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Beat That Drum Alex Markovic

Beat That Drum!

Exploring the Politics of Performance among Roma Brass Musicians in Vranje, Serbia

By Alex Marković; Forum Folkloristika, Issue 2, Winter 2013

Roma from Vranje1 are arguably most famous in Serbia (and, increasingly, worldwide) as superb brass band musicians. Because they monopolize the professional performance of brass music, Roma musicians are essential to important ritual celebrations in Vranje. Why are Roma—who are otherwise stigmatized in local society—so central to these performances? Certainly, highly skilled Roma musicians provide superb music for these events, earning them popular acclaim in a region of Serbia known for its culture of music and dancing. However, musical events in Vranje are also spaces where locals use music and dance to display other elements of their personal, family, and social identity. It is these aspects of musical events, particularly the ways that Rom musicians engage with their non-Rom patrons, that I explore here. I examine how perceptions of the low status and “otherness” of Roma structure the typical interactions between Serb patrons and Roma entertainers at celebrations, and consider how these ideas are variously manipulated by Serbs and Roma trying to claim status under changing conditions in Vranje.

The Roma as a Supremely Musical People

In Vranje, Roma have specialized in professional musical entertainment for at least five centuries2. Ironically, it was the historically marginal status of Roma that de facto contributed to their control of this profession; in the late 19th-century Ottoman Empire, entertainers often came from nonruling classes and ethnic groups precisely because public performance and musical livelihoods were considered too shameful for higher-status Muslim communities3 (Silverman 2003; Sugarman 2003). Roma thus specialized in the stigmatized practice of performing music and dance for pay because it was one of the limited number of occupational niches to which they had preferential access, and so the highly developed musical skills that Roma maintained are linked to their political and economic marginality in society.

As a result, popular stereotypes even today in Vranje closely associate Roma with music and dance. More importantly, both Serbs and Roma in Vranje explicitly describe Romani musical talent as something “innate” in their “Gypsy” identity4—something “in their blood.” In contrast to stereotypes of the “lazy,” “dirty,” or “deceitful” nature of “Gypsies,” praise of their talent for music implies that Roma are uniquely—and perhaps only—suited for careers as professional entertainers. This commentary naturalizes the position of Roma as musicians, while at the same time ignoring the very real power inequalities and economic motivations of Romani performances. Ironically, these perspectives make Roma musically central while simultaneously referencing their otherwise marginalized place in majority Serb society5. It is precisely this paradox that structures the interactions of Roma musicians and Serb patrons at local celebrations, allowing celebrants to use Roma entertainers to facilitate their own performances of self and status for the community at large.

Performing Joy, Performing Self: Music and Celebrant Participation at Musical Events

Roma brass musicians are essential for both the ritual actions and jubilant atmosphere that are so important to successful celebrations in Vranje. Significant events like weddings are put on by locals to mark important transitions in family life, and most such celebrations are highly public so as to prominently show family happiness, wealth, and pride to the wider community.

Vranje weddings in particular practically require Roma brass bands to accompany the elaborate proceedings of typical celebrations. Brass bands specialize in the songs and dance melodies that are closely tied to specific rituals and key figures in the wedding ceremony. For example, Serbs and Roma alike in Vranje begin the three-day wedding ritual with a dance called Svekrvino Kolo [the mother-in-law’s dance]. In this dance, the mother of the groom leads assembled family and guests in a slow, dignified line dance while holding a decorated sieve in her right hand, thus invoking fertility and prosperity for the couple. This moment in the wedding ceremony is extremely emotional, and many women eagerly await the opportunity to marry off a son just to perform this dance with motherly pride in front of the assembled guests.

Svekrvino Kolo, Romani wedding in Vranjska Banja. The groom’s mother leads Svekrvino Kolo with the decorated sieve, followed by a long line of female relatives, neighbors, and friends. The large numbers of dancing guests and bystanders illustrate the highly public nature of these wedding celebrations. Note the particularly long line of dancing women accompanying the groom’s mother.

Such is the importance of Romani brass that even the specific sounds of these ensembles are closely tied to locals’ emotional responses during ritually charged moments. Many women in Vranje enthusiastically comment that they instantly feel butterflies in the stomach and have the urge to dance upon hearing the heavy beating of the large goč drum during Svekrvino Kolo. Locals even ask young people about impending wedding plans with the phrase “Je li, be, k’d će čuka goč?!” (Hey you, when will the drum beat?!), indicating how central the sonic, instrumental, and performative characteristics of Roma brass bands are for important wedding rituals.

