Snow dusts the ground on Ada Ciganli, Gypsy Island, a popular get-away on the banks of the Sava river, a short taxi ride from the center of Belgrade, where, after a brief walk through darkened woods, we reach a creaky wooden gangway leading to a rickety wooden houseboat with a sign in Cyrillic.
Lighted windows blaze into the winter night and already you can hear the frenetic sound of Gypsy music, violins, accordion, snare drums and full-throated singing in Romanes.
“This is the best tavern in the Balkans, brother,” says Aca, a Belgrade artist, musician, DJ, sometime Berlin resident and my guide to one of Belgrade’s wildest nightspots in a city notorious for its wild and relentless nightlife. “These guys – the Black Panthers – are the real thing! What nights I’ve had here!”
We began the evening in the Znak Pitanje, or Question Mark, a traditional Serbian restaurant kafana across the street from Belgrade cathedral in the stari grad, or Old Town, where under wooden raftered ceilings, seated on low hand-carved stools, we ate tasty ćevapčići washed down with shots of slivovitz served by old-school Serb waiters with traditional woolen sashes tied around their waists.
It had been getting on in the evening and Aca had expressed a wish to show me a little bit of Balkan nightlife.
“A nice leetle kafana,” he had said. “I bring you there.”
On Gypsy Island
And so Aca threw a couple of crumpled dinar bills on the table, we got up and left and Aca hailed a cab to the Ada Ciganli, Gypsy Island.
The place Aca had in mind was called Crni Panteri, the Black Panthers, a splav, or raft, on the Sava river owned by a group of Gypsy musicians called the Black Panthers.
The Crni Panteri had the reputation of being a very rowdy place and periodically there were punch-ups between patrons.
Not long ago it had been reported in the Serbian Diaspora newspaper Vesti that a band of drunken football supporters of the club Red Star Belgrade kidnapped four members of the Crni Panteri from their boat on the Ada Ciganli and spirited them away to a bar in Novi Belgrad, Belgrade’s Socialist tower block quarter, where they forced the musicians to satisfy their musical wishes under gunpoint before someone informed the police and the Gypsy musicians were eventually freed . It was an incident that could only take place in Belgrade, and for my part I was very much looking forward to seeing the infamous Crni Panteri.
Things were in full-swing when we arrived.
Songs, Dinars and Rakija
There was a Gypsy on double bass, running his hand up and down the neck of his instrument, slapping a wooden handled bottle opener on the strings, a look of fierce determination on his face. The accordion player had a twenty dinar note plastered to his sweaty bald head. There was a Gypsy on keyboards, a half empty pack of Marlboros on the instrument in front of him, sweat splashing on his keys and another Gypsy taking turns rapping a pair of spoons on a table, the rafters, the shoulder of the double bass.
And everyone singing that famous Macedonian Gypsy song: Chaj Shukarija, Beautiful Girl, from aging Macedonian Gypsy diva Esma Redžepova.
The tables were full of guests, rakija bottles and schnapps glasses stood in front of them.
Couples were dancing. There were women, white and “black” (which is how Serbs denote Gypsies) with jangly, gold hoop earrings, arms raised high, clapping, Gypsy style.
A girl in a leopard-skin bodice was dancing on the table, while Toma, the bearded bandleader was standing on a bench, jauncing up and down, undulating his big Gypsy belly.
A balding man was holding an empty bottle in the air, upside down, to indicate what the waiter had to bring him.
The walls were stuck with photos of musicians and celebrities who had come to the Crni Panteri.
There was a kitschy picture of a black panther at sunset. Fish nets hung in a corner, and a waiter passed out wine bottles as the raft bobbed on the Sava river.
Then they started playing “Prokleta je Amerika” by the late Serbian Gypsy king Šaban Bajramović and the crowd went wild, calling for more shots of rakija and more raucous music.
A Complicated Relationship
There is nothing the Serbs like more than Gypsy music. They don’t like it moderately, but ardently and completely.
It is worth mentioning something about the relationship between Serbs and Gypsies, for it is a paradoxical one. Serbs and Gypsies don’t mix as a rule.
The one exception is in the Gypsy kafana, or bar. Not only do Serbs go to the outer fringes of society to hear Gyspy musicians, but once they have become completely drunk from slivovitz or wine they become utterly pliant in the hands of of the Gypsy musicians.
The bećari, or drinkers, invite the Gypsies to their table as their warmest comrades, slap them on the back, kiss them on the cheeks, embrace them fondly and drunkenly, extravagantly giving out money, tucking banknotes under the strings of the violin, between the strings of the tamburica, into the violin player’s bow, or sticking them to the sweaty forehead of the Gypsy musician.
