Monster Jibes

Esquire Latinoamerica

ITS A SCORCHING HOT DAY in Rio de Janeiro and I’m crouching down the roasting bowels of il mostro, a Volvo Open 70 monohull bathed in the red and black insignia of its sponsor, Puma. A state-of-the-art racing yacht and one of the world’s fastest, it leaves me a little perplexed as to how, if it’s so damn cutting-edge, it does not have an ultra-modern A/C system to boot?

The answer, I’m soon to discover, is that this is no pansy pleasure boat. Its sole purpose in this world is to race – and win – the Volvo Round-the-World Ocean Race. The contest is a 60,000km slog around the globe from Alicante to St Petersburg – the long way round – in a three-yearly event that’s hailed by sailing enthusiasts as the Everest of the sport. Any considerations for the comfort of its innards or conveniences for its crew come a very distant second to il mostro’s one goal: speed. In the words of Matias Wolff, Puma’s Latin America marketing manager, “It’s not people sipping champagne on deck; this is extreme.”

Extremely hot, for starters. Sweat is running in rivulets down my forehead and back as I’m given a tour of the spartan carbon-fiber interior of the boat that is home to a crew of 11 men for the 9-month period of the race. Lurching around the low-ceilinged space, I’m frankly astounded by the thought that anyone could spend more than five minutes in this murky inferno.

Even just calmly floating on the glassy waters of the Baía de Guanabara, I’m getting some idea of the intensity of the crew’s experience. Inside the stuffy cabin, their beds, upon which they sleep a maximum of four hours at any given time, are nothing but aluminium frames attached to the wall like shelving with stretched elastic nets for comfort. Less than a metre away are the blinking screens, knobs and dials of the navigation station and a nearby two-hob gas stove, while the front cabin, used for stowing sails, contains one tiny cubicle with a curtain for a door that is the ship’s ‘head’, or toilet, as we landlubbers call it.

And that is quite basically it. Maintaining a low overall weight is of the essence in long-haul ocean racing, and every tiny detail of the boat is designed with lightness in mind. Which means that air conditioning units, personal possessions, fresh food, and even a coat of paint to brighten the place up a bit are stoically foregone in favour of greater performance and speed at sea.

il mostro’s Brazillian pad is the Marina da Gloria in Rio de Janeiro which it shares with the six other racing boats competing in the Volvo race, all of whom arrived here a week ago after a gruelling 41-day journey from Qingao in China that turned out to be one of the longest legs in the race’s history.

The setting couldn’t be more perfect: Rio’s dramatic undulating landscape and vast Guanabara Bay are the ideal location for the In-Port races that take place during the stopovers and give the public a taste of what the boats are capable of.

The city is the 6th on a list of 11 exotic stops on the course of the race which have so far included South Africa’s Cape Town, Kochi in India and Singapore. Every place the boats dock the sailors are treated as visiting kings, despite cutting an unlikely royal ensemble. Puma’s crew arrived in Rio on 30th March grizzled, weathered and unshaven, only to face an ecstatic flourish of waiting press, fans and family members. The sail had been arduous to say the least, long and stormy, resulting in a broken boom. The crew hadn’t washed for 7 weeks (a bathroom on board would, after all, be an unnecessary luxury), and had each lost an average of 7kg after getting by on an exclusive diet of freeze-dried sustenance, the rations of which had to be cut a few days before the end of the sail.

I’m handed an example of the on-board nourishment, a 32g packet of rather aptly named ‘Gu’; a sickly-sweet strawberry and banana-flavoured energy paste weighing in at around 100 calories. But man cannot survive on Gu alone – if he did he’d need to eat it in gargantuan quantities; every crew member has to ingest between 6,000 and 7,000 calories per day to compensate for the massive physical strain of ocean racing. Each four-hour shift requires constant trimming of the sails and grinding of the winches as well as the energy-draining effort of bracing one’s body against the force of the movement of the boat, a process that continues even while the crew are asleep.

These guys are hard; hard to their bonkers cores. Reading about their experiences before I actually met them, I imagined a band of 11 titan barbarians approximately resembling the cast of the movie ‘300’. So you can imagine my suprise upon boarding il mostro on the day of the Pro Am races in Rio to find that in addition to being world-class sailors and colossi of endurance, they were also an extremely affable, lovable bunch; courteous and gentlemanly; staunch and robust; practical and down-to-earth. These, I absent-mindedly mused, while drifting into a cheesy, soft-focus reverie inspired by the sight of tanned muscular arms hauling ropes around deck, these are real men.

