Goran Bregović’s use of work by Šaban Bajramović and other Roma musicians

Šaban Bajramović with band on road Bregović album cover
Šaban Bajramović (left) with band
Bregović album

Italian composer and arranger Piero Milesi recently told me that the Roma musicians he was working with strongly resented the way in which Goran Bregović has treated them and their music. Bregović has, I learnt, passed off his arrangements of Roma music as if it were all 100% ‘traditional’ and as if none of it were attributable to particular individuals.

Remembering shameful chapters in English-language popular music history —like blues musician Arthur ‘Big Boy’Crudup living in a box under Chicago’s elevated railroad and dying prematurely even though his That’s Alright Mama had been recorded by Elvis— I was worried that history might be repeating itself. So I went on line to find out what was going on. Here are a few examples of what turned up.

The first thing I stumbled on was a machine ‘translation’ of writings posted by a certain Angelina on the Serbian Music Forum site. These postings were mainly about Serbian Roma singer Šaban Bajramović, a.k.a. The King of Gypsy Music (d. 2008). ‘I am hurt in show business’, said Šaban, ‘I got fame but no money… and Bregović, well, I admire him as a conductor but not as a composer.’ The music Bregović puts his name to, Bajramović went on to say, ‘was all stolen, from all over Europe. He even stole from me’, he added, citing his song Kailan as a case in point. [For more on Bajramović, see interview by Miloš Stojanović, in English, relevant pages in the Serbian Music Forum, and the Šaban Bajramović offiicial site].

‘Master thief’ is how New-Zealand-born British music critic Garth Cartwright characterises Bregović in his book Princes Amongst Men (2005). ‘[J]ust as… blues musicians in the American south were robbed of their music by an American rock and roll industry in the fifties, so Gypsy musicians like Šaban Bajramović and Esma Redžepova have been robbed of their melodies by the likes of Goran Bregović, who put his name to classic Gypsy songs in tracks like Mesečina and Ederlezi’’ [source: European Balkan Project].

Popular music studies pioneer Charlie Gillett, author of Sound of the City (1971), mentioned ‘the enormous resentment throughout the Balkans towards Goran Bregović ... who has copyrighted in his own name many Balkan classics, including not only those in the public domain but also others written by artists who are still active, including Esma Redžepova[source: Saturday Night on BBC London, 2005].

Toni Bingham writes: ‘filmscore composer Goran Bregović… is cited several times for appropriating songs composed by known artists. Bregović then claims the material to be “traditional”, copyrights his “arrangements”, and receives lavish praise and healthy royalty checks as a result. The Gypsy musicians whose material is thus adapted receive nothing’ [source: review of A Deeper Blue: The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt, 2010].

In his obituary for Bajramović [The Guardian, 2008-08-15], Garth Cartwright writes that [Bajramović] ‘acted in the noted Yugoslav film Guardian Angel, and sang the theme song.’ Cartwright also explains how ‘Serbian film director Emir Kusturica’s Cannes-award-winning films Time of the Gypsies (1988) and Underground (1995) found soundtrack composer Goran Bregović using Šaban compositions’ [source].

By posting these links and comments I’m not attacking Bregović for making Roma music from the Balkans popular in the West any more than I would poo-poo Paul Simon for popularising Ladysmith Black Mambazo or Peter Gabriel for starting WOMAD. But there’s a huge difference between Simon or Gabriel on the one hand and Bregović on the other: I first became aware of Ladysmith Black Mambazo thanks to Paul Simon, and of musicians like Youssou N’Dour and Cheb Khaled thanks to Peter Gabriel. By contrast it was despite Bregović that I first learnt the names Šaban Bajramović and Esma Redžepova. I had to sift through numerous adulations treating Bregović like a wizard of ‘world music’ for westerners and to include provocative search words like steal and rob in order to find the sources used above.

If, as seems to be the case, Roma musician resentment towards Bregović is so strong, something is very wrong, not just with Bregović himself but with the systemically perverted individualism pervading notions of copyright and artistic ownership in capitalism where the idea of communal cultural birthright (e.g. among Aboriginal peoples [sources: 1, 2, 3]) cannot be accommodated. That’s probably because communal control of cultural wealth is intrinsically communist in the literal sense of the word and because the individual freedom to share and to be part of a community is in capitalism always trumped by the ‘free enterprise’ card.

But that’s another chapter in the same sad saga where the little guy is supposed to accept the fact that he/she will always lose out to the big guys with the big money. Not necessarily: venceremos if we share and organise! For example, that’s how IASPM started…

Philip Tagg
[Huddersfield, 2010-07-25]