Translated from Macedonian by: Kalina Maleska (Gallery photos by Tatjana Rantaša)
I’ve been tempted in life to go to certain extremes, but it’s not my style. I have found enormous satisfaction in music. I have found in music such great satisfaction… and cure… and salvation from various situations that I cannot leave it now. There is no need to. I’m still searching for something in it. I’m still searching for some solutions. Music solutions. Emotional. I’m searching for answers to my question. I answer some of them through music. And for others – I will never find an answer – Vlatko Stefanovski says in an interview for BLESOK.
Vlatko Stefanovski has been more than a regional guitar hero for a long time. He is definitely the most engaged Macedonian musician with international career. He is one of the few who, since the adolescent BREG, through the missionaries LEB I SOL, his trio… the collaboration with virtuosos such as Miroslav Tadic, Teodosij Spasov, Jan Akkerman, Tommy Emmanuel, Stochelo Rosenberg… established himself as a prominent artist, desired musical fellow thinker and artist who enters the narrow circle of those who compose the real and unlimited sound image for the rhythmically colorful Balkan in global terms.
This Vlatko Stefanovski, the former teenager from the Skopje “Mexican” street, who in the past fanatically plunged into discovering the secrets of the instrument, finding himself “torn apart” between rock-and-roll, fusion music and Macedonian music language and tradition, is the last laureate of the state award “11 October” for his overall oeuvre in the area of culture and art, and the author who signed one of his most mature achievements – the album with a symbolical title “Macedonian Tongue”. The conversation with Stefanovski was recorded on his terrain, in his Taftalidze. In the restaurant “14”, where even the walls contain the positive energy of his music. Of our music.
You were present in the audience at the performance of the improviser Fred Frith in the chamber hall of the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra. Then, at the one of the TOTO group, at the concert of Scott Henderson, SOFT MACHINE… and we have seen each other at many other events where you follow attentively what your colleagues in instruments do. What is it that even today, after so many years in this music story of yours, makes you curious and dedicated to listening to other musicians’ performances?
STEFANOVSKI: First, I want to see how far my colleagues have come in their personal development. Second, how far the guitar trend has come, and, third, you can learn a trick or two from everyone. See the way in which they play. See what kind of equipment they use. How they resolve certain music challenges and problems. Everyone has their own way. I am not the only such guitar fanatic. If Jeff Beck can practice at the age of 70 something and be interested in how other guitarists play, why wouldn’t I. I do not think at all that a person can discover all secrets of a craft in one lifetime. There are constantly new ones that you have to discover, and see how far you’ve come. A few days ago I was at TOTO… I watched Steve Lukather. I was looking at how far he has come. We are almost the same age. Van Halen was born in 1955, the following 1956 Steve Lukather, while I was born in 1957. Although I am not from California, we do have things in common. Things that we treat similarly because my whole generation of guitar players was fed with the same music. With the music of the end of the 1960is and the beginning of the 1970es. And if you ask Lukather what his favorite LP is, he will tell you “Band of Gypsys” by Jimi Hendrix. I have grown up with that LP, too. Not only that one, but also the whole fusion of the seventies, John McLaughlin, Jan Akkerman, all that interesting music that was taking place in that period. We were teenagers back then, and we soaked it like sponges. We were feeding ourselves with what was current.
Taking into consideration my age and experience, and the mileage I’ve passed, I know that projects happen only if they want to happen. I cannot force anyone – please, we have to collaborate. If the collaborations do not happen spontaneously, then there is no sense.
ABOUT THE DREAMING OF DREAMS
At your age, not so young but not so old either, is that need for reexamination real: Who am I? What am I? How much have I done? Can I do more? Do you wake in the morning with such questions?
STEFANOVSKI: No. I am not dissatisfied. I am not frustrated with what I have been doing. I think I have done a lot. I have recorded numerous records, played on numerous concerts, achieved many collaborations… realized many different projects with various orchestras, various musicians… significant musicians, great names. As a man from Skopje, from Macedonia, I feel pretty content with what is behind me. Regarding what awaits me, I will persist in the things in which I would need to persist as long as God gives me strength, enthusiasm, motivation and health. A while ago, I was talking to a very good friend about what it would be good to do. Something I have not done by now. An album for children. And I will do that in the near future.
