He performs with the London Symphony Orchestra with the same success as was once achieved playing with this orchestra by Deep Purple and Pink Floyd.
Guitar is his love, which feeds him, gives him wings and allows him to travel, earn money and support his family. It is his straitjacket and his psychiatrist. His guitar enables him to be on stage, and for him the stage is life and dedication. He started hanging around with a guitar when he was a 13-year-old kid, and he hadn’t even turned 20 on 1st January 1976, when he formed the band Leb i Sol, which would go on to become synonymous with good music, which is difficult to explain with singular significance. They performed pop, jazz, rock, ethno, progressive rock etc. It was an original and recognisable group, the best in the field of contemporary music to emerge on the territory of Macedonia. And he never went to music school, rather he taught himself what interested him. He didn’t even bother learning that which didn’t interest him.
And so, for the following twenty years, with various lineups, Leb i Sol endured, only to hold its last concert ever on 13th December 1995 in Thessaloniki, at club Miloš. By that time they had recorded 13 albums, gone their separate ways and continued their careers, but they come together again in 2006, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the band’s founding and tour the countries of the former Yugoslavia.
Vlatko Stefanovski (60) also had compositions that represented a trio, performing alongside fellow guitarist Miroslav Tadić, with violinist Stefan Milenković, but he was and remains essentially a guitar soloist, composer and author of enduring music. He is the author of the unique, irrepeatable music for the film Gypsy Magic and many others, while in 1977 he wrote the music for the play The Liberation of Skopje (Oslobođenje Skoplja) which starred Rade Šerbedžija, and then, almost four decades later, he wrote the music for the film version of The Liberation of Skopje, directed by Rade and his son Danilo Šerbedžija, and starring Rade… He has played with the London Symphony Orchestra, just as this orchestra once performed with the likes of Deep Purple and Pink Floyd. He has performed with the Leipzig Symphony Orchestra and played in New York and Los Angeles, and according to unofficial polls he is among the world’s top ten guitarists. He reacts to such a rating unhesitatingly:
“I don’t know how such a ranking list would be made. You can do that for tennis players, because there is an ATP list and you know exactly who has how many points and where they stand. And there are great guitarists around the world, from Brazil to Scandinavia, to the north and south of this planet, who aren’t stars at all, but are phenomenal musicians. It is possible to rank players in sport, but that’s impossible in art. In music today I’m increasingly interested more in spiritual verticals and spirituality than perfection or some highly ranked place.”
I’ve met very interesting people in villages and smalltown-minded people in big cities. There are no rules when it comes to big and small places … There are millions of small towns, because provincialism is not about the state of the size of the population, rather provincialism is a state of mind
It’s a pleasure to converse with Vlatko, because he gives everything he says full meaning. This artist was born in Prilep and was aged three when he arrived in Skopje with his parents and brother Goran, five years his senior. Goran Stefanovski has long been a celebrated writer of drama who lectures on dramaturgy and creative writing at the University of Canterbury in England, writes dramatic works that are performed around the world and recently became a proud grandfather.
Asked about the kind of upbringing the two sons had from their parents – an actress mother and theatre director father, Vlatko tells CorD:
“I grew up in what represented the middle class in the former Yugoslavia. Coming through our house were various characters, very interesting people, friends, artists, relatives… The house was located in the village of Taftalidže and the doors were never locked. This settlement was known for the numerous donations that arrived after the 1963 earthquake and I was fortunate that we lived in a Finnish house, or Finnish barracks, as they called it. I went to a new school that was a donation from Czechoslovakia. Everything smelt new, fresh, of fine materials, of new construction. Taftalidže was a large village. We were free, running, playing football, basketball; I grew up happily and normally. During my secondary school days, music took me under its wing, with the first bands emerging, the first gigs, and I craved for good instruments, amplifiers. Rock ‘n’ roll took me, and my generation listened to new and interesting records coming from England. Our parents were concerned about us, but they were truly liberal and we grew up as freely formed young people. We had an enviable library in the house, so our main preoccupation was reading books and listening to records.”
Vlatko never dreamt of what he would like to be when he grew up. He was interested in what would happen today, how to form a band, play, procure instruments. And he did all this at the level of a hobby. He completed high school and enrolled to study English, convinced he would work as an English professor, because who seriously thinks that they can make a living from playing music? It was in his twenties that he began to think music could be his profession, that he could perhaps make a living in that way. Was he troubled to be forging his career in little Skopje, and not in a big Belgrade or some other major city:
“I’ve spent my life smashing prejudices about what would count for a stereotype, especially when someone would refer to some corney general palce. And stereotypes mostly annoyed me the most. I’ve met very interesting people in villages and smalltown-minded people in big cities. There are no rules when it comes to big and small places. The environment can determine your direction, stimulate you, motivate you to do something with your life, perhaps inspire you and help you realise your dreams. But there are no guarantees that your environment is crucial. There are millions of small towns, because provincialism is not about the state of the size of the population, rather provincialism is a state of mind. Skopje began filling up after the earthquake, with people settling, and it came to life. We followed the music scene in London and America, and nothing escaped us. It is no coincidence that the band Leb i Sol came out of Skopje. We were the product of a fine citizenry. Of course, we had a need for competition, because we wanted to show that we are not provincials, that we know and are capable, perhaps even more than was expected of us.”
