“Sudbina,” the new album by American vocalist Eva Salina and Serbian-Romanian Romani accordionist Peter Stan, opens with the lines, Let me live, let me love. Salina’s wistful delivery leaves little doubt that hers is a hopeless plea. The singer’s fate is cruel; she can only watch the happiness of others. Stan’s accordion keens along with Salina, a trusted confidant alone in the room with her. At the end of the song, Stan cuts off the air to his instrument, leaving only the voiceless clacking of the keys.
This is an apt opening for an album dedicated to Vida Pavlović, the Serbian Romani singer. “Sudbina” means “destiny” in Serbian: Vida’s destiny was sadness, music, and the adoration of her fans. Born in 1945 into a musical family in Futog, a large village in northern Serbia, by age fourteen she was performing with her musician uncle in kafanas, smoky café-bars where rowdy listeners expressed enthusiasm by throwing money at the performers or stuffing it into their instruments or clothes. (I once accompanied some musician friends to a Serbian café in Kyiv; I became alarmed when an audience member, displeased with a song’s delivery, began strangling the bandleader.)
In Yugoslavia, the kafana was a central place for socialization—for men. During Vida’s youth, the only women there were usually the waitresses and the singers. Although rural Serbian communities traditionally valued singing, viewing it as a desirable quality in a young girl, it was considered a mark of shame and promiscuity for a woman to sing in public; even at home, she could only sing certain types of ritual songs suited to the season. A woman who longed to sing for strangers had to abandon the mantle of respectability.
As a Roma woman—a “gypsy”—Vida’s respectability was already tenuous, though a career as a professional singer was not as far from her reach as it was for the average Serbian girl. Before World War II, most of Serbia’s professional musicians were Roma; female Roma performers were often considered sexually immoral and even dangerous, as musicians and as gypsies. As a people without their own state, the Roma were, along with the Jews, Europe’s most persecuted minority for centuries, and they gravitated toward more mobile professions—notably music. Roma were targeted for extermination by Hitler, and vicious discrimination against the Roma has endured even in the supposedly enlightened European Union; though Roma music is popular, and often appropriated, the people themselves continue to be derided and excluded.
In socialist Yugoslavia, the kafana offered one of the only means of advertising one’s music; many radio hits were proven first in the kafana, and stars were regularly discovered there. According to ethnomusicologist Ana Hofman, women musicians in mid-century Yugoslavia usually married musicians or managers who could accompany them to the kafana, offering protection and legitimacy. They often found it difficult to maintain a relationship with any other category of men, as few husbands outside the profession would tolerate a wife’s career as a professional musician. Vida followed this pattern, marrying a musician when she was only fifteen. He took her to Sarajevo, but the relationship soon fell apart and she moved on to Belgrade. There she continued as a kafana singer, channeling her own pain and that of generations of singers in hard-luck ballads even as drunken men blew smoke in her face or tried to embrace her. After years of kafana performances, Vida achieved widespread fame, becoming “the queen of Roma music.”
Once famous, many Yugoslav women singers still struggled with their social identity. Some tried to present themselves as wives and mothers, women worthy of ordinary respect. Other explicitly defied stereotypes, declaring that they wanted music more than standard-issue “women’s happiness.” Many complained that even as they used their gifts to become self-made women, wealthy and acclaimed, they were still treated as “incomplete.” Vida acquired a second musician husband, but the relationship was rocky and produced no children. Childlessness seems to have tormented her until the end of her life. An alcoholic, she died at sixty.
Raised in Santa Cruz, Salina has Dutch and Jewish roots. At seven, she was given a tape of Yiddish songs. Entranced, she had soon learned them by heart. Her parents searched for an appropriate singing teacher for their precocious child; the closest they could find was a young woman from Hawaii who performed Balkan music. By twelve, Salina was in Bulgaria, studying folk music there. A couple of decades later, she is one of the most accomplished American interpreters of Balkan music. She has immersed herself in the languages, cultures, and history of the region, studying and collaborating with many musicians of Balkan and Roma origins.
Salina discovered Vida on YouTube. For “Sudbina,” she chose those of Pavlović’s songs that she found rawest and most direct. The majority are not in Serbian but in Romani; these, Salina told me, had a much darker content than the ones in Serbian, though the melodies were often boisterous and cheerful. A merry surface, fitting the stereotype of gypsy musicians, concealed the plaints that were only comprehensible to other Roma. The disjunction of text and melody is especially stark in “E laute bašalen taj roven,” a song that remembers the hundreds of thousands of Roma who were killed in the Holocaust. It ends with the words “The violins play, full of sadness,” but the music is positively jaunty. Mourning is a private matter, even when performed in public.
Other Romani songs on “Sudbina” include laments about a lifetime of poverty, about children going hungry, about beaten wives and families left behind. In “Aven, aven Romalen” Salina sings,
The morning rain was falling,
The men took to the road
Left their wives
And their little kids.
Come, come Roma,
Back to your homes,
Your poor wives
Ask for you,
Your children are crying
For their fathers…
Over there in a foreign land,
All you do is sing and play,
And you never come home.
Entering the repertoire was like method acting, Salina told me. She became ill, possessed by the feelings of anguish and exclusion and abandonment in the songs; she felt that the material had gotten too close, and that her body was betraying her.
Salina’s previous album, “Lema Lema,” was a tribute to Šaban Bajramović, another Serbian Roma musician, king to Vida’s queen. It was something of a drag performance, Salina dressing up in Bajramović’s outlaw persona, retaining his male pronouns, and transforming his repertoire into something new, with the help of contemporary Serbian and American musicians. As Salina explained it to me, “Sudbina” is a different type of project, a way of honoring the bravery, commitment, and sacrifice that women make to be musicians.
The album is also a kind of humanitarian intervention into the Western Balkan music scene. In the mid-1990s, Balkan-gypsy music and related hybrids became a craze in Western Europe and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the United States and elsewhere, propelled by the films of Emir Kusturica, with their scenes of brass-fuelled gypsy bacchanals. In the US, the most prominent representative of this craze has been Gogol Bordello, the “gypsy punk” band led by Ukrainian emigrant Eugene Hutz. Gypsy punk, the gypsy techno-remixes that thump through European clubs, and Balkan brass bands (even in their more indigenous forms) tend to be intensely masculine, with all-male bands, male DJs, and often fratty fans who pump their fists and pound beers. Part of Salina’s project is to reclaim Balkan music from the bros, to recover its interiority and its poignancy, and, above all, to recollect the many women musicians who have helped to create and preserve it.
The devastating “Ostala je pesma moja” is among Pavlović’s most famous numbers, a conversation with her song:
I sang so long,
I loved like crazy,
Every song, every verse…
What remains is my song.
Remember one woman
By singing her song.
You were my first love,
My dearest song…
I gave you so much, song,
And you never thanked me.
Salina told me that she has recently been thinking a lot about women refugees and migrants, and about “hidden singers,” the countless women whose songs are housebound because of social strictures. When these women are scattered by war and disaster, songs are one of their most potent and most portable reminders of lost homes, of societies that may never be reconstructed. “Sudbina” is a reminder that songs can survive once a singer and the country of her birth are gone, crossing an ocean, shaping a new woman’s mouth into the sounds of wonderful, once-unfamiliar languages and lives.
Sophie Pinkham is author of Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine. Her writing on Russia, Ukraine, and other post-socialist spaces has appeared in publications including The New Republic, The Nation, and n+1.
Banner image: Deborah Feingold Photography