The Gypsy kafana is a place of wildness, excess and intoxication, celebration of the here-and-now, a place where the reveler feels he has nothing to lose.
Gypsy music sets loose high spirits – emocija – rapture and at the same time melancholy, a melancholy that is not only a spiritual state but a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.
Tonight was no exception. The audience was intoxicated with pleasure and nostalgia as the roarings and explosions of the band rose higher and higher and wilder and wilder and fiercer and fiercer.
Then all of a sudden began the smashing of glasses. Smash! Smash! Smash!
“Napraviti lom,” explained Aca. Creating havoc. Breaking into pieces. It may be a slivovitz glass, the bar furniture or another person.
Aca too, wanted to smash, to destroy, to annihilate.
“Gypsies smash my soul to pieces,” cried Aca, suddenly flushed and riotous, “Jump! Jump! Let them hear the earth shaking under your feet! Dance! Dance! Until the early morning! Until your feet can’t go any more!”
Aca rolled up his shirt to his arm-pits, exposing great sinewy arms, tattooed in several places.
He proudly showed me the scar on the palm of his hand – he had smashed a glass during a binge soon after a breakup with his wife. Right then he realized that that he much closer to the truth of this world. “This is reality!” he seemed to say.
To Love And To Mourne. At The Same Time.
The first time I had been to a Balkan party in Berlin the mood struck me as almost Latin. Latin and Balkan music are both highly danceable, infective, life-affirmative.
But the style is different. It was a different sort of happiness that was being expressed at the Black Panthers; a different mentality.
Latin people are a hot-tempered people; love dancing and celebrating. But their happiness is not Balkan happiness.
The Latin lacks the pathos of the Balkanite, who – like Aca – could cry and laugh and dance and mourn at the same time.
Balkan bećari were always sad about something; they always had troubles, and they were proud to be afflicted. It was a frame of mind. A way of life. A mental state. They smashed glasses and wept. And this, perversely, made them happy.
Thus the Balkan kafana is a stage for a whole range of emotions not normally expressed publically in the West.
The Balkan style of partying that I was witnessing at the Black Panthers that night was maybe closer to that of the Turks, whose presence in the Balkans had been felt for five hundred years.
But here again the Balkan style is different. In Bosnia, the Muslim, Turkified inhabitants of Sarajevo created something called sevdahlinka (Oriental love songs, with a Jewish, Sephardic influence ). When listening to these slow sevdahlinka love-complaints the listener cries, grieves.
But this Turkish grief is not the same as the grief that came through a Balkan Gypsy song at the Black Panthers, which is wilder, less restrained.
Emotions are what counts in the Balkan kafana – emocija.
The Love Of A Broken Heart
To be satisfied, to be happy, and on the other hand not to be happy, and to have the need to express this duality somehow. Usually this condition related to a relationship with a woman, or a man, which is somehow paid more attention to in the Balkans and in Turkey than in Western Europe.
Of course, Western pop music is full of love songs, but love and relations between man and woman, infidelity and broken hearts, are taken more seriously by the Balkanite.
“We love to have a broken heart,” Aca explained to me. “Everyone is having a broken heart in the Balkans. We delude ourselves also, but we love it. We are used to suffering, even though it’s not worth the pain. I recognize it in myself also. How many times I ask myself ‘What kind of fucking idiot are you? You got separated from your wife, so what? You don’t have to drink two years and kill yourself.’ But it’s something in my genes.”
Love meant unhappy love for Aca, with its misunderstandings and separations.
Somehow the Gypsies did it best. Ninety percent of Gypsy songs are about problems. Yet, how can they be so happy in their telling, in their singing, in their dancing?
As Aca saw it, this was the talent of the Gypsies. They could have problems, but at the same time remain aloof from them.
And this attitude was what the Gypsies were teaching the whole world, Serbia, Europe especially: Be happy. Nothing is really that important. How important is it to have a big house, a big car? Somehow it was built into their brains: Just do it. Live, live, live. Tomorrow maybe it’s going to be too late. Don’t make big plans.
That was the philosophy behind the music.
“This is what we, and when I say ‘we’ I mean we white people from Europe, don’t understand,” said Aca. “In Western Europe, everything has to be correct, especially in Germany. Paperwork, paperwork. Everything has to be confirmed. This also has an advantage. This is how the society works. But on the other hand we are just sick of it all; all of this controlling, all of this way of thinking and brooding; discipline, being worried.”
The Racism Goes Deep.
We in the West were living in a society filled with fear. Wherever you turned in the West a kind of fear haunted you. Every day you woke up and went to the mail box, afraid of something evil waiting for you.