Despite the officially joyous character of these celebrations, however, participation in musical events in Vranje is also often a highly “political” activity6, and this is reflected in the ways that celebrants interact with Roma musicians. Music and dance are central to these rituals not merely because they provide a high-energy, emotionally charged atmosphere for guests, but more importantly because it is through requesting music, singing, and dancing that attendees actively participate in the event. Much like Skopje Roma (Seeman 1990) and other communities throughout the Balkans, the host family in Vranje pays for professional musical entertainment to honor their guests and create the appropriate atmosphere for the celebration; when the hosts dance and sing at the event, they vividly display their family pride as well as their goodwill towards the community members in attendance. Requesting songs, leading dance lines, and celebrating with emotional gusto are also ways that guests show their hosts that they share in their happiness, and this reaffirms the bonds that tie them to the host family. Even as celebrants show their happiness in this way, their engagement with the musicians also temporarily places them at the center of attention. As they make requests and take their turn “holding the music” (drže muziku), guests actually take control of the course of the event’s proceedings. During these moments, celebrants are also perfectly positioned to publicly display status, wealth, and power by interacting with the musicians in distinct and evocative ways.

The groom’s parents dance together here in front of the musicians, who are constantly close to them while playing. The happiness of the groom’s parents is evident in the way they dance. As onlookers watch, members of the groom’s family lavishly tip the drummer to emphasize their extreme joy—and perhaps status—during this emotional dance.

The way that host families structure celebratory events like weddings illustrates the importance of requesting songs and dancing for communicating prestige. Guests are informally ranked according to their closeness to the family, ritual position, age, and other markers of community social status such as economic standing. Those guests and their families considered “most important” in the host family’s circle are expected to receive greater privileges, and in particular should enjoy priority access to the musicians during the event. As such, significant guests (like the kum7, the stari svat8, or the immediate family of the newlywed couple) are called to dance earlier in the evening’s proceedings, and may expect to “keep the music” (da drživ muziku) to themselves for longer periods of time (and repeatedly) during the course of the celebration.

This heightened access to the musicians and ability to control the musical entertainment of the event indicates the hosts’ respect for the guests in question, but also allows these same celebrants to monopolize the most public space of the event for their own social displays. As each guest is allowed to “hold the music” he or she9 is in the center of public scrutiny, leading dance lines and ostentatiously tipping the musicians while the remaining celebrants at the event look on. Through exaggerated singing, exuberant or dignified dance movements, and the dynamic ways they pay the musicians, guests communicate more than mere abandon to the emotional tide of the event: these performances also attempt to display the degree of status, wealth, and moral standing of celebrants and their families to the watching audience.

Dancing čoček, Romani wedding in Vranje. One of the groom’s close female relatives takes her turn leading the dancing accompanied a young male relative. With all attention centered on them, and the musicians close at hand playing up to them, the two display their complete abandon and revelry not only through dancing but also the ostentatious throwing of money.

Because the services of professional musicians are integrally connected to guests’ abilities to perform in this way, the right to engage the musicians for a time at celebrations is a coveted privilege that is a common source of tension and competition among celebrants. Wedding revelry in Vranje is often disrupted by disgruntled guests who are angry because they have not been able to “take the music” (da uzimav muziku) for an appropriate period of time—or early enough in the course of the celebration—for their perceived importance to the host family and the wider community. In such cases, the discontented guests feel insulted or even shamed, particularly because of the highly public nature of these large events. One woman in Vranje passionately described her deep shame at being mistreated in this way by her son’s in-laws at one of the wedding events hosted by the bride’s family; contrary to custom, the groom’s party was not offered access to the musicians and the opportunity to lead dances until the tail end of the evening, after all of the bride’s invited guests (even far less important ones, such as distant neighbors) had taken their turns. The groom’s mother was visibly upset as the evening wore on, and later bitterly commented to me that the bride’s family “turned us into shit!” in front of all the assembled guests. She felt that the bride’s family behaved this way because they were wealthier than her own family, and thus held them in far lower esteem and felt no remorse at breaking accepted conventions of respect. Vranje locals’ wedding stories are full of accounts of altercations and even physical violence between men who felt insulted because others at the event were granted greater access to the music than they were themselves; in some cases, even important ritual figures like the kum or the stari svat may storm out along with their guests because the party of the other was allowed to “hold the music” for a longer period of time.

Taken together, these vignettes illustrate how important access to Roma musicians becomes at local celebrations. In this specific performance context, celebrants are able to competitively claim power and prestige through ostentatious celebration and engagement with the entertainers. As one Serb woman commented to me, people fight over the music at these events “because they are trying to show off; that’s how we are here—why should he have the music right now, or for longer, instead of me? That’s why they fight!” Roma musicians and their services thus function as critical “foils” for performing status at Vranje celebrations, providing both an accepted context and a set of ritualized practices that allow community members to publicly compete for prestige.

