Vlatko Stefanovski: Until I Satisfy My Artistic Appetite

Nenad Georgievski By

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It is not easy to describe what Vlatko Stefanovski does with his guitar; it seems that he has been on a quest for his whole career to discover the real possibilities of the instrument. People tend to believe he was born with a guitar in his hands, and this is hard to argue. For the last thirty years his work, both with his band Leb i Sol and his solo output, has reflected his diverse tastes and delicate guitar playing. Not many people have John McLaughlin, Mark Knopfler, Allan Holdsworth, and Joe Satriani praising their work. His precise, flowing style was one of the identifying trademarks of Leb i Sol's sound and regardless whether he is playing acoustic or electric guitar, Stefanovski has demonstrated musical qualities that have made him one of the most exciting and progressive European guitarists.

Stefanovski started his career at an early age in bands such as VIS Jegulje, Iris and Breg (the last fronted by keyboard player Miki Petkovski). The band Leb i Sol was formed on January 1, 1976 by Vlatko, Bodan Arsovski, Dimitrija Chuchovski and Nikola Kokan Dimushevski. During their twenty-year existence, the band achieved enormous popularity in what is now known as former Yugoslavia, which can be compared either with U2 or other pop acts at the top of their game. The band made a name for itself with its live and memorable performances, which even at quite an early stage of its career gave it an opportunity to perform in front of a crowd of 100,000 people. That period was very productive for the band as it recorded twelve albums and wrote music for numerous films and plays. One of the main features was its approach toward covering folk tunes (Aber Dojde Donke, Yovano Yovanke), which at the time was still unchartered territory which it threaded bravely. The lineup constantly shifted, but both Vlatko Stefanovski and bassist Bodan Arsovski form the core.

To mark its 20th anniversary, in 1996 the band released a double compilation Anthology, which was a collection of some of its best work to date and a worthy swan song. Since then, the band has remained inactive but its members have pursued successful solo careers.

The first solo recording that Vlatko ever did was Cowboys and Indians, while he was still with the band. The line up featured many guests, even exclusive ones, such as Goran Bregovic, Zlatko Oridjanski, actress Ana Kostovska, master drummer Mahmut Muzafer, Ilija Pejovski, Goce Dimitrovski, etc. His next project titled Sarajevo was recorded in 1993 and it was music recorded for a play written by Vlatko's brother Goran Stefanovski and was directed by Slobodan Unkovski. The CD was released in 1996 as soon as the civil war in Bosnia ended. In 1997, he released the soundtrack for Stole Popov's movie Gypsy Magic, and the title track "Gypsy Song" became an instant hit throughout the Balkans and today it can regularly be found featured in many world music compilations. The soundtrack was bolstered by the exclusive performances of master musician Medo Chun of Ensemble Teodosievski fame and Gazmend Berisha (Project Zlust).

Later in 1997, together with Miroslav Tadic, a professor at CalArts in LA, he recorded Krushevo a collection of traditional songs and reels played on two guitars, which to this very day is one of the highlights of his career as a recording and performing artist. For five days, they recorded their music at the Makedonium in the city of Krushevo. By the end of 1998, he released an album with his Trio, simply titled Vlatko Stefanovski Trio, a tour de force featuring some heavyweight performances by Vlatko and his trio. He wrote music for several films which was latter collected and released as Kino Kultura in 2001.

During this period he made guest appearances on various artist's records like Bojan Zulfikarpasic's Koreni, Vanja Lazarova's Ritmistica, Gibonni's Judi, Zviri i Beshtimje and Mirakul , to name but a few. The work he did with Gibonni proved to very fruitful and succesful, both commercially and artistically, as well as giving him the opportunity to meet and work with musicians such as Manu Katche, Pino Paladino, Tony Levin, Geffrey Oriema who would later perform on his next solo effort titled as Kula Od Karti (Tower Of Cards).

Last year he released Treta Majka, which is a continuation of his work with Miroslav Tadi.' The conversation I had with Vlatko took place first in one of Skopje's many clubs and then at his home studio Ezoteria. Shortly before that his brother Goran Stefanovski, with whom they worked together on numerous projects, was accepted as the member of the Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences (MANU) where he gave an inspiring speech. This mix of the urban and the domestic contributed to a vibrant discussion covering a wide and dazzling spectrum of topics. I have to admit that Vlatko is by far one of the most interesting interlocutors I've ever encountered.