In the Balkans miseries formed our lives and influenced us. A little time passes, then crisis, a little time passes, then a misunderstanding, some quarrel, sabre rattling, war… Balkan work. There’s never peace in the Balkans
As a younster, Vlatko was the greatest fan of the Korni Group, he liked Tajm and YU group, and particularly loved the Indekses. When he began to play, he was critical of Bijelo Dugme, towards which he had reservations. But later he grew to love them:
“That was a time of interesting and honestly made music, sufficiently knowingly and filled with emotions. Listen to Indeksi today and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It means nothing to me if a song is perfectly produced technically. The Beatles recorded on four channels and made masterpieces, while today every child has 24 channels in their bedroom.”
Vlatko revealed to us in this interview that he intends to write a book about what he has lived through during his career, about misfortunes, about the bad things that followed him, about the struggle with institutions. He reveals that everything was difficult and remains so:
“It’s difficult to release a record, a CD; it’s dififcult to persuade those who are responsible to help you; it’s difficult to persuade producers or journalists to invest in you, to give you adequate space in the media. Perhaps it’s a bit easier for me today, but that fight doesn’t end. There is no past work in this business. Yesterday I played in Belgrade, but I had to practise for that concert, to devise it and focus on it. You have to do press-ups ahead of every project that awaits you; you have to do your mental physical exercise, spiritual gymnastics before you enter your job that you’ve done for forty years, like me, for example.”
Is it difficult to remain active on the market when its powerholders determine what will be offered to consumers, and when they seek only new and fresh meat on a daily basis? Is it tough to persevere in what Stefanovski nourishes as his specific view of music?
– “It is due to that worldview that we have made it to where we are today. And that is total trash in culture and art. What is on the scene is something I would never buy or listen to, what they bombard us with is banal. I’m not just talking about the Balkans, but rather the global offer. Turn on any TV channel, even MTV, and try to hear something that will touch you. Thus Bruce Springsteen sang in one of his songs: Fifty-seven channels and nothing on! When I buy television packages, I see all the channels where they have sport 1, sport, 2, sport 3, sport 4, sport 5 … I ask the people selling it where the Arte channel is, to which they say that they don’t have it. I ask where the Mezzo Channel is, and they again say they don’t have it. But maybe I need those two channels, and not seven sports channels. Business rushes headlessly towards its own programming concepts that will be about commercials. That corporate world, which is convinced that it is smart in the economic and marketing sense, is constantly offering us trash. Trash probably sells much better than real value. Don’t even accidentally mention that you are a jazz musician, because you will be left jobless. Don’t even accidentally mention that you are an avant-garde artist, because if you do you’ve signed a fine ensuring you won’t work for the next five years. And it’s not true that the public only likes what the powerful give them. Tickets for Sting’s concert in Skopje sold out in one afternoon. Audiences love this high-quality music, which is also popular. Play good classical music for your audience and you will see that they will love it when they understand it. If you feed people only hamburgers, they don’t have anything to like but hamburgers.”
I’m sorry to see that younger generations are being pressured and manipulated by consumerism and corporate capitalism … Still, I’m happy to see young, beautiful, smiling people who live their lives to the fullest. I believe strongly in the energy of the youth; I believe that young people will make this world slightly more beautiful
Goran Bregović told me in an interview for CorD last year that he performs between 110 and 150 concerts annually. Are you satisfied with the number of concerts you perform; can you make a living from them?
– “I don’t have 150, but I have at least 50-60 concerts a year and my family can live decently from that. I think I am a modest man, because I don’t overrate myself, because I am grateful for every royalty payment I receive, everyone who comes to my concerts, everyone who buys my CD, because those people enable me to have a career. A man must be on the earth when he positions himself in society. And when you’re in art, you can fly between the clouds. I recognised that little talent in myself and I’ve been trying to nurture it for a few decades now. That’s my holy duty.”
This musician has long dealt with researching interesting Macedonian folklore, and when it comes to the music of his homecountry he simply says:
“Macedonian music is ingenius. Intertwined within it are pastoral scenes, sheep, mountains, sorrow, melancholy, joy, beauty, sun, wine, happiness, misfortune – you can find everything. I try to learn it well, especially in the most difficult segment that possesses some difficult dance, kolo. That music can be very complicated, layered, difficult to understand, but I’m also trying to learn that. That entertains me.”
