14.12.2016 - OPINION

The queen of the gypsies has died. Long live the queen!

By Juan de Dios Ramírez-Heredia

The artist Esma Redzepova has died, aged 73


Esma Redzepova, reina de los gitanos

I’m starting to worry. Especially since, being a superstitious person, I don’t like to talk about these things. You always have to speak about the dead with respect, even more so when they are part of our family. But as far as the ‘rest’ of the dead are concerned, the less we speak about them, the better. Some things and situations are just best left un-discussed, because doing so usually brings ‘bad luck’. The Hispanics have been talking about this concept for two thousand years when referring to horrible things, using the term ‘malfarium’. We gypsies and ‘gadchés’ (‘non-gypsies’, a horrible word that we have to expel from our language), prefer to say ‘mala bají’- bad luck- a much more specific and reputable expression because it has its roots in ‘Romani’, the common language spoken by the 14 million gypsies across the world.

And I’m saying this because I’m spending too often writing about people who have died and who are dear, some of them greatly admired, and always linked to our people. They die, some due to old age, others due to illness, and most of them simply because their time has come. So today I’m going to speak about Esma Redzepova, who died a couple of days ago in a hospital in Skopie, the capital of Macedonia, aged 73, and who has been recognised in artistic circles as the ‘queen of the gypsies’. A title which has no other significance than for the sake of publicity and which we gave her in India, in 1976, to highlight one of the most courageous, conscientious and strong-willed woman when it came to fighting for the rights of our community in places where they are so often breached.


A magnificent artist with an exceptional voice

My voice,” Esma once said to a journalist, “was voted the second best in the world, after Ella Fitzgerald. This was important to me, because it meant artistic recognition”- Her eyes sparkled: “Pavarotti only came seventh”. In light of these utterances, I want to pay tribute to her for several reasons: firstly for being a tremendously talented artist. Esma has been a revolutionary, both for music as a whole and also for the gypsy genres of music at the time when she was influential. And I can talk about this aspect of her life with full knowledge of the facts. I met Esma Redzepova forty years ago in India, specifically Chandigar, the capital of the Punjab, and then again in New Delhi. When I heard her sing for the first time it was the international gypsy song Gelem, Gelem, in a professional setting. Together with her husband and children, she formed a group with the most magnificent sound you could ever imagine. I’m talking about 1976 and my international experience with regards to my knowledge and coexistence with other European gypsies still needed some more years of development. It was in 1971, during the Gypsy Congress in London, when I managed to observe and savour the prominence of the violin when gypsy hands are producing the sound. Javier Pérez Senz, who is undoubtedly one of the most reputable journalists in the world of classic music, wrote that “The general public knows the Hungarian Rhapsodies, of Franz Liszt, but not everyone knows that in order to write them he incorporated popular authentic Romani melodies and tried to imitate the style, technical flare and enchantment of the most famous Gypsy composers and violinists of his time, with Janós Bihary and Antal Csermák the pivotal figures.”

But with Esma Redzepova I appreciated and discovered the enchanting, powerful and metallic sound of the trumpet as it takes the lead in a Gypsy group melody. I was left amazed listening and contemplating the power with which that family, created by Esma, her husband Stevo Teodosievski and their children, revolutionised the senses of those of us that knew, without questioning it, that we were in the land of the thousand and one nights. When a trumpet produces crystal clear sounds such as the ones I heard that night, wrapped in the rhythm of the drums and the tambourine, accompanied by the accordion and double bass, it would have be hard to forget such a powerful moment. Today, the gypsy trumpet player enjoys excellent recognition, such that in the last Annual Trumpet Festival, held in Guca (Serbia), where the Gypsy trumpet players are real heroes, there was a record number of over half a million spectators. 

Esma’s voice is like a butterfly, like a hummingbird who restlessly flies, stopping for a matter of seconds on each instrument. It doesn’t surprise me that Esma Redzepova has provided a unique interpretation to the modern sounds of the young people of the Balkans, experts in pop and electro music. Esma Redzepova- as the experts have all said- has given more than 9,000 concerts in a never-ending list of years, she has recorded 20 albums and has been involved in half a dozen films.


An activist ahead of her time

The second reason for which I am paying tribute to this extraordinary woman is to acknowledge her as an artist ahead of her time in the defence of the gypsy community, especially female gypsies. Since meeting her in the north of India I came across her in many places. We were reunited in Brussels, Paris, Spain. One day a group of young gypsies from the Barcelona’s La Mina neighbourhood went to see her. SOS Racism, in their 2005 report, say that a group of young gypsies complained about the harsh conditions in which they lived. Esma inspired them to fight to overcome the obstacles and to demand their sacred right to equality using the same tools which the majority of society use. And she said to them: “In Macedonia there are three gypsy political parties, two television channels and 32 radio channels in the Romani language. That is the way,” she added, “to get rid of some of the prejudices which affect the Gypsy community.”

She recounted that “The one and only time that I was discriminated was at school. I was the only gypsy and no-one wanted to sit next to me. So I sat next to a boy. An outrage, since the boys and girls always sat apart from each other! I’m not exaggerating when I say that I became the star of the school after that. Even then I was breaking down barriers.” She broke down so many that throughout her life she received an infinite number of testimonies of affection and recognition of her humanitarian work that she performed,  especially with children. As we know, she adopted tens of destitute children and, during her time as city councillor of Skopie, she played an important role in her home region, where she now rests. The Catalonian Federation of Gypsy Associations (La Federación de Asociaciones Gitanas de Cataluña (FAGIC)), in the Fifth Edition of their prestigious awards, mentioned aunt Emilia Clavería, a strong-willed and courageous gypsy if ever the was one, and the worldwide respected figure Esma Redzepova. At the “Festival of Gypsy Experiences”, held in Moscow in 2000, Esma was declared Laureate and Romani singer of the century. And in one of the meetings of the Parliament of the International Romani Union, which took place at the end of the last century, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Price for being “the best ambassador for gypsies in the world”.


Esma was an active soldier in political life

The third reason for my tribute to Esma Redzepova is due to her identification with what we both encountered throughout our lives, convinced that, through political involvement, change could be achieved in the social structures which harbour racism and marginalise the weakest in our society. We both stood for candidacy at the penultimate Romani Union World Congress, which took place in Sibiu, Romania and was led by the deceased Florin Copiaba. I was elected Vice president of the organisation and Esma Redzepova, Commissary of Culture and ambassador of the International Romani Union.

Finally, I would like to leave my readers with the heartfelt beauty of a statement which Esma, and myself, are very fond of repeating. She said: “We gypsies defy borders, we are cosmopolitan. Borders only serve to divide people. Our houses are always open. Our philosophy is that man arrives naked on Earth and is naked when he leaves it.”. Esma Redzeopva created a foundation which welcomed and educated fifty children living on the streets and made them her children. And in them she instilled ideas as “subversive” as the following: “You must be good citizens. And good citizens are those who know how to share what they have with those who have nothing. But, above all, you must travel a lot. It is very, very important to travel, see other places, learn about other customs.”

Perhaps for this reason, Esma Radzepova, my friend and companion, did not have any difficulty, just like the other 14 million gypsies living in the world, in confessing that we have a double nationality: that of the country where we were born, and that which gives us our status as citizens of the world.


Lokhi phuv lake (Rest in peace).


Juan de Dios Ramírez-Heredia

Lawyer and journalist

President of the Unión Romaní




This English translation has been possible thanks to the PerMondo project: Free translation of website and documents for non-profit organisations. A project managed by Mondo Agit. Translator: Matt Hattam.