I Met Esma
By Lou Pechi
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I met Esma Redžepova almost forty years ago. This beautiful Macedonian Roma girl, dressed in her native costume, gracing a Monitor 33rpm long-play (LP) record, was serenading a small boy beating a huge drum at her feet. Her image and the beautiful songs she sang swirled in my mind for all these years. "Čaje Šukarije" (beautiful girl in Roma) was one of my favorites.
When I found out that Esma finally decided to come to California, I made a date to see her perform at the Santa Monica Pier.
With my LP record in hand, I sat in the intimate performance hall as it slowly started to fill with people. Local Roma seemed to dominate the few folkdance friends I spied in the audience. Finally the band filed in and started playing some of the tunes I carried in my mind all of these years. What a difference hearing the live band instead the scratchy records. As the excitement increased, the band was joined by a beautiful older lady. I was waiting for my young friend, however as soon as this lady started singing I realized that this was Esma. The image of the girl in my mind has not aged a bit over the forty years, yet when I heard the voice, Esma became again the youthful image of my dreams.
She sang both in Serbian and Roma, but as the requests from the audience for Roma prevailed and as the folkdance audience joined in, the party became a true Rom event.
At the intermission I was finally able to elbow my way through the crowd to Esma to talk to her and have her sign my LP record. She was delighted to know that I admired her singing all these years and introduced me to Sami, the boy with the drum, who now a grown man, played the clarinet in Esma's group.
Besides seeing Esma and having her sign my record, what touched me the most was the pride of the Roma people, when they realized that a "Gadjo" (foreigner) admired their Rom singer and their culture. You could see it in their eyes as they passed the autographed LP record from hand to hand.
So what did I learn from this?
I learned that just a small token of recognition, such as a smile or even better a minor local phrase such as "Kako Si" or "Sar San?" (How are you?) opens the door to the soul of the people. We are all one big family with the same needs and desires. We all celebrate our joy with songs and dances. And, as you folk dancers know the songs and dances are as varied as the cultures on this planet.
Smile. Learn a phrase in the local language. Hum or sing a song to a dance you learned. Try it. You will get what I am talking about.
(Editor's note: Esma died on December 11, 2016 at 73 years of age.)
As appearing in "Dancing with Two Left Feet (9)," Folk Dance Scene.
Used with permission of the author.