Serbian-born Saban Bajramovic was the most popular and influential Romany singer of his generation -- a larger-than-life figure renowned for his devotion to excess and abandon, his potently soulful voice embodied the emotional extremes of the modern Balkan experience. Born in Nis, Yugoslavia, on April 16, 1936, Bajramovic was orphaned during World War II, and quit school only four years into his education. Life on the streets honed his wits and his talents, and for years he survived largely on money earned from singing at local Romany festivals.
While serving in the Yugoslav Army he went AWOL to visit a girlfriend, earning a five-year prison sentence for his efforts -- during a year served on the Adriatic island Goli Otok, Bajramovic learned to read and write, and performed regularly with a band comprised of fellow inmates. Upon leaving jail in 1959, Bajramovic launched his professional career, singing at Nis nightclubs and weddings, and in 1964 recorded his debut single, "Pelno Me San" -- the record was a huge hit, and history relates that he spent all the proceeds on a white Mercedes, only to promptly lose the vehicle during a gambling spree.
Bajramovic's appetites for women, alcohol, and games of chance quickly became the stuff of legend throughout the Balkans -- his mistrust of the music industry was notorious, and while he entered several ill-considered contracts with fly-by-night labels, he was also infamously cavalier about his performing commitments, earning the nickname "No Show Saban" for his erratic approach to live appearances. According to his own estimate, Bajramovic composed some 700 songs throughout the course of his career, among them Romany standards including "Rovena," "Geljan Dade," and "Bele Ruze," and recorded close to 20 LPs. His fame peaked during the 1970s, but the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s forced him underground, and he spent much of his final years in poverty and obscurity.
The 2001 comeback album A Gypsy Legend relaunched Bajramovic's career at home and also earned him the attention of world music listeners across the globe. He also gained an expanded international following when filmmaker Emir Kusturica licensed his music for the soundtrack of the acclaimed feature Black Cat, White Cat. Despite failing health, in 2004 Bajramovic toured the U.S. for the first and only time -- Serbian filmmaker Milos Stojanovic's documentary Saban documented his final recording sessions, with the release of the completed album, also titled Saban, arriving weeks before the singer's death in Nis on June 8, 2008. ~ Jason Ankeny