Dr Nele Karajlić, musician and writer

Bosnia of Two Parallel Worlds

In his early youth, music served as his temporary refuge until he completed university. It was only when, on the eve of the outbreak of war, he fled to Belgrade with just a toothbrush that he realised he needed to make a living and music became his final launchpad. Over the past few years, he’s felt at his best as a writer, having authored the bestselling Solunska 28 [28 Thessaloniki Street], for which he received the Momo Kapor Award. He is also the charming captain of the blue team in popular RTS quiz show I love Serbia

His wit is seductive and sharp, while his multiple talents helped him achieve great popularity at a very tender age. And that has remained the case to this day. He never met Tito, but he did come faceto- face four times with one of the planet’s all-time most famous footballers: Diego Armando Maradona (1960 – 2020). He viewed Maradona as a symbol of ‘third world’ rebellion, describing him as a warm man who turns into a boy when he speaks and says everything with great passion.

Today, at the age of 62, Nele is a veritable musical classic. His real name is Nenad Janković, though he’s long been better known and renowned as Dr Nele Karajlić. Born 11th December 1962 in Sarajevo, his parents were professors called Srđan and Vera.

“I completed primary school with all As and finished the Second Sarajevo Gymnasium high school in 1981 with just one A, only to repeat my primary school success of all top marks at the Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Oriental Studies. I never graduated from university, but people nonetheless call me doctor.”

“When you grow up in a family of educators, that implies receiving a broad education and strict moral principles. Apart from that, our parents raised us two sons in the spirit of socialist self-management, in which material possessions didn’t represent some great virtue. On the contrary, back then, people who were materially wealthy were viewed as shameful.”

The turmoil resulting from the change in the social system was particularly stressful for his family. “I struggled to handle it, but I’m proud of the way I was raised by my parents.”

Bosnia was officially a bastion of the communist party, due to reasons of national security and preserving the sense of brotherhood and unity among Serbs, Muslims and Croats

Socialism and self-management provided a positive framework for Nele’s personal development in Sarajevo, because, as he himself says, there was no social stratification and his childhood was absolutely carefree. He was simultaneously infected by music and football. Actually, he explains, “I started taking an interest in football, intensively and analytically, from the age of six, and in music from the age of ten.” And he never abandoned those loves of his. To this very day, he has a tendency to watch every possible sport on television, “including bocce” [Italian bowling]. The only thing is that there’s no time for that today.

The period of his youth was completely idyllic until he became intrigued by the first ideas of injustice, and when asked if Sarajevo was enough for him or if he had considered leaving it to head out into the world, Nele gives a definitive answer without hesitation.

“No, nor did any of us in our area have such an idea. We had the idea that someone would play some good music in London or Paris. We generally heard about music from our elders, and each of us had an older brother, apart from poor me. And that older brother would also bring vinyl records from England or somewhere else, but the idea that life was elsewhere didn’t exist among us. Our idea was that life exists there where it is. And when we were just high school pupils, we had the idea of fixing it; of fixing the place where we live.”

The ‘70s were very exciting in musical terms. In Sarajevo, but also beyond, the rock band Bijelo Dugme was sacrosanct. Nele was an ‘alternative guy’. He preferred the bands Buldožer and Smak. His music worldview shifted when he discovered punk at the age of 15/16, and it was also then that Nele and his friends began developing their social and political awareness.

As high school pupils, our idea was that life exists there where it is and that we had to fix it, to fix the place where we live

“The older brother of my friend, who was around my age, arrived from London in 1977 and played us the Sex Pistols’ first single – God Save the Queen. Incidentally, that single ended up at my place right before the outbreak of the war in Bosnia and was left in the house. And I read somewhere in a newspaper, about fifteen years ago, that everyone who had a copy of that single could sell it for 10,000 pounds! So, I missed out.” Janković’s rebellious period resulted in one of the most popular TV shows of the 1980s: Top lista nadrealista [The Surrealists’ Chart Toppers]. It is also very interesting that this brand of satire emerged in Sarajevo, a city that for decades, and for good reason, held the infamous title of the bastion of the most rigid communism in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

“Two parallel worlds existed there. The first was the official world that upheld Bosnia as a bastion of the communist party, due to reasons of national security, in order to preserve the sense of brotherhood and unity among Serbs, Muslims and Croats. The key that then existed in Bosnia was also copied by the international community when it came to the coconundrum of organising the current country, with nothing cleverer having been thought up in the meantime. On the other side, beneath that suffocating plastic bag of communism that existed in Bosnia, a generation of kids emerged and showed in their own way, through various media and arts, that they were more or less politically aware. The contradiction of that relationship in Bosnia was also precisely in the fact that the firm hand of the Party and the strictest possible form of dark administration gave birth to an entire generation of children of military personnel and educators who formed their own rageful front, primarily in music and film. That’s a phenomenon that will surely one day be rationalised better by someone else.”

