Teofilovic Brothers: Songs Belong to Those Who Sing Them Better

Nenad Georgievski By

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The Teofilovic brothers (Radiša and Ratko) are two of the most popular performers of traditional songs from Serbia, as well as other parts of the Balkans. In their repertoire they always have wonderful traditional songs that time has forgotten, or that are not always widely known or present in other performers' repertoires. Their wide choices and unique approach are best represented on last year's collaboration with the renowned American/Serbian guitarist Miroslav Tadic, titled Vidarica (Nine Winds, 2012).

Tadic is best known for his duet with popular guitarist Vlatko Stefanovski and as a professor at CalArts university in Los Angeles. Vidaric , the title of which has a symbolic meaning, features songs from Serbia, Bosnia, Dalmatia (Croatia) and Macedonia, and the singers carry these songs into the new century. This album was promoted in Zagreb, Croatia, last year, but in January, 2013, it had its first promotional tour in three cities in Serbia—Novi Sad, Čačak and, finally, at Kolarac concert hall in Belgrade where these three artists stirred the audience's emotions with their intricate yet wonderful playing and singing.

All About Jazz: The album Vidarica, is a joint effort with guitarist Miroslav Tadic and although you both met Tadic 15 years ago and have played occasionally with him since then, why did it take so long for you to work together and release Vidarica?

Radiša Teofilovic: We met Tadic through Vlatko Stefanovski when they were promoting their album Krushevo (MA, 1998) in Belgrade. That was second of October, 1999. He suggested to Miroslav that it would be nice if they could invite two special guests for that occasion.. Even at the rehearsal we got on really well with them. That was the starting point and many years have passed since then. In the meantime, we were guests at Rade Serbedžija's concert; we played at the Guitar Art festival in Belgrade, and had two concerts in Niš and Podgorica [Montenegro]. Eventually, we felt that the time was right for a record to be done.

Miroslav is very active in America. He performs with Frank Zappa's band (The Grandmothers), he did Treta Majka with Vlatko and made two records with Rade Šerbedžija. He is very neat and precise, works meticulously and doesn't mesh several projects at once. Because of that, he'd been waiting for a clear space in his schedule so he could devote himself completely to the music on this record. It was our dream to work with him. People had been complaining that we'd never collaborated with anyone, not knowing that we already knew who we were going to collaborate with. During his travels throughout Europe he regularly passed through Belgrade, where we'd get together a lot.

After recording this music we were enjoying each other's company even more, as we went to his house in Croatia. So it's fair to say that this music came out of beautiful surroundings and the beautiful friendship we share. I would even say that Miro is like an older brother to us. He is very aware of where we live and what our relationships are like here. He lives within a system that has a strict order while we literally have to fight to set certain values within ours. When he told his students in America that we earn a living by singing songs a cappella, he says only sighs of wonder could be heard in the class. Because of that, to him, our wish, enthusiasm, inner spirit and mood were his inspiration. That was the start of our collaboration with Miroslav that resulted in Vidarica.

AAJ: What is the meaning behind Vidarica?

Ratko Teofilovic: On one hand, the title has a certain ethnological meaning. Vidarice are women that heal with herbs. They are healers. The title can also refer to healing springs where, according to legend, if you wash yourself during sunrise you will be healed. The liner notes on our CD were written by our older brother and he explains, rather poetically, what vidarica is. It is a health condition and a balance of the mind and spirit. When that balance is disrupted, a sickness sets in. It's then when people start looking for a cure or a vidarica. That balance is represented within the interplay between the voices and the guitar.

At our concert at Kolarac Hall, we were told that many of the people there were crying. I believe that they had certain emotions that came out to the surface during the concert. I think these days, although the music is moving forward technologically, that it stagnates emotionally. That discrepancy between what people think is not necessary and the actual occurrences, is precisely what I think is necessary. It is something we see whenever we travel around the world. It is our sound expression that we transfer, the emotions that people recognize. There are people that also believe that music brings salvation. At our place, one of the colleges has a department for music therapy, which is fine, but the true contact between people should happen from the inside or intuitively.

That healing with music cannot be choreographed. I'm not someone that accepts setups, but I do accept what is happening in the given moment. Just like art, it is something that is created in the moment. That is how we choose the songs for our repertoire on this tour to promote this album. The three planned concerts all had three different repertoires. But what will remain among the three of us, and what people will feel is happening is empathy. And the energy that comes back to us in those moments—I can only describe it as catharsis. When Miroslav hits a string, my voice is in a state of convulsion, and I feel I'm about to cry. In that moment, he is taking us into his own emotional world that you simultaneously transmit to your audiences. It is something I haven't experienced very often. He is literally carrying us over and playing with our voices.

AAJ: Vidarica is a collection of songs from various regions of the Balkans and it is a meeting point for the musicians' different tastes. How did you make the choice which songs to include here?

Radiša Teofilovic: Miroslav knew some of the songs that we perform and asked us whether we knew something similar to that. He liked our suggestions. Even today we have a number of songs from Dalmatia, but Miroslav chose two songs that he had performed as instrumental variants. He suggested we listen and approach the songs in our own way. There weren't any particular suggestions here. He didn't aim to lighten the load for himself through the choice of songs but to fit himself into our harmonies. That's the essence of the approach here. Miroslav is a listener. For instance, we didn't know the song "Stojne, sine Stojane" before. That's a song that he did for Lulka (Cradle, Third Ear Music, 2002), the record with the singer Vanja Lazarova, and he sent us a version of that song from US, sung by a group The Singers from Ohrid. He suggested we listen to the song and we practiced that one exclusively for a month. You repeat the text over and over until you arrive at a point where you don't think about the next verse. Such is the nature of this profession. That is why we work every day.

There was a huge interaction between us, and trust, to listen to Miroslav's suggestions which songs are most appropriate. Also, he had a kind of a vision about the playlist. There was a song from Eastern Serbia that we changed our minds about, for some reason. And then we thought of "Mome Stoe." I remember we sang that song for the first time in Ohrid at the Balcan Square festival. It was an incredible experience. That was the best concert we have ever had in our career. In that special surrounding, we had an audience of 2,500 people singing with us. When we sang that song to Miroslav, he reacted immediately. He began playing with us and working out the arrangement. "That's blues"—that's what he said. All of the proposals and suggestions were accepted. And regardless if he hadn't been listening to many Dalmatian songs, he knew, on the basis of his enormous musical experience and the time spent in Croatia, how to approach them. He also knew how we were going to approach those songs. All of that gave it its signature and a different dimension. For our part we had to sing in duet and to sound like a klapa.

AAJ: How do you approach the songs you interpret? What is it that gives these songs your signature?

Ratko Teofilovic: A song is really a trinity, consisting of rhythm, verse and melody. Each song has its own pulse. Each song has its own heartbeat. You have to pick a song that is decisive. We choose the songs mostly because of its lyrics. For example, the words and the melody of "Hey, you shepherd." The lyrics are the song's metaphysics, or "Mome Stoe." You cannot remain indifferent to those words. And when you hear the melody...Regardless if it is written somewhere how someone else has sung it, it's you who holds the keys or the heart of the song. It is always performed differently. That is also a moment. Each song is a moment, but how it will look in the end, also depends on the moment. That is why our feeling about the music in that moment is sincere, since we give as we feel about the song in that instance. A sound engineer who was working with us described it, saying, "They don't sing, they paint."

When you paint, each of us has a film in his head or an idea how something should look. Once, we asked a friend, who is a singing teacher, what is it about the male voice that makes it more interesting than the female voice? The female voice can achieve more as it has a wider range, it can manage incredible things and do beautiful ornamentations. Yes, but the female voice doesn't have the tones that male voices have.

Radiša Teofilovic: But when we are learning those songs, I strive to listen to female vocalists, I mean, I try to sing as women would have. That's what I try to accomplish. Women can do anything with their voices, they're virtuosos and can give a finest rendition of a song. That is the level we strive for, to transfer female singing into the male register.

AAJ: The major part of Vidarica consists of Macedonian folk songs. What is it that makes Macedonian music and songs so attractive for you to sing those songs? You had some of those songs in your repertoire well before Vidarica.

Radiša: We listened to that music a lot. All kinds of anthologies by various singers. We literally bought everything that was released. When you met people, they would recommend other songs. It is about an inner emotion that you recognize whenever you listen to Macedonian music. It is not accidental. Our parents studied economics in Skopje, and later our mom found a job there at a local bank. The night before the earthquake in 1963 she decided to give birth to our older brother in Čačak (a city in central Serbia). Their plan was to give birth there and then to return soon afterwards. The day when they arrived in Čačak they heard about the earthquake that totally wiped out the city, and their house was completely destroyed. We even served the army there. We have many, many friends and Ratko's wife is Macedonian.

AAJ: Do you think there is an innovation when interpreting other people's songs?

Ratko Teofilovic: That is a good question. Everything in this world is advancing and developing. In sports, people advance constantly and they do things faster and more efficiently. In the same way, the singing also moves forward. There are ways in which one can surpass what other people have been doing and we are absolutely aware of that. That is why we do things differently in comparison to how certain singers used to sing their songs. These songs were never sung in duet. While in Macedonia, they had the courage to turn to their native instruments, we in Serbia were always following Western types of orchestrations and putting things in a different context. That context is shallow and sweet. The question is, if people were under different influences whether they would have sung differently. Each person is recognizable by his voice. The voice is a person. Each person introduces himself with the voice he possesses.

AAJ: The songs you perform are archaic and not so familiar to the general public. How do you connect these songs to your audiences? In what way do you breathe in new life into these generally unknown songs within your immediate surrounding?

Radiša Teofilovic: Many times we were asked whether we are keepers of a tradition. I don't like that question. I find it absurd. What does it mean? Does tradition have anything to do with arts? Is it something you can or you cannot step out of? The music and the language constantly change. Imagine what it was like when the first radio receiver appeared in a certain community ages ago. It certainly changed the way those people thought, the way they perceived the sound as such. There aren't any more people in the villages that can sing authentically. That doesn't exist. I have heard many times, people trying to sing like that, and they just ruin the songs. Today we live differently compared to the past. We live now, in the present, and that certainly brings different influences that people don't even think about. This subject is so wide, every answer given begs another question, or several. The tradition can happen at any time. Even Vidarica can one day be a tradition.

Selected Discography

Braca Teofilovici and Miroslav Tadic, Vidarica(Nine Winds Records, 2012)
Teofilovic Brothers, Winds of Dawn (One Records, 2009)
Teofilovic Brothers¸Belgrade live (Marsalis Music, 2003)

Teofilovic Brothers, Dream Keepers (One Records, 1998)

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Teofilovic Brothers

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