Through the years, you have always managed to tell a different story. You are probably the only one who thought in advance about what should be developed further. From the collaboration with Miroslav Tadić that started with “Krushevo”, through the meetings with Teodosij Spasov, Gibonni, Akkerman, the violinist Stefan Milenković… big-bands, symphony orchestras… In a conversation about a Belgrade magazine many years ago, when you were working full force on your solo career, I asked you whether you were thinking of leaving or staying in the then disintegrated common state. You told me that you have no intention of leaving so that you could wash dishes somewhere during the day, and play at night, and that you would try to dream your dream here. In Macedonia.
STEFANOVSKI: That is very difficult, and to work in that career here takes a lot of luck, a lot of persistence and a lot of professionalism. A person should learn to communicate with the rest of the world normally. I wake up in the morning, I play the guitar a little bit, and then I respond for a long time to the messages that wait for my response. You cannot be unserious towards the people that have expectations from you. And you have to reply to dates, offers, projects, various offers… You have to be precise in the communication, and this means to be professional. The other thing is – everyone has a lot of options. You can go to a monastery and dedicate yourself to spiritual life. You can go to Las Vegas and spend all your money on slot machines. And you can be somewhere in the middle – between monastery and Las Vegas, where I am. If a person enters a mystic phase, so to say, that means that he took life too seriously. And such serious understanding of life is not good. We are here temporarily, and we all have our burden to bear. A man will go as far as he has been destined to go. He will go on as long as he has the strength to. I have thought of various options. Of isolation, withdrawal… and of large company. Both isolation and a great party – my place is somewhere along those lines. I consume isolation, but I have also been a part of a larger company. In my case, as I understand the world, a man should live in some kind of a dialectic balance between emptiness and fulfillment. Between isolation and large company. I search for the middle ground. I have been tempted in life to go to extremes, but that is not my style. I have found great satisfaction in music. I have found in music such great satisfaction… and cure… and salvation from various situations that I cannot leave it now. There is no need to. I’m still searching for something in it. I’m still searching for some solutions. Music solutions. Emotional. I’m searching for answers to my question. I answer some of them through music. And for others – I will never find an answer.
The whole modern music can be called music experiment. That is not really music. You’ve taken sounds from here, samples from there… you’ve mixed them, put them together in a Cubase or in Pro Tools… you’ve done something, some mixture… That can be called “music experiment”, but for that to become music, there is a lot to be done. Today’s time is all about the wrapping. Not the content.
“MOTHER TONGUE” – HEALING ALBUM
Listening to “Mother Tongue”, the first thing that came to my mind was that it was a kind of a “healing album”… A record that is filled with emotions, core. Virtuosity. Descending to the core of the Macedonian music language.
STEFANOVSKI: I’ll very glad if that is so, because I was passing through a very difficult period myself. Through an emotional storm in regard to my private situation… And I tried to tame that storm a little by recording the album. Believe me, I was recording the album with great excitement because I was very upset privately. And disturbed. I was passing through the most difficult period in my life. Searching for comfort and cure for my soul, I have probably recorded something that may mean something to other people in the future. Probably… even certainly… I know that… I touched upon a piece of something that is very intimate and sacred. And I recorded it. It will reach some people, not necessarily all. It’s intended for those people who have a radar for my sensibility. Very simple. So, I address the people with similar sensibility. More or less – my generation. Without feeling uncomfortable, without getting into dispute with contemporary music and the contemporary audience. I recorded this with great confidence because I say to myself – this is it, this is the time in which I live, this is me in this moment, and if the frequency I offer resonates across the audience, the job is done. Mission completed. Without great ambitions to achieve that: like, oh, I have to succeed now. I have had many successful projects behind me and I am not impatient to gain success at any cost. I want to realize the projects as they come. To address the public from time to time. Record an album, play a concert, with an idea that it be something interesting and exciting. It sometimes causes lesser interest, sometimes greater interest, but that logic is very strange, very inverse. Sometimes, when you are the least ambitious, the greatest success happens. And vice versa. If you force yourself too much, if you say, “oh, now I will make an album that will be commercial and accepted”, you can fail. You can be wrong. The albums “Krushevo” and “Mother Tongue” are evidence to that. We recorded “Krushevo” in complete isolation in 1997. It was June and there was not a single soul in Krushevo. There were no tourists or people paragliding… nothing. Just a few cowboy summer days. Utterly quiet. Not a leaf was moving outside. And Miroslav Tadić and I entered that museum, the Makedonium, and we recorded in just two days the album that later became cult record.
“Mother Tongue” was recorded in four days in my studio. Fortunately, I have a good microphone, good preamplifier, good guitar, several pedals that help me spread the sound… and this album was created as a very intimate address. It probably means a great deal to people, so that react very nicely so far.
Therefore, there are nice reviews about the recorded music, three sold concerts in the Philharmonic Orchestra…
STEFANOVSKI: I am happy about the interest that the public has shown so far. Honestly. People probably recognized the honesty that I shared.
We live in a time of distorted values, in a time when we stopped communicating with each other, when a person is appreciated on the basis of his/her materialistic property rather than on the basis of the spirit…
STEFANOVSKI: There are too many distorted values and strange calculations. Unfortunately, the young generations are overexposed to tasteless things, superficiality… products for one use only. I speak of media and all that is offered. There are very few things that may attract you so that you can say: I will put this on the shelf, it might come handy in the future. Few. Very few. Unfortunately, that is why our young people go abroad. They look for sense in their life. They look for talent, youth and beauty. They want back quality life. Simple.
If I enter politics, I’ll just hang my guitar on a nail, and I’ll deal with politics. I cannot seat on two chairs. I don’t want to be remembered by my statements on politics. I want to be remembered by my songs.
SONGS THAT SEEM LIKE BROKEN OFF A ROCK
We know the need for recording “Mother Tongue”, the story of its realization… Can we say that even its title is a result of your personal aspiration for honesty towards yourself and the world that surrounds you?
STEFANOVSKI: I have a strong need for honesty toward every single person in the audience. I finally give myself that right. I dare to. In order to be close to everyone. To be close to everyone in the audience. That means to address everyone in their ear. It is a privilege after all. Not everyone can address people in such a way. I think that I have deserved it. I have completed my compositions. I have walked the path to reach this.
I guess I hadn’t been thinking about this at the age of 19-20. I had neither courage, decisiveness, nor experiences to do something like this. The zone is very comfortable when you are in a band. In a band, you divide the responsibility between at least four. If you don’t play, the bass player will, the drummer… the keyboardist will have a solo. If you don’t sing, an accompanying vocal will cover you. You can lean on someone. When you are alone on the stage, you cannot lean on anyone. The terrain is very slippery, while every tone is important. Every tone is being heard. You cannot escape. There is nowhere to escape. Everything is public. Everything is heard. Everything is measured. Such responsibility makes you enter some deeper concentration and dig inside yourself and on the instrument.
However, if you don’t have the mileage and all you’ve done before, you wouldn’t be able to do that. From BREG through LEB I SOL… to today. Few days ago I was listening to the record where you are together with Miki Petkovski and Laza Ristovski, then I remembered Ajduchka cheshma – that historical concert… Then my thoughts went to “mother tongue” where you put on the same level Jonche Hristovski, Esma Redzepova… with Goran Bregović.
STEFANOVSKI: They are absolutely on the same level. Jonche Hristovski may have seemed to some as a comic person with his moustache, the way he moved his jacket… with some performance tricks, but if you analyze his compositions – they are masterpieces. From “Makedonsko devojche” (Macedonian girl), “Ako umram il’ zaginam” (If I die or get killed)… and other patriotic songs – everyone realizes that they are masterpieces. He often came here in “14”. I had great respect towards him. I always greeted him… he was sitting here every morning with a company, they were having a few drinks… A great name. Jonche Hristovski was a great name. He has songs that seem to be taken from a rock. Broken off a rock. He has songs that are hits, nice hits. But he also has songs that are so completed… as a polished diamond. You cannot add or take away anything from them. If you add, they crumble. If you take away, they will also crumble. So, perfectly made. There are just a few such composers and people who can write such songs. Regarding “Makedonsko devojche”, a very famous song, everyone thinks that it’s a folk song, but actually it is composed. It is Jonche Hristovski’s song. It would be great if our newly formed festivals had like five or so songs such as “Makedonsko devojche”.
Today, almost no songs are composed. Some music is done on the computer which is not really music.
