Serbian singer Saban Bajramovic died from a heart attack in his native city of Nis on Sunday, June 8, at age 72. One of the greatest Romany vocalists in recorded history, he sang the way he lived, with a wildly soulful voice that conveyed both reckless abandon and inconsolable pain.

When he was 19 he deserted his army post to chase a girl and ended up doing hard time (though he played for the prison soccer team and sang for the prison orchestra). Upon his release in 1964 he began singing professionally, and his career was marked by exploitation and excess–fly-by-night labels routinely took advantage of him, and his ostentatious spending sprees didn’t help matters either. The story goes that Bajramovic used the earnings from his first single, which had become a hit, to buy a white Mercedes and hire two bodyguards–and then promptly lost the car gambling.

His careless spending and appetite for gambling forced to him to live hand-to-mouth for most of his life, and he died in poverty. But like many Balkan Rom artists, his career got a temporary boost from the successful soundtracks Goran Bregovic created for some of Emir Kusturica‘s films–in fact, Bajramovic contributed to the one for Black Cat, White Cat. He played in Chicago back in 2004 at HotHouse, and even though he was burdened with a middling local band, it was impossible to resist his charisma. Despite failing health and limited energy he still packed an emotional wallop, oozing earthy charm and deep soul.

His recordings are hard to find (and the ones I’ve heard are hit or miss), but his recent work with the Bosnian group Mostar Sevdah Reunion is easy to recommend. The best CD I’ve heard by him is this Croatian release, which is currently out of stock at Passion Music, an excellent mail-order source for Eastern European music.

Today’s playlist:

Michael Harrison, Revelation (Cantaloupe)
Bim Sherman, Tribulation (Pressure Sounds)
Bobb Trimble, Harvest of Dreams (Secretly Canadian)
Sun Ra, The Night of the Purple Moon (Unheard Music Series/Atavistic)
Jackie McLean, Old and New Gospel (Blue Note)