Friday, September 12, 2008

Esma Redzepova, Boulevard Nightclub, London

Macedonia's presence in Britain is nowhere near as large as Poland's, but this is their national day, and it looks as if every Macedonian in town has come to see their country's most famous singer, Esme Redzepova, aka Queen of the Gypsies, bring a spectacular and intimate night of showmanship and soul to this R&B, house and hip-hop nightclub. The bouncers have never seen anything like it.

Packed on the Ealing club's little stage behind microphones with more reverb than a haunted house, the band warm up an enthusiastic audience with a couple of wild dance tunes before Redzepova makes her entrance in cocek costume – her red headscarf covered in a black veil for the gypsy lament of "Zaidi Zaidi", along with a red handkerchief to wipe a symbolic tear from each eye at the end. It's hammy, theatrical, ritualistic, yet still raises the hairs on the back of the neck.

Redzepova's six-strong band is made up of children she and her late husband adopted from the streets of Skopje and Belgrade – 47 in all, all grown up now. The band is led by the burly figure of accordion player and arranger Simeon Atanasov, once a six-year-old street kid with pneumonia, bronchitis and a slim chance of survival. With him are a clarinet player and trumpeter, who exchange instruments, even mouthpieces, to tease out melodic torrents midway through a Roma wedding tune, and a double bassist and guitarist keeping different calendars of time behind the accordion and brass.

The trumpeter gets a whack from Redzepova for wheeling into her space; he shoots back a look of boyish reproach, then plays himself back into favour, blowing softly around her in tandem with the clarinettist, their playing rising and falling subtly to her own supremely accomplished, powerfully emotive vocals.

There's no other instrument like Redzepova's voice, and the Boulevard can't contain it – the PA's sound resembles that of her recordings in Fifties Budapest. But the inventiveness and elegance of the set is breathtaking, with snatches of Balkan cabaret and showboating carrying familiar tunes off into unexpected detours that take you as near as you'll get to the spirit of a Roma wedding.

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