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50 Years of Tradition and Innovation

Vlatko Stefanovski, Musician

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For me, music is the quickest link to connect with the universe, with some cosmic balance. Perfect harmony exists in the universe, in that chaos. Music can also be chaos. From notes, tones and sounds. Organise that chaos, those frequencies, and making that organisation of sounds say something to us and mean something emotionally. Frequencies that touch my heart, that’s music ~ Vlatko Stefanovski

Few musicians in our region have bequeathed us such a rich cultural heritage as Vlatko Stefanovski. In this exclusive interview for The Region, we discuss his creative journey, accolades, cooperation with greats of world and regional music, and the concerts with which he will mark the 50th anniversary of his career.

Vlatko, we congratulate you on the massive achievement of a 50-year musical career! When you look back, how would you describe your journey from the beginning to your current status as one of the region’s most influential musicians?

― I don’t like to talk about successes. Listing successes is unrewarding and pathetic. I would refer to my fascination with what I do. I’m still fascinated by music and the guitar as an instrument. I’m thrilled that I’m able to perform, to travel, and that I’m in relatively good health and can thus still be active. Success isn’t something that feeds me, it’s something that comes despite me. Other people decided that I should succeed, specifically the audience.

What’s important to me is that I see that same boy who was obsessed with the idea of making doing music when I look back. I can still see him sitting in the yard in Skopje’s Taftalidže neighbourhood, trying to produce expensive sounds on a cheap instrument. And that discipline of making bands at that time was so exciting! Create a band with your generation and try to perform in public. Not just to stay in a garage or a shed with your ideas, but to perform at school, in the city, in the country, not to mention playing abroad. That’s what feeds me, not successes. If I start listing the albums we recorded, the kinds of tours we had, everywhere we’ve travelled, that gets boring.

And carving out your own place under the sun, for your craft, for your love and passion, that’s success. My friend Miroslav Tadić says: “When I fly on a plane and find myself surrounded by strangers, and when someone asks me what I do for a living and I say that I play the guitar and make a living from it, that’s success”! A man should be proud of that status. Success is being satisfied with what you do and what you’ve achieved in life. A little girl neighbour of mine asked me a while ago: “Uncle Vlatko, are you happy?” I thought for a second and said, “that’s a difficult question, but I can say that I’m satisfied, and that’s enough.” Happiness is an illusion. One sad news item that you read in a newspaper or one stupid message is enough to upset your equilibrium. Perhaps you have a fine balance for a while, but then comes a time of imbalance, the dynamics of life. You don’t have comprehensive insurance on that balance, or on happiness. And it is in that poetic sense that happiness is an illusion.

Music is a universal language. What is it to you?

― For me, music is the quickest link to connect with the universe, with some cosmic balance. Perfect harmony exists in the universe, in that chaos. Music can also be chaos. From notes, tones and sounds. Organise that chaos, those frequencies, and making that organisation of sounds say something to us and mean something emotionally. Frequencies that touch my heart, that’s music.

You were born in Prilep, where you stayed until the age of three. You say that it’s thanks to this that you “have a permit” to play the blues. How does industry inspire musicians?

― Yes, I found that connection because Prilep is a tobacco city, Tobacco Road. That thought crosses my mind by chance… I’ve been in Seattle, in Philadelphia, in New York, and in Rotterdam. I’ve also been in Rijeka, in Pula.

I think young people are a little frustrated in those industrial cities and big cities.

Politics has divided people and someone has to complete the mission of again recognising and fusing cultures. No matter how diametrically opposed they might be, how different their affinities and historical circumstances

They are buried under physical pollution, but also social pollution. In their search for salvation, they form bands to express their frustrations. It’s much nicer to cause a din on your amp than to drift the tyres of your car. It’s also better for the environment, for the neighbourhood, and for our mental and spiritual state.

You’ve recorded almost 40 albums. The album Kao Kakao exploded back in 1987. What was it like to create during those years?

― That had a very strong impact, strong energy. Powerful inspiration. And a bit of survival. The struggle to be or not to be. When it comes to the album Kao kakao, it was a creative explosion and the salvation of the group Leb I Sol…

During your 50-year career, you’ve been involved in various projects that highlight the rich musical heritage of the Balkans, including collaborations with Bijeli Dugme during the time of Leb i solo, with Šaban Bajramović and later also with Miroslav Tadić, Gibonni et al. How would you describe the Yugoslav scene of that time from today’s perspective?

― It was important back then to record a good album, to have a tour, to generally deal with me; to be good, not to say the best. And even in a social sense, not only in our musical environment, to have a good attitude towards things. It wasn’t politicians on the front pages, but rather musicians. That’s why I say it was important in the social sense.

