Friday, 22 April 2016

8th April: World Romani Day in Šutka !

My last day had arrived, or rather, my last proper day, as next morning I had to be at the airport at 4am !!! Asan had suggested bringing all my stuff to their house, so we would go after the rehearsal to the festive activities and party in Šutka. This promised to be sooooo exciting !!!!

I thought I have to do some more sight-seeing, as I have hardly been a tourist at all on this trip. I went to the centre of Skopje, sat at the Vardar River, no, not washing my cloths as in the song ‘Jovano, Jovanke’, just dreaming… and I went to the theatre once more and the old Market, the Pit Bazar.

It is quite amazing on what scale Skopje’s renovation and re-inventing activities are taking place, one would think it is a rich country !!!

I checked out from my hotel in the afternoon and went to Topana, for the last time on this visit. The Topana residents, who had given me strange looks on a normal day (foreigners are true aliens there, never to be seen), were quite puzzled this time, when I went through the tiny alleyways with my suitcase, and stuff. I might have carried with me more possessions just as my travelling luggage then they own altogether.

We did a little bit of a rehearsal, but we were all a little out of our heads from the intense music making the previous days, we started with all those childish games like instrument swapping and taking silly pictures….

It started raining :-( - after I have had a week of mostly sunshine and early-summer temperatures, it turned cold and ugly when we were heading to the big outdoor party.

Up in Šutka, it was so packed, one could hardly move anywhere near the stage. Roma singers and musicians from all over the world had come to perform. 

So in the first stage we heard a great big mix of old and new, brass, violin, clarinet-led groups and lots of singers. Unfortunately, the later it got, the more it settled onto a style between Chalga and Turbo folk, and it was not so interesting anymore.

The strangest thing for me was: PEOPLE WERE NOT DANCING ! Here I was in the middle of an entire Romany crowd, and there were not much livelier than the British (before they get drunk). Also, they did not applaud, I still could not find out if this is a cultural thing, as there were some stunning solos performed, which would have deserved a storm of ovations…


Next to me, there were some little girls, between 13 and 15 years old, there were just as beautiful as you see in those Russian Gypsy movies, and there were laughing their heads off about me, maybe because I was one of the few people who moved with the music. When they asked me to dance, and I made some comical dance movements in response, they laughed even more. The communication reached as far as establishing, that I’m very very funny, but good-funny.

When the music went more and more naff, we left the place to get some dinner, as I was hungry. Like everywhere in the Balkans, the hospitality is overwhelming. Most Romany people in Šutka and Tomana are quite poor, as there is little work and badly paid. However, I was not allowed to pay for my dinner, neither any cabs we took when we were travelling together. Even the Rakija, which I still had to buy to bring back to London to share with friends, I could not pay…

Anyway, the rest of the night was disappointing. No Gypsy disco, as we had planned to go to, we were just sitting at the house of a friend of Asan, watching Romany Television, until it was time to leave. When we arrived back at Amit’s house to pick up my luggage I was slightly shocked. They didn’t sleep in beds, just on the various sofa’s. Private rooms seem not to be their way of life. There were 2 more rooms, but they were used for instruments and cloths, rather than using them as separate bedrooms. Mhm, Asan had offered me to stay at his house next time I come, I have to think now carefully if I could handle that for 2 or 3 weeks in Summer!

Anyway, a lift to the airport had been arranged for me, and with big tears I was seen off through the gate and back into a completely different life in London, which took me a full week to get used to again !!!

Thursday, 7 April 2016

7th April: Help ! - My return travel is approaching too fast !!!

I should have practised and studied the by now 30 tunes of Asan and friends, but due to brain-capacity-overflow, I booked myself in for a massage instead, as this was around a quarter of the price from London massages. A fellow hotel guest, a great eccentric American lady had been going on how wonderful the massages here were, and how sweet and sensitive the lady was, so I was looking forward to a relaxing experience. 

However, o my god, I had an hour of agony ahead of me. Yes, she was sweet indeed, very powerful, and very sensitive to detecting my tensions and soft spots. She found muscles on my body I had no clue they ever existed, and she had no hesitation whatsoever torturing me thoroughly for my own good, as she kept saying.

I did survive, and later, when I had recovered, my body did feel light and free indeed. J
Meanwhile I had received various messages about the happenings later in the day, and that I would need to come as smartly dressed as possible for the concert in the evening.

We had a light rehearsal at Amit’s house, this time only with few visitors, and Amit dropping out half-way through as he was suffering from bad tooth ache, and the dentist visit earlier that day had not relieved him. 

We made our way to centre of Skopje and its National Theatre, an absolutely monumental building, newly re-built from the old one which got destroyed in an earthquake some 50 years earlier, and rather contraversially received by Macedonians and tourists alike. After some lengthy speeches in Macedonian, Romany and luckily some English too, the music was initiated by Đelem Đelem, the Romany hymn, Weird for me was, that it was sang by a white singer, and only a few very shy audience members sang along softly - unfortunately my language skills were not sufficient to find out why.