STEFANOVSKI: The whole modern music can be called music experiment. That is not really music. You’ve taken sounds from here, samples from there… you’ve mixed them, put them together in a Cubase or in Pro Tools… you’ve done something, some mixture… That can be called “music experiment”, but for that to become music, there is a lot to be done. Today’s time is all about the wrapping. Not the content. Show-business and music business, music production is mainly dealing with the cling film, the wrapping… not with the chocolate. How much cocoa it contains. Instead, let’s wrap it up in this cover, in that cover… so, marketing becomes more important than the product itself. That’s the kind of time we live in. There were, of course, such things in the time of THE BEATLES as well, but the product was much more important than the marketing for it. I don’t mean to say that I live imprisoned in my own time. On the contrary. For example, my son Jan at the moment listens mostly to “Hey Jude!” by THE BEATLES. I don’t know what got into him. He is obsessed with Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Star… Unbelievable. LED ZEPPELIN, THE BEATLES… that’s what he is listening to. I tell him, this is my music, not yours… and he says that that’s exactly what he likes.
Some of your songs, such as those of Hristovski… are being played and sung in restaurants. They become popularized. How do you feel about it?
STEFANOVSKI: That gives me a lot of pleasure. When I enter a restaurant in Belgrade, they immediately play “Gipsy Song”… trust me… that’s a great compliment for me. “Gipsy Song” has been played in all Balkan restaurants. That’s the greatest compliment for me as an author. This is one of the songs that I was telling you about, which seem as though taken from a rock. You cannot add or take away anything from it… including the text. That’s how it happened.
I am not frustrated with what I have been doing. I think I have done a lot. I have recorded numerous records, played on numerous concerts, achieved many collaborations… realized many different projects with various orchestras, various musicians… significant musicians, great names. As a man from Skopje, from Macedonia, I feel pretty content with what is behind me. Regarding what awaits me, I will persist in the things in which I would need to persist as much as God gives me strength, enthusiasm, motivation and health.
ON THE DISCIPLINE OF SORTING OUT THOUGHTS
We know you as extraordinary guitar player, superb player, composer… but you have also given us a number of great texts. Did you ever see yourself as a text writer? Did you have and do you still have that need to write verses?
STEFANOVSKI: I did have it and I still do. In my phone, I have a bunch of phrases that come to me, and which are still as an initiation for some songs that will be written in the future… hopefully. I enjoy writing texts. I love the discipline of sorting out thoughts and rhymes. I learned that craft. I used to bother my brother Goran for the first albums of LEB I SOL, while later I achieved that discipline of writing. I have very nice texts. Few days ago Jan played for me “Nostalgija” (Nostalgia) from the album “Kula od karti” (Tower of Cards)… and I was surprised how good the text was. I can write a verse or two. Look, if you let me boast a little, I will tell you where my greatest quality is. At the same time, I had been listening to Allan Holdsworth, Bob Dylan, THE BEATLES, Jimi Hendrix… and Jeff Beck. So, at the same I was listening to fusion music, and I loved Dylan, Joni Mitchell… people who are songwriters… who wrote beautiful texts, beautiful songs. I’ve wanted to make a balance between these two worlds. I’m sure that Allan Holdsworth has not written a single text in his life… or maybe one or two in the group TEMPEST… I see myself as one of the better text writers among the guitar players. And as one of the guitar players among songwriters. That’s it. But I’m constantly trying to be flexible and draw from all those spheres.
Do you ever mind epithets such as “guitar god” or the like?
STEFANOVSKI: No, no. I don’t take that seriously. I just received information that allegedly Eric Clapton praised me to Ray Dorset from MUNGO JERRY… and on and on… That is another input in the mythology about me. Those are mythologies. I don’t take any of it seriously. They are all kinds of ranging, compliments… he said, she said… Pat Metheny said this about me, Mark Knopfler said that… none of it matters. I don’t believe anything until someone says it personally to me. I’m not interested. If someone like John McLaughlin says that to me directly, as he did, then that’s a whole different matter. The other things are just mythology, nothing more. Whether they said it or not… it makes no difference to me. People like to distort things and before they come to you – they take a whole different shape.
On the other hand, you had concerts with maestros such as Tommy Emmanuel, Stochelo Rosenberg… Jan Akkerman…
STEFANOVSKI: That is a great compliment and a great privilege for me… I still consider “Kings of Strings” an explosive and large project. Tommy Emmanuel has given me serious compliments, and I have also spoken very well of him, because I think that he is the best acoustic, steel-string guitar player today. Tommy is the best. There is no one better than him. The man knows 12,000 songs by heart. You cannot compete with him. He is a living encyclopedia. A living juke box. He knows all tunes. The difficult as well as the easy ones. All songs by Ray Charles, by THE BEATLES… by Nat King Cole, by Django Reinhardt… how can you compete with him? The man is far, far away…
Is there anyone, anyone left among the guitar players that you would like to play with on the same stage? To play together. Like, you’ve had the desire to, but due to circumstances, you didn’t manage to get hold of him, to organize such a meeting?