Yugoslavia began disintegrating slowly, with various commotions occurring, but we were so obsessed by music, socialising, festivals, recording albums, that we didn’t even notice. Everything turned on its head during the years of the ‘90s. Values collapsed. And we are still witnessing that collapse. That which we’re offered by modern is limited, very limited. We are offered shopping centres and malls, consumerism and social media. One big nothing! Your happiness is your product, which you will buy with your hard-earned cash.

You’ve received numerous accolades and awards for your contribution to music throughout your career. You performed in 2013 with the London Symphony Orchestra (Miroslav Tadić and Teodoski Spasov). Could you share your impressions of that with us? What does it mean for an artist to find himself in the same group as the likes of Deep Purple and Pink Floyd?

― I must admit that it meant a lot to me. While I was waiting to appear on stage, I once again saw that 11-yearold boy that I once was, sitting in the yard, playing an acoustic guitar. The road was long, and I again looked to that little boy who was yearning not for success, but for music, for the guitar; to create something beautiful and to experience that artistic satisfaction. If the Himalayas exist, if the Mount Everest of artists or musicians exists, it was right then that I climbed to its summit. There are few people who haven’t had a formal education and perform with that orchestra. There are almost none.

How did it come about that the members of Kings of Strings met? How did the idea of teaming up come about?

― That was a great adventure; three guitarists from different backgrounds. One Westerner, Tommy Emanuel, a country and western fingerpicker; one gypsy jazz musician from the Netherlands, Stochelo Rosenberg, a genius on the gypsy jazz guitar; and little old me, the boy from Skopje’s Taftalidža neighbourhood.

And those are moments when you cross instruments, exchange life and musical experience, worldviews; when you share taste and knowledge. When you see how people conduct themselves and how much they practice during the day. That was all a big school for me.

As a prominent figure on the Western Balkan music scene, you are actively engaged in advancing cultural exchanges through your collaborations and performances. How do you see the role of music in overcoming cultural differences and promoting unity across the region? How important is it for this cultural space of ours that artists collaborate; that we have the opportunity to see that a scene exists that knows no barriers?

― It’s very important. Politics has divided people and someone has to complete the mission of again recognising and fusing cultures. No matter how diametrically opposed they might be, how different their affinities and historical circumstances.

It used to be important to record a good album, to have a tour, to generally deal with me; to be good, not to say the best. And even in a social sense, not only in our musical environment, to have a good attitude towards things. It wasn’t politicians on the front pages, but rather musicians

People collaborate, love one another and love to show that love on stage; to show their mutual respect and demonstrate that it is possible to cooperate without prejudices, without divisions, without any excessive ambitions. That’s all so simple.

Concerts commemorating the 50th anniversary of your career have been announced to take place in Skopje on 14th December, in Belgrade on 16th December and in Zagreb on 18th December. What are you preparing for us?

― I will try to channel my entire life’s journey for that one evening. I won’t make a documentary about myself, I’ll simply invite the friends who’ve have made my career and life more beautiful over the years, and who’ve helped me realise some dreams. That will be an acoustic concert, and later an electric one. And they will be different. I’m not a fan of major spectacles, I don’t like too many lights and stage attractions. I love the magic to happen between the people on stage.

Too much emphasis is placed on production today. Well, I’m not going to watch someone’s light show. Pink Floyd did that 35-40 years ago, when they turned a light show into art. Everything is so predictable today. All those scanners, monitors behind the scenes, fireworks and pyrotechnics – it’s all been seen before. I need to see a man on stage who knows something and who feels something.

Give me a little knowledge, skill and a bit more emotion. If you can throw me some emotional medallion, I’ll thank you. The concerts that have been most moving to me in my life had precisely that human dimension. Ray Charles in Skopje, a few string players from the Macedonian Philharmonic. His voice and his piano. Pure emotions.

We’re witnessing a veritable flood of tribute bands. How important is it for young people to create original, authentic music? How would you encourage them on that path?

― Bands got old, some died. Only the Stones provide solace… However, on the other hand, all symphony orchestras are actually tribute bands … to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky. And those are tribute gigs and I have nothing against the artistic ones. The problem is that there are increasingly more quick offers with ideas of quick profit. Fast food, fast music. I would hereby encourage young people to borrow phrases and learn from others, from vinyl records, from CDs, from YouTube.

But I would encourage them to make new music. The world doesn’t need copies; we need originals. I don’t need someone to perform Dire Straits for me – I saw them play live. Okay, musicians need work and that should be understood. On the other hand, it takes courage and audacity to make original music. And to compel listeners to buy it, to seek it out. I know that’s terribly difficult, but it’s also very sweet. If you manage to offer that audience your taste, your music, and they accept it, then that’s a very sweet victory.

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