Bajaga: Professor of "positive geography"
Regardless of age or music taste, you probably not only grew up with his songs but also had your best times with them. A rock artist, music writer, guitarist, composer, the guy every mother would want for their daughter - Momcilo Bajagic Bajaga continues to teach ‘positive geography’ after four decades of dominating our scene.
How do you remember your childhood?
I spent my earliest childhood in Zemun and when I turned around five years old my father got an apartment in Planuma building in the 22nd October street. Before that, we lived in a rented apartment near the old flea market in Gornji grad. When we moved, I attended the Goce Delcev junior school which is today known as Majke Jugovica school. Sasa Lokner also attended the same school, though he’s a few years younger.
The school was positioned in a good location in Zemunski park and that’s where I made many good friends.
We were positioned alongside the river near Jugoslavija hotel where I learned to play the guitar, seeing how that was the meeting place for guys who loved to play. Then, whenever someone new came along you’d learn new tricks from them.
Who taught you how to play?
I learned the guitar from various people. Most of them stopped playing eventually. They were my friends from a different time - Coki, Cupko...some of them have since passed on. Nobody except for myself from our original crew went on to work in music professionally.
What’s interesting that the high-school you attended wasn’t your first choice.
I wanted to enlist in Zemunska gimnazija high-school where Lokner’s mother taught mathematics. However, when I was 15 years old I already had long hair and Zemunska gimnazija didn’t approve of that - you had to have a neat hairstyle. The principal would stand at the school gate and measure if anyone had longer than standard hairstyle - like down to the neck. So I didn’t even try to enlist there, but rather went to Druga beogradska high-school in Zeleni venac. I was accepted there and I had a good transportation line - bus line 15 which stopped in my street and went directly to the school so it was easy to commute.
Photo: Dunja Dopsaj
It was at that time that you formed your first band.
“TNT” was born when I was in second grade of high-school. That was when Zika Milenkovic came along as the lead singer and his friend Toma on the keyboard. Soon we also formed the band “Ofi” which we named for Toma’s nickname ‘ofinger’ which we all thought was adorable.
Our first gig was at the Design high-school where Zika attended. We played Santana, Deep Purple…
Although I started making my own music from the moment I picked up the guitar. “Dvadeseta noc” and “Kisni bluz” were my first two songs. I played with that band for around 3-4 years and we rehearsed in the atomic shelter inside a skyscraper in Zemun where Dragan Djeric Djera, our late drummer, would play. We plastered egg cartons all over the walls and played.
One time we were playing for the 25th of May at Fontana and Misa Aleksic from the famous SOS band was the sound guy for us total nobodies back then. He got on my nerves terribly back then and I could’ve never suspected we’d become friends. Namely back then he’d sit with some girl at the mixing board and let her mess with the reglers any way she pleased. I got really heated over that, I was like “This guy from ‘SOS’ ruined our show!”.
Later I got to know the late Rajko Kojic, guitarist from “Riblja corba” and with him I had a band called “Glogov kolac”. Back then vampire movies were popular so the name was the product of its time. We played top 20 rock songs and held a few gigs in small towns around Vojvodina where I played the bass.
When I saved up a bit of money I bought a Fender Precision bass and Marshall, which was solid equipment for the time so I ended up playing with many bends for months at a time.
And that’s how it all went until 1978.
Yes. In the meantime, Rajko left to play with Misa Aleksic and Vicko Milatovic and Bora Djordjevic was, as band chief, thrown out of the “Suncokret” band which didn’t happen often seeing how all the songs were his. Then he made - and I still remember those posters - “Bora Djordjevic + SOS = Riblja corba”. They also played foreign rock hits and I joined them per Rajko’s suggestion.
We played in various events around Vojvodina because every village had a cinema and it was normal to stage dances on the weekends. I’d go out on the stage with Bora when “Riblja corba” block would start. I know we played with “Corba” in over 50 different locations one year alone.
I came to “Corba” when their first album was already done and they’d recorded the single “Lutka sa naslovne strane”, but I still got to be on the album cover even though I hadn’t played anything in it.
There was also a good chance I didn’t make the band at all because they were actually looking for a keyboard player. But somebody told them that “Bijelo dugme” had a keyboard player and that they should go for a guitarist instead and be more like the “Stones” and other heavy bands.
The first album I worked on with “Riblja corba” was “Pokvarena masta i prljave strasti”, which we recorded at Enca Lesic’s studio “Druga maca”. I did music for three songs from that album - “Evo ti za taxi”, “Nemoj sreco, nemoj danas” and “Dva dinara druze”.
Your parents worked with the military, or more precