Tuesday, 6 November 2018

At one point I will write about the last months of my research, to share some of the interesting and lovely stories I experienced apart from the knowledge and insights, my interviewees shared with me. The result of the latter however, you can read here:

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

3rd April 2018  Interviews with Zoran and Ferus

I woke up excited and nervous, working very fast in the morning to prepare my questions and equipment for the interviews today and chasing my poor man Mihajlo around for getting all ready. We left, me being even more nervous, to meet Zoran Kraguevski, a Macedonian clarinettist, who is highly educated in various styles such as classical, jazz, Macedonian folklore and of course čoček. A great charismatic character and really nice man on top of it. We had a great conversation, partly interview, partly exchange between musicians. 

He is very keen on čoček, but considers himself more an imitator, as the real čoček can only really be played by Romany people. The Turkish play the original, the Albanians, Greeks and originally the Bulgarian Roma had found their own variants, highly Ottoman influenced, but very skill full and charismatic. The Mcedonian variant he describes as soft and beautiful. Čoček for him is driven by the rhythm, as it is a music for dance. The other main element are the solos; based on makam, and tasteful melody lines, they show off the skill of a player and the quality of a performance. Zoran got very upset, telling us about the corruption of čoček in the new days. He had lived for 30 years in Sweden, and when he came back, all had changes. According to him, it sounded, and still sounds like bebop, too many notes and too little soul. Ivo Papasov and the Bulgarian wedding musicians have started corrupting it, and the new players follow his example and know nothing of makam and the od skills anymore Very sadly he announced, that if the development will continue as it happens now, in 15 years there will be no more čoček left. Before parting, Zoran promised me a book with all the treasures of čoček notated. Also, we might have a jam, and he would demonstrate old and new čoček style.

After this very rich and lovely conversation, for me around 2 hours of full-on intense conversation to transcribe, we started the adventure to arrange the meeting with Ferus Mustafov, the King of Čoček in Macedonia, and the whole world. On the phone, he asked us what to wear, in case we take a video, and I actually regret, not taking him up on this, as his choice of outfit could well have added even more enrichment to our visit. Coincidentally, Bajsa was passing by, and lead the way to his residence.

The place which I thought would be his home, opened up to be a restaurant including a huge wedding dome  it seemed like that not he is travelling to the weddings he performs, but the weddings he plays are actually coming to him. Certainly in Macedonia, the wedding music industry is financially a strong and well-paid one, and the centre stage for famous musicians, I dont think I ever met a musician playing for functions with such wealth in whole Europe

Ferus is a strong character, very confident, and absolutely certain he is and will always be the best. There are only a few famous čoček players around, and all others imitate them. The interview was certainly a highly interesting affair, but more so a quirky and extraordinary experience. Old videos from 1970 caused a lot of giggles; the jokes, and Bajsa making fun of him I unfortunately I only could fully capture later, when translated, as my Yugoslavia mish-mash language makes understanding still difficult. 

A spicy moment was certainly when I asked about the most significant čoček players now and in the last 20-30 years, as next to him, there is only really his nephew, who learned from him, but is not mature enough to be great. About the declining quality of čoček he feels just as sad as Zoran, probably with the believe, that real čoček will die with him.

Monday, 2 April 2018

1st and 2nd  April 2018 1st Lesson and Interview with Bajsa

This time my stay in Skopje had an incredibly serious connotation the research for my Master Dissertation. As I had planned a number of visits, including most of the summertime, it seemed much easier, and also cheaper to rent a flat, and thus, with my lovely Mihajlo, we had rented our first little flat together. A small apartment, pretty central but quiet, with a lovely balcony the inside however, needed attention, so the moving-in involved removing layers of dirt of the last decade... In the evening we were so shattered, that we did not go to the centre and join the first-of-April celebrations, which would have involved lots of Romani drum and zurla music in the centre, and costumed people the year before, I saw everything from Hitler to Roma-cross-dressed men and princesses.

Next morning, after some more cleaning and a little warm up on the violin, I made my way up a steep hill to Bajsas flat. Bajsa is an incredibly gifted multi-instrumentalist, a great characterful and charismatic person, very well connected in the Folklore and Romani music world, and highly educated and knowledgeable; she was my first interviewee, also the centre point to connect with the Masters of čoček, Romani music and ethnomusicologists of Macedonia. Also, I aimed to learn to play čoček including ornamentation from her, or more realistically, to make my first baby steps to play real authentic čoček.