Performing Power: Ritualized Interactions at Musical Events

Importantly, it is the legacy of Romani marginality in Vranje that in part shapes the standard practices of celebrant–musician interactions. Celebrants demonstratively use the bodies, instruments, and performance conventions of Roma musicians to facilitate their own displays of importance and wealth. While performing, Roma musicians are positioned squarely in front of the guest whose turn it is to “celebrate” (da se vesele). Musicians are supposed to remain in solicitous proximity to these patrons for as long as they are performing their requests. In the case of dancing, in particular, this very proximity to the musicians visibly draws attention to the dominance of the guest at this specific moment.

Roma entertainers are also centrally positioned in the physical space of the celebration event, with dance lines usually revolving around musicians who stand or stroll in the middle of the dance space. When a particular patron commands the services of the musicians, he or she usually takes a turn leading the dance line and pays a tip to the performers in return.

Groom’s father dances, Serb wedding in Preševo near Vranje. At this Serb wedding, the groom’s father takes his turn leading the dance line after Svekrvino Kolo has ended. The Roma musicians bend low while playing to him, emphasizing his status as a key ritual figure, and even coach him through the dance at the urging of the groom’s mother. Always, their focus is on him as the leader of the dance.

As such guests dance, however, the Roma musicians also play “to” them, moving constantly to keep themselves and their instruments directly in front of the celebrant in question. This keeps the eyes of the audience fixed on the patron, as the most exciting activities of the evening are audibly and visually cued by the actions of the professional musicians.

In addition, however, these practices suggest a dynamic inequality between the commanding roles of celebrants and the ways that Roma musicians must oblige them. Even the musicians’ body placement and gestures often serve to emphasize the preeminence of their current patron; as they perform, musicians may bend forward from the waist while straining their torsos upward to play toward the face of the celebrant, place the bell of their instrument in the person’s face or alongside their ear, or even bow or kneel dramatically in front of them.

Guests are very aware of the import that these performance conventions have for their public display of pomp and prestige. This is illustrated when lead dancers command the drummer to reposition himself10 directly in front of them while they are dancing, often also emphatically yelling for him to truly “beat that drum!” At other times, a celebrant may forcefully pull the bell of a trumpet to his ear while closing his eyes, raising his hand in the air, and shouting out loud in an evocative display of complete abandon. The solicitous, even obliging, demeanor of Roma musicians at these events thus dramatically bolsters the privileged status of the guest whom they are “serving” by simultaneously highlighting the less powerful position of the entertainers themselves.

Stari svat’s wife dances, Serb wedding in Preševo near Vranje. Roma musicians play up to the stari svat’s wife, who is leading a dance line upon arriving at the celebration with the stari svat and his guests. In order to heighten the moment for her, the musicians come even closer, bend deeply, and play into her face while performing improvisations, and she responds by dancing with even more gusto.

Nowhere is this ostentatious performance of power more evident, perhaps, than in the ways that celebrants “pay” or “tip” musicians for their services. When making requests of the entertainers, it is understood that an appropriate tip should be offered to the musicians in return. In this way, all of the guests also contribute financially to the musical entertainment at the event and convey their respect to their hosts. At the same time, though, the act of “rewarding” the musicians allows for the celebrant to publicly demonstrate his or her wealth and magnanimity. Styles of tipping are often flamboyantly ostentatious, and may underline competitive attempts to obtain prestige between celebrants at the same event. The bodies and instruments of Roma musicians become the primary “mediums” for these evocative displays. Patrons regularly choose to display their tips by placing them in the shirt collars of musicians, on the pegs or rims of instruments, or by placing them onto the musicians’ bodies themselves. Musicians usually leave bills in place for a time so that the watching audience is able to see the amount that was given by a specific patron before tucking them away; locals at events regularly exclaim in admiration when individuals give large amounts of money to the musicians, noting in particular when exorbitant sums of 20, 50, or 100 euros are ostentatiously handed over to the entertainers for prominent display. Lavishness is also displayed when patrons choose to “make it rain” over a musician who is playing for them: celebrants hold stacks of cash in their left palms and flick bills out with their right hands, showering the musicians with a fluttering cloud of multicolored paper money while others around them scramble to collect the cash and hand it over to the entertainer himself11. A patron who performs this strategy often shows deliberate nonchalance, as if indicating to the watching audience that such a sum is “no skin off his nose” in order to claim superior wealth and status. In this way, celebrants use tipping as a means to powerfully perform their status for the assembled guests through direct engagement with the Roma musicians.