The sound of a pistol firing brings me back down to earth. It’s five minutes to the beginning of the race and the boats need to get to the starting line. Today’s heat is a friendly – a Pro Am event when the professionals invite amateur sailors aboard to help them navigate the course up and down the Baía de Guanabara from the Rio-Niteroi bridge to the Pao de Azucar and back.

Despite the congenial nature of the day’s racing, the spirit of competition is nonetheless rife, as the boats begin to jostle around the starter line for the best kick-off position. Every second counts in such a short race, and getting off to a good start is an essential part of forging ahead for the rest of the heat.


Will Oxley, the ship’s navigator for the In-Port races, counts down the minutes and seconds to the starter horn. He’s clutching a computerised portable navigator the size of a small laptop and reading the prepared course from its cracked digital screen. The gadget is the 21st century alternative to sitting below deck with maps, charts and a pair of compasses, and is one of an ensemble of on-board technologies that have transformed ocean racing’s erstwhile periods of mysterious absence out at sea to something resembling a spectator sport.

It is the sole charge of one of the eleven crew members on each of the competing boats to be entirely responsible for the team’s media output. Puma’s guy is sailor-cum-media whizzkid Rick Deppe, who spends his days on the high seas photographing and filming his fellow crew members as well as posting blog entries on the team’s website. il mostro can be followed on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, by RSS feeds and podcast, as well as through a rather impressive 3D real-time race simulator on the Volvo Ocean Race website. Top-notch satellite technology means the racers can not only beam their position directly to the watching world, but they in turn can also be reached by email, whatever the weather. Never was this technology put to such good use as when the Puma boat’s bowman Michi Mueller received the first jpegs of his newborn child as the team were hurtling through the waters of the South Pacific, passing somewhere near Fiji. A very rare feast of cigars and rum reportedly ensued.


The ship’s skipper, 47-year-old Rhode Islander Ken Read, is poised at the helm. Graceful and debonair with an impish twinkle in his eye, in appearance at least he’s the antithesis of the ruddy sea-dog. Ken hand-picked his crew, whom he frequently refers to as his ‘children’, from six different countries worldwide, and much like a father, he considers the men’s physical and psychological wellbeing his top priority.

Conditions at sea can get pretty bad after all: I’m regaled by tales of the infamous ‘Fireman’s hose’, the nautical phenomenon of extremely high water pressure created by boats lunging into oncoming waves so fast that instead of sailing over them, they actually tunnel through them. The force of the water hitting the decks at these times is roughly equated with that of a fireman’s hose, and can sweep an unharnessed sailor from his feet and into the water at the drop of a hat. In fact, 32-year-old Dutch sailor Hans Horrevoets was killed in similar conditions in 2006 as he was swept off the ABN Amro 2 boat in the Atlantic Ocean, a tragedy that lurks at the back of Ken and all the other skippers’ minds as they work to end the race with their crew entirely intact.

Then there are the psychological pitfalls. Ken talks of the peaks and valleys of moods and morale aboard il mostro during the longer stretches spent at sea: “When you see a high or a low, you have to confront it head-on,” he explains. “If you let bad feelings linger, they’ll spread through the crew like wildfire.” Like a school councillor, the captain has to keep a very watchful eye on the humours of his crew in this extremely compact living space, and ensure a sense of harmony to sail his boat on an emotionally even keel.


From a distance, the Volvo Open 70s appear to glide effortlessly through the water as if carried by an unseen mist, so what I’m not prepared for are the terrifyingly loud creaks and thuds il mostro makes as her sails are raised and ropes are hauled and tightened. The sheer power of the vessel is manifest as the gentle breeze in the bay fills her sheets and the giant black puma bellows outward with a sound equivalent to the crack of a hundred whips. Looking up, I’m dizzy from the sheer height of the mast – 30 metres in total, with a special rigging system to eliminate as much extra weight as possible. To give you some idea, il mostro is approximately 10,000kg lighter than the current America’s Cup-class vessels. However, the most important and impressive feature of this generation of Volvo Open 70 boats is hidden from view and lies below the surface of the water. Spoken of in hushed and reverent tones by sailors worldwide, the canting keel is the key to il mostro’s lightning speed: with the ability to swing to an angle of 40 degrees on the windward side of the boat, it allows the vessel a great deal more stability at high speeds.


