Guide to SKOPJE

People recognize each other

An interview with Vlatko Stefanovski

“Above all, I consider myself a balkanophile. In any case, more of a balkanophile than a balkanophobic.” says famous Macedonian guitarist Vlatko Stefanovski at the beginning of the interview for Balkon 3.

– Yes, I love the Balkans and I love all the nations that live on these territories. I love them for many reasons: the multitude of cultures, artistic diversity, gastronomic delights, colourful customs, mentalities, relations… I try to ignore the stereotype, prejudice, the image that Western countries have about the Balkans. That is the reason why I have never left it. I have never had a desire to live in another place. The Balkans are sufficient for me. I travel very often and I have dear friends everywhere I go: Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Greece, Croatia, Slovenia… We keep in touch regularly, exchanging information about life, music, about everything… I would like to point out that in my last concert in Sofia, Bulgaria there were people who had come specially for the concert from Germany and Thessaloniki, as well as audience from Sofia and neighbouring towns. I had a special guest at the concert, Ian Ackerman, a Dutch guitarist, who is a big name in European music and many people came to see that connection between Ackerman and me. You know, I grew up learning the rules of western rock’n’roll music and ended up conveying the rules of Balkan music to people who come from the west. I also had the privilege to teach a western musician some pieces of music from the Balkans.

Does it make any difference for you whether you play in Sofia or let’s say Germany?

– I believe it does, not so much because of the culture or mentality. It is because of the way the cultural and entertainment events function. I have played in Munich, Berlin, Badenborn, Hamburg, Garmisch-Partenkirchen and many other places in Germany. People there plan ahead and don’t have much time to waste. In Balkan countries it is more relaxed. People only plan for tomorrow. They can cancel a plan, change it, modify it. Each way (if we divide them into eastern and western, Balkan and I don’t know what other) has its qualities and faults, of course.

Does that require a special strategy for a performance? Is it easier or more difficult to play in certain places?

– No. It isn’t a problem for me. My problem is to deal with myself, to be fit and in a good mood. That’s the most difficult thing for me. It’s easy for me to deal with the audience when  I’ve first dealt with my demons.

Do you have a separate programme for the Balkans, knowing what could “work” better?

– No. I play the same programme everywhere, more or less. I even sing in Macedonian, Serbian and English.

Why do I get the feeling that it is more difficult for an artist to succeed here in Balkan countries than anywhere else in the world?

– It isn’t easy. You see, in western countries artists and artistic expression are quite highly ranked and respected. If you say that you are an artist and make a living off of your art you notice respect in their eyes. Here’s something to illustrate this: in Ireland, for example, the tax on artistic work is 1%, whereas in some countries it is 50%, or it can come up to 70%.

In our country?

– Luckily, I think the tax on artistic work is quite humane: it is 10% or less. It can get to 5% , which is OK.

In several debates I’ve had on this topic there is this dilemma that, for example, an authentic Balkan star such as Toshe Proevski, remains unknown to Greece. Is that some kind of Balkan politics or…?

– I think this happens because their culture is rather local. They are somehow turned to themselves. I really can’t remember anyone who has had a successful concert in Thessaloniki. Maybe in Athens they have, but Athens is not Greece. It is a megalopolis that shows interest and appetite about everything that is happening in the world. I have been going on holiday in Greece for years now, and I’ve never seen a concert there. In these fifteen years that I’ve been going to Halkidiki I’ve never seen a concert of any kind of music, not even bouzouki music, which is so strange. They are probably a little isolated from the rest of the Balkans. I suppose it is the language barrier that separates them from the rest of the Slavic people, whereas we can all understand each other. I also think they are a little self-centered, self-sufficient, unlike the rest of us. I don’t know, maybe the long years of us living together in one country are “guilty” for our communication.

Still, that communication among cultures of the people who lived in the former country, at least when it comes to music, is most beneficial for the bands and musicians of those days. I, for example, have no clue whether something similar is happening in Slovenia. It is difficult to get to that kind of information.

– Whether I like it or not, I receive such information and I can say that there is nothing revolutionary happening there. When I was growing up musically we lived, or to be more precise I lived, in very lucky times. We could perform in a large territory, and in relation to the establishment we as young people were quite radical, quite new and impertinent. It was somehow allowed for us to be, or maybe we managed to fight for it, I don’t know.

Are there any ideas of connecting these countries through common projects. I remember “Balkan Horses Band”…

– Yes. Some ten years ago I and my co-workers initiated a Balkan co-operation that later gave rise to the project you mentioned. We had musicians from Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia. It started as meetings of managers from these countries and it led to our co-operation.

You play with a great number of important Balkan musicians, starting with the famous Kudsi Erguner who plays the ney flute, then Teodosi Spasov, Miroslav Tadic and Gibonni. How do you find each other?

– It is strange for me too. You simply meet those musicians you need to co-operate with: at a concert, a festival, behind some curtain…you make a contact, exchange phone numbers…and at a certain moment someone remembers you or you remember someone. It’s incredible. I mainly find people who share a similar sensitivity and professional level. I can’t expect to meet Mick Jagger and have him singing in my next album. It would be too much, because he simply functions at a different level. It also wouldn’t be logical for an amateur to call me and ask me to play a solo section in his album. People simply recognize each other at the level at which they function. I am very happy when it comes to this, because I’ve met a lot of musicians who I’ve wanted to meet and I’ve worked with them.

Zvezdan Georgievski