Old Beats, New Verses: 21 Newly Composed Essays on Turbofolk

Is Gypsyness in Turbo-folk a Floating Signifier? The Case of Tanja Savic

"I am not ashamed of being a Roma woman! [...] I do not hide my origins or embarrass myself because it would mean that I'm ashamed of my parents [...]"
- Fragment of Tanja Savic’s interview for the magazine the "World," June, 2004.

In Serbia, musicians can benefit from identifying with Gypsyness, but actually being Roma is stigmatized.[1]  “Gypsy” refers to the image of the traveling bohemian that has no nation and abides by no rules. Whereas, the noun “Roma” and the adjective “Romani" are terms that relate to the actual people who have been persecuted for the past 800 years. Ethnic Serbians can freely put on and take off Gypsy identity, but not all Roma can hide their Romaniness. I will explore the case of Tanja Savic, a turbo-folk singer who has played both sides of the Gypsy-Roma dichotomy. Serbian turbo-folk musicians frequently use Romani themes and dance, play instruments, or sing in what they call “the Gypsy style.” But what does “the Gypsy style” really mean? It seems that the word “Gypsy” has been used indiscriminately in so many different contexts that it has lost any firm meaning.

Turbo-folk is somehow Romani, yet Gypsyness within this genre is difficult if not impossible to pinpoint. For David Malvinni, the most important elements of Romani music are improvisation, virtuosity, and emotion (qtd in Silverman 27). Carol Silverman mentions that Roma musicians in Serbia are likely to be professionals who rely on a heavily Turkish influenced repertoire (25). Ljerka Vidic in her article “The Southern Wind of Change” traces this “oriental” stylistic model to Juzni Vetar, a group of Serbian musicians. This band’s critics highlighted “a negatively stereotyped Ottoman legacy” in their music that was the “antithesis of the European conception of progress that shaped Modern Yugoslavia” (Vidic 104). Juzni Vetar’s members were Serbian and Christian Orthodox with the exception of a Rom, a fact that for Vidic “illuminates the important component of Gypsy music in the oriental” (116). Over time, Serbian turbo-folk has become connected with Ottoman music, which in turn has been associated with Gypsy music. Gypsyness in Serbian Turbo-folk is identified through the use of trilled vocals with microtonal progressions, flexibility of rhythm, dancing that emphasizes hip movements, and lyrical themes of melancholy, love, and romantic conflict. In that way, Gypsyness in turbo-folk has been linked to orientalized music practices that relate back to Ottoman or Turkish music. Some Serbian Roma musicians that adhere to this style include Mina Kostic, Nadica Ademov, Dzej Ramadanovski, Nikola Ajdinovic, Hasan Dudic, Usnija Redzepova, Denis Ibrahimovic, Ljuba Alicic, Dusan and Ivan Kurtic.

One of the most famous Serbian pop-folk singers, Tatjana “Tanja” Savic, readily identified as Romani in the beginning of her career.[2] But by the time she was signed by the Grand Productions record label, she firmly denied any Roma roots.[3] If Gypsy in the Southeastern European imagination is a floating signifier, then it is a feature one can freely put on and take off. Actually being Romani, though, comes with a social stigma that may not be capable of concealment, depending on one’s physical features (Goffman 68). That is to say, only those who are racially and ethnically ambiguous can drift out of an identity. Ambiguity relates to certain traits like skin color, educational level, and adscription to a group. A floating signifier is a word, like Gypsy, that has lost its meaning. Gypsyness could be understood using Lacanian thought. According to Lacan, the point along a chain where the word (signifier) and its meaning (signified) are attached to one another is called “the quilting point.” Understanding the moment in which Savic first connected to Gypsyness allows us to perceive the variables at play in the stigmatization of Serbian Roma. Savic’s songs did not reference her ethnicity until she interpreted the theme Suknjica (skirt). This song is “the quilting point” in Savic’s career; it is the moment when the signifier (Gypsy) and signified (performing as a Gypsy) were connected.

Tanja Savic interpreting Suknjica at Zvezde Granda in 2007

Savic’s song Suknjica is part of the soundtrack to the film Guca!: Distant Trumpet (2006). In the film, a Rom musician is in love with the daughter of a famous Serbian trumpeter, but he can only marry her if he wins Guca’s contest.[6] Guca, the most important music festival in Serbia, captures the difference between the music of Roma and non-Roma. Although Roma are some of the best-known Guca performers and members of the most relevant brass bands, being Roma also carries a stigma in this contest. For the social psychologist Erving Goffman, stigma identifiers can be linked to discrediting attributes that are transmitted through lineages of race, nation, or religion (14). In Guca, performers are split into two groups: the ethnic Serb performers of “white music,” and Roma who play “black” Turkish-influenced tunes. Music is the means of base survival for the black ensembles, while the white bands have more broadly commercialized the genre. For Silverman, festivals like Guca “[...]have introduced a sense of hierarchy through awarding prizes” (25). It has historically been harder for Romani to receive recognition in their pursuit of a music career. Just as it has happened in Guca, many Romani musicians go unrecognized in the Serbian mainstream music scene, and turbo-folk is no exception.

Preview of the documentary Brasslands (2013) where the distinction between
"white" and "black" music and musicians is explored.

The song Suknjica reflects Savic’s de-identification as a Romni as her career began to take off. The single’s debut occurred in 2006, a year after Savic’s first album, Tako Mlada (So Young), was announced. In the Suknjica music video, Savic dances and sings surrounded by dark-skinned Roma trumpetists and tubaists. In alternating scenes, the protagonist Julijana is seen grooming her long blonde hair. It is impossible not to see Savic as less like the Roma and more like Julijana, who is so pale she could be mistaken for a person with albinism. In another video, a live performance of Suknjica for a broadcasted edition of Zvezde Granda in 2007, Savic is accompanied by a clearly Romani orchestra that is evenly interspersed with statuesque white women wearing platinum blonde wigs. Once more, a comparison can be established between the dark-skinned Roma musicians, the tall white Slavic-Serbian women, and Savic. Savic’s skin tone is closer to that of the chorus girls, but her dark hair and eyes relate her to the more exotic Rom. Savic is marketed as a white performer with an outlandish flair.[4] There is much more to her performance that speaks to her ability to transcend Gypsyness, but the visual aspect alone makes clear she is a racial chameleon. 


Suknjica’s lyrics are an inner dialogue that reflect on the love triangle between the two protagonists and the singer. The lyrics are a first-person narration in which Savic describes her feelings the moment she finds out about her loved one maintaining a relationship with another woman. There is a reference to the phenotypical differences between the women in the verse: “that woman on your shoulder / it isn't me / that there is blond hair, not brown hair.” The chorus contains an allusion to the act of dismissing her ethnic heritage by switching her long skirt for a short one: “My laced-up skirt / is ready to be taken off / oh, a short skirt / sown by a seamstress”. In this case, it is suggested that her Gypsyness is the reason why she is not with her loved one. Long flared skirts are an important ethnic marker between Roma and non-Roma females. Some traditional Romnia wore and continue to wear skirts to cover their lower half body to preserve their purity and modesty.[5] Savic mentioning she is removing her long skirt is an indicator of her desire to strip away of her culture and values. 

It is not difficult to understand why Tanja Savic wishes to distance herself from Gypsyness. Although Roma are the second largest ethnic group in Serbia, they are the most stigmatized and marginalized minority. Serbian Roma experience “higher poverty rates, unemployment and disease than the rest of the Serbian citizenry” (Joksic 3).[7] According to the European Roma Rights Center, Serbian Romnia’s educational levels are alarmingly low. They also have limited access to health care (including family planning) and the ones who experience domestic violence cannot - in most cases - even access safe houses for being excluded from the admission criteria (ERRC). But what were the circumstances in which Roma in Serbia lived the year of Suknjica‘s debut?