After I was fed with some left-over lunch, we started the interview with all sorts of questions, and I found my well-organised and thought-through interview ending up being a slightly chaotic questionnaire I realised very quickly, that my strategy did not at all fit the mentality of how Macedonians and Romani people think about čoček and their music in general. Still, with some spontaneous changes, I got a lot of knowledge, and great new insights down on tape. As we are by now something like professional friends, and know each other fairly well, I knew, that I can come back and ask many more questions at any stage.

In our music making I was taught Bursa Čoček. Here a performance by one of her friends, Ilija Ampevski, nickname Ampe, a clarinettist and saxophonist, who is a non-Romani, but is still highly appreciated by Romani musicians - which is rather the exception, as most non-Romani are only considered as imitators of čoček.

Learning phrase by phrase by ear, ornament by ornament Bajsa is used to teach mostly classical musicians, or western advanced hobby musicians, who do not necessarily have a natural feel for that music, so each time I imitate an ornament and it has the right kick, she breaks out in a huge, high pitched laugh and gives me 5. One thing however strikes me about her and other Romani people in general. When it comes to talk about payments, she becomes a different person. Usually generous, bubbling, completely open, and certainly not at all money-driven, she transforms for one moment only into a stern persona, who seems business-orientated, and easily offended; in a way, as if there would be an inherited Romani gene, which suffers from the abuse of having been taken advantage of by white people for centuries, which is turned on for one moment. And I have watched similar weird moments with other Romani, even though, she, and some others have never been in person traumatised by that abuse; she works on a regular basis with Western European non-Romani musician, and earns good money.

Before I departed, she did two quick phone calls, and set me up with a musician colleague of her, Zoran Kraguevski, a clarinettist and saxophonist, and apparently very knowledgeable of čoček and Macedonian music in general, and then, to my great amazement, with the King of čoček, Ferus Mustafovski !!!

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The Story of Cocek

A new article of mine - first research on Čoček, which is a Balkan Romani music and dance genre, rather difficult to define... Here what I found in current published literature:

The Story of Čoček

Enjoy !!!

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Female Musicians in Macedonia

A first result of my past research in Macedonia: an Essey !

Female Musicians in Šuto Orizari, the theme of my research, in which I met lovely people and amazing musicians. Bajsa Arifovska, who is the only professional female Romani Musician, probably in whole Macedonia, is a great character and an outstanding musician, and I learned some lovely music. Other interviews were with Eleonora Mustafovska, who was Esma Redžepova's only female student, and whom she declared as her successor...

Saturday, 20 August 2016

18th – 20th August: Farewells and New Discoveries

The next few days were really just filled with rounding up my stay, seeing Gosia off, who went back to London, and to prepare for my upcoming visit to Kosovo. On my last day, I somehow felt like photographing the ugly bits of Skopje, must be due to my heavy heart feeling the departure from such an intense time.

Kosovo. I only know a few songs which I absolutely love. I felt incredibly excited to venture into new territory, to a place with hugely difficult history and current affairs, with a mixture of various ethnicities, a place which rather than only a little fragment of Former Yugoslavia, seems somewhat of a cross-roads between the still-western Balkan music and influences from Albania, Turkey and further Middle East.

I only had two days left before my aeroplane back to London, time only to dip into one place for which I chose Prizren, which is not the capital, but a much older, much more atmospheric town with lots of Romany Mahallas. My friend Ragip, a Rom living in Germany, who had been born and grown up there, had brought me in touch with a journalist, a Rom too, who worked for the Kosovo state television. He was meant to sort me out with tourist guides, and a introduction into Kosovo Roma life and bring me in touch with some musicians.

He picked me up from the bus station and brought me to my hotel. Afterwards we went into town for a quick coffee and strategic meeting, and I was ‘’welcomed’ by a party atmosphere as in the worst tourist beach town. The whole centre is full of bars, all of them vibrating from loud music and kicking bass beats. O my god, where is the supposedly poor and deprived Kosovo, of which many people including natives have been telling me about, where life is so difficult and depressing. Those lifes may well exist somewhere hidden away, however, their existence was quite unbelievable when confronted with this very pulsating place.

I was introduced to a young Romani man, who was supposed to show to all that is to see of Romani culture in Prizren on the next day. That night I stuffed in my earplugs tight, struggling in vain to diminish those huge party noises and catch at least some sleep.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

17th August evening: The rehearsal with the borrowed brass band

We arrived in Topana only 30 minutes delayed, but rather than the full orchestra waiting for us, there were only Asan and his friend Ali, who kept telling us they would arrive any moment. 