The crew are at their stations, apparently oblivious to the harsh beating of the sun on their shoulders. Antiguan hunk Shannon Falcone applies a little white sunscreen on his lips before readying himself at the winch grinder next to muscular Joe Fanelli, also known as Joe-rilla for his larger-than-life stature. The winch grinder’s sleek black surface has been embellished with a few pieces of tape upon which is hand-written the sombre warning ‘DON’T SLEEP’.  Ken laughs, “I put that there for Erle, to keep him alert.” Kiwi Erle Williams is the boat’s 51-year-old driver and trimmer. A former winner of the Whitbread Round-the-World Race, he is one of many sailing heavyweights aboard il mostro which can count among its crew a slew of Olympic gold medalists as well as Volvo, Whitbread and America’s Cup winners. Here I know I am in the presence of sailing royalty.

A heightened sense of anticipation is running laps around the boat until finally the gun sounds and we’re off. There’s a general hive of activity on deck, with ropes of different colours and sizes being pulled, spun, tied and tightened. I decide to observe the scene from a safe distance at the stern of the boat from behind the captain, far from the hazards of swinging booms and fast-moving lines.

Ken calls out the command to jibe and turns the boat’s angle so quickly that the foresail switches sides with vehement thunder and the boom swings across the deck, narrowly missing the tops of the quick-witted sailors’ heads by about 5cm. Almost ripping off the satellite hub in my enthusiasm to hang the hell on, I can only begin to imagine the potential of the steed when really put to the test in ocean conditions.

The next jibe is even more hair-raising: bowman Jerry Kirby calls me from my comfort zone at the back and directs me to the bows, as that’s where we need the weight in order to move faster through the water. Picking my way through the tapestry of coiled lines and folded sails on deck, I make it to the front just in time for Ken’s next jibe call. The boat tilts violently from its right side to its left as I throw myself to the ground in a most un-sailorlike way, and feel the ferocious woosh of the foresail whip over me as it changes sides. I rise shakily from the beating seconds later only to find the rest of the crew calm as Hindu cows, strapping ropes into place and squinting silently at the horizon.

For sailors accustomed to 12-metre ocean waves, today’s calm waters at the Baía de Guanabara are a picnic. But for this landlubber, with her hulking camera and notebook, they are enough to induce mild sensations of abject fear followed by exhilerating surges of euphoria produced by the skill and minute accuracy involved in sailing such a gargantuan vessel.

While zig-zagging our way across the bay, we casually pass the other boats with such butt-clenching closeness as to make it a marvel that these racers don’t collide with eachother the whole time. At one point, Ericsson 3 is cutting a perpendicular path across our course and as we both lunge forward towards what seems like an inevitable common crash site, we appear to be engaged in some nautical game of chicken. My visual-spatial capacities are screaming that we will at best clip them at the stern, at worst finish our lives in a disaster of jagged carbon fiber and wrangled sails. Not even the lilting keels can save us now.

Meanwhile, Jerry Kirby calmly surveys the same scene from the bowsprit, and with seconds to spare calls to Ken. “It’s OK,” he shouts, “we’ll make it.” Containing my inner mix of incredulousness and fear with a monk’s self-possessedness, I can only watch as Ericsson 3 comes surging towards us, whooshing ahead of our bow with a magnificent fluster of sails, and we in turn cross its path within centimetres of its stern, missing the several-million-dollar baby by a very well calculated hair’s breadth. Just as I was mentally reviewing the smallprint of my health insurance.

il mostro rounds the marker at the end of the course and performs a swift 180º turn to retrace its criss-cross course back down the bay. Around an hour later, we sail over the finish line and come in fourth. If the result is a disappointment for Ken and the crew, they don’t show it: their performance in the overall race so far has been outstanding. It’s Puma’s first time to enter a boat in the Volvo Ocean Race, an undertaking that is costing the company somewhere in the region of $35 million Euros in equipment, logistics and marketing, and it seems to be paying off.

When the brand initially approached Ken to skipper the boat, the first question they asked was “can you win this race?” Ken jokingly recounts that he lied and said yes, and yet his superb team pick and unfailing mastership of the boat have landed Puma overall second place in the race so far, with a fighting chance of coming in first when the boats finish their final leg into St Petersburg in June.

But, as they tell you at primary school, it’s not the winning that counts. To even finish the race is a undeniable achievement, and it’s clear on the faces of the guys in the Puma team that despite the tough conditions, extreme endurance and absence from their families, they are living their lives’ dreams. Ken got his first taste of the round-the-world race in 2006, and has been hooked ever since. He recalls: “We hit a terrible storm in the Atlantic, and I thought to myself, ‘Is there any normal sailing in this race?’”

Normal? Firemen’s hoses and 12-metre waves? A broken boom and a cut-ration diet of Gu? 9 months at sea in storms, winds and blazing sun? Normal? Apparently not, Cap’n.

