In Vranje, minority Roma monopolize the performance of brass band music, maintaining the musical repertoires that are central to life-cycle celebrations and community life. Locals value Romani musicians as affective laborers whose practices are supposed to produce heightened emotional and social engrossment in the celebration. Yet celebrants’ pleasure also comes through public displays of status, where guests use the solicitous attention of Romani performers to display wealth and power. At Serb events, bids for status are magnified by perceptions of the lesser standing of Romani entertainers: Roma carry double stigma as paid performers and as marginalized “Gypsies.” When Serbs use Romani bodies to display lavish tips by slapping them onto their foreheads, push tips into empty beer bottles to keep musicians to themselves indefinitely, or pay for ritualized dramas where Romani entertainers treat them as honorary “pashas,” they harness performative practices to embody ethnic hierarchies. Affective dynamics in these scenarios generally work to naturalize these identity politics by emphasizing notions of pleasure, play, and “tradition” over explicit domination. While Roma enjoy a measure of constrained agency, skillfully deploying musical expertise and performance strategies to obtain needed resources, the links between affect, pleasure, and power plays mean that Romani musical labor in Vranje often entails viscerally reproducing their inequality vis-à-vis Serb patrons.
Alexander Marković is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His work explores affective politics, nationalism, and performance culture in the Balkans. His current book project, Ethnic Affects: Performance Politics and Romani Musical Labor in southeastern Serbia, examines how performative interactions in musical contexts shape Romani-Serb relations. Other representative publications include a 2015 article in Ethnomusicology Forum on Romani brass musicians’ strategic essentialism for World Music markets, as well as a 2012 chapter in Labour Migrations in the Balkans (Berlin: Otto Sagner) examining how neoliberal economic shifts have undermined Romani musical livelihoods in post-socialist Vranje.