Aleksandar Petrovic, known as “Aca Seltik”, the lead singer of the band “Ortodox Celts”, remembers the Belgrade from his school days with nostalgia. As he says, back then there were no mobile phones and if you cancelled a meeting you would first get a yellow and the second time a red card.

How do you see Belgrade today?

People keep emphasizing the fast-paced lifestyle, the nightlife on the rafts, the though this is New York, the city that never sleeps. Belgrade is not that, nor can it ever be, because we aren’t Americans. Our mentality and our souls are different. We’re not cut out for that kind of life. Today, Belgrade is lacking a bit of its old-town spirit.

You were born in Smiljaniceva street and spent the first 6 years of your life there.

My memories from that time are connected to the building we lived in. Sadly it’s been demolished since then and in its place they built a modern-style “abomination”. The building I grew up in used to have an old-style basement. In that basement they used to keep the writing desk which belonged to Milos Obrenovic. Someone had stashed it down there after WWII and the building itself had a big yard where we played as kids.

On the other hand, the earliest memory I can conjure up is related to a black and white photo that was taken, I think, in 1971. It’s a picture of me, wearing a pair of red pants and picking marigolds in Tasmajdan, where I spent my childhood and early youth. Our parents would let us play in the street without a care in the world. Maybe 2-3 cars would pass through Smiljaniceva street every week and it was safe to play on the side of the road and run around carefree. I know it sounds like a fairytale, but everything back then used to be just right, in a way.

In addition to Tasmajdan, what were your other favorite parts of Belgrade?

Well, a good 90% of all my girlfriends were either from Karaburma or Petlovo hill, and the hill ended up winning – my wife is from there. These are the parts of the city that I ended up exploring and knowing better than others under the circumstances. :)

I used to live in Banovo hill, today I’m in Cukarica, but in my heart I still claim Tasmajdan as my own.

What was the neighborhood like in Smiljaniceva?

One floor under us, there lived some students whom we thought were from Palestine. It turned out they were actually Arafat’s comrades who were probably sent there for a reason. I remember the day that a black limousine with Palestinian flags showed up in our street. Arafat himself came out and grabbed the nearest child from the street to take a picture with him – probably to hang in one of the embassies. That kid was me. In return I got a PLO badge from him which I still keep today.

Back then you had two big loves – chess and the garbage truck.

Oh yes. I got my first chess set for my fourth birthday in 1974, from my mother’s friend Sophia. That chess set is still in my possession today. It also used to serve as my secret hiding place for anything that was for my eyes only – I’d hide it all under the sponge where the piece-arrangement patterns were. That’s where I kept stuff like my girlfriends’ phone numbers, things like that. It was part of the reason I became attached to the game. :)

On the other hand, “Kuka” was one of our greatest entertainment sources in life. “Kuka”, by the way, was the brand of that garbage truck produced in the Czech Republic. It was a green and orange truck with a big barrel for mixing the garbage. Every time it drove past, to us it seemed like a tank was going by. The garbage collectors used to let us ride on it, hanging from the sides. This all resulted in my writing how I wanted to be a garbage collector for homework, while all my friends wrote they wanted to be pilots, doctors...things like that. My teacher immediately called my parents to tell them, and my dad said to her: “It’s an honest job, ma’am, just like mine or yours.”

How did you spend time with friends back then?

We rarely left our block. As kids we never needed to go farther than Tasmajdan. Usually we were around our building, in the yard or later in the school yard. Until I started high-school, everything I needed and cared about was right there.

On the other hand, that meant we all knew each other really well. For example my best friend to this day is a guy I went to school with, as well as my dentist with whom I also went to school.

Nowadays you have these ‘instant friendships’ through social media that don’t stand the test of time. I can’t help but feel that all my deep friendships were possible because we knew each other so well before we started hanging out.

I remember my friend Bane and I would buy an “Alan Ford” comic, climb into one of those metal rockets that used to exist in the kids’ park in Tasmajdan, climb to the top and not let anyone else in until we finished reading. It was our ritual.

And on top of that, we could knock on our friends’ doors at any time of night or day (except between 1PM-5PM and 10PM-5AM, out of courtesy) and say we’re hungry or we need something and they’d take care of us as though they were our own parents. You were never out of friends.

Why do I need 1,500 friends on a social network if I can’t talk more than 5 words with them because we’re nowhere near the same wavelength?

You mentioned the Alan Ford comic book. Did it influence your childhood?

It influenced me a lot in a philosophical-sociological sense. I don’t know if I’d get to understand true irony and sarcasm so well without that comic book – or rather, the first 75 issues done by Magnus. When you read “If you want to win, you must not lose”, you understand it all – no confusion, it’s ironic and accurate. It had a big effect on my verbal development and vocabulary.

In addition I read the classics too – Zagor, Black, Mark, Martin Mistery, Mister No., Dylan Dog, Iznogoud, Asterix, Strip 81...I still have my collection, as well as a book that’s always been important to me – “Wonderous world of Djordje Lobacev”, five of our epic poems in form of a comic strip.

When it comes to modern comics, I really love our own series “Vekovnici” for which my friend Marko Stojanovic is the script-writer, and the foreign titles I was blown away by include “Atomica”, about creating a Communist god and “From Hell”, a story about Jack the Ripper.

Around that time you also started falling in love with music.

I enlisted in music school in fourth grade junior school and started learning classic guitar. Already in fifth grade I was all about making my own band. It was called “Crazy cramps crying” and we had a logo – a bat with three letters “C”. The Celts originated from that band, but so did the band “Ruz”. Our drummer ended up as a guard at a mental institution in Vienna and made it in life by painting impressionistic artwork on the roof of the hospital. He was discovered by galleries and ended up becoming a painter.

And that’s when R’n’R settled in your blood.

Oh yes. The first concert I attended was a performance by Iron Maiden at our horse racing stadium. I remember the day – it was Sunday, 6th of September. I told my parents we had a work Sunday at school to collect old paper for recycling.

Since then I’ve belonged to the music.

I had my first performance in high-school. I was supposed to stand in for a friend in his band that was playing in the basement of 13th Belgrade high-school. They put me on the drums. It all ended when I climbed up on the prop stage, sat on my chair and toppled backwards on stage. The audience greeted me with thunderous laughter.

And also, even though I’ve always been and remained a metal fan, I don’t turn my nose up on other genres. For example Tozovac who was photographed on a cannon wearing the Serbian uniform – this was interesting to me as a kid.

So you like uniforms?

Every morning I do a set of JNA exercises with my son. I think serving in the military is essential for a young man’s development because they teach you things you can’t learn elsewhere. For example, the best thing I learned was that a 95kg man (which is how much I weighed when I trained water polo) who can’t move out of the water, can transform into a machine that can run under full combat gear twice for 45 minutes with 5 minute breaks. I also learned to wait for a single thing for a full year – the end of my serving time.

In August 1989 I went on leave from the military. Within 30 minutes of my arrival home, I dropped in the “Sansa” cafe in Tas and found my whole gang of friends there. We all just showed up there without any kind of planning. “Sansa” – where I wasn’t even a regular – was that kind of place you could come and someone you knew would show up within the next 15 minutes. To this day it stayed like that and it means a lot to me.

That’s how you also met the Celts.

When we met, they had the idea of playing that kind of music, while I wanted to record two sports fan songs.

The drummer of the Celts, Dzekac, and myself actually knew each other since school. We attended different classes in different shifts and would just run into each other sometimes. We were both wearing Celtic team jerseys and wondered who was pulling whose leg. I mean, having a Celtic jersey in 1984 Belgrade was pretty unusual, and there we both were in one place.

We reconnected at SKC, thanks to a common friend of ours much later. We did a rehearsal and everything went fine, and after that we didn’t talk for a few weeks. When Dzekac called me it was September and he just asked what I was doing in November. He said “Come perform a full concert with us” and that’s how it started.

Which performances with the Celts will you always remember?

The way we shocked the audience in Switzerland. Montreux Jazz-Fest had a pretty mellow crowd. We came out and I said to them “If someone told you that you had to stay seated, they lied to you” and then 5,000 people jumped to their feet. The security was stunned, they asked me why I did that and I said that was the way it’s supposed to be – we aren’t playing the Moonlight Sonata here.

I’ll also always remember our performance at KST garden, around a decade ago and this one guy who was literally entranced during the entire show. It turned out he got on a plane in Glasgow all by himself just to fly to our concert and then back home again. It fascinated me.

And even today, we recently heard from a married couple in Oklahoma who asked us when we were performing in Beer fest so they could come hear us. I’m always speechless when that happens, it feels incredible

You also survived two heart attacks with the Celts. How much did that affect your life and your work?

It made me decide to just let fate decide. I tattooed a shamrock on my chest and everything has been fine since then. :) Maybe someone will say I’m crazy, but I’m not afraid of death. I don’t believe it’s the end, for one thing, and also I accept it as part of nature.

On the other hand, I take my hat off for my wife whom I entrusted my life to. She takes care of everything, from what I eat to how I maintain my health.

When I had an acute myocardial heart-attack, the doctors decided to dilate and unclog my artery. After everything was done, the doctor said to my wife “I thought his goofing off around the hospital was an act and that he’ll get spooked when we start the procedure. However when I got there while my colleagues were working, I found him still cracking jokes. I check his pulse and it was like he was picking flowers and not having a procedure.”

I just don’t care whether I’m having surgery or solving a crossword puzzle.

You say you consider yourself a metal-head. On the other hand, you’re all in with Celtic music, did you enter that world?

It all started with the soccer club Celtic, which isn’t an ordinary club but a charity which gathers funds for poor children. This is the most important factor for me and all other fans of that club. Even the club’s anthem says that it doesn’t matter whether we win or lose. This all drew me to research how that idea was born and what affected it. In the end I – paradoxically – researched us as Serbs by going in a totally opposite direction and ending up right here again.

It’s hard to support a whole family just with music. How do you reconcile your band responsibilities with your work as a host on Radio Belgrade?

The trick to that is that we never chased absolute success, but rather always tried to be happy and satisfied. I’m lucky to be working two jobs that I really love and that I can overlap with each other.

I’ve got 11 years left until retirement, so I still have the chance to become the youngest champion of the pensioner’s chess league in Kalemegdan.

The biggest success of the Celts is that we stayed normal and grounded.

We grew out of that ‘Belgrade scoundrel’ phase, the real one that also created folks like Prele, Gaga Nikolic and others...

Sadly, those are bards the likes of which no longer exist. How does that reflect on Belgrade in your opinion?

Belgrade died the moment when the gentleman-scoundrel was replaced by lowlifes who have actually always been bullies.

What are your plans for the future?

Around 10 years have passed between our last two albums. Since we’re always procrastinating, I reckon around 15 years will pass until our next.

We plan on making a bigger Europe tour, playing concerts and publishing live albums that will also have the songs we’re always playing but have never published.