Esma Redžepova (1943–2016) performed for more than fifty years to enthusiastic audiences in Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia. Hailed by US National Public Radio as one of the world’s ‘50 Great Voices’ and crowned ‘The Queen of Romani Music’ at the World Romani Congress in India in 1976, Esma was perhaps the most famous Romani singer in the world and gave thousands of concerts, many of them for humanitarian causes. Her ensemble played in plazas, stadiums and opera houses, for audiences ranging from villagers to world leaders.
Esma was the first Romani musician in Yugoslavia to concertise and record for mass audiences in the Romani language, and she was the first Macedonian woman to perform on television. She produced more than 500 songs on dozens of records, several of which achieved ‘gold’ status in the former Yugoslavia; her albums include Songs of a Macedonian Gypsy (Monitor), Čhaje Shukarije (World Connection) and Gypsy Carpet (World Network).
Born in the Romani neighbourhood of Topaana, Skopje, in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Esma was one of six children in a poor Muslim family; her father lost a leg in World War II and subsequently worked as a shoe shiner. At the age of eleven she met Stevo Teodosievski, an ethnic Macedonian accordionist and arranger, who recognized her talents and secured permission from her parents to train her as recording artist (not a cafe singer, which would have been considered shameful). By the age of thirteen, Esma had become a star with her trademark song Čhaje Sukarije (Beautiful Romani girl).
Esma and Ensemble Teodosievski moved from Macedonia to Serbia in 1961 to pursue wider opportunities and escape the prejudice against Roma in the Macedonian music industry.
Teodosievski’s vision and Esma's abilities created the perfect combination of Romani exoticism and refinement. The two composed songs which they transformed into staged choreographies incorporating dance, costume and dramatic scenarios that showcased the stunning emotional range and dramatic potential of Esma's voice. The couple married in 1968 (one of the first ‘mixed marriages’ in Macedonia) and were inseparable musical partners until Stevo's death in 1997, after which she continued her career with her children. Stevo and Esma turned their home into a school of music that served as a training ground for no fewer than forty-seven children, many of whom were from poor homes. Many sons, including the arranger and composer Simeon Atanasov, continue her legacy.
Throughout the years, the Teodosievski Ensemble embraced an eclectic internationalism: music from various regions of Yugoslavia became part of their repertoire as well as from neighbouring Balkan countries and beyond. Singing in more than fifteen languages, including all the Balkan and East European languages as well as Hebrew, German, and Hindi, Esma embodied the versatility, innovation and cosmopolitanism of Romani artists. Her songs, sometimes based on true-life incidents, chronicle the joys and sorrows of love, such as in arranged marriages, the poverty of Roma, and the pain of separation that results, among other things, from Balkan men going abroad to work.
Esma was a major contributor to countless advocacy and assistance programmes for women and under-served populations, including the disabled and refugees. She was honorary president of the Macedonian Red Cross, and in 2000 the Sorority of Roma Women proclaimed Esma ‘Woman of the Millennium’. In 2002 Esma was nominated as United Nations Ambassador for Refugees in Macedonia and received a second nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was awarded the Macedonian Order of Merit in 2010 and proclaimed a National Artist of Macedonia in 2013.