Recovering the ‘Golden Age’ of Yugoslav Roma Music

Between 2010-2012, myself and Philip Knox – then students at the University of Oxford – scoured the Western Balkans in search of the lost Roma music of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Eventually, we found it, and released the results as an album, which Vinyl Factory called ‘one of the most daring and poignant collections of music to come our way in recent times.’

Click to check out the extensive liner notes, including translations of all the songs featured on the album

In stark contrast to the anti-Roma policies applied across Europe throughout the twentieth century, and to the situation in the former Yugoslavia today, under Tito the Roma were recognised as an ‘official’ minority and the Socialist government promoted their language and culture. Theirs was the music of urbane, cosmopolitan artists, reflecting a culture newly invigorated by its state-level acceptance, and influenced by the amazing array of influences available at the cultural crossroads of ‘non-aligned’ socialist Yugoslavia: their native folk rhythms, inherited from India, a host of local Slavic folk musics, together with Turkish songs, British and American pop and rock, and even the music of modern India – the songs of the Bollywood films cheaply imported from Nehru’s fellow non-aligned state. The airwaves were suddenly filled with songs in the lilting Romani language that paid tribute to love, loss, tradition, modernity, and the joys and trials of life on the road.

For two years, we collected these songs on scratched old vinyls, travelling across the former Yugoslavia in the hope of unearthing musical history in the bric-a-brac of flea markets and shops. We did all this because we loved the music. But we also did it because we thought that, after a decade of war, people were in danger of forgetting this little golden age of Roma music, when the Roma were thought of, not just as skilled performers, but as sophisticated artists whose music was vital to the cultural life of the nation. We met up with these old musicians when we could, and found that even they lacked copies of their early releases. This made us only more determined to understand and tell the story of their music. And it seems like we did a decent job: The Observer, The Evening Standard and The Irish Times all gave it four star reviews, The Quietus published a feature on it, and it was nominated for the fRoots Critics Poll 2013. Most importantly of all, our Roma friends in Macedonia say their parents are into it (even if it’s a bit old school for the newer generations!)

A small selection of our findings (Photo courtesy of Philip Knox)

You can buy Stand Up, People as a double vinyl LP, a CD, or as a digital download here.

You can also read more about the album, the journey that led up to it, and the history of Yugoslavia’s Roma music scene, by clicking on the links below.

Isis, Hilary Term, 2013
Eurozine, May 2012
Sarajevska Sveske, no.35-26, 2012
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