Esma: The Demise of a Legend

This article originally appeared on 12 May in BalkanInsight

Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin…

The problem with aging is that we all stop learning at some stage. The problem with living legends is that they start taking themselves for granted and way too seriously. Well, they are wrong.

It is their gift, talent, ability, whatever it may be that makes them legends. It is very, very rarely their personalities. Despite a meaningful and successful post-Doors career, Ray Manzarek, the band’s keyboarder who just passed, will not be remembered for his personality of attitude, but for his trance-inducing use of the Vox Continental organ.

Esma Redzepova. A living legend. A queen that emerged from the ghetto. A unique voice, the role model of a successful Romani woman, restless creator and performer, founder of a humanitarian foundation, foster mother of many a children, etc. This is how she likes to be perceived, the image her and her management have been creating for a few decades now.

It is an image that sells. Esma’s record production is not only impressive, but has made her popular in the most remote corners of this planet. People might not know her by name, but at the first bars of Čaje Šukarije they recognize the song and begin to wail, everyone according to their own feeling of rhythm, painful to watch at times, but liberating for the soul.

The thing about legends is that they need a narration. The Esma narration has stayed more or less constant for two decades now, it is fading together with her great voice. Age is leaving its mark.

In terms of live performance, she has produced little more than an endless series of tremolos and vibratos for quite a while now, trying to mask and fight the fact that the volume, precision and range of her fabulous voice is withering. So far this is just the usual story of an aging diva, nothing to get excited about.

If it weren’t for Esma, the politically engaged artist. I confess I know little about her role (if any) during Yugoslav times. It might not be of relevance.

But in the late nineties of the last century came the engagement with the long defunct but eternally funky Democratic Alternative, a party that promised an economic miracle by recognizing Taiwan – a recognition that went down the drain of history together with the party promoting it.

Esma has been a councillor for the city of Skopje for more than a decade now, where she excelled at… Yes, she has been doing that on the list of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE. As a consequence, one could see a new Esma, for which a new narration was created – the patriotic diva.

All of a sudden her career, of which she herself used to say that it happened abroad despite the ignorance at home, turned around and became a home-run. No major event can happen in Skopje without Esma anymore.

Recently she could be admired wrapped in national colours and featuring an antiquating dress, in line with the ideological mainstream, at a welcome concert for Macedonia’s only convicted war criminal, who returned after eight years in prison.

Then came the debacle around the Eurovision contest. The video for the first song written for her and a young Macedonian singer featured Esma and her partner against most of the make-shift iconic landmarks of the “Skopje 2014” project. The song had to be dropped due to an immensely bad reception by the Macedonian audience.

The song was replaced by another one, in which Esma sang but a few lines, albeit in Romani language. The song ended up 16th from 17 runners-up to one of the semi-finals of the contest. So far, so good. It is a grotesque contest, featuring aesthetic and musical irrelevance. Losing there might not be a thing to be proud of, but then winning isn’t either.

Obviously not used to lose, Esma lashed out against the festival itself in one of the junk newspapers, claiming that the festival is “a show for homosexuals”, who grabbed her partner’s behind.

She is quoted saying “This is unheard of. Gays everywhere! This show has been take over by those who organise gay parades all over the world. I have heard many things so far, but this is the first time I saw with my own eyes what happen to this beautiful contest. No wonder we didn’t make it, because it’s clear who passes here”.

If it were just another homophobic remark, that would be bad enough. But there is more to it.  The newspaper printing this statement is notorious for its smear campaigns and Esma jumped the train of the government’s mainstream homophobic attitude.

Pity for a remark out of place? No, disgust is all there is, maybe a bit of sadness about the inability to see the larger picture. She used to sing like a goddess, she showed that real talent transcends social marginalisation, but she is about to destroy her own legacy.

Ah, čaje šukarije…


Vision? Sing along…


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