Esma Redzepova is a force to be reckoned with.
A star in her home country of Macedonia, the formidable Roma singer and activist has -- over a career that has spanned more than five decades -- charted a path for female performers in a country that traditionally looked down on them, earned a place on NPR’s list of the 50 great voices in the world, and adopted 49 children. (Yes, you read that right.) Oh, and she’s twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian efforts.
Now in her 70s, Redzepova heads to Oakland for a concert on Saturday, April 30, hosted by Kitka, the world-renowned, Bay Area-based women’s vocal ensemble that specializes in performing Eastern European music. It’s the culminating stop on Redzepova’s latest U.S. tour, after which the singer says she’ll stop performing overseas.
But few believe Redzepova will slow down anytime soon.
The fact is, it’s hard to imagine this fiery, flamboyant performer ever stopping for a moment to rest. On stage, she exudes a fun-loving energy -- a full-on presence in her signature flowing, colorful robe and headdress. And then there’s that unmistakable voice, which with its fulsome range and sweet-raspy timbre, blurs joy and pain.
She’s also composed countless songs about the experience of the Roma people, chronicling true-life stories about such themes as arranged marriages, poverty, and forced separation from loved ones. The World Romani Congress bestowed upon Redzepova the title “The Queen of Romani Music” in 1976, and she’s effortlessly held on to it ever since.
“Esma Redzepova developed a signature style featuring heavy ornamentation and expressive emotion, plus wrote dozens of songs that are still sung today in the Balkans,” says Carol Silverman, professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of Oregon and an expert on Balkan Romani culture. “She is truly a legend all over Eastern Europe.”
Offstage, Redzepova’s not messing around either. For centuries, prejudice against Roma people -- or “gypsies,” as they're derogatively known -- has run deep. According to Silverman, since the 1990s, the 10-12 million Roma people living in Europe have experienced growing levels of harassment, violence and poverty. “There has been a rise in scapegoating and violence against them,” Silverman says.
Born into a poor Muslim family in Skopje, Macedonia in 1945, Redzepova has risen to become a tireless advocate for Roma rights and rehabilitation. One important project is the development of a “Home of Humanity and Museum of Romani Music" in the artist's residence in Skopje. The facility, scheduled to open in September of this year, will include an archive, recording studio and food and medical services for underserved communities.
And the singer has even taken on Hollywood in her effort to raise the profile of her people. After the release of the 2006 satire Borat, Redzepova sued over the film's use of her music. And won. The movie soundtrack makes use of Redzepova’s hit song “Čaje Šukarije” ("Beautiful Girl"), and the singer apparently wasn’t fully consulted about the use of the track. More fundamentally, Silverman says the artist was upset about the use of her music in a movie that denigrates Roma village life with its scenes of bestiality and incest.
In any case, Redzepova's upcoming appearance in Oakland as part of the 19th Annual California Herdeljezi Festival is likely to put any weird, lingering ideas about Roma life to rest, and show just how amazing the performer is at this advanced stage of her career. More than a simple gig, Redzepova hosts a pre-concert music workshop as well as a post-concert dance party. She might out-dance us all.
Esma Redzepova and the Folk Masters Band perform at the 19th Annual California Herdeljezi Festival on Saturday, April 30, at the First Congregational Church of Oakland. Details here.