When it comes to music, our interlocutor doesn’t forget the valuable position of poet Duško Trifunović. As editor of Television Sarajevo, under the pressure of serious control from above, he came up with the ingenious idea that singers should perform in the Serbian language on television, which compelled entire generations of talented kids to produce local songs instead of copying foreign ones.

Emir Kusturica and Dr Nele Karajlić met for the first time after the release of Kusturica’s film Do You Remember Dolly Bell?

“That could have been 1981. We performed an episode of the Surrealists’ Chart Toppers on the radio, and afterwards made an advert for his new film that he was scheduled to shoot: When Father Was Away on Business. For me, Emir was an authority, just like anyone who is superior in their work. I can say that we were really close. We worked and socialised together. And in a way he was also my professor. We managed to tour the whole world with our music. That had been unimaginable prior to us. We left behind a deep mark. Bands from all over Europe copied our style. That really was the most exciting part of my career. For now… We aren’t in contact today, but I view those times with nostalgia and pride.”

Kusturica and I left behind a deep mark… We aren’t in contact today, but I view those times with nostalgia and pride

Nele’s wife, Sanja (née Jovanović) is an architect who calls her husband Neško. She doesn’t really favour any kind of public promotion. As a refugee from Sarajevo and an architect left jobless, Sanja turned to work that then brought her joy and gave her very positive affirmation – she decoratively painted wooden furniture in the home, especially items located in children’s rooms. Sanja has been the curator of Gallery Sanjaj over the past few years, with which her love for fine art has finally received some of its own functionality. She had always wanted to have her own gallery. That was her dream. And that’s also why the gallery is called Sanjaj [meaning dream on in Serbian]. It is a name comprising her first name and the first letter of her surname. “We somehow ended up with the opportunity to create the Sanjaj gallery in the very centre of the city, on Dositejeva Street. I was practically born in Dositejeva Street, but the one in Sarajevo. The gallery has totally enriched our lives.”

Nele and Sanja have been together since their high school days and got married on the eve of the outbreak of war. And prior to that they’d enjoyed ten interesting years. They are the parents of two grown up children, so we asked how they raised them and how similar that was to the upbringing they’d received themselves.

“There are no special recipes for raising children, so neither my wife Sanja nor I stuck to any strict instructions. Every child is a world of their own. It seems to me that what was most important was to show them the world around them and define some boundaries that they would have to cross over the course of their lives. As Bishop Grigorije says, the biggest step for man is that step over the threshold of their house.”

Their daughter, Jana, is a veterinarian working in Switzerland at the Small Animal Clinic of the University of Bern. Their son, Srđan, who was born following the death of the grandfather after whom he is named, is a director and screenwriter. He completed marketing studies in the U.S. and the MetFilm School in Berlin, before returning to Belgrade, where he intends to build a career.

Nele has the habit of saying that everything he participated in came more or less by accident.

“The stable family that I have is a logical development in my life, because I was never a typical rock musician, especially when it comes to those that we know from films or books. In my case there was none of the typical sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, probably because I had no intention of dealing with that business seriously. And when I look back from this distance on what I was involved in and what I did, I realise that it mostly came by coincidence. We formed the band Zabranjeno Pušenje [the No Smoking Band] in 1980, so that we would have something to do until we finished university, and we treated the gigs like an interesting adventure. I even declared in newspapers back then that nobody older than 25 can perform rock. I completed two years of Oriental Studies in the first wave, then completed my third year after the scandal with the song Crk’o Maršal [the marshal has croaked], but I had to return to music when Emir Kustirica came to support the band, only to later return to complete university thinking that was the end of everything. And then war erupted. And when we fled to Belgrade, I realised that the only way to support my family and myself was to do freelance work. And when in 1997 we released the album Ja Nisam Odavle [I’m Not From Around Here], and when Vukota did everything that Zenica Blues had done ten years previously, I realised that there was no going back for me.”