Certain more explicit conventions of tipping, however, specifically illustrate the unequal relationship between celebrants and Roma musicians. Throwing money to the musicians, for example, can also be interpreted as a degrading gesture. Patrons will at times casually toss bills to the ground instead of handing them to musicians, even if they are directly in front of them. In these instances, musicians are forced to stoop and pick bills up as they land. Sometimes celebrants will deliberately draw the process out, crumpling bills and tossing them over musicians’ heads or dropping them one by one as they dance down the street with a wedding party, thus making the musicians repeatedly bend and rise as they follow. Celebrants usually do this in a playful or exuberantly joyful way, simultaneously performing their own boisterous revelry while casually ignoring the very musicians they are paying. In this way, the guests’ abilities to force the musicians to pay heed to their whims, no matter how inconvenient, reference expectations that they are supposed to be compliant. In another example, guests often choose to wet bills with sweat or saliva, and then slap them into position on the foreheads or cheeks of performers; one brass band leader commented that people often hit the musician hard when tipping in this way, “so your brain spins for the next five minutes!” This forceful gesture again allows for the amount of cash being “gifted” to the musician to be displayed prominently on his face for all to see. As in previous examples, though, this specific way of “rewarding” musicians with money also emphasizes the perceived power of the celebrant over the Rom musician.

Power and Anxiety in Practice: Debating Patron–Client Interactions

Popular ideas of Romani “low” status and “inherent” musicality are therefore fundamental for shaping the ritualized interactions that illustrate these power dynamics at musical celebrations. Particularly demonstrative ways of tipping Roma musicians highlight the power play involved in the patron–musician relationship, and most in Vranje recognize the implications of these conventions. However, notions of marginal status are also strategically employed by both Serbs and Roma when discussing the power structure of musical events. Older town residents are especially aware that tipping conventions reference perceptions of the lesser status of “Gypsy” entertainers12, and comments by Serbs and Roma variously reflect their positions on the issue. One elderly Serb man in Vranje called these practices playful “harassment” (maltretiranje) of musicians; he felt that demanding certain services of Roma musicians and paying them in “innovative” ways makes the patron feel special. He commented that he even enjoyed instilling an element of “fear” in his interactions with musicians, often threatening Roma musicians “not to shame [him]” with mediocre performances as a precondition to receiving any tips. Many local Serbs describe these kinds of sentiments as being another part of the “game” at celebrations; the majority, though, also associate these dynamics with the lower economic and social position of “Gypsy” musicians.

Older Roma musicians, too, often relate abrasive interactions and tipping practices to the historically low status of Roma. They emphasize that musical performance has always been a difficult, stigmatized profession, and that this work was effectively foisted onto “lowly Gypsies” because no other group would take it. As a result of their status, entertainers also had to put up with practices that were frankly shaming. When I asked one Rom musician about the slapping of bills onto entertainers’ foreheads, he commented that this was an “old holdover” from times when patrons sought to “humiliate” Roma during performances. Roma also consider dramatic twists to conventional tipping styles to be ways for patrons to show power over “Gypsy” entertainers. Many older performers explained that patrons could employ a variety of tactics to show tips to musicians but not hand them over until the patron had been “sufficiently satisfied.” One musician recalled a time when a man impaled paper bills one by one onto a fork, which he then stuck into the ceiling of the family home in which the musician was performing; he was told by this patron that he had to play as long—and as well—as the man desired before he could receive his money. Many musicians seem resigned to these kinds of practices, often saying that it is “the way things are done” and adding that at least these acts still bring in money. This explanation, though, further highlights how perceptions of Roma musicians’ lower status are critical for the successful demonstration of power by celebrants. During “customary” conventions of tipping, solicitous Roma musicians must accept and participate in humiliating interactions whereby celebrants boost their own displays of self-importance by imposing certain practices on the entertainers.

Because Roma are aware of the power play embedded in these “customs,” many have ambivalent attitudes toward negotiating the patron–musician relationship. Specific practices may be interpreted in very distinct, sometimes shifting ways by different Roma musicians depending on their local status and prestige. One particular tipping convention illustrates this anxiety on the part of Roma entertainers. Serb celebrants at Vranje weddings may choose to twist bills into cone shapes, stack them in the open mouth of an empty alcohol bottle, and eventually force them inside. This bottle sits on the table or ground in front of the patron, who alone decides the moment when he is finally satisfied enough to turn over the accumulated cash to the musicians. In this way, the Roma musicians are teasingly shown the money that they will potentially receive, but are forced to cater to the patron’s whims for as long as he desires. Musicians in Vranje have varying takes on this practice. The leader of a renowned brass band from Vranje angrily told me that he immediately breaks off any performance if he sees a Serb celebrant begin this tipping style. When I asked him why, he commented that this is done to “provoke [the musicians] . . . to make us play better, supposedly”; according to this musician the real message, though, is “if he puts the money in the bottle, he still hasn’t actually given it to us.” He contrasted this with the “more cultured” tipping style where money is simply and directly given to the musician “in [his] hand.” In this way, the “bottle technique” represents an exercise in power on the part of the Serb celebrant that this musician (whose band has a long-standing reputation and widespread popularity) refuses to have imposed on himself.

