On September 15th 1978 we entered Jugoslavia from Italy. Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy. And after waiting at the border for a couple of hours we thumbed a lift to Ljubljana, regional capital of Slovenia (now of course an independent country). It was late afternoon. We walked around the city for a while and came upon a large square in front of a shopping centre, surrounded by neighbouring buildings, and possessed of a raised section at one end which it was impossible for us, being street musicians, not to see as a natural stage.
We unpacked our instruments and started to play, and over the next half hour or so the square gradually filled with young people, who reacted to us as if we were the first street musicians they had ever seen. When we finished we were treated to resounding applause and showered with Jugoslavian dinars, I was button-holed by a couple of young girls, while Mike got us fixed up with a place to crash… So far so good.
But our hearts were set on a longer journey. The following morning we hit the road again, and two and a half days later were in the southernmost Jugoslavian republic of Macedonia, standing on the Boulevard 26th July, at the edge of Bit Pazaar – otherwise known as the Turkish Market – in the centre of Skopje old town.
We walked into the market area and soon were surrounded by a crowd of children, amused by the sudden appearance of two long-haired musicians complete with instruments and large travelling bag. Having made it clear that we wanted to find something to eat, we were escorted by our young entourage to a restaurant with a small terrace out front, called Restoran Turist. People were friendly, and eventually the conversation came round to where we would sleep that night. Someone said they knew of a hotel just round the corner, and would find out for us if there were any rooms. It seemed there were, and it seemed they were quite cheap – in fact, by our instant calculation, easily affordable even for two buskers. And so we were introduced to the Hotel Shar, Skopje – a place which was for many years, until we found our own home in Belgium, the only fixed point in our nomadic life on this planet Earth.
The staff of the Shar all seemed to have been hand-picked for their distinctive personality as much as anything else – each one was a genuine original. Of course, we didn’t get to know them all immediately; this first encounter with the Shar lasted only ten days. But we returned year after year until 1989, accumulating during that time unforgettable impressions, of the milieu, of the people who worked there and gravitated round it..
Adjoining the hotel there was a restaurant, also called Shar, which could be thought of as a sister-enterprise (private business was allowed in Jugoslavia, provided the total number of employees did not exceed fifteen), and I’m going to tell the story of Bayram, a deaf-and-dumb Roma, among whose responsibilities was the care of the restaurant toilet. This was situated to one side of the beautiful little courtyard lying within the hotel walls, where the restaurant’s clientele would sit, drink and eat their meals during the summer months.
We would see Bayram around, but had no direct dealings with him in the early days, because initially we never used to eat or drink in the restaurant or use its toilet, having our own washroom next to the bedroom that always seemed to be allocated to us; so he was just another regular face, but not someone we had made friends with.
Now, sometimes when we woke up in the morning (life started quite early at the Shar) we would hear a strange gurgling noise, which we assumed – without giving the matter much thought – to be the song, or cry, of some particular type of bird native to that environment. But imagine our surprise, a few visits further down the line, when we observed a blazing row between Bayram and a customer of the restaurant (who had apparently used the toilet, and failed to leave the courtesy ten dinars in the receptacle provided), and heard issuing from Bayram’s mouth the precise noise, only many times louder, that we were used to hearing in the mornings from what we thought was some Macedonian variant of the crow family.
It was an amazing revelation, and one which actually led to a deep-seated friendship between us and Bayram. I’m not sure exactly what the basis for this was, but the following idea has occurred to me (I think it’s a reasonable analysis, though some people might consider it too fanciful): thus, it could be argued that a part of the alienation which buskers typically feel in so many situations, is connected with the denial of their voice as a “proper”, legitimate artistic medium; and this could in turn have been the unconscious basis for the bonding between Bayram – the man who could only croak strange noises – and Mike and myself.
Be that as it may, Bayram soon appointed himself as our sponsor/guardian angel in the situation. Remember we were buskers, and even though from a respected country, nevertheless renegades without official recognition from that country – or indeed official invitation from the Ministry of Culture in Skopje. And so we found our standing to be at times a little insecure – as on the occasion when, having been caught busking in town and then marched back to the hotel by the local police to have our passports checked, we became the butt of humorous remarks and asides for a period of several days. Bayram alone remained loyal, offering me as consolation a pair of second-hand shoes he had picked up in the Bit Pazaar.
Or again – on Friday afternoons there used to be a gathering of ethnic folk musicians at the tables in the courtyard, and we began to notice a certain cynicism on their part towards us, as being merely “gypsies” who used music to scrape up a few shillings for the next meal (and not even proper gypsies, either). But Bayram wasn’t going to let his new friends be treated in that way. One Friday, as we were walking through the courtyard with our instruments to go out somewhere in town, Bayram suddenly appeared and forestalled any of the usual derogatory banter by insisting loudly that we should play a song right there, and prove our worth as entertainers (of course with his vocal impairment he couldn’t say all that, and we wouldn’t have understood it if he could have, because our Macedonian in those days was very limited, but it was obvious what he meant). I think we played Sweet Georgia Brown and I’m Confessing, with Mike on kazoo and vocals, and me on guitar and backing vocals – and though it probably wouldn’t have passed muster at the Cotton Club, we felt, as we often did, that the street players of the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band from New Orleans might have been watching over us approvingly. Anyway, it was good enough to silence our critics at that moment, and Bayram was overjoyed at our triumph!
A bit later still, to celebrate our friendship with Bayram, we put a photo of him, standing with me near the hotel, on the cover of our second single “Professor of the Street”, and showed a copy of it to him next time we were in Skopje. But tragedy was to strike – a few days after showing him the picture, we heard that he had been knocked over by a motor car as he was walking home, and killed. We were haunted by the thought that maybe it had been our fault in some way, and to expiate our feeling of guilt – be it real or imaginary – we wrote a song, called simply “Song For Bayram”. Below is a link to a video of it on YouTube, shot in and around Shuto Orisari (known locally as “Shutka”), a village just outside Skopje where many Roma people live. Some of the visual sequences were filmed with permission at a gypsy wedding there.
Still photography: private collection of Mike Kay.