So we waited and waited, and Ali felt more and more uncomfortable, until they admitted that the band was actually on a gig. What a weird way of dealing with people, we thought, why pretend, when we would find out a little later anyway? More and more I experience that there is a huge cultural behavior pattern going on, which is quite contrary to my 'German' straight forward way of being. One really has to look behind the scenes and let go of the 'matter-of-fact' being, release into a world of stories and float with it. 

I think Asan really just wanted our company, but I had enough, and so we prepared to leave...

Now the funniest thing occurred: Asan begged us to wait just for 10 more minutes, and left 20 min later he did return, and with him a whole Balkan brass band ! What an extraordinary thing. Some of the members were very young, maybe 14-16 years old, and felt rather awkward in this situation, having to play for and with this strange foreign lady who for some reason knew their music. 

We had a great jam in every way. The energy which vibrated from this really tight rhythm section was extraordinary, I don’t think I ever played in such a powerful environment. Not that they knew the pieces, but they made it up as they went along.

For one piece, which I really like, I could not handle the often wrong chords anymore, and they would not hold any of the breaks which made this piece so strong. So I interrupted the whole thing vehemently and taught them the right chords and breaks. This was quite a funny situation, me sitting in the middle of a Romany settlement with a borrowed brass band, teaching them one of their own pieces, but it changed the dynamics, and afterwards the youngest weren’t feeling so awkward anymore. 

The leader of that group then invited me then to play with their band, of course in such a way so Asan would not hear – great, now I could be member of three Balkan Brass Orchestars in Macedonia. I felt like a trophy which they all wanted to own for themselves. Well, I did decline politely, as I did not want to be the cause of a Balkan brass battle.

Gosia eventually did some dancing as well, and after we have been playing rather chaotically through all pieces which I had learned on my last visit, and Asan found no means to hold us there any longer, we departed and were chauffeured to the centre. Over several glasses of rakja, Gosia and me reflected on all those weird and wonderful events of the day.

17th August, morning: Lake Matka, the discovery of another Macedonian treasure

We took the early bus from the Coach station, to take us into the nature resort outside Skopje around the river Treska. The lake is artificially created by damming the river, however, apart from the huge man-made dam, the whole area is a paradise of mountains, forests and water. En route there were a few old monasteries, which we intended to visit.

When we arrived all was still very quiet and deprived of tourists. We got off the bus at the canyon before the actual lake and went up the hill to see our first monastery, St Andrea. A lovely, very old church surrounded by some equally old and pretty functional buildings and lovely gardens.

Back at the canyon, we decided to take the trekking path through the mountains, which would lead us to the lake via the St Nicola’s Monastery high up in the hills. 

We had a beautiful walk, luckily most was in the forest, in some cooler shade, as the sun was burning down by then. We had a picnic up at the monastery, before continuing the path downwards towards the lake.

When arriving down at the lake we were stunned by the beautiful view, but also by seemingly having ended in a cul-de-sac, with water and trees around us, but no path to get anywhere around. 

All ‘civilisation’ including roads, restaurants and the way back to the bus was unreachable on the other side of the lake. We climbed around for a bit, looking for that hidden path, when we realised that a boat was approaching from the other side. It had come to pick us up – what a lovely service…

After having an over-priced under-quality lunch in the restaurant, we tried to find a ‘beach’, or rather some patch by the water, which was blessed by sunshine and accessibility to the water. Walking along the lake we were shocked by the amount of rubbish everywhere. It seems the usual thing here is to have a picnic or party, and leave all the rubbish behind.

In the end we returned to the canyon for some sunbathing and swimming. The big disappointment of the day happened when we were entering into the water and it was soooooooooo cold, that it positively hurt. Maybe we were overly tired, but it never has happened to me that I could not enter a water due to cold, not when swimming in March in the Atlantic ocean, neither in the ice-cold mountain ponds in 2000 meter altitude of the Bavarian alps.

Anyway, is was time to go back to prepare for the rehearsal with the Romani musicians this evening.... 

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

16th August: of Elvis, the Romani Mafioso, and a Čoček performance of rather unusual nature…

This was Gosia’s first day in Skopje. We did not know yet, that our planned light day of sightseeing would end up being an intense encounter with Romani culture which was shocking and wonderful in the same time.

I thought I could use those tourist activities to catch up on a bit of history and general knowledge of Macedonia, as somehow during my stays here I always was dragged into other directions. Together we visited the sights, reading all the information exhibited on boards throughout. We also explored this whole business of the colour stains on Skopje’s monuments. It was named the ‘colour protest’, led by a group of free-minded Skopians. They expressed their unhappiness with the governmental issues in this peaceful action by throwing colourful paint onto those grand white brand-new monuments. I love the idea of it, but I would have preferred to see the whole thing delivered with some more artistic finesse.