Another brass musician in Vranje, though, commented that this aforementioned colleague was “stupid” to refuse this practice. He insisted that this was a tipping custom specific to Serbs from the Rudina neighborhood of town, and as such should be embraced and used. As the leader of a smaller, less popular band whose living is based on maximizing the number of local events they play, however, he also indicated that Roma musicians often need to accommodate such demands from patrons in order to maximize earnings and maintain clientele. By downplaying the implied power play of the bottle scheme, this musician attempted to shift the frame of the discussion. In this way, pressure for Roma musicians to fulfill patron expectations by “playing along” is reduced to “honoring local custom” while avoiding discussion of the unequal power play that Roma must navigate. In justifying this convention, however, this entertainer also simultaneously drew attention to implications of Romani powerlessness in these scenarios. Roma musicians’ need to satisfy Serb celebrants’ whimsical demands means that they are closely tied to the performances of power that mark celebrations in Vranje, and notions of the marginal position of these “Gypsy” entertainers are essential to the strong impact of these displays. This is not to say that the interactions between celebrants and Roma musicians are always or only about showing power.

As we’ve seen, many of these actions are also established conventions, local ways of being happy, of reveling in music, and of expressing the emotions one is feeling at special occasions. Serbs and Roma alike have grown up observing others in the community behave in these ways “out of happiness” at events (throwing money, or bringing musicians closer to them while they lead a dance), and certainly these interactions have become part of the way locals express their joy and abandon at musical events that have special meaning for them.

Musicians entertain the groom, Serb wedding in Preševo near Vranje. Here, Roma musicians perform a song request for the groom and a few of his companions. The lead musicians lean close in tandem in order to play into his face, heightening the atmosphere and drawing attention to his status and celebratory gusto at this specific moment.

However, at times these interactions are not merely local “customs” or “ways of being” accepted by all, devoid of the potential for additional meanings and implications. Musicians and singers in Serb wedding bands, for example, are also tipped in “customary” ways by Serb celebrants they are entertaining; however, their tips are never placed in a bottle, nor are they dropped in front of them to force them to bend and pick them up. In Vranje, Serb patrons can push more elaborate—but also forceful or degrading—interactions on Roma musicians to a degree that is not possible with Serb entertainers. It is this difference that informs locals’ discussions of the role of power in the relationships between patrons and musicians. In the end, it is the specific status of the Roma locally that allows celebrants to display prestige and status powerfully through musicians at musical events. Happiness and revelry are thus closely tied to social status and personal pride at these events, and it is the Roma musicians and the services they provide that allow for this connection to be evocatively demonstrated in front of the assembled community.

Manipulating Stereotypes: The Politics of Musical Interactions under Crisis

Interestingly, stereotypical ideas about Romani identity and marginality are currently being used by some Serbs in Vranje to drastically reinterpret performance conventions at celebrations. As a result of political crises and economic collapse since the 1990s, increasing tensions between Serbs and Roma in Vranje have begun to color even the “customary” practices of musical events. Younger generations of Serbs are increasingly ambivalent about Romani brass bands, and many comment disparagingly on typical Romani interactions with celebrants. Some Serbs argue that Roma are now called less frequently to entertain at Serb functions because of their “insistence” on receiving tips while playing for specific patrons. As a result of growing poverty in the area, many guests now find themselves unable or unwilling to tip with the necessary flourish to maintain public prestige at weddings. In light of this new source of anxiety, some locals comment disdainfully that Roma “beg for money” by employing otherwise standard conventions of interaction with patrons. One Serb man (a musician himself) insisted that many Roma are not genuinely interested in performing well for guests at events. Instead, he claimed that bands “faćav na galamu” (they emphasize loudness), playing “quick and dirty” to try and get as many tips from as many different celebrants as possible.

Commentary also often focuses on the specific practices of Roma musicians, saying that entertainers embarrass patrons reluctant to give tips by “playing in their faces” or “going down on one knee to beg.” Hosts, too, these days are uneasy about these practices because they are worried about offending guests who cannot uphold their obligations to musicians entertaining their requests. Significantly, Serb criticisms of performance practices often stress the so-called “Gypsy” behaviors of Roma entertainers, thus reinterpreting customary performance practices as the “shameless, selfish bad manners” of the musicians themselves. Stereotypical images of the “poor,” “low-class,” and “dishonest” nature of “Gypsies” are used to deflect attention away from the inability of patrons to adequately display their own prestige by engaging with the musicians. The very practices shaped by the legacy of Romani marginality vis-à-vis non-Rom patrons are thus recast in order to reject them as inappropriate; critically, though, these debates actually re-embed Roma in power plays that yet again emphasize their marginal, low status in response to the increasing social and economic anxieties of local Serbs.

