Uncle Toma's Cabin

Published in Esquire Latinoamerica

Under a railway bridge in Serbia’s capital Belgrade is one of the worst slums of Eastern Europe. Here, hundreds of Romany people live destitute in a vicious cycle of poverty. Theirs is a dismal tale of displacement and exclusion, similar to that of many of their ethnic counterparts all over the continent. However, just across the river, inside the precarious shelter of an unassuming rickety shack are Toma Jovanović and the Blek Panters, a boisterous Gypsy orchestra that keep Serbia’s Gypsy spirit ablaze. 

“Emocijaaaaaa!”

Toma Jovanović’s gusto sets your hair on end. He’s asking for emotion, demanding it, jumping to his feet and throwing his arms in the air. He breaks out an ecstatic cry, closes his eyes and shakes his shoulders as the as the guitars, accordions, double bass, violins and drums work themselves and the crowd into a rhythmic crescendo around him.

“The moon is no more;
The sun is no more;
You are no more; I am no more;
There is nothing more – joooooooojjj……”

The late night clientele of Toma’s club surround him and the musicians, dancing on the tables, draped across one another in a tableau of mutual buttressing, wiping their eyes, and joining in on the sustained wail ‘joooojjjjj’. Glasses of caustic plum brandy fly into the air to fuel this orgy of string, brass and impassioned vocals.

“… We have been covered by the darkness of war…
The darkness has covered us, jjjjoooooooojjjjjjj…”

These are the Balkans at their musical best: these are the Black Panthers, (or Blek Panters – their local phonetic moniker). They are a family of Gypsy musicians headed up by the gregarious Toma Jovanović who regale this tiny ramshackle venue in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, every night of the week.

Actually, ‘ramshackle’ is an understatement. The notorious club is nothing more than a wooden splav (a cabin on the water) floating precariously upon a handful of oil drums off the banks of the river Sava. Tethered off a deserted quay at the end of a small island, the venue is only accessible via a rickety Indiana Jones-style rope bridge whose frequent ruptures provide an exercise in concentrated and coordinated movement on the way in, and a Herculean test of dexterity under the influence of alcohol on the way out.

In a city undergoing substantial economic contraction, then expansion and change over the last two decades, the waterborne Blek Panters has remained steadfast, holding out as one of the most popular spots for locals and prominent names from celebrities to sportsmen and politicians. Belgrade’s late night party-goers make pilgrimage in their scores to this much-loved spot to indulge in the fervent frenzy of one of the city’s most famous Gypsy music acts.

The Blek Panters club, however, is one of very few success stories to arise from Belgrade’s otherwise blighted Roma community. Just across the water, literally a five-minute boat ride away, is the other, darker reality of the Serbian Roma.

A ghetto in every sense of the word, the ‘Gazela’ encampment, a settlement of temporary cardboard and corrugated steel housing sits next to a rubbish dump under the city’s main railway bridge. The standard of living here is shocking, almost unbelievable for a European country. The streets are unpaved and muddy, rife with abandoned cars stripped down to their framework, stray dogs and barefoot children, some barely old enough to walk, wading through the cruddy lakes that form after heavy rain.

Just metres away from the city’s lavish Hyatt Hotel and the newly developed shopping malls of New Belgrade, Gazela is one of hundreds of settlements in Serbia where communities of Roma live below the poverty line, without even the most basic of amenities or utilities.

Unemployment is rife among this population that is regarded with suspicion and heavy racial prejudice by the country’s ethnic Serbs, and those Roma who are in work are generally employed as unskilled labourers, be they garbage collectors or street sweepers. Some residents of Gazela eke out their living by fine-combing the adjacent rubbish dump for any kind of recyclable materials like glass bottles or tin cans.

The cycle of poverty is hard to break: there are an estimated 450,000 Roma living in Serbia, a number that has swelled in recent years due to the displacements of war, as tens of thousands of Roma refugees came to Serbia primarily to escape persecution in Kosovo. There has also been a huge influx of Roma into Serbia from other former Yugoslav states following the war, as well as the thousands that have been forcibly extradited back to their country of origin after seeking asylum in other EU states.