Political unrest continued during the year the film Guca!: Distant Trumpet came out and the song Suknjica was aired for the first time. In 2006, the United Nations negotiations to determine Kosovo’s political status began as the majority of their population sought independence from Serbia. Many had fled Kosovo throughout and after the war, among them Roma. In those years, the Kosovo Liberation Army expelled a large amount of Roma (around 50,000) who largely sought refuge in central Serbia.[8] Two of the three most important groups that constitute Roma from Kosovo identify as Muslims: the Ashkali and Egyptians. The strong influx of Roma in Serbia lead to an increase in their media visibility. Why were the music producers and media moguls interested in presenting Gypsyness? Did Savic perform Gypsyness to underscore Roma allegiance to the Serbs? During those years, were there other groups more despised than Roma?

Tanja Savic was able to remove herself from Gypsyness and perhaps Romaniness by avoiding direct reference to the cultural aspects that typify Roma in Serbia. Despite her early Roma affirmations, she has repeatedly denied belonging to the community, allegedly stopped seeing her parents, and decided not to marry a Rom. She does not sing Romani songs, has not interpreted a duo with other Romani musicians, and the one time that she sang about Gypsyness was for the purpose of dismissing it. The quilting point in Savic’s career was the moment her music was associated with Roma ethnicity. Her attitude toward passing as a non-Roma may be related to the symbolic burden of being considered a pariah and understanding how her career would be affected if she continued to present herself as part of a marginalized group. Two important questions originate from this discussion: how does racial specificity sustain the floating signifier? And how are they working simultaneously? This short essay could contribute to the scholarship concerned with the phenomenon of “passing” during the years of political unrest in the ex-Yugoslavia. Since it is impossible to prove Savic’s ethnic origin, it would be interesting to understand the implications of her ability to play between those two worlds for the benefit of her career.

Works Cited
Brasslands. Directed and written by Alison Brockhouse, 2013. 
Dylan, Evans. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Routledge, 1996.
Guca! directed by Dusan Milic, 2006
Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Penguin, 1963.
Joksic, Tijana. Discrimination of Roma in Serbia.The University of Freiburger, 2015.
Silverman, Carol. Romani Routes: cultural politics and Balkan music in Diaspora. Oxford UP, 2012.
Vidic Rasmussen, Ljerka. “The Southern Wind of Change: Style and the Politics of Identity in Prewar Yugoslavia” in Returning Culture: Musical Changes in Central and Eastern Europe. Duke UP, 1996. Pp. 99-116.
Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, 1989.

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[1] Gypsy is a synonym of the Serbian word “Cigani.”
[2] “In a 2004 interview, she stated that she was of Romani descent; she has since denied this” (Silverman 174-175).
[3] Grand Production is a record label that focuses on folk performers. They produce the weekly television show Zvezde Granda (Grand Show). Savic became famous in 2004 while competing on the first season of the singing contest Zvezde Granda.
[4] In fact, Savic’s racial traits have been discussed in many internet forums, such as AnthroScape (https://www.tapatalk.com/groups/anthroscape/tanja-savic-t12135-s15.html) and Human Biodiversity Forum (https://www.theapricity.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-66247.html)
[5] Some Roma groups used to believe in following certain traditions that helped preserve a balance between the pure (wuzho) and impure (marime). In this case, the bottom part of women’s bodies is considered impure for its association with menstruation and pregnancy. This is why it was supposed to always be covered. Some younger Roma women have questioned the relevance of this practice in modern society.
[6] Guca Music Festival and trumpet contest is the most important brass band festival in the world. It is held in the town of Guca every year since 1961.
[7]Three fourths of the Roma population live in informal isolated settlements without services (4). They are also politically underrepresented and live in legal invisibility (6).
[8] Serbian official census estimates that the Roma population in Serbia went from 108,000 in 2002 to 147,000 in 2011. Unofficial estimates are 2 to 4 times higher.

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