Yugoslavian actress and singing sensation Olivera Vuco took Paris by storm in the late ‘60s with a series of 72 sell-out shows at the Olympia. Legendary figures such as Salvador Dali and Gilbert Becaud vied to pay homage, record companies fought for her signature, and no doubt poets were moved to write passionate verses for her. And with Olivera’s striking looks and compellingly sultry voice it’s easy to understand why she inspired such devotion.
Olivera, who also used the professional name Olivera Katarina, was for a while in the ‘60s and ‘70s incredibly popular in the former Yugoslavia for her unique performances of folk and gypsy songs from around the world. If you track down any of her recordings from that era, or watch any of the performances restored to life on YouTube, then it’s hard to resist becoming addicted to her larger-than-life magical blend of the exotic and elegant.
Yugoslavia itself at the time had a thriving music scene, which drew considerable inspiration from the UK and USA. There is a story to be told about how, for example, black American soul and r ‘n’ b had such an impact on a generation of performers in an eastern European communist country. Some of the contemporaneous covers were anything but obvious: Nada Knezevic, for example, doing a glorious interpretation of Garnet Mimms’ Cry Baby, and the astonishing Josipa Lisac (with the group O’Hara) singing The Temptations’ You’ll Lose A Precious Love.
So, in a way, Olivera’s style of performing was out of step with the new pop, tapping into something very different and far more ancient. She actually trained as a drama student in Belgrade, and oddly enough Olivera’s early musical influences seem to have included Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, so her story is not a simple one of growing up performing Balkan folk and gypsy songs in out-of-the-way cafes. But Olivera is wonderfully full of contradictions. Her vivacious presence can be misleading, for on record her vocal delivery can be spellbindingly chilling. Nowhere is this is more evident than on a remarkable 1968 EP which contained four ballads, with words by famous poets. Among these was Balada o Vijetnamu (Vest sa Juga...), based on a Te Hanh poem about the My Lai massacre, which is quite extraordinarily moving and haunting, capturing the horror perfectly.
As an actress Olivera’s most famous role is in the 1967 film I Even Met Happy Gypsies, written and directed by Aleksandar Petrovic, using traditional Romani language and music. The film was an international success, picking up prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, where Olivera also got to perform, apparently alongside Dionne Warwick. Ironically many years later the flamenco rumba outfit the Gipsy Kings would initially find success playing to the Cannes set. Father (spiritually and literally) of the Gipsy Kings, Jose Reyes with Manitas da Plata, can be seen on video performing for an entranced Brigitte Bardot and indeed Salvador Dali. It’s interesting to consider whether Jose’s path ever crossed with Olivera’s. What a perfect combination they would have made.