He also announces his new album to us, which was recorded on acoustic guitar with just a single microphone. He tried to reduce everything down to total simplicity: solo, acoustic guitar and him. This album will be called Maternji jezik (Mother Tongue):
“That’s exactly what I’m dealing with; I’m dealing with my mother tongue. What is it that is passed down from generation to generation? Those are some songs, good songs that the people have filtered through sieves and troughs. Everything that was no good has fallen away, and that which is good is left. I deal with that which is left, trying to learn what’s left. And to extend its life, perhaps by showing some new generations how that folklore can also be played and handled.”
He says he’s not nostalgic for the country has has been gone for 20 years, the country in which he was born, and he is convinced that his grandfather also probably didn’t suffer when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. He is actually nostalgic regarding the future, interested in how our children will live. And he prays to God for that future to be more humane and decent than the present we are living today:
“All these miseries formed our lives and influenced us. A little time passes, then crisis, a little time passes, then a misunderstanding, some quarrel, sabre rattling, war… Balkan work. There’s never peace in the Balkans. Someone always owes somebody, somebody is always guilty to someone, someone’s next-door neighbour is no good, while their second neighbour is their friend… All this doesn’t only affect me, rather all the people who live in the Balkans. That is the eternal spark of uncertainty in the air. I don’t live in Sweden and I’m not Abba for that not to touch me. In the 1990s I couldn’t travel, let along perform. I still hope that some normal days are coming to this Balkan region and that we will all strive towards some better times together.”
The fact that his music easily crossed and crosses borders is explained by his authenticity, because it is easy to communicate all authentic things:
“When I play Kalajdžisko oro for some Japanese guy, he will be very impressed because that is something very original, colourful and fun. For that he doesn’t need to know anything about Balkan culture. When I listen to African singer Salif Keïta I do not know what he’s singing about, but his emotional message reaches me very easily. It’s not a matter of having to understand every single word, I sometimes don’t even understand what Mick Jagger’s singing about because he mumbles so much, but his message unerringly reaches me. I don’t understand some abstract artists, but some messages reach me.”
Macedonian music is ingenius. Intertwined within it are pastoral scenes, sheep, mountains, sorrow, melancholy, joy, beauty, sun, wine, happiness, misfortune – you can find everything … That music can be very complicated, layered, difficult to understand, but I’m also trying to learn that. That entertains me
Do you understand Despasoto, the song that was on fire this summer on YouTube, with billions of views:
“My son played it for me. I don’t understand anything, but there’s no need to understand anything. That’s a huge commercial hit, production perfect, but it doesn’t mean anything to me personally. I don’t need perfect production, I need something for my soul. Something that will hook me. My son told me that he had more than three billion views, but again that doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s the same as asking me if I saw a new ferrari model. Maybe I saw it and maybe I didn’t, but I don’t plan to buy one…”
Vlatko has a wife and two children. His daughter is preparing her doctorate in Italian literature in Padua and his son is in secondary school. He thinks that he has spoiled his children more than his parents spoiled him, because they have more than he had when he was a child:
“I try to avoid the mistakes my parents made with me. But I stumble into some other mistakes that I’m not even aware of. And that’s how it goes from generation to generation. I try not only to make some good concert somewhere in the world available to my children, but also some gallery or museum… When they recently attended the Guns & Roses concert in the Netherlands they also went to the Van Gogh Museum. That somehow comes as a package. I don’t think one should eat steak or grilled salmon every day, but it is good to consume something more valuable from time to time, due to balance. Today I admire my children for their energy and capacity.”
He adheres to the thesis of Bertolt Brecht that everyone must accept his own shame, but at the same time is the best promoter of his thesis that everyone must affirm their own beauty:
“I’m sorry to see that younger generations are being pressured and manipulated by consumerism and corporate capitalism. The world is in various crises, people are uncertain around the entire planet. As sure as I was in my music, I’m as unsure that in the next five minutes there won’t be some cataclysm, some tornado, some flood, some tsunami… Something that disturbs people’s lives. Still, I’m happy to see young, beautiful, smiling people who live their lives to the fullest. I believe strongly in the energy of the youth; I believe that young people will make this world slightly more beautiful, richer and more decent than it is now. For, as they say, we didn’t inherit the world from our ancestors, but rather we borrowed it from our descendants.”
Asked if he is afraid of the sabre-rattling that this frivolous world of politicians resorts to, Vlatko says that no fear helps with that. You just have to keep a clear head and be aware that this world is run by caricatured characters. It is sad and funny at the same time.