Roma musicians respond to these criticisms by highlighting other elements of the “Gypsy” stereotype, emphasizing the exceptional musical talents that developed out of Romani marginality in order to try to reclaim status within performance contexts. Musicians complain that the “deterioration” of Serb interactions with musicians is actually a result of today’s impoverished levels of “culture” and “morality,” not their own practices; overall, Roma claim that contemporary generations are generally ignorant about good music and musicians’ skills. In response, Roma emphatically refer to popular stereotypes that link their musical skills to their marginal, “exotic,” identity. “Gypsy fingers are unique,” one middle-aged Rom musician in Vranje assured me, pointing out that as a result Roma have monopolized professional musical performance for centuries while claiming that Serbs could never produce musicians of the same caliber. Many Roma musicians reject present-day criticisms from Serbs by invoking their preeminent position as “natural” entertainers, arguing that no one can know better than the Roma how musical performances should be enacted. Furthermore, musicians bring up the renown of the Guča Brass Festival and the Boban Marković Orchestra to show that their “Gypsy” musical talent and practices are also validated by international acclaim. In contrast to forced resignation to power plays, then, some Roma musicians today attempt to combat growing local discrimination against their musical practices by playing on the romanticized “uniqueness” of their otherwise marginal identity. “Gypsyness” is thus portrayed as a privileged position instead of a stigmatized one, a “weapon of the weak” (Scott 1985) granting superior musical skills and authority to Roma musicians as a direct result of their historically peripheral—and thus, special—existence on the edges of majority society. It remains to be seen how successful these strategies may prove for bolstering the professional prestige of Roma musicians in the midst of economic and social crisis in Vranje.

Works Cited

Milovanović, Krsto, and Dragan Babić. 2003. Srpska truba [The Serbian Trumpet]. Beograd: Narodno Delo.
Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Seeman, Sonia Tamar. 1990. Music in the Service of Prestation: The Case of the Rom of Skopje, Macedonia (master’s thesis, University of Washington, Seattle, WA).
Silverman, Carol. 1996. Music and Marginality: Roma (Gypsies) of Bulgaria and Macedonia. In Retuning Culture: Musical Changes in Central and Eastern Europe, edited by M. Slobin. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 231-253.
Silverman, Carol. 2003. The Gender of the Profession: Music, Dance, and Reputation among Balkan Muslim Rom Women. In Music and Gender: Perspectives from the Mediterranean. T. Magrini, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 119-145.
Sugarman, Jane C. 2003. Those “Other Women”: Dance and Femininity among Prespa Albanians. In Music and Gender: Perspectives from the Mediterranean, T. Magrini, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 87-118.
Vukanović, Tatomir. 1987. Muzička kultura u starom Vranju [Musical Culture in Old Vranje]. Vranje: Nova Jugoslavija.


Vranje is a town located in far southeastern Serbia, near the borders with Bulgaria, Macedonia, and the disputed territory of Kosovo. Its current population is roughly 80,000, with a population of Roma estimated at anywhere between 7,000 and 9,000, depending on sources and how much the surrounding communities are included. Roma live in several mahale (neighborhoods mostly made up of Roma) in the area; there are three main mahale and two recently established ones in Vranje itself, four mahale in nearby Vranjska Banja, one mahala in Pavlovac, and a few very small communities in several other local villages. Almost all of the main mahale mentioned above have at least some professional musicians in residence, and some communities (like those in Banja, or the main mahala in Vranje, Gornja Čaršija) are popularly known to contain large numbers of musicians and multiple orchestras of various musical genres.

Tatomir Vukanović (1987) notes Ottoman records from the reign of Sultan Selim II (1566–1579) that describe tax breaks extended to a džemat, or community, of some 30 Roma households in return for their professional musical services in Vranje’s Ottoman garrison. He further indicates that Roma were the most frequent performers of a wide array of musical genres and instruments in Vranje and the surrounding area, and notes that even local Roma women were often professional singers, dancers, and dajre (frame drum) players in town. Several authors (Vukanović 1987; Milovanović and Babić 2003) argue that the brass band genre, too, has been exclusively dominated by Roma in the area ever since a Rom musician in Vranje began to experiment with the trumpet sometime around the Balkan Wars (1912–1913). Locals claim that the first brass musician was Fejza, the father of the legendary Bakija Bakić who put Vranje on the brass band map through years of participation in the annual Guča Brass Band Competition in western Serbia. The descendants of this family continue this brass band tradition, five generations and 100 years removed from Fejza Bakić’s first orchestra.