Why the fuck did one have to be afraid of anything? One wasn’t a criminal. But there it was. Society instilled it in you. But the Gypsies – they simply didn’t care. They didn’t let themselves be cowered.
“This is what fascinates me with Gypsies, and so I am always telling myself fuck all this shit,” said Aca. “There are always some problems and we always take it too seriously. And it makes us unhappy. And Gypsies, they don’t care about this stuff. They just don’t care.”
It was ironic, though, that at the Black Panthers Serbs came and pretended for a couple hours to be a Gypsy, and in doing so, to celebrate the Gypsy, the romantic role of the Gypsy, applauding and craving their uninhibited, free-wheeling lifestyle, while at the same time probably believing at the back of their minds, like most gadjos, that Gypsies were all thieves and liars at heart, unreliable, dangerous to get too close to.
When they were drunk and in a festive mood, Serbs professed to love the Gypsies. At the same time their racism was so ingrained – it came out in the many Serb myths and stories, jokes and films, books and songs – that they never batted an eyelid when using their old sayings about Gypsies: “When the Gypsy was made king the first man he hanged was his father.”
Or, “Work a little, steal a little, are the rules of the Gypsy life”. Or, “Drinking woman, Gypsy woman”. Or, “Where the Jew doesn’t go the Gypsy crawls.”
Forms of activity that meet with disapproval are disparagingly labeled as ciganska posla (Gypsy work). A dastardly trick is a ciganija. Terms of abuse are prljavi ciganin (dirty Gypsy), ciganski sin (Gypsy child) or the suggestion that someone’s mother is a Gypsy (psovali su mu mater cigansku).
A Form Of Exploitation
The Serbs there that night at the Black Panthers wanted something very specific from the Gypsies.
They wanted their happiness. They used the Gypsies to get it, and thus their attitude towards them was paternalistic and exploitative.
Yet somehow it was worse in the West, with Balkan record producers, Balkan DJs and Balkan party-goers taking what they needed from the Gypsies, exploiting them, and in the end, not exactly now, but at some time in the near future, they would ditch them, spit them out, throw them away in favor of the next flavor of the month, the next sensation.
But not tonight. Not here at the Black Panthers as the party mood was nearing its crescendo and the šlivovitz was rising to Aca’s head.
“This is the meaning of existence,” said Aca. “Break something! Destroy something! Fuck it up! And when you spend all of the money you have made in a month in one night in a Gypsy kafana this is something real. It is not a story. It is not an imagination. It is something you can feel. It is truth! What good are your books Mr. Amerikanac? This is something you can not get from books. This is life!”
And the Panthers sang the old song, Niška Banja.
The baths near Niš, hot water, for naughty boys a real convenience.
I will get her, I will love her, and in Niš I will leave her.
We Gypsies love a good time, we can’t make do without plum brandy;
Without grape brandy, plum brandy, without a young Gypsy girl.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.
I will kiss her on the face. I will get her, and I will love her, and in Niš I will leave her.
And Aca sang his song raptly, tears in his eyes, tears of ecstasy, tears of nostalgia, re-suffering past torments as the accordion player’s long thin fingers dashed up and down the black and white keys.
There Is Always More
“Bravo!” called Aca. “Bravo! Bravo! – maestro!”
Wiping his damp eyes with the back of his hand – he had been weeping with joy and excitement – he stood up, embraced the accordion player and kissed him on the cheek, repeating between kisses:
“Bravo, brate, cigansko moja! I have to give it you you, friend! That’s the way to play!”
Drunk as he was he was incredibly overriding; he beat his fist on the table and told me to “shut up, Amerikanac! The Gypsy kafana is about losing control of yourself. You must not to talk. No talking! You must only get drunk. Get drunk!”
And so I shut up. I only looked around the room at what was going on around me.
A woman brings her head close to the violin. Sweat beads on the faces of the dancers.
Toma grabs a girl and twirls her on his fingers. He gestures at the woman’s body. “Aaaaahhhh!” he cries, and kisses her hand. “This is little America!” he tells her.
The woman smiles. He grabs her hand and twirls her around once more. Aca and I drink an enormous amount of rakija, while Aca calls repeatedly for Serbian patriotic songs.
The last song died out at around three-thirty.
The violin player was obviously at the end of his tether and the musicians had concluded their session with a final explosive, galloping kolo to make clear that this was the end.
Then, taking everyone by surprise, the accordion player started playing another song, and the band began to pull out all the stops one more time.
The message was clear: there is always, always, always more.
“Aman gazda,” Aca cried out “We’ll all die now.”
“A beautiful death!” Toma replied. “At least we’ll die with music!”
Title Photo: (c) Michael Fats, obtained under CC License CC BY 2.0