From the centre, we made our way through the old town towards the bazar, checking out traditional shops and all the Turkish-influences fashion shops which displayed highly exuberant dresses.


From the centre, we made our way through the old town towards the bazar, checking out traditional shops, weird articles and all the Turkish-influences fashion shops which displayed highly exuberant dresses.

Finally we took the bus to Šuto Orizari, the Romani settlement outside Skopje. I felt very excited going to the market again, and strolling through the roads and alleyways. I had gotten in touch with Asan, as a spontaneous meeting close to where he lives seemed the most likely way to actually manage to meet him.

It was soooo hot, we were sneaking from shadow to shadow. Unfortunately the market was already packing up, so we started strolling off the tack into residential territory, into sections where I had not been before. In this settlement, one can discover so much creativity and imagination in and around the houses, it’s wonderful. We did chat to some of the proud home owners, who are always very happy to show you around and show off.

Later we had an ice coffee in a bar, a very sweet concoction of Nescafe, sugar, ice cubes and cream, and what miracle, Asan turned up. He was very concerned about meeting and rehearsing for the upcoming TV recording for Shutel, the local Romani television station. He had brought along his friend Ali, also a trumpet player; together we went then to the house of a relative to get rehearsals and TV sessions arranged.

I have been to a lot of Romani houses by now, and it does not matter in which country, and if rich or poor, they were all immaculately clean and tidy. You might find rubbish outside the house, but cleanliness inside is a strong part of their lore, which seem to have carried through even in the most modern Romani families. This house was different, really dirty and scattered. Anyway, were still welcomed like honoured visitors, and offered coke in semi-clean glasses.

As usual, when word goes round of special guests, several friends and family members pop round to pay their respect and also to spy on the newcomers. This way, we were introduced to a number of people, of course the crème-de-la-crème of Šutka. There was Elvis Pressley, who runs hotels abroad, and we met Lenzo, the Mafioso (we were warned afterwards by Asan), who owns a taxi firm in Stuttgart/Germany, and sings on the weekends in a slightly dubious Turkish night cub. I do not think many people can say of themselves to have met Elvis and a Mafioso in their life, and specially not in one day !

At one point a young man arrived, with a slightly strange air about him. Gosia identified him as gay, and we were wondering, if this was known to the family and community. He was asked to dance for us, as his Čoček dancing was apparently extraordinary. And it certainly was, after wrapping a jingly coin scarf around his hips, we were offered snippets of a rather feminine belly dance.

They didn’t allow us to take pix, they were concerned there would be bad gossip and discrimination amongst the community, if those images would be seen. For me, the fascinating thing was, here was a young man, who was everything which Roma people usually would shun and cast out. This young man however was in a weird way integrated in his community. I do not know, and could of course not ask, if they were aware he was homosexual, or if he was to them just a weird person, a kind of female man; whichever their answer would have been, in his difference he was accepted by others, he later helped other lads to repair some items on the next-door house.

For us, however, the dance performance was not finished yet. We were invited inside the house, so the dancer could perform properly for us, without any fear of being gossiped about. He would veil himself, and we were urged to film it.

What we witnessed then equally amazed and shocked us. I shall share with you here the starting scenes, before his dancing moves, urged by the grandmother of the house (who was to everyone’s shock only one year older than me!), took on rather too many erotic elements for my taste. The whole family, including small children, were there, seemingly feeling at ease, and I think the only two people feeling rather uncomfortable and overwhelmed with the situation were Gosia and me. It appears that for them the open display of so much erotic seems an ordinary thing.

Afterwards it became even more uncomfortable, as they asked Gosia to dance for them. In a normal situation, this would have been the right thing to do, to offer something back for this stunning performance which we just had been offered. Of course Gosia could not have danced now in this space which still vibrated from the guy’s energy, but her sweet and polite ‘no’ was not accepted. I had to step fully into a ‘mature grand-mother-figure’ position of authority to firmly establish that in our culture it would not be proper for a young lady like Gosia to dance in shorts. Tomorrow she would wear her skirt, and then provide a dance performance for them. We had been told we would return tomorrow there for a rehearsal.

The final act of the day should have been the visit to Šutel TV, the Romani television station of Skopje. It was of course was closed, and nobody had any idea about our appearance anyway; as I had already strongly suspected the whole action was part of Asan’s wishful thinking, wanting impress us and in the same time showing us off like his trophies to gain more recognition in their society. We agreed on meeting the next evening for a rehearsal, as Gosia and me had planned to visit the beautiful Lake Matka outside Skopje on the next day.