In the late Ottoman period, therefore, most professional musicians and dancers were Greeks, Armenians, Jews, or Roma. The stigma of providing music and dance performances for pay was in a way similar to negative evaluations of other uses of the physical body for profit, such as prostitution, and so professional entertainers (particularly women) were often marginalized even though their services were required and thoroughly enjoyed by patrons.

Roma (pl.), Rom/Romni (sing.), and Romani (adj.) are the politically correct names for communities popularly known as “Gypsies” in Serbia, and in many other regions worldwide. Romani speakers use these terms to describe themselves in their own language, and since the 1970s, Roma activists and intellectuals have encouraged the use of these proper names instead of the various forms of “Gypsy” because of the negative connotations associated with them by outsiders referring to Roma communities. While this official usage has spread widely and is often embraced by Roma trying to escape the stigma of “Gypsy,” many communities also continue to use derivations of various “Gypsy” names among themselves. In Vranje, Roma often alternated between using the words Roma and “Gypsy(ies)” (Ciganin/Cigani in Serbian). Roma would also often use the term “Gypsy” to refer sarcastically to behavior or situations they considered to be backward or in poor taste, especially when critiquing their own community; at other times, they consciously used the word “Gypsy” when referring to the disparaging or disrespectful ways that non-Roma, like Serbian patrons, interact with (and think about) Roma. Much like other minority or marginalized groups (such as African Americans), Roma are often not offended when other Roma use derivations of “Gypsy” among themselves, but are sensitive to its use by non-Roma when addressing/talking about the Romani community. For this reason, and in recognition of the negative associations inaccurately attributed to the term “Gypsy” by non-Roma historically, I have always used and continue to use Rom(a) in order to privilege the proper names (and meanings) used by Roma to refer to themselves.

Similarly, Carol Silverman (1996) argues that Roma musicians generally have been (and remain) musically powerful even as they are politically powerless.

I use the term “political” here not to refer to government but rather the dynamics of social relationships, indicating personal, family, and other forms of strategic competition and performance in social interactions within the wider community. (Back to article)
The kum is the man who acts as the sponsor (or best man) of the couple for their church wedding, and who will eventually christen any children of the union. Moreover, his family and that of the newlyweds effectively become “blood relatives” through this relationship. Much respect is owed to the kum and his family, and this is part of his great status at weddings. In Vranje, the kum even brings his own retinue, usually up to 20 guests of his choice who will be wined, dined, and respected nearly as much as him and his family at the event.

The stari svat (or starejko) is literally “the elder witness.” Traditionally, this position is delegated to the groom’s maternal uncle. In Vranje, this ritual figure is also sometimes called pobratim, a term that otherwise indicates an unrelated person who has become a ritual “blood brother” to the family. In Vranje, the stari svat is just as important as the kum and also brings his own retinue of up to 20 guests, but has a slightly different and more dynamic role. While the kum remains withdrawn and dignified, the stari svat is expected to manage and direct all the events at the wedding; he determines when the wedding party should move on to the next phase of the event, and ensures the appropriate treatment of all guests. Musicians indicate that they must pay special attention to his directions for the entertainment as well, especially in the wee hours of the event when alcohol and high emotions lead the starejko to demand specific practices, joking rituals, and other activities with musical accompaniment to entertain the guests in general. Traditionally, weddings are not “over” until the stari svat decrees and until he and his guests choose to leave the celebration. Yet again, the musicians are often expected to coax him out of the groom’s courtyard and to play for him as he leaves, sometimes even performing for him all the way to his home. (Back to article)
In Vranje, women (both Serbs and Roma) are also able to “take the music,” make requests, and pay musicians for songs and dances. Despite this “equality” with men, however, they do so less often and may defer to husbands or brothers if they are present, particularly when paying musicians. In the end, they are also representing their entire family when they do so, just like the men. Generally, men exaggerate their interactions with musicians to a greater degree than women, performing more ostentatiously and making stronger demands of entertainers. Women request songs, lead dance lines, and celebrate in more demure ways, often stressing their dignity and calm composure in front of watching audiences in ways that are held to be more appropriate to their “feminine” nature. (Back to article)
Professional Roma musicians in Vranje are exclusively men—and brass bands in particular are all male—so these celebrant–performer interactions always involve male entertainers. In general, the playing of instruments is considered inappropriate for women, so while Roma families often encourage young boys to play around with instruments in order to keep them out of their parents’ hair, young girls are instead directed to practice their dancing, often while being coached by others. Today these dance skills are only exhibited at social events and never used professionally because of the stigma associated with public performance for paying patrons (often male). Very few Roma girls in Vranje become professional singers because of this concern for their moral reputations. This is in contrast to the somewhat more indulgent atmosphere in the local Serb community where Serb women may sing with Serbian wedding bands. This is an interesting reversal of conditions typical in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Vranje, when Serbs of either gender were almost never paid entertainers while Roma women were often hired as professional singers, dancers, and frame drum players alongside (or instead of) male Roma musicians. For more information about how gender norms from the late Ottoman period to the present have affected the viability of professional performance for women, see Sugarman (2003) and Silverman (2003).

