with the phrase to describe the Pakistani bhangra music he heard in east London.
At any rate the label stuck, perfectly summing up the relentlessly upbeat dance music that blended a melismatic, “quavering”, Oriental-style vocals, token accordion riffs, mixed with Western disco and electronica popular in Serbia at the time – a style that went hand in hand with the no-holds barred turbo-capitalism of post-communist Serbian society with a nagging rural cast.
With Džej it was a case of “too much, too soon”. In order to keep up with the mental style of partying in that was gaining sway in Belgrade in the nineties, Džej adopted a lifestyle marked by excessive drinking and drug taking as well as gambling. He lived for the moment, claimed in interviews to be “enjoying life with all my strength.”
And he paid the price. He developed lung problems, heart problems, suffered a heart attack at 53. Gradually he could no longer perform fully on stage. He gained weight and lost his considerable sex appeal. His doctors advised him urgently to change his lifestyle, but Dzej remained stubbornly hedonistic.
“I will not lie to you,” he told journalists. “I prefer to die rather than give up ALCOHOL!”
“Džej started with funny and up-tempo songs, but then he became huge with ballads,” recalls Serbian folk producer Marko J Konj. “And he was probably one of the best singers ever in that genre. And then he decided to go on the wild side. He probably destroyed his entire career and his entire life. But that is rock & roll. He had that auto-destruction which is very common in the music business.
“But like everything in the Balkans, it comes later,” Konj goes on. “In the Western world we have “Club 27”, where people 27 years often die because of drug abuse, probably because they started when they were 16, 17 or 18. And in the Balkans everything comes later. They are all late bloomers. They started using drugs in their late thirties or early forties. That’s how it was with Džej. He had 20 years of drug abuse in his life. And it had its price. He was still a star, even though he hadn’t recorded anything in years.”
I saw Džej perform a year ago in Berlin for an exclusively Yugo audience, for whom he was“legende”, and still very much the the “kralj” – king.
It’s difficult to talk to Serbian folk stars today if you don’t speak the lingo or belong to the Balkan tabloid media, where turbo-folk artists are lionized and idealized, and every aspect of their private lives gone into detail. All of these stars perform for a local Balkan audience and when they make forays West, to Europe, America and Australia, it’s mostly to perform for the Balkan diaspora in concerts almost entirely ignored by the majority in their host countries.
Almost all folk stars are void of any ambition to make it in an international arena. The money they make in the Balkans and from Balkan diaspora is more than enough for them. So why bother talking to an American journalist?
Just come in from the airport, Džej wasn’t feeling up to par and asked for a stiff drink. Someone brought him a pint glass brimming full of vodka from the bar and he was good to go, rambling on in an almost indecipherable Gypsy Belgrade Serbian for my benefit.
Džej told me about growing up in Dorćol, his big hit, Sexy Ritam in 1993, his best show – in Belgrade, in 1992, when he sang in front of 30,000 people, some of whom came from surrounding villages on foot; his influences, which were as eclectic as James Brown, AC/DC, Toma Zdravković, Oliver Dragojević, Kemal Monteno and Muharem Serbezovski – names that will mostly mean nothing to someone who is not from Yugoslavia – oh, and Serbian king of the Gypsies, Šaban Bajramović whom Džej described as having a voice like Louis Armstrong.
Asked if it was possible for Americans to appreciate his music, Džej spoke about the time when he made it to America, dodged security in New York and snuck up to Puff Daddy, who asked Džej if he was a Gypsy, and when Džej answered in the affirmative, Puff Daddy said to him. “You are my man!”
It was time to play. Džej downed his vodka and hit the floor together with a keyboarder, who played in a trancy style full of Oriental trills and quaverings. The crowd was small but adoring. There was flashy clique of ex-Yugos, who, all got up in showy clothes and glitzy finery, threw their hands up in the air theatrically, knelt before their idol, bowing down before him and plastering Džej’s sweaty, bald head with small denomination bills, or baksheesh.
The big hit with Džej that night, however, was – yours truly. Evidently Džej never had any non diaspora Americans among his fans. So Džej called out to me from the stage, introducing me round to the crowd, and when he came down off the stage and mingled with the audience he embraced me and we traded sweaty kisses.
In the end, the night was a total flop. Only around thirty people had shown up and the organizers had gone home broke. Only Džej had come out on top, pocketing his fee and flying back to Belgrade satisfied the next morning.