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.

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