Saban Bajramovic: 'Gypsy king' of Serbia

Dubbed the "King of Roma music", Serbia's Saban Bajramovic was the best-known male Romany singer of his generation. He was adored throughout the Balkans for his sobbing, gravelly wail in a career spanning more than four decades, during which he wrote around 700 songs and released more than 20 albums.

Hugely popular in Tito's Yugoslavia and among international expat communities, he was forced into obscurity by the Balkan wars of the 1990s, before making a comeback with the album A Gypsy Legend (2001), which relaunched him as a late-flowering "Balkan blues" star of world music. "Saban lived by his own rules," observed the writer Garth Cartwright, who interviewed Bajramovic for his book Princes Amongst Men (2005). Infamously distrustful of the entertainment business – which no doubt often ripped him off – he was surrounded by legend and nicknamed "No Show Saban" for his own erratic approach to contractual obligations, often bunking off gigs and tours to moonlight on the gypsy wedding circuit if the money was right.

Such wild and unreliable behaviour once saw him banned from Yugoslav television and also probably prevented him from becoming better known outside the Balkans in later life. Even so, he did manage to turn up for his only UK gig at the Mean Fiddler in London in May 2006, looking every inch the gypsy lounge lizard in a white suit, and sunglasses that masked a scarred and lived-in visage.

The Second World War disrupted his childhood, and the orphaned Bajramovic only completed four years of schooling, living by his wits on the streets and first making use of his pitch-perfect singing voice at Romany festivities. Frustrated by the illiteracy that prevented him from writing to a girlfriend, he deserted the Yugoslav army as an 18-year-old and thus earned a five-and-a-half year prison sentence. This included one year on the notorious Adriatic island of Goli Otok, where he learnt how to read and write and also cut his teeth with the prison band, later referring to it as his "university of life".

On his release, he started singing in the music bars of Nis and at weddings, and made his first original recording "Pelno me San" ("I Am Imprisoned") in 1964. Bajramovic quickly became a Romany icon, fronting his band the Black Mambas and earning a reputation as hard drinker, gambler and "consumer of life" who sported gold-capped teeth and left a string of wrecked cars in his wake.

His success peaked during the 1970s, but by the early 1990s, competition, from new electronic "turbofolk", and piracy had undermined him. His profile crashed during the Balkan war, but eventually Dragi Sestic, an Amsterdam-based Bosnian producer tracked him down, coaxing the singer back into the studio to record A Gypsy Legend with the remarkable neo-folk ensemble Mostar Sevdah Reunion.

Its success prompted reissues such as Gypsy King of Serbia (2002), Gypsy King and Drunkard (2004) and Herdelezi: 18 Original Recordings 1969-1984 (2007). Bajramovic also toured the United States in 2004, and made guest appearances on Legends of Life (2005) by his Serbian colleague Ljiljana Buttler and Queens and Kings (2007) by the Romanian gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia.

Aside from a number of film appearances, and singing the theme tune for Emir Kusturica's Black Cat, White Cat (1997), Bajramovic was also the subject of the documentary Saban by the Serbian filmmaker Milos Stojanovic, which details the making of his newly released second album for Sestic – also called Saban.

Jon Lusk



Saban Bajramovic, singer and songwriter: born Nis, Yugoslavia 16 April 1936; married (four daughters); died Nis 8 June 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Night job: Pacha nightclub DJ, Joan Ribas, is the new kingmaker on the island
news
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family
film'I survived it, but I’ll never be the same,' says Arash Amel
Life and Style
Retailers should make good any consumer goods problems that occur within two years
tech(and what to do if you receive it)
Life and Style
healthIf one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Software Engineer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software Developer / Software Engineer i...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada