Whatever else the long-gone “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” was, it was multicultural. Established in 1945, it was made up of six republics and populated by 22 different ethnicities, including Muslim Slavs, Albanians, Jews, ethnic Germans, Turks, Vlachs and Hungarians. It had three major religions, two alphabets, three official languages and a variety of minority languages, including Albanian, Turkish, Bulgarian, Romanian, Italian, Czech, Slovak, Ruthenian and Roma.
This was as cosmopolitan a society as has ever existed, with shared cultures from across the Balkans and the Mediterranean. But multicultural didn’t mean equal. The Yugoslav constitution formally guaranteed the rights of its various nationalities, but in practice particular groups were marginalised and oppressed. The treatment of Kosovo’s Albanian population was one example, the region’s Roma population another.
The Roma people in the post-war period had (and continue to have) lower incomes and worse housing than any other ethnic group in the region.
Some say that the Roma had better treatment in the former-Yugoslavia than in the other East European states. The Bulgarian Stalinists, for example, banned Roma names and the Roma language. Roma music was banned from the state media and from public venues. Players of the zurla, a wind instrument used exclusively in Roma music, risked a fine. That wasn’t the experience in the former Yugoslavia. Roma were more integrated into mainstream society. In 1973, 50 percent of Roma wage earners were industrial and municipal workers. Nevertheless, the fact that the government had to campaign against the derogatory term “tsigan” (meaning Gypsy) gives an idea of the ubiquitous discrimination Roma people faced. It’s in the lyrics of these songs too.
Most of the tracks are vibrant and life-affirming. But there is a contradiction in many of their lyrics which deal with death and loss.
In Ansambl Montenegro’s “Wandering, Wandering”, they sing “I have travelled over long roads, I have met fortunate Roma. I have travelled far and wide, I have met lucky Roma”. Hajra Suc Urija and Amsambl Kud Ibar’s “Miro Went on a Tourist Holiday” chronicles the death of a lover in a car crash.
On a determinist note, Nehat Gasi & Ansambl Rom declares: “the day has come to leave my wife and make my children poor.” Some tracks are more traditional. The lovely “Durdevdan Durdevdan” invites all to “play with the gypsies on St George’s Day”. Other songs assimilate cultural influences from wonderfully diverse sources.
Muharem Serbezovski’s 1974 song “Ramu, Ramu” was inspired by the smash hit Hindi film “Dosti”. As the sleeve notes have it: “A Macedonian Roma singing in Serbian about a fictional character from an Indian film: only in Yugoslavia.” Very recommended.
Stand Up, People is out now on Vlax Records
A new book by Paul O’Brien