I arrange to meet Toma early one night before the Blek Panters open, and he invites me to eat with himself and his entourage which included a blonde, blue-eyed promoter from Belgium (“Also a good gypsy boy,” he assures me), and a stalwart of Serbian national folk music, the much revered Zorica Marković. We sit around a table replete with grilled meat, and the rakija, a local plum brandy brew, soon begins to flow.

Toma is enthusiastic, engaging and unquestionably lovable, but to actually interview him is a losing battle. Each time he starts a sentence his attention is distracted by one of the musicians tuning up in the background, who he’ll instruct to play a tune, launching the room into spirited ditty after hearty song in preparation for the night ahead. Toma gets up from his seat, opens his arms and lets rip his signature battle cry:

“EMOCIJA!!”

Emotion. There is certainly enough of that. Every five minutes or so, after ensuring that I have sufficient rakija in my glass, Toma embraces me, as does the Belgian promoter, and indeed anyone else within hugging distance.

“Where is this magazine you’re writing for?” he asks, and upon my reply there follows a unanimous raising of glasses and an ebullient round of “VIVA MÉXICO!”

I tell Toma that Goran Bregović just played at the Central Theatre in Mexico City with his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra, and that the audience loved the show so much they were dancing in the aisles.

Although not a Roma himself, Bosnian-born Bregović has been responsible for the largest dissemination of Yugoslav Roma music around the world, most famously in his soundtracks for Serbian director Emir Kusturica’s films, including the Palm d’Or winning ‘Time of the Gypsies’ and ‘Underground’. The former has since been transformed into a so-called Gypsy-punk opera in Paris, featuring music by Kusturica’s own band No Smoking, who will be coming to perform in Mexico from 17-19th October in Guadalajara, Mazatlan and Culiacan.

“Bregović is a king!” proclaims Toma, and there proceeds another enthused toast. “But when you saw him play, did he look into your eyes? Did he?” I answer to the negative, if only because the venue was dark and somewhat large for such intimate eye contact.

“When someone is singing you have to look into their eyes, and they in yours. That’s when you know if they are lying or telling the truth.”

Among the other musicians at Blek Panters is the expressive Bronson on double bass, the swarthy Darko on violin and ladies’ man Staniša on accordion. Bespactacled Sloba taps away at the keyboards and Kubanac (‘the Cuban’) shakes the maracas while the corpulent Toma slams his fist down on a table sending all of its glasses and bottles two inches into the air.

I marvel at how the splav has managed to stay afloat all these years.

Then Toma, the simultaneously grey-haired and boyish eye of the hurricane, rouses the revellers to raise the roof with the first strains of the iconic Djelem Djelem, the Gypsy anthem that commemorates the hundreds of thousands of Roma killed by the Nazis during the Porrajmos or Holocaust of the second world war. Tears abound as the crowd joins him in a mournful lament.

“I once had a great family,
The Black Legions murdered them;
Come with me Roma from all the world,
For the Roma roads have opened,
Now is the time, rise up Roma now,
We will rise high if we act,
O Roma, O fellow Roma…”

Serbs have a natural and deeply emotional affinity with Gypsy music and the poetic heart-wrenching lyrics that infuse its melodies, but outside of the bars and clubs and away from the sentimental embraces, there is still a great deal of antagonism and mistrust directed towards the Roma.

Still, attitudes in Serbia are mild compared with countries like a Italy where the High Court recently ruled that it was acceptable to discriminate against Romany citizens on the grounds that “all Gypsies are thieves.”
However, their fate is relatively low on the list of daily concerns for the average Serbian citizen in a time when the country is still struggling to pull itself out the financial and political rut that followed in the wake of years of war and Slobodan Milošević’s years in power.

“Empathy towards the Roma is very undeveloped in Serbia,” says Roma rights activist Nataša Kočić-Rakocević, a Roma woman married to a Serb in a rare mixed-race union. She is well aware of the personal and professional challenges of integration for the Roma populace, and is personally concentrating her energies on schooling initiatives for Gypsy children in the country: “People have yet to understand the connection between good education and people eventually becoming less of a burden on the state.”

