Balkanalysis.com

On One Summer Night in Skopje, All Hearts Beat for Toshe

July 2, 2004

By Christopher Deliso

Concert Review: Toshe Proeski at Skopje’s City Stadium, 29 June 2004

In a small country like Macedonia, with few modern-day heroes and a penchant for pessimism, there’s nothing like a concert by first son Toshe Proeski to lift the spirits of the locals and, in some cases, to burn an indelible, incendiary mark on the racing hearts of the smitten. That was indeed the scene on Tuesday night at Skopje’s City Stadium, awash as it was in a sea of teenage girls (among others) adorned in pink jeans and blue tank tops and shrieking out in utter adoration the magical name of Macedonia’s dreamy pop sensation.

And they meant business. Aside from displaying the obligatory “Toshe te sakame” (”Toshe we love you”) hand-scrawled signs, some determined young fans situated behind the press section sought through all manners of pleading and persuasion to get closer to their hero- even attempting to relocate security badges from their unwitting owners. While this tactic went generally unrewarded, a few of the more dedicated did manage, later on in the night, to skirt the barrier and get to where the action was.

Hopes were high before the much-anticipated concert, Toshe’s first Skopje concert in a long time and first ever in the City Stadium. As Toshe’s dedicated fans milled in on this balmy summer evening and the technical crew made lighting and sound adjustments, young Ivana from Skopje told us that Toshe is “the best” and that “he is so beautiful!”

Her remarks were seconded by friends Tanja and Maja, who also professed their affection for Proeski’s remarkably resonant, operatic voice, which has earned him the attention of people like Luciano Pavarotti.

When asked about his recent Eurovision performance – where bedecked in a vaguely Elvis-like white costume Toshe serenaded Istanbul, with the hands-on help of dancers whose routine was as strange as the song itself (’Life’) – the infatuated girls were unambiguous. “He was the best,” declared Maja. “He was singing perfectly and everybody who was there could see that. But I didn’t like so much his dress, I prefer to see him in a tight shirt.”

Well, the young fan got her wish on Tuesday, as Proeski took the stage (following a few songs from the young Bosnian singer Enamo) dressed in ripped jeans, a tight white t-shirt, and copious amounts of gel lubricating his dark hair. The crowd, young and old alike, went wild as the 23 year-old from Krusevo delivered all the hits from both his older and more recent albums, a mixture of balladry and up-tempo pop, with a little ethnic flair thrown in for good measure.

Aside from awestruck teenagers, the concert was attended by older folks and even whole families with small children. Toshe’s appeal transcends all limiting factors; as one concert-goer laughed, “both my little 4 year-old nephew and my grandmother in the village love him.” Many famous faces were also in the crowd, from various television personalities, actors and singers to the mayor of Skopje, Risto Penov, seated smack in the front row.

For jaded Westerners oversaturated with one-hit-wonders and soulless stars like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, it can be hard to understand the Toshe phenomenon. What is it that drives a whole country to such levels of affection and adoration?

First of all, as said above, the singer represents one of the rare unqualified successes in Macedonia’s fairly inauspicious modern history. For a small and landlocked country much maligned by its neighbors and accused of having no real identity, Toshe’s success as a Macedonian singer – and especially as one who has remained in the country, despite offers from abroad – is something that Macedonians can take pride in.

Another reason the Macedonians respect Toshe is the fact that he has succeeded through talent rather than through connections or background. “Toshe didn’t come from a rich family in Skopje who can make his career for him, but from a poor family from Krusevo. Everything he did was because of his talents,” said one older fan at Tuesday’s show.

And there is no question that Toshe is very talented. From early on in life, Proeski’s gift was obvious. From a song festival for kids to several teen appearances, Toshe continued his singing lessons at a special high school for music students. As his website biography recounts, Toshe became more prominent after 1999, winning awards and plaudits at various Macedonian and other Balkan music festivals.

In March 2001, he achieved the remarkable feat of selling out five concerts in a row at Skopje’s Universal Hall. Toshe’s most recent (2002) album, recorded in Greece in two versions (Macedonian and Serbian) has cemented his reputation and made him one of the most popular contemporary singers in Serbia and Montenegro as well as in Macedonia.

However, the biggest reason to explain why Toshe Proeski has endeared himself to Macedonians of all ages is his enormous heart. The singer loves kids, and kids love him. He has made a habit of visiting hospitals and dropping in to raise the spirits of special-needs children who live otherwise depressing lives in under-funded collective centers. He has also played several benefit concerts. When a family from Kocani couldn’t afford a special operation for their child, for example, Toshe agreed to sing at a special show just to raise money for them.

This sincere and mutual love – perhaps the most remarkable and unusual thing from the Western perspective – was amply attested by the number of little children who waited patiently to come up on the stage and hug Toshe, and hand him a stuffed animal or balloon. Unable to cope with such a deluge, as might be expected, the singer donates such toys to a Skopje orphanage.

The concert’s MC of sorts was the famous Macedonian actress and television presenter, Vesna Petrusevska-Trenkoski, who introduced the singer and listed the various awards he has won at Balkan music festivals. Toshe’s band was joined throughout the performance by Zoran Dzorlev’s orchestral string section. The energetic, multi-costumed backup dancers, drawn from Prilep’s Club 21 dance studio, maintained an alluring visual background that entertained the male members of the audience not overly enthralled by Proeski’s sundry gyrations and flexing. (The well-toned Proeski keeps limber by practicing kickboxing).

Bathed in the drifting colored fog of the stage were Toshe’s trusty back-up singers, bassist, drummer and guitarist, in addition to the harmonious, if not sufficiently audible string section.

For many, the most interesting part of the three-hour show was when Toshe got ethnic, bringing on stage a Veles group (Ritmika) composed of multiple hand-drummers. The exoticness of Balkan time signatures being tapped out was augmented by the appearance of a belly dancer in glittery and skimpy garb, who entertained the crowd while Proeski took a break off-stage.

Most enticing, however, was a special appearance by the acclaimed ethno music ensemble Synthesis, a group characterized by its highly distinctive female vocal sounds and use of traditional instruments such as the tapan (a kind of stand-up bass drum), kaval (a wood flute) and zurla (a long wooden horn with an indescribable droning sound). Synthesis has toured the world so frequently, one Macedonian lamented, that “we ourselves don’t get to see these Macedonian traditional musicians at home!”

Besides these special guests, Toshe satisfied the crowd with flawless renditions of his most famous songs: Tajno Moja (My Secret); Sonce vo Tvoite Rusi Kosi (The Sun in Your Blond Hair); Tvoite Baknezi na Moite Beli Kosuli (Your Kisses on my White Shirt); Magija (Magic); Angel Si Ti (You are my Angel); Cija si? (Whose are You?); Zena Balkanska (Balkan Woman) and Mesto Na Zlostorot (Scene of the Crime).

Most everything went off without a hitch, and an inspired band pulled off album-like versions of these songs, the only obvious mistake being an early jump to the second bridge (which Toshe managed to cover up) in Ledena (Ice Princess), a re-appropriated version of a popular Greek song. “You can’t tell any difference between Toshe singing live and on the CD!” gushed one young fan. “Maybe he’s even better live!”

The singer clearly seemed to be enjoying himself, making frequent Bono-like forays into the dizzying throngs of screaming teenage girls, at one point being held aloft above the crowd by burly security guards. And as all good showmen know, Toshe bargained on winning the audience’s help in belting out key choruses and refrains.

Unexpected comic relief came midway through the concert, when Toshe gave up the stage to a miniature replica of himself- a somewhat pudgier seven-year old in a button-down white suit, all coiffed up with sculpted black hair, and surrounded by pint-sized backup dancers.

This lip-sync version of Proeski’s Eurovision number, “Life” – replete with the same choreographed dance moves and Toshe-like mannerisms- injected a moment of hilarity into the event but confused some of us who took it as a tacit concession by management that the song (which won Toshe a not very healthy 14thplace in the contest) was indeed better suited for a, say, seven year-old. Which was why the actual performance, later on, of “Life” – in all its paradoxically life-negating, life-affirming ambiguity- was such a surprise.

Yet the warm reception this unwieldy English-language sing-along got owed more, one suspects, to the symbolism than the substance; the Macedonians loved it because of what it represented, that is, their country’s contribution to European music ephemera. If it wasn’t objectively great it was at least Macedonia’s, and that in itself provided reason to cheer.

And so, somewhat after midnight, the concert ended, after a minor fireworks display that Toshe dedicated to his corporate sponsor (mobile phone provider Cosmofon), and a couple of rousing encores. As they milled out of the stadium, the fans seem to have been more than satisfied with this rare evening with Macedonia’s most popular individual. There was a bit of a buzz outside the stadium afterwards, with popcorn vendors and other food vendors did a brisk business. Some continued the night of live music in nearby bars, such as the famous Maracana, which was featuring a smokin’ blues & rock band.

Yet some found it hard to move on. Many of the numerous teenage girls, obviously moved as never before in their long, long lives, left with tears welling up in their mascara-heavy eyes. “He’s so beautiful!” one moaned. “So much more than on the TV!” It must have been hard for them to depart this epiphanal fantasyland and return to reality. ‘I’ll never wash this hand again.’ Even if somewhat bizarre to witness a Beatles-esque phenomenon in a country the size of Macedonia, it seems to have been that sort of thing.

But what, if anything, did it all add up to? Was this a fun, but ultimately forgettable evening in the Park, or was there anything more to it?

One wise young fan was ready with an answer. “Many world-famous singers could learn from Toshe,” she cheered, “about how to sing and have fun on the stage. And after all, to just stay like a normal guy. He is proud to be a Macedonian, and he is proud of Macedonia.”

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