Showering musicians with money is often done with large quantities of less valuable currency, like dinar notes, or else smaller euro or dollar bills. While very wealthy patrons may be able to drop a bunch of larger bills, rarely can patrons afford this exuberance. Moreover, it is the showing of very large quantities of paper money that is most important for making the display effective. Some people in Vranje recognized the irony here (showing wealth with less valuable currency) and often joked about it; one man once told me that he had to make sure and convert a certain amount of dinars into dollar bills for his son’s wedding in order to make a show of throwing US money around in clouds. Since he considered himself to be relatively poor, the joke was that he could show off valuable (non-dinar) currency in this performative display, while still not breaking his bank. Note that, of course, any local audience would easily recognize the difference sizes and colors of various denominations of euros, US dollars, and Serbian dinar notes. Everyone present laughed at the “ingenuity” of his solution, being able to make a statement about wealth and celebratory abandon despite not being among the richest in the community. (Back to article)
In this section, I use the term “Gypsy” in quotes to show how the locals I was speaking with brought the term into use, usually to emphasize the disparaging or humiliating ways that non-Roma engaged with Roma musicians. Many (mostly Roma) were using the word ironically, mimicking the disdainful way that Serbs might think about them as “lowly Gypsies” in order to be able to subject them to displays of power and even humiliation during performances. See footnote 4 for a more detailed discussion of the use and meanings of the word “Gypsy” vs. Roma.

About the Author

Alex Markovic | eefc.orgAlex Marković is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He spent a total of 17 months conducting field research with Romani brass musicians in the Vranje region of southeastern Serbia, working with local Serb and Romani communities and documenting myriad musical celebrations such as weddings. His dissertation looks at ethnicity and identity politics in the context of musical performance, investigating how musical practices shape ideas about—and performances of—Romani (“Gypsy“) identity in society. Alex’s research interests in anthropology and ethnomusicology are focused on the relationships between processes of identity, socioeconomic change, cultural performance, ritual, music, and dance in the Balkans and in Balkan diasporas.

Alex’s academic writings include a chapter titled “Brass on the Move: Economic Crisis and Professional Mobility among Romani Musicians in Vranje,” in Labour Migrations in the Balkans, edited by Biljana Sikimić, Petko Hristov, and Biljana Golubović; and published by Verlag Otto Sagner in Berlin. Several journal articles stemming from his doctoral research with Vranje’s Romani musicians are currently in preparation, and Alex intends to publish his full dissertation as a book upon completion of his doctorate. He anticipates obtaining his Ph.D. in 2013.

Alex is also an avid researcher, instructor, and dancer of Balkan folk dance, specializing in Serbian, Greek, and Romani dance traditions. Born and raised in a Serbian family in Chicago, he has been a performer of Serbian dance for nearly 20 years and has taught at several Serbian youth dance ensembles in the Chicagoland area. As part of his extended dissertation fieldwork, Alex is particularly well versed in the dance repertoires and styling of Roma and Serbs in the wider Vranje area; he has also researched the dance repertoires of various regions in southeastern Serbia, Kosovo, and eastern Serbia. In addition to his work with Serbian folk dance, Alex has been involved in Greek folk dance for over a decade. He is particularly drawn to researching the diverse dance traditions of Pontic Greeks, having begun his work with the Chicago Pontian community in his teens. He is also interested in the dance repertoires of various regions in Greek Macedonia, Western Thrace, Anatoliki Romylia (present-day Bulgaria), and Asia Minor (Turkey). Alex is currently co-instructor of the Chicago-based Greek folk dance group Ellas Dancers of Chicago and guest instructor with Chicago’s Orpheus Hellenic Folklore Society.

Alex enjoys sharing his research in the context of lectures, presentations, and workshops throughout the States. He has been an invited speaker for specialized conferences and guest lectures at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois-Chicago, and New York University. He has also given public presentations and dance workshops for educational events at the Chicago Serbian-American Museum “St. Sava“ and the Balkan Spring Festival at the International House of the University of Chicago, among others. With Ellas Dancers, Alex also regularly performs Greek folk dances throughout the Midwest at museums, schools, festivals, family celebrations, and Greek regional society events.