He gained international fame thanks to music, but the moment came for him to bid farewell to it. He began writing prose and says that he feels the best when doing so. He first published the book Closing Time in Sarajevo [Fajront u Sarajevu], which is a sort of encyclopaedia of Yugoslav rock that sold more than 100,000 copies. Next came the extremely popular novel 28 Thessaloniki Street [Solunska 28], for which he received the award that bears the name of Momo Kapor. That novel is a trilogy that addresses one of the most exciting centuries in the history of Belgrade: the 20th century, when Belgrade was bombed five times in two world wars.

“I must admit that I was pretty surprised when I discovered that I’d received the Momo Kapor Award. I was convinced that I would miss out on all the awards, because I’m neither a typical writer nor do many consider me a writer. But Momo Kapor wasn’t a typical writer either, and I took comfort in that. I was genuinely happy when they informed me that I’d won the award. And that wasn’t only because of the award itself, but also because of its name. Momo Kapor was held in high regard in my family and I consider him as the writer with the most beautiful style.”

The firm hand of the Party and the strictest possible form of dark administration gave birth to an entire generation of children of military personnel and educators who formed their own rageful front in music and film

Witty, interesting and cynical, mostly at his own expense, Nele explains in detail how he had very poor grades in school for everything that he does today. He dropped out of music school because he was incapable of singing and always received a strained D in solfeggio and a B in piano, which wasn’t high enough to encourage him to persevere. He earned a C in Serbian language studies at school, only to make a living from writing poems and finding enjoyment in writing books. Even for English, a language he’s written in for many years, he only received a grade of D or C.

“I don’t know what to conclude. Either the school was bad and evaluated me poorly, or I must have learnt it all in the meantime.”

Sarajevo is a painful subject for a man who fled his hometown on the eve of the outbreak of war in Bosnia with just a toothbrush and toothpaste in his pocket. And when the journalist conducting this interview once asked him to bring some photos from his youth, he said that he no longer has any. Everything that he has was saved by Sanja’s mother. And his own mother, Vera, provides the reason behind a touching account.

“My mother was born in Sarajevo and lived in a house at 14 Dositejeva Street. She was born during the time of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, lived there during Tito’s Yugoslavia, and ultimately abandoned Bosnia. Her mother had been born in the same house during the time of Austria-Hungary, lived during the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and died in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Her mother, so my great-grandmother, was born in the same house during the time of Turkish rule, lived during the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and died in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Four generations on my mother’s side lived in the same house, in the same kitchen…and each of them went through the reorganising of three countries. That is the most succinct picture of Sarajevo.”

There was also the Sarajevo that he recalled last winter, when the 40th anniversary of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics was commemorated.

“The Olympics looked like some special form of heaven to us, in which we all temporarily live for 15 days. We were young, but we weren’t naïve, and we were aware that everything happening around us represented an unrealistic utopia with a limited life. However, no matter how consciously and with how much reason you observe such a great event, it still makes a deep impression on you and leaves you breathless. One would hardly exchange it for any other experience. That’s a period that’s deeply etched in your memory and you wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Nele has been working constantly in recent years. And he reveals interesting news for CorD’s readers.

“I’ve been stretched on multiple sides. The musician in me woke up this year, so I intend to release the odd new song. On the other hand, I’ve started writing a new novel that should be published in 2025. The quiz show I love Serbia, in which I’m the captain of the blue team, has entered its ninth season, which none of us expected. At the end of April, our Gallery Sanjaj, together with the Monolog Gallery, is exhibiting at a large multimedia art festival in Istanbul with an installation entitled ‘In the beginning was the word’. Apart from me, the credit for that installation also belongs to the curators: my wife Sanja and Denis Hegić, owner of Monolog Gallery. Our plan is to present this installation, which was met with great interest at last year’s Art Budapest, at a number of other art fairs in Europe. Of course, my greatest wish is to make a screen adaptation of the first edition of Solunska 28, for which I received the Momo Kapor Award.”

It seems to us that this screen adaptation would best be conceived and implemented by Srđan Janković.

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