MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Some singers are one-hit wonders; others make a few albums and then fade away. And then there are those who stay popular for generations. Esma Redzepova is one of those.

As part of our 50 Great Voices series, Ilya Marritz of member station WNYC explains.

(Soundbite of song, "Chaje Shukarije")

Ms. ESMA REDZEPOVA (Musician): (Singing)

ILYA MARRITZ: Millions of people around the world have heard this song. It was featured in the opening credits of the movie "Borat."

(Soundbite of song, "Chaje Shukarije")

Ms. REDZEPOVA: (Singing in foreign language)

MARRITZ: "Chaje Shukarije," or "Beautiful Girl," by Esma Redzepova is an anthem in the former Yugoslavia.

Mr. GAGO IVANOVSKI(ph): (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. OGNAN CHALOVSKI(ph): (Singing in foreign language)

MARRITZ: Gago Ivanovski and Ognan Chalovski are university students in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, where Esma was born. Ognan says everyone here is an Esma fan.

Mr. IVANOVSKI: She knows how to make a good atmosphere, and she is very, very happy.

MARRITZ: For over 50 years, Esma has flourished as a performer and recording artist despite political upheaval and prejudice against Gypsies or Roma, to use the more acceptable term. In whoops, warbles and whispers, Esma sings about Roma culture, life's disappointments and especially unrequited love, as in "Chaje Shukarije."

(Soundbite of song, "Chaje Shukarije")

Ms. REDZEPOVA: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. VESNA GJORGJIEVSKA (Esma Reazepova's Manager): It means beautiful girl. Beautiful girl, don't go in front of me, turn to me, see me, and when you'll see me, try to love me.

MARRITZ: That's Vesna Gjorgjievska, Esma's manager, doing the translating. We're sitting at the singer's kitchen table in Skopje. Esma is wearing gold earrings and a tasseled black scarf over her hair. Her eyes twinkle when she talks. Though Esma plays the diva, she admits she'd probably never have become a star but for a lucky break. When she was 14, Esma's school principal signed her up for a singing competition on the radio. To her astonishment, she won.

Ms. REDZEPOVA: (Through translator) The award was 11 million Yugoslavian dinars in that time. More than four to five months' salary.

MARRITZ: But this was a problem. Esma hadn't told her family about the contest; she knew her father wouldn't approve. So she hid the prize money in her underwear. Esma's mother was preparing a bath for the kids a few days later when her daughter's secret slipped out.

Ms. REDZEPOVA: (Through translator) She exposed it. And when my father came home, she explained him and I promised to him at that time that I'll be only radio singer. I'll never play in restaurants, in bars, in something like that.

MARRITZ: That was a consequential choice. In Yugoslavia in the 1950s, singing at weddings or in bars was pretty much the only career option for Roma musicians.

Esma forged a new path, thanks to an enterprising young producer named Stevo Teodosievski. He had heard Esma perform on the radio that night.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. REDZEPOVA: (Singing in foreign language)

MARRITZ: Stevo groomed Esma for radio and television, even picking her costumes. This young woman from the Roma ghetto became one of the first Yugoslav stars of the TV age, and a favorite of the country's dictator Marshal Tito.

At first, Esma says, she wasn't ready for the vocal virtuosity Stevo demanded. For example, when she composed this song "The Little Gypsy Girl," she was quite content to sing it like this:

(Soundbite of song, "The Little Gypsy Girl")

Ms. REDZEPOVA: (Singing in foreign language)

MARRITZ: Not good enough, said Stevo. He sent her back to the studio to practice.

Ms. REDZEPOVA: (Through translator) I practiced two years, five days a week, four hours daily. And after the studies, it is looking like...

(Singing in foreign language)

MARRITZ: A relationship requiring that much commitment could only result in marriage. Esma and Stevo were wed in 1968. In the decades that followed, they toured the world together. Unable to have children of their own, Esma and Stevo became foster parents. They took in 47 boys in all throughout the '60s,' 70s and '80s. Now grown men, they often play gigs with their foster mother.

(Soundbite of song, "The Little Gypsy Girl")

Ms. REDZEPOVA: (Singing in foreign language)

MARRITZ: Twelve years ago, Stevo passed away. Someday, Esma says, she'll turn her home into a museum of the music she and her husband made together.

Ms. REDZEPOVA: (Through translator) There is a special part in this museum which will be memorial. His accordion, my mic; it will be on one place.

MARRITZ: She's had to put off that dream for a bit. At age 64, Esma still plays scores of dates every year all around the world. Her secret to keeping those vocal cords strong? Esma says she avoids fizzy drinks and romantic relationships with men.

For NPR News, I'm Ilya Marritz.

NORRIS: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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