At a glance Saban could be everypensioner, dressed in slacks, cotton shirt, nylon jacket, sensible shoes, glasses. Look again: the Lizard King stands in front of us, leathery skin, gnarled features, black eyes, thick lips curled into something resembling a sneer . . . Damn, this cat is something else, surely ruler of some weird domain hidden from official histories, brooding and emanating dark powers like a character from Robert E Howard’s pulp phantasmagorias. He nods, beckoning us forward, a true Balkan prince. We shake hands and Karpa asks Saban if he remembers me from Amsterdam. Da. I present him with a copy of the fRoots magazine featuring the 2002 interview. He thumbs it then indicates towards a plastic table and chairs in front of the house. So far, so good.
Saban appears unchanged from our Amsterdam encounter. No, hold that, he is showing increasing signs of wear. Grey ends peak through his dyed black hair. A skin irritation has left his hands blotchy and behind thick glasses his left eye looks rheumy. At 67 Saban’s big, battered brown face resembles, as Americans say, forty miles of bad road. Not that he was ever a pin-up for moderation and clean living: knife scars criss-cross his cheeks and faded jailhouse tattoos are evident on lower arms. Saban’s friendly if cautious, checking Karpa, then me, trying to define who we are, what exactly we want. Everyone breaks out cigarettes, the signal a Balkan meeting has begun. Saban smokes Red Marlboros, the cigarette of choice for Gypsy icons. He lights one, draws deep, and his satisfaction is evident as he exhales, the Virginia tobacco tasting of America. Of success. Karpa and I smoke Serbian cigarettes, their dry, cheap tobacco reinforcing the rich aroma of the Marlboro, its scent of victory.
Karpa explains why we’re here, what my book’s about. Saban nods. No problem. He’s more relaxed than in Amsterdam. There he played a disquietingly formal classical music venue and, obviously, wanted to get the fuck out of that icy city, badgering the record company to get him a ticket to Dusseldorf where a daughter lives. Today, at home, he’s in a mellow mood. He brings up the BBC’s aborted visit, noting they turned up with a lot of expensive equipment but couldn’t find any euros for Papa.
“I said ‘excuse me, I am not prepared for this. And you are here to make something commercial. That, gentlemen, is gonna cost you. Don’t be angry, I just want what is mine’.”
Outrageous, I say. Total lack of respect. Da, says Saban, assholes. A child peaks through the curtain. One of yours?
“One of my grandchildren. I have twelve! I’ve four daughters and one of them and her daughter lives with us.”
A woman appears, obviously Saban’s daughter, and serves Turkish coffee. Saban nods, lights another cigarette, and orders her to the shops. She returns with a large plastic bottle of imitation Fanta. Why Balkan Roma so love this sugary drain clearer I don’t know but Saban obviously feels the table’s incomplete without.
What, I wonder, are his memories of growing up in Nis?
“My mother was singing nice and we heard a lot of pop music from Mexico and Spain and Italy. And there were always parties and Gypsy parties always have music.”
Is he ever playing concerts here?
“No. The occasional wedding but generally if I’m to play a wedding it’s in Spain or France.”
I heard he recently sang in Belgrade.
“Right. With Novica Zdravkovic. He’s the brother of Toma Zdravkovic who was a very esteemed Serbian singer. He died in ’91 or ’92 and it was a farewell concert, a memory concert. He had good songs, was a chanson singer. I gave him three or four songs I wrote and with them I helped raise him to success. We were good friends.”
In Amsterdam he mentioned hoping to write a book about Roma people.
“Yes, I am writing a book about them, from the beginning of time, from the time when the world was created, because Roma people don’t know their origin. Some people say we are from Italy because of the city Roma! I prefer the name Cigani or Gypsy. Others say our origin is in Spain. And some Gypsies, they believe this, they don’t know that their origins are the Punjab in India.”
The Punjab. OK. I recall a photo of Saban and Indira Gandhi shaking hands.
“That was a long time ago. 1960-something. Yeah, it was good to go there, the energy in their blood was great. Our problem, us Gypsies, is we don’t have an alphabet. All Gypsies use the alphabet of the country where they live.”
But these days you can buy a Romani dictionary?
“Yeah, but those are made up words. There is a legend that says a horse ate the Gypsies alphabet and that’s why we are wandering.”
Saban speaks softly, chuckles often, his voice mellifluous, smooth as when he sings. And when he does sing few can touch him, the calm, confident delivery, sometimes murmuring, other times declaiming, such a beautifully bruised voice, always knowing, always soulful. If eloquent suffering has a sound then it’s Saban. Consider all the Saban I’ve listened to, cheap cassettes, burnt CDs, scratched vinyl, no matter how thin the sound his majestic tenor rides through, the Godfather of Gypsy soul. And here he is, in the sun, the sorcerer’s stone of so much Balkan music. Perfect. Your voice, how did you develop it?
“As a youth I walked past a house where someone was picking out notes on a piano. I thought, ‘that’s an A’, and walked on. Then I stopped, realised ‘boy, you’ve perfect pitch’.”
And today, you’re still singing well?
“Better than ever. Like wine with age.”
READ THE SABAN INTERVIEW IN PRINCES AMONGST MEN