STEFANOVSKI: Taking into consideration my age and experience, and the mileage I’ve passed, I know that projects happen only if they want to happen. I cannot force anyone – please, we have to collaborate. If the collaborations do not happen spontaneously, then there is no sense. To compel someone, to write messages that I want to cooperate with him – that makes no sense to me. I want things to come naturally. And this thing with Tommy Emmanuel and Stochelo Rosenberg came naturally. With Jan Akkerman likewise. With the London Symphony Orchestra, it came naturally… I didn’t force them to play with me. It happened. Only then things make sense. Only then you don’t feel redundant on stage.
How did you experience the fact that you were recently awarded “11 October” Award? You are the first among the rock musicians who receives the highest state recognition.
STEFANOVSKI: Of course, that is a great honor. And I’m very glad I was awarded the “11 October” Award. I cannot complain any more that I am not recognized in my country. I have no arguments for it. I cannot say that abroad I have been recognized, while no one pays attention to me in my country. They sealed my lips. And, how I experienced the award? I think I earned it long ago. Trust me. I know exactly what I am doing for Macedonia. For our identity, which is so discussed lately. I know the effect, because I play music which is part of our culture. I play it in a different, contemporary way, but I lean on our tradition. Our culture. If you have your culture, they cannot dispute anything. Because culture is what makes your national identity.
I know exactly what I am doing for Macedonia. For our identity, which is so discussed lately. I know the effect, because I play music which is part of our culture. I play it in a different, contemporary way, but I lean on our tradition. Our culture. If you have your culture, they cannot dispute anything. Because culture is what makes your national identity.
I DON’T SIT ON TWO CHAIRS
Since we’re already talking about it, in the past years, you have managed skillfully to avoid the trap of entering everyday inter-party accusations, discussing politics as is typically done here. Was it difficult to stay aside, be yourself at any cost?
STEFANOVSKI: We are all talking about politics in restaurants. I am very careful with my statements in public. I cannot divide my attention. If I enter politics, I’ll just hang my guitar on a nail, and I’ll deal with politics. I cannot sit on two chairs. I don’t want to be remembered by my statements on politics. I want to be remembered by my songs. It is very easy to say something, but you should know that everyone gets caught in that trap. Personally, I want to write a few more good songs in life. And that is it. Now, whether I’ll praise someone or criticize someone, that is irrelevant. I am from Tito’s time. I was raised in another time. And in another political context. The whole transition, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, all that is happening to us, this democracy – real or in quotation marks, I experience that as a wonder. I’m just surprised. I’m surprised with the public and with reality. I’m surprised at the rushed and unskillful acts that are happening in this democracy of ours that we are still learning. And in which there are a lot of mistakes.
Let’s go back to the future projects. What are your plans after this series of concerts in the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra, in the region… Will you start recording the album for children? Even today “Bushava azbuka” is the most mature and of best quality project, and not only television project. You were part of the team that signed this achievement, which unfortunately as an immaterial treasure was not documented properly, let alone be accessible to today’s generations.
STEFANOVSKI: Apart from what I have been doing, which is publically known, I have a collection of “private” songs. Songs that I had been creating while my children – my daughter Ana and my son Jan – were growing up. We have recording numerous private songs like that. We have songs on the topic of winter, spring… New Year, 8 March… Home manufacture of songs. No one knows them yet… and they are wonderful. When my children were young, with their treble voices, I recorded those songs and they are in our archive. Then, I have some other ones, such as “Cyrillic”, which is a very dear song to me… I will compile what I worked on and the new things that will come. I’m starting to think seriously about that. I already see the cover… with a child’s drawing and… I don’t say it will be tomorrow, but I have a strong desire, and I think intensively of such a project. There is nothing more noble than to address children.
Searching for comfort and cure for my soul, I have probably recorded something that may mean something to other people in the future. Probably… even certainly… I know that… I touched upon a piece of something that is very intimate and sacred. And I recorded it. It will reach some people, not necessarily all. It’s intended for those people who have a radar for my sensibility. Very simple.