Bringing Funny Back

Esquire Latinoamerica

“I was going to wear those same boots today; I’m glad I decided against it…” I’m sitting opposite Justin Timberlake and he’s looking down at my current prized footwear, a brown, high-heeled All Saints number. It’s either a joke or he’s being cute, or a combination of the two, but in any case it’s made me blush a bit and broken the ice of our first meeting.

Just minutes before, I’d been sat in a waiting room on a sunny May morning on New York’s lower west side, experiencing butterflies of the first-date variety. I’d been waiting for over an hour, re-applying lip gloss with obsessive compulsion and repeatedly baring my teeth to my pocket mirror to examine and re-examine the territory for any rogue pieces of breakfast.

A little existentialist angst began to creep up on me as the wall clock jerked out one minute after the next, and I started to examine my split ends. Was I waiting for Godot, or for Justin Timberlake? Where was this guy? Who was he? Did he even exist? Would I be waiting forever?

Justin Timberlake could be late because he’s, well, Justin Timberlake; an A-lister with bells on. He’s the unlikely case of a teeny bopper remodeled into pop royalty; the kid from Memphis who went from bad shirts on the Mickey Mouse Club, to fame and adoration with boy-band N’Sync, to a solo career which has seen him collaborate with the likes of Timbaland, T.I.,, 50 Cent and T-Pain as well as the mighty Madonna.

What to expect? An arrogant, conceited young diva? A disappointingly dull Tennessee hick? An inveterate nutter with a Peter Pan complex? A dashingly handsome young pop star who would sweep me off my feet and make me forget all my questions as I turn to jelly under the heat of his gaze?

None of the above. Meeting the golden-boy of pop, I’m washed over by a feeling of reuniting with the likes of an old college buddy. His legs are crossed at the ankle and thrust under his chair in a pose that recalls a geeky schoolboy lost in a math equation as he considers what he’s about to say.

“I love to disarm people through laughter,” he says, sitting forward in earnest, tucking his hand, palms facing down, under his thighs. “I would say making people laugh trumps everything. It shows everyone that we’re kind of on the same level, and I enjoy that experience. My favourite entertainers are the ones that can make me laugh, like the Rat Pack, and Elvis.”

His comedy skills were something he first began to discover when he was on tour. “I just enjoyed talking to the audience. I found that people really wanted to hear about what happened to me that day. I would just tell a story about their hometown or what happened to me in their hometown that day. I’d be like, “I went down to this bar…” and people’d be like “Yeeeaaayyyyyy! The bar!” – that type of thing. Basically what you’re doing is through those things is you’re just connecting people, and that’s an amazing thing.”

It’s been three days since he hosted his third Saturday Night Live show and he’s still reeling: “I didn’t really sleep the whole week,” he says of the ‘hellacious’ schedule of preparing one of the live shows.

“Every once in a while I have moments where I really put myself through the ringer, You’re filming a digital short, you’re putting together a monologue, you’re putting together the sketches; and I actually had a moment where I thought to myself, ‘Have I pushed myself too far? Am I being too ambitious?’”

Ambitious is not the word: when he’s not chirping out a tune or performing comedy skits, Timberlake is expanding his brand with multiple side-projects including a fashion line (William Rast), a record company (Tennman records), and two restaurants in New York. He’s also producing a show on MTV, has acted in a few movies, is a big sports fan (including golf and basketball) and has set up a couple of charitable foundations. Put that in the frame with 6 Grammys, 1 Emmy, two multi-platinum albums and you’ve got a gob-smacking portfolio of over-achievement that you feel tired just contemplating.

So what is it that really rocks his boat? Is it making people laugh, making them dance, or reducing them to screams of a sexual-hysterical frenzy? At mention of the latter, Timberlake automatically ejects a sheepish knee-jerk vindication: “The third one is too embarrassing to answer. I don’t know that I make them do that. Though there’s nothing wrong with excitement; I’ve been there before. I think young people are impressionable and excitable.”

The JT effect is palpable, and not just with young people. In the run up to my meeting with him, I was amazed at the number of females I knew that came out of the woodwork to inundate me with burning questions to pass on to Justin. “Ask him how things are going with Jessica Biel,” urged the OK readers among them, while the tireless conspiracists were stuck on the decade-old banality of whether he had or hadn’t popped Britney’s cherry. My younger female acquaintances put in autograph requests, while older girlfriends who should know better barely contained their excitement in demanding the details of how much time I’d have with him, what we were going to talk about, and most importantly of course, what I was going to wear.

He can turn a shy eye, but he can’t deny the adulation from his fan base. He admits, “There really isn’t a drug that meets the feeling of being able to do that, of being able to excite people.” Indeed, a decade and a half in pop has left a veritable trail of wet knickers and tear-stained pillows in its wake, but what’s impressive to Timberlake’s peers and elders is the way in which he’s managed to reshape his cutesy boy band origins into a respected music, and now comedy, career.