One big drawback for children from poorer communities is that their parents are unable to send them to pre-school, which is where most Serbian children go to learn to read and write. This means that when un-pre-schooled Roma children enter primary school at the age of 7, many of them are illiterate and are impeded from the outset in relation to their peers.

As a result, as many as half of all enrolled Roma children drop out of school by the age of 11, and very few make it to secondary level, while the number of Roma attending universities or tertiary institutions is negligible.
There is also the problem that very few teachers in Serbia’s state-run schools are trained to teach classes of mixed ethnicity and are ill-equipped to deal with learning difficulties of the underprivileged children. And in the spirit of encouraging children to excel in the areas of their natural talents, Roma kids in schools are often rushed into the music room rather than into the science lab.

“There is a general preconception that music is all Roma are good for,” Ms. Kočić explains. “I think this seriously detracts from giving them a good academic education.”

Toma Jovanović may or may not agree with Nataša here: music has been the bread and butter of his family for generations, and is what sets them apart from the horrifying fate of other Roma in the country, a staggering 40% of whom live either under or just above the poverty line.

Back on the splav, one of the uncles of the family is watching the spectacle of punters pushing 500 dinar bills between the strings of violins and into the notches of the brass instruments from over his beer in the corner. I tell him, “this place is hopping: you must be making a fortune.”

He shrugs. “We do OK,” he says, “but there’s a lot of mouths to feed. There are 80 of us in all.”

I look over and Staniša puts down his accordion briefly to take a call on his iPhone. This may be a creaky old shack that could sink into the Sava at any minute, but it’s a acres away from the third-world glut that is the Gazela slum just across the river.

Somewhere around midnight, the rakija begins to kick in, and by 1am on the splav, I have lost all sense of my professional purpose.

Caught up in the fireworks of the moment I’ve ditched my notebook somewhere among the crowd. I’ve cracked the lens on my camera after falling from a rickety chair in an attempt to focus on a fast moving fiddle. Something’s given: I am now no longer the avid journalist here to cover Toma and the boys, but a willing victim falling prey to the dizzy swing of the night’s proceedings.

As the atmosphere grows hotter, so do the hormones, and before long I am taking refuge behind the bar to hide from the lusty advances of one of the younger musicians who, in the heat of the moment, has put down his instrument and decided to pursue a more seductive line of entertainment. The barman’s name is lost to me through the fog of plum brandy, but he refills my glass several times with all the zeal of an anxious host.
At around 2am I too am up on the table, wedged between a couple of scantily clad girls in their early twenties. They tell me they have come down from the north of the country for a weekends’ carousing in Belgrade. We bond through the haze of the plucky brass cadence and are soon waving our hands above our heads in what feels like unison worthy of the Spice Girls.

How it actually looks, of course, is a different matter altogether.

An hour later, drunken hunger pangs drive me to the little section at the back of the club that serves as its kitchen, where I sit with Toma, who’s taking a break, and mauling a large plate of čevapčiči, a traditional Serbian grilled kebab that’s perfect for late-night munchies of this variety.

Toma is ebullient, high on his performance and the ardour of the crowd. He repeatedly showers praise upon the lady cook, upon Mexico, upon the Gypsy soul, before getting up to continue the show. The room slowly begins to spin around my head…

Just before dawn I’m outside of my front door, desperately trying to focus on the impossible task of inserting the key into the lock in the right direction. Ten minutes later I’m inside, pondering over how it was that I even got home, and intensely troubled by the feeling that there is something very important I was supposed to have done, but for the life of me, I can’t remember what it is.

The next morning it comes back, not as a flood of memories per se, but more of a slow and painful series of drips somewhere behind the eyes. I look through the images on my camera and see nothing but vague blurs. I curse the rakija-induced nausea as I pick up my notebook and attempt in vain to decipher ten pages of scribble, suspecting that it might all have been some kind of elaborate ruse.

Absolutely nothing is legible to me bar one little verse, a mantra that Aca, the blonde Belgian Gypsy had bid me take down word for word, and made me promise to learn by heart.

Work a tad, steal a tad/To every authority take off your hat/Don’t give a fuck about the business of others/And never be fearful of hunger.

The rest is scrawl.

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