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Princes Amongst Men

Ferus Mustafov -
Ferus Mustafov. Photo:

This book is quite unlike any of the others we have featured on these pages. Garth Cartwright is a journalist from New Zealand living in London. In 2005 he published Princes Amongst Men which is subtitled Journeys with Gypsy Musicians. In it Cartwright sets off in search of gypsy musicians in Serbia, Macedonia, Romania and Bulgaria. It is a revealing and hilarious travel book, but also a valuable one, bringing to an English-speaking readership the life and times of the people he meets. Many of the musicians are huge at home and many of them well known on the World Music circuit too. Amongst them, in Serbia are (look at them on YouTube) Saban Bajramovic (who died in June 2008,) and Boban Markovic, in Macedonia, the queen of Roma music Esma Redzepova and Ferus King. In Romania he meets the band Taraf de Haidouks and in Bulgaria the amazing looking, campy, bleached blond bearded Azis. In this first extract Cartwright, whose head he tells us is "like an eggshell" after a heavy night's drinking tracks down Ferus King whose real name is Ferus Mustafov. King is a musical legend in Macedonia and much of the rest of former Yugoslavia and its diaspora. He finds him at the motel he owns in a suburb of Skopje:

Ferus isn't the Ferus I imagined. Music and the images accompanying it are so potent we often expect musicians to be larger than life; Ferus's majestic saxophone sound long ago convinced me he was a Gypsy giant, a man swollen by the remarkable sounds he conjures. Instead, Ferus is tiny, a shrunk-in-the-wash urchin with thinning hair, a ragged beard, swarthy features. At first I think it is the rakija, affecting my vision. But no, there he hovers, three feet and rising… [But] Ferus's fame does not rest on perfect features, MTV stardom or animal magnetism. What he possesses is a wild musical grace, serpentine melodies, his sound so warm and liquid, a sonic narcotic. For more than twenty years Ferus's clarinet and saxophone playing have ruled across the Balkans, establishing him as the dark prince of oros, a man so able to make people move they named a dance after him. It is called the Ferus.

Ferus tells Cartwright about growing up in Stip with musician parents. Later, "to get out of Stip," he says, "I started working the Yugoslav restaurant circuit and ended up in Budva on the Adriatic Sea in 1980." From there he went to work in Sarajevo. "What a city Sarajevo was! A pity those idiots had to destroy it. Good music… good people… good-looking women. It had everything."

Ferus's reputation as Wedding King finds him flown to the US, Canada, Switzerland, Australia, wherever there are wealthy Macedonian exiles wanting a roaring reception. Thus he can ignore the relatively paltry sums offered by the world music circuit. His Slovenian manager once set up a major European tour only to have Ferus cancel at the last minute. Weddings, you see, had come up and Ferus hoped he would understand. Said manager suffered a heart attack.

Next Ferus takes Cartwright on a guided tour of his "Motel Ferus King".

Upstairs consists of five bedrooms. The walls are decorated with photos of Ferus and various turbo-folk babes. He generally stands around the height of their very prominent breasts and grins like he is in pig-heaven.

"I played with Ceca and Lepa Brena. They want me for sessions when I am in Belgrade. I like everything that is beautiful and Ceca is very beautiful! Turbo-folk has been popular but now people are going back to traditional music and so the folk music is going ahead. Every generation comes up with something new and the folk music of the Balkans is very strong now."

A soundtrack to the book is also available. 

Princes Amongst Men: Journeys with Gypsy Musicians. Garth Cartwright. 2007.
[pp.  122-123, 125, 126, 128 / Serpent's Tail]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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  1. Istanbul: Pamuk's City
  2. Istanbul: Swimming across the Bosphorus
  3. Salonika and the Jews
  4. Salonica: Slaves and Trade
  5. Thessalonika: 1923
  6. Ohrid: Rise and Fall
  7. Tornado of Dust - 1944
  8. Awake Romania - 1989
  9. Novi Sad: Nest of the Serbian nation
  10. Nis: War Capital, 1915
  11. Belgrade and the Selenites
  12. 1996: Serbia Calling
  13. Belgrade Train Station - 1964
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  15. Srebrenica: Blood
  16. Srebrenica: July 1995
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  18. Dayton: The Napkin Shuttle
  19. London Buses in Sarajevo
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  25. City without traffic - Pristina 1966
  26. Durham in Pristina - 1908
  27. Tirana: 1962
  28. Zog's Tirana
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  33. Cetinje: Nikola Under the Elm
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  40. Zamfirovo: Rural livelihoods in the mid-1990s
  41. Kosovo
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  43. Istanbul: Food and the frugal Turks
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  46. Black Sea: The coming of steam and rail
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