In December 2006, Timberlake teamed up with Saturday Night Live comedian Andy Samberg and transformed himself into a parody Casanova-style R&B loverman for the comedy skit, ‘Dick in a Box’. The video scored tens of thousands of views on the internet and even won an Emmy for its music and lyrics, as You Tube adherents the world over were startled by the implication that the singing, dancing Timberlake actually had a bit of a sense of humour on him too.

“That was the first time that I was able to do something to make people laugh that was equally as big as, for instance, my last album,” Justin recalls. “I want to show people that I’m (affects an English accent here) ‘not a nut-ta’; to say, ‘I invest in this just as much as you do, but I don’t believe all of it.’

“I have to say this too,” he continues after a brief moment of reflection, “I think Americans have finally learned what irony means. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the last eight years, of what’s happened to our country, but I think now more than ever Americans are willing to laugh at themselves.”

The run up to the 2008 US elections saw Justin Timberlake flexing his comic skills for a more hefty social issue: that of political change. He and his girlfriend Jessica Biel campaigned together in Nevada in October, speaking at a campus rally and filming infomercials for Barack Obama. He says of their unprecedented involvement in politics: “It was the first time we’d ever really done anything together, but we just believed in it and we thought it was for an amazing cause.”

He had been reluctant to involve himself at first: “I kind of sat back because I’ve never really endorsed a politician. I come from the mid-south and grew up with values like, ‘What do I know about politics?’ But I think this election was about young people realizing they had a voice and I knew that if I were part of the process, then somebody would talk about it.

“I met President Obama before he started running for the democratic election. It was probably one of the coolest meet-and-greets that I was ever a part of, the most un-politician-y handshake I’ve ever gotten from a politician. I was just really impressed with him,” says Timberlake of the Commander in Chief, with whom he recently shared a cover page entitled ‘How To Be A Man’ along with George Clooney in the US edition of Esquire.

“I didn’t know that you guys were doing that! I was very flattered!” he says of the three-part binding that allowed readers to interchange features of the men’s faces. “I used Barack Obama’s brow, my nose and Clooney’s chin and I thought, ‘Wow, this is an ugly human being!’ But that was good company to be part of.”

Like George Clooney, Timberlake has recently made a foray into the world of celebrity endorsments. Last year, he signed on with Parfums Givenchy to become the face of their new men’s fragrance, ‘Play’. The company had never before used a male celebrity to head up a campaign and as far as they were concerned hiring Justin Timberlake (the exact figure hasn’t been disclosed, but he don’t come cheap) was the ultimate gamble in times of recession and contracting budgets. Alain Lorenzo, Parfums Givenchy’s CEO, was ostensibly excited by his gambit:  “He’s also someone who takes risks,” he said of Timberlake, “and he’s one of the only young performers out there who gets up on stage in a three-piece suit; I like that.”

I start to wonder whether Timberlake’s actual motivation for taking the Givenchy gig was anything more than an astute business move; start him talking about it, and his tone shifts gears into an ambiguous mixture of denial (“Our first conversation was actually hilarious because I said, ‘I don’t even wear cologne; it’s kind of hard for me to be gung-ho about doing some support of fragrance.’”) and contractual scripted jargon (“I think fragrance is more like an accessory than a statement of who you are.”)

You get the sense that he’s not entirely comfortable with the position of being a celebrity endorser, a face stamped onto a product, and I wonder whether his state of denial (“I wasn’t so much interested in doing an endorsement, you know, being a pitch man for a fragrance – that’s not really my style.”) has to do with a fear of undermining his hard-won kudos.

But wait – what is Justin Timberlake actually afraid of? “My biggest fear is that I’m really not afraid of anything,” he answers, in the style of someone expertly skimming the question for a job interview. “I feel good about my life, but I don’t feel that winning a Grammy for instance is going to make me a better person.” So what is it that drives him then? What’s the source of his enormous success, his halo of achievement? Unparalleled drive and seething ambition? Excellent management and the exponential curve of cumulative success? A guardian angel?

Justin’s response is remarkably simple: “I feel like to be successful, in life as well as in a career, I think that it’s not a bad thing to expect good things to happen.”

Is that it? Positive thinking, plain and simple? It might seem a little tenuous to anyone who’s not Justin Timberlake or the author of a self-improvement book. But he is persistent: “After you have something in your grasp, to expect for it to be a good thing is not a bad thing.”

He makes it sound so easy.

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. 


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:


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.