All About Jazz: How did you and Miroslav Tadi' meet? When someone analyzes your and Tadi''s biography it is obvious that you two have different career paths on different continents and apparently different affinities? What made you decide to work with him?

Vlatko Stefanovski: I have a theory that musicians recognize each other and if they are destined to collaborate together they will. Mainly, they recognize each other according to the class they belong to. If they are punk-rocker kids from the neighborhood, they are going form a band. If they happen to be musicians that are going to play in pubs and restaurants, they are going to recognize each other, form a band and play together. If it's about musicians that are playing jazz and are going to jazz festivals, for e.g., then they are going to meet and work together.

Something similar happened with us. We met in Belgrade at our mutual friend's concert, the late bassist Vojin Drashkotzi. To his infinite delight, he was the one that introduced us. For a while he had an idea to introduce us to each other since he had an impression that we had similar affinities and that we should meet although the paths that our careers and lifes had been quite different. I grew up and worked here in Macedonia and the Balkans (what is now known as former Yugoslavia), whereas he took a different path i.e. he first went to study in Italy and from there to the USA, where he is still working today.

What brings us together are two important things: love and obsession for the guitar as an instrument and the love for traditional Macedonian music. And that's not all, as it goes wider and it includes different music traditions from this part of the world. Therefore, it was logical for us to meet and when we met it was logical to play together, to exchange ideas and experiences related to music and guitar playing, issues and experiences that he is well acquainted with, (through his avant-jazz approach) with the things that I know about and have experienced myself (through my rock'n'roll background).

One can sense many things in Miroslav's playing since he graduated at a classical music academy. He studied Bach, studied and played blues music, even delved into Brazilian music and flamenco. Miroslav is totally devoted to what he does to the point of fanaticism. I'm a bit different, as i give myself freedom to write lyrics, to make arrangements, to compose, to make recordings, to form and disband bands, to play with different people. As a character, i'm more nervous and my projects last until I satisfy my artistic appetites.

class="f-right"> AAJ: Since Treta Majka is the last of a trilogy which started with Krushevo, how did you make the choice for the songs that have appeared both on Krushevo and Treta Majka?

VS: The choice was very spontaneous. Say, from our archives we took what he knew, what I knew, we exchanged ideas easily and made them happen quickly. The music is already there, a living and breathing thing, and one should just open his ears and eyes in order to play it. If you already know how to play a guitar and if you have a good command of your guitar skills you can easily master certain types of songs (pop, folk, rock'n'roll). You can even master more complicated reels and rhythms.

This can be learned quite easily since all of that is already in our heads, soul and genes. We carry all that stuff within ourselves. It's like passive luggage from which one can draw from, take from, which should be researched and sometimes even freed of. Your head is always swirling with plenty of ideas, ideas waiting to be given shape, and there is a moment when one should sit down and make them real i.e. you have to materialise your own dreams, ideas and passions.

AAJ: What was the starting point for Treta Majka, since Krushevo and Live in Belgrade were based on the same subject? What were some of the basic ideas of what this record should be and not be about?

VS: By principle, I love to dig up things that haven't been done before or not have been performed very often. On the other hand, Miroslav thinks that this is one of my local minded prejudices. An example of this is "Kalesh Angjo," a tune that I have played at least a hundred times before. His reply was, Yes, you have played that tune a hundred times before, but no one in the USA, Germany or England knows it and people there will really appreciate if you play it for them, and that is true.

For some people that are beginners and who are about to start exploring Macedonian music, its like you are serving them a delicious piece of cake for the first time. To me this is very interesting, intriguing and exciting. I have previously recorded "Ne Si Go Prodavaj Koljo ÄŒiflikot" (Don't Sell Your Land Koljo) with my rock Trio and I opposed by saying that I have already recorded it in another format and we should choose another tune. But, he was delighted by this song and I relented to his arguments. On the other hand, I enjoy when I come across something that I don't know, like the Turkish folk tune "Anadolu," which I took to heart immediately. This is great, because moments such as these are quite interesting, which makes playing even more interesting. The choice of material was very spontaneous and this isn't a case of selecting a song 2 minutes before a session starts, but there are things on this album that we had worked on 2-3 years prior to it.

The technology for making music can be compared to food making i.e. it doesn't matter what ingredients you will put in the pot, but what matters is how it will taste in the end. Because of that Miroslav and I are letting the music flow from our hands without much consulting or deliberating about concepts. Let's play and record and later we shall see what we have done. No one can tell in advance what the final result will look like in the end.


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