Then finally the real thing started, and the wait was absolutely worth it: They had invited Romany bands and mixed groups from various countries. The first one was singing a song which I need to learn for our Macedonian Repertoire: Rovela O Demo:


Apart from a dance group, the performances ranged from classical to jazz and fusion and were of stunning quality – I have heard and seen such excellent music for a very long time !!!

This gentleman did an excellent jazz piano performance, but the big applause came with his 'dance encore'...

Look at the shoes to find out who of them is not Romany...


Real Gypsy Tango to finish off with...

After that, I finished the evening going for a drink with Asan, and a lively conversation using my limited repertoire of Serbian/Macedonian/Romany words, however, we did talk about many things !

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

6th April: Mountains of Music

We have had beautiful sunshine, and early-summer temperatures for the last few days, and I had been staying in-doors most of the time, what a crime. On top of that my hotel was on the foot of the mountain Gorno Nerezi, which looked incredibly jummy to walk up. So this morning, after a short practice, trying to stuff a few of those new tunes into my head and fingers, I packed a little picnic, and made my way upwards, not aiming for the top, but at least far enough to look down onto Skopje.

On the way I met some retired Skopjans, who looked after a lovely little chapel, who were just taking a little rest from their gardening and tidying up the place. They invited me along for a drink, which I accepted, as I thought the language practice is more important than the walk. I learned that they, as most other Macedonians I came across, had been spending quite a few years in Western Europe for work, to safe up money for their retirement.

Afterwards I continued my walk a bit and enjoyed the view over Skopje. On my way down I met a ‘percussion tree’, a funny dry brushwood, which made percussive noises. After some investigation I found out, that the fruit of this music tree was dry and hollow, with some loose bits inside and therefore sounded similar to a Cabasa.

It was time to go back and then make my way up to Topana for the afternoon rehearsal. This time even more people dropped by, and we ended up being a full band. Not that I really knew yet at all what I was doing, but in all that noise I could just play and have fun, and hide my hit-and-miss approach in the general noise. 

It’s an amazing energy and an honour to play with a bunch of musicians so full skill, passion and musicianship.This time even more people dropped by, and we ended up being a full band. Not that I really knew yet at all what I was doing, but in all that noise I could just play and have fun, and hide my hit-and-miss approach in the general noise. It’s an amazing energy and an honour to play with a bunch of musicians so full skill, passion and musicianship.

Each new person who came in added a few more ideas of harmonies, rhythms and arrangements. Latter involved a few heated arguments of whose ideas were best – which I settled at one point by declaring Asan to my maestro of the project. They first looked and listened very bemused when it was my turn to sing, and with a joined effort (and more heated arguments) of tutoring, which in turn amused Asan, they got me to a satisfying level of singing their songs in Romanes. 

The tip of the ice cake came, when one person popped by with free tickets to a big event in the Skopje Theatre for the next evening; it was the celebration of World Roma Day. Of course I was invited along. I went home happy and tired.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

5th April: My first ever gig in Skopje

I woke up with a slightly grumpy head, in its inside spinning round a large number of musical notes and embellishments in F hijaz, and a little Rakija from last night on top. For today I had to get my fingers ready for Hungarian Gypsy music; ideally I also should learn as many of the pieces as possible from the rehearsal with Asan, and get some body-cleansing and beauty undertakings in to be ready for the evening.

So after breakfast, I shifted from a session of practice to a walk, then another session of practice, a little spa visit, and more practice, some lunch, another bit of practice until finally getting ready and taking the bus to the centre.

How do I love one of the new google map function to have off-line maps available! At my first time in Macedonia, I struggled with a large city map, trying to find tiny roads, with their names shortened up to recognizability. Now you find the place you need to go, mark it with a star, save the map and you can use it anywhere. 

So I arrived in the right road, at the right time, and there I was standing and looking like a sheep, as I could not see a venue with the name ‘public rooms’. I was just gathering the words and sentences in my head to ask a passer-by in Serbian for it, as a nice-looking guy with a great curly head spoke to me: ‘You are Gundula!’ – well, yes, I was and I am, and he knew, as he was the pianist of Bojana and about to perform with me.

With Fillip, that pianist, and the guitarist, we had a little rehearsal and a sound check, which promised an enjoyable gig. One of the Hungarian pieces we exchanged for the very dubious Monti Czardas, as they all knew it, being obligatory technique practice when you learn an instrument in Macedonia (the same I had come across in Turkey, when all high-level Baglama players would have studies this piece, funny!).

The gig was nice, but rather laid-back. Asan, who wanted to come, had received short-notice guests and could not get away. But Miki, a newly recruited friend of Asan and me came. Apart from the Hungarian pieces I performed, I joined into some Jazz standards, and of course the opening Djelem Djelem sang by Bojana. I was quite proud I remembered a couple of pieces, and improvise over the chord changes, especially ‘All of me’ in Ab !!!

Anyway, a great evening, meeting of more super-lovely people and musicians, and a Rakija to finish all in style, that was my 5th April 2016.

Monday, 4 April 2016

4th April: The first rehearsal

This should be definitely our first day of rehearsal. I practised the whole morning, firstly the pieces from Asan so I would to not embarrass myself at the rehearsal, and secondly, Bojana had asked me to join her gig the day after and play a few pieces. She sang with her trio at the opening of an exhibition of Hungarian Roma artists. My contribution of a few real Hungarian Gypsy pieces fitted just perfect. So I got my fingers around F minor and F hijaz modes, as most of Asan’s pieces were in this typical brass key, and it’s not very convenient on the violin; after that some finger gymnastics in Hungarian followed.

I felt very excited when taking my cab up to Topana in the early afternoon. Everyone, including hotel receptionists and cab drivers felt very curious and puzzled, when I ordered my cab to this area, as no normal person seems to want to go near that place. It’s close to Šutka, quite poor, and the streets are not very tidy. It’s mostly inhabited by Roma people, and therefore lively and exotic. To the left and the right of the main road, there are lots of small houses gathered very closely together. In our vision, it would be more barracks than houses, as they are mostly pretty run down, giving the whole settlement a rather Favela-type of feel.

Amit lives together with his mum in a small one-storey house. After an outdoor area, which is full of undefinable items, and where you must leave your shoes before entering the house, one comes into the kitchen and from there into the living room, where also his mum sleeps, as I only found out later. There are also 2 other adjoining rooms, and a bathroom to the other side. There seem to be no bedrooms, neither beds…
There was no luxury here, apart their smart phones and a flat-wide-screen TV, and of course all the instruments. It was cosy with a few of sofas, a picture with roses and symbols of good fortune, and it was very clean.

After the obligatory Turkish coffee, we started. It took a while to communicate what kind of music I’m interested in, or rather would be good to play in concerts in the UK. It was difficult to move them away from the usual Saban Bajramovic and Boban Markovic covers, which they think would be a lot better for British or German people then their more specific material. Finally I managed to get pieces out of them, some in compound time signatures, and pieces which were specific to Shutka or Macedonia, or which their dad/granddad who had formed the Orchestra 40 something years ago had arranged and composed.

In typical Romani life-style, every 10 minutes another relative or friend popped in, mostly attracted by the arrival of this western Gadjo lady, who played their music, and having a little laugh at it. I managed however to convince them otherwise, and they soon grabbed an instrument to join in, or they videoed us on their phones… One of them Serdzo, Asan’s younger brother, who would play a bigger role in the story at a later stage.
As a starting piece for the concert, they insisted on Djelem Djelem as their hymn – ME SINGING IT !!!

After 20-something pieces, we called it a day, and my head was spinning from new notes, phrases and tunes, and from speaking a weird language, which does not quite fit into my head yet…

Sunday, 3 April 2016

3rd April: A Wedding, and a Mega Vision in a Bubble of Romski-nes.

I had a free morning, without commitments, wow, at least some hint of holiday. I did however, use half of it to prepare for the rehearsal – those pieces I learned last time had finger-breaking ornaments, and I had NOT done my homework properly L. The remaining half of the day, well, staying in a hotel with a free spa, what would one do other than go to the sauna, the Turkish bath and the Jacuzzi of course.

Punctually at 3pm, Asan, my Roma trumpet friend came and picked me up in a 'Roma taxi' which looked like it had seen better days. Instead of a rehearsal we went to the house of his acquaintance the self-declared ‘Minister of Culture’ of Šutka. On the way through the aisle of Šutka, we bumped into a wedding party, the bride in bright red-golden garments, similar style to my outfit I bought last time in the Šutka market, was just being picked up by a brass band surrounded by lots of family and friends, dancing Čoček in the streets.


Asan’s friend Branko spend the afternoon to tell me, in his best intentions, and in his best Macedonian-Serbian-Romany language, about his mega project, which I think he made up on the spot, and of course I was right away signed up to be his partner. According to him, I will, for the rest of my life, tour around with his Romany Caravan and his crew, through Europe and the world, make all the Gypsies into one nation, and infuse the whole world with Macedonian Romany Culture, and my big role to knock onto the British minister of culture's door and get some money…

I was incredibly proud of how much I understood, or at least thought I understood, the rest to be taken best with not just a pinch of salt.. With Asan afterwards we agreed ‘Branko kaže puno i pravi malo’ – Branko talks a lot and does little…

Anyway, it was a cultural experience. At one point he called all the young girls of his street in and made them dance for me. Poor girls, they felt quite embarrassed, dancing Balkan belly dance, Čoček, and then hip-hop, for me, a strange foreign lady who dropped in from a different planet…

As usual, every few minutes another member of their incredibly large family walked in, said hello, stayed and joined the conversation for around 10 minutes, always trying to show off their 5 words of German, English, Italian, which they learned when working abroad – I think I have not met a Macedonian, who did not live and work in another country for a few years. All of them, Romany or white, feel 100% unhappy with their government, feel they can not do anything with their life’s here, and they feel stuck, tied to a place of corruption and mismanagement.

In the evening I finally managed to meet up with my friend Bojana, for more stories of being stuck in Macedonia. She at least had made peace with Macedonia, after having spent lots of time in London, Singapore and other places; she found her own corner, where she can get on with her music, and not be too bothered about all which is negative.