esma 1Esma Redžepova was a Roma singer from Skopje in Macedonia. She was one of the most famous representatives of Balkan music and bears the name “Queen of the Gypsies”.
Esma Redžepova was born in Skopje in 1943, the next to the last of six children. She grew up in Šuto Orizari (generally pronounced locally as “Shutka”), a suburb of Skopje with a very large population of Roma. Her paternal grandfather was a Catholic Roma and her grandmother an Iraqi Jew, while her mother was a Muslim Roma. Her father, who lost a leg in 1941 during World War II, supported the family through various odd jobs. He worked as a porter, circus performer and shoeshiner. He also sang and played drums and was occasionally booked as a musician at weddings, accompanied by some of Esma’s elder siblings. Esma’s mother, on the other hand, was a seamstress.
When she was nine, Esma’s brother took her along with him to a dance group organised by a local Roma organisation. There, in a very short time, she learned complicated dance steps. Delighted by Esma’s talent, her mother supported her daughter’s passion for dance and Esma and her brother soon switched to the folklore group at their school. Her parents had quite traditional views though and expected Esma, after completing elementary school to get married while still a teenager and become a housewife.
But things were not to be that way at all: Esma emancipated herself from her parents’ expectations, dressed fashionably and at the age of 13, without her parents knowing, participated in a school talent contest organised by Radio Skopje. She sang a traditional Macedonian Roma song and was able to beat her competitors at the first go to win prize money of more than 9000 Dinar. It was the first time ever that a song sung in Romani was broadcast on radio. It was through that radio programme that Macedonian producer and composer Stevo Teodosievski became aware of Esma. Stevo Teodosievski was able to convince Esma’s parents to leave their daughter in his hands and he then became her musical mentor and manager and later on, her husband. At the beginning of their collaboration, Stevo was not completely satisfied with Esma’s voice and sent her to the Music Academy in Belgrade for voice lessons. From then on, he wrote and produced her songs and shaped her career.
In the 1950s, Roma music had a rather bad reputation in Yugoslavia. It was frowned upon outside the Roma community and was not deemed suitable for either radio or TV. There was a great deal of prejudice against the Roma and outright racism was the order of the day. Before even meeting Esma, Stevo Teodosievski, who was not a Roma himself, had the vision of making Roma music popular, reaping harsh criticism from his colleagues. And yet he was convinced that he would be able to achieve his goal with the help of Esma’s extraordinary vocal talent and her fascinating performance. Esma Redžepova was the first singer in Yugoslavia to sing in Romani on radio and TV and who was open about her origins.
After completing her studies in Belgrade, Esma became an official member of Ansambl Teodosievski. In 1961, the ensemble travelled to Zagreb to record their first single “Chaje Shukarije”, which quickly became a big hit in Yugoslavia. She had made her breakthrough and the following years were very successful for Esma and her companions.
Together with Asambl Teodosievski, she recorded a great number of albums and singles and regularly appeared on radio and TV. During her career she recorded more than 100 singles and more than 20 albums.
At the end of the 1960s, Esma and Stevo established a music school for homeless children in Macedonia. Most of the musicians in the Asambl Teodosievski were discovered and trained there. Esma and Stevo visited India three times, in 1969, 1976 and 1983. During their second trip, Esma officially received the title of “Queen of the Gypsies” at the first Festival of Roma Music held in Chandigarh. The title represents loyalty to the Roma people and Esma’s unrelenting work as world ambassador for the Roma. In addition to her singing, Esma has always been known for her commitment to social and humanitarian causes. She and her husband, who passed away in 1997, adopted a total of 47 children.
By the end of the 1980s, things calmed down a bit for Esma. People’s listening habits in the Balkans changed and interest in artists like Esma Redžepova dwindled. But with the coming of new music trends such as the hugely popular Balkan beats from the West, Esma’s career blossomed anew at the turn of the century and she once again became a performer in demand worldwide.
In 2007, Esma was featured on some of the tracks of Fanfare Ciocarlia’s “Queens and Kings” album and she participated in “The Gypsy Queens and Kings” project in which more than 20 Roma musicians from all over Europe gave joint concerts.
Esma and Vlatko Lozanoski took part in the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö in 2013, but were unable to beat the competition.
Esma Redžepova died on December 11, 2016, at the age of 73, from the consequences of pneumonia.
Discography (excerpt):
1971 Esma i Ansambl Teodosievski - Esma (LP, Jugoton)
1974 Esma i Ansambl Teodosievski - Zosto Si Me, Majko, Rodila (LP, Jugoton)
1975 Esma Redzepova And Ansambl Teodosievski - Belly Dances (LP, PGP RTB)
1977 Esma i Ansambl Teodosievski - Makedonske Pesme I Ora - Ciganske Pesme I Čočeci (LP, PGP RTB)
1977 Esma i Ansambl Teodosievski - Kroz Jugoslaviju (LP, PGP RTB)
1978 Esma i Ansambl Teodosievski - Volim Te Veruj Mi ‎(LP, PGP RTB)
1980 Esma i Ansambl Teodosievski - Ah, Devla ‎(LP, Jugoton)




Text: Robert Lippuner / Gypsy Music Network
Translation: Jamie Davies


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