The Balkan Elvis, Sort Of – The Life and Death Of Toše Proeski

Every nation in the world has its pop stars these days, even Wales. Since the explosion of music television in the 1980s musical ability has often taken a back-seat to the marketable, to the beautiful. Aesthetics have become every bit as important as talent, if not more so. Superstars have been born, and superstars have been created. This superstar-adoration inevitably leads to people from faraway lands being compared to some of the most historic stars from the west, such as the Elvis of the So and So, the Cliff Richard of that place there. The man who the BBC described as the Elvis of the Balkans was probably closer to being the Cliff Richard of the Balkans, and was a man with a typically tragic story. His life ended when he was just 26-years-old. This man was called Toše Proeski.

Toše Proeski was born in Prilep and grew up in Kruševo, as part of an Aromanian family. The Aromanians are an ethnic group native to the southern Balkans, ironically the entire historical lands of Macedonia (Northern Greece, Bulgaria, FYROM). They surprisingly speak Aromanian, a Latin-derived language not too far away from Romanian, and whilst they make up less than 1% of the entire Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia they actually make up 20% of Kruševo’s population. Long story short, Proeski wasn’t exactly an ethnic Slav, but he was (Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonian and that’ll do for me. Toše’s first taste of the sweet spotlight of super-stardom came at the age of 12, when he performed at the Children’s Song Festival called Zlatno Slavejce (Golden Nightingale). His first true big break (non-John Virgo league) came at the age of 16 in 1997, when he became something of a staple on the festival circuit in Macedonia. His fanbase grew quickly, and it became clear that the cherub-faced 16-year-old prodigy was likely to make buddies with the rich and famous lifestyle sooner rather than later. His clean cut image and obvious marketability almost made this an inevitability. Two years later he released his debut album, entitled ‘Nekade vo Nokta’, or ‘Somewhere in the Night’. This same year, Proeski performed his first solo concert in Skopje. The paper had been lit.

2000 would see Proeski make his first attempt to qualify for the Eurovision Song Contest, with the song ‘Solzi Pravat Zlatan Prsten’ (‘Tears Make a Golden Ring’)[wait, tears make a what now?] Despite winning the public vote he finished third overall, failing to qualify for the greatest singing concert in all of the Europe. Eurovision or no Eurovision Toše was acquiring the love of the public at an astonishing rate. His second album, ‘Sinot Bozji’ (‘The Son of God’) saw the beginning of the mega hits, songs such as ‘Vo kosi da ti Spijam’ (‘Sleeping in your Hair’, although maybe these titles don’t translate all that well) and ‘Iluzija’ (the less worrying ‘Illusion’). At this point a Serbian production team took over the rights of releasing his music in the other Balkan republics, giving him an even higher platform from which to launch.

It was his third album, ‘Ako me poglednes vo oci’ (‘If You Look Into My Eyes’) that removed the word ‘potential’ and cemented Toše as a true Balkan music superstar. The songs were in both Macedonian and Serbian, and a sell out tour of the Balkans soon followed. He came perilously close to representing Serbia and Montenegro in the 2003 Eurovision Song Contest, only to miss out when the country decided to pull out as there were too many countries involved. Instead, he headed to New York to improve his craft, taking singing lessons from Luciano Pavarotti’s former coach. A humanitarian tour followed before Toše finally made it to the Eurovision stage in 2004, representing his home nation.

He may have only finished 14th, but Proeski was one of the most heavily featured artists of the contest due to his unique operatic style. The increased international media attention led to him being made a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2004, with his song ‘This World’ becoming the official UNICEF anthem. His fifth album, ‘Po tebe’ (‘After You’) was released, and it dominated the Balkan music charts for months on end. Even to this day, this is still one of the most successful Balkan albums ever released. His final album was called ‘Igra bez granici’ (‘Games Without Borders’), and would include songs in all the languages of the former Yugoslavia. He entered his final year in the Skopje Music Academy, and at the age of just 26 Toše Proeski truly was a pan-Yugoslav hero. His final gig was on October 5, 2007, in aid of USAID in Skopje. Tragedy followed soon after.

In the early hours of October 16, 2007, Toše Proeski died in a car accident near Nova Gradiška, Croatia. He was the passenger in a car carrying four people, but he was the only one who did not make it out alive. One other passenger suffered head trauma, but remarkably only Proeski met his end. He was asleep at the time. Whilst initially thought to have been a collision with a protective fence, it soon came out that the car in which Proeski was travelling had collided with a truck and Proeski himself died on impact. The third vertebrae in his neck was crushed. He didn’t stand a chance.

His death hit the nation of Macedonia and indeed all of the Balkans extremely hard. His body was immediately flown back to Skopje by helicopter, and October 17 thus became a day of national mourning. He received a state funeral in the town he’d grown up, Kruševo, and his funeral was broadcast live on national TV. His coffin was lowered into the ground with a full gun salute, decorated with the Macedonian flag. Thousands attended the final goodbye to a man who clearly was Macedonia’s greatest cultural ambassador of modern times. As a mark of respect, every year Mile Stojkovski, the Macedonian athlete and humanitarian from the chapter previous, runs a marathon from Prilep to Kruševo in a wheelchair on Proeski’s birthday.

Proeski was and is special because he built bridges between different nations and ethnicities, and not once did he fall prey to the nationalist fervour sweeping the Balkans. He was one of those rare figures that seemed to transcend the everyday, an individual respected and revered in homes from Ljubljana to Skopje and everywhere in between. He was without doubt the most mourned Yugoslav figure since Tito himself. Whilst known as the Balkan Elvis, it is perhaps more accurate to refer to him as the Balkan Cliff Richard, a comparison that many of my generation may scoff at despite its positive intention. He had good looks, a strong voice, and an assured confidence that was backed up by a wholesome image and unshakeable religious faith. He sang mostly in Macedonian and Serbian, but also had songs in Croatian, Bosnian and Slovenian. He was the star the Balkans needed. To show that he was about more than money, he once famously shrugged off the effects of piracy, saying that as a youngster in tough financial times he would have chosen a pirated version for free over paying for an actual copy.

And for that, if nothing else, we should salute the memory of Toše Proeski.

‘An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ is available for purchase, we swear. To pick up a print copy of the book (€20 plus postage), send us an email at miseryslavic@gmail.com. The digital version is available on Amazon at the link linked here , although you can also buy the digital copy through us. That is unless you think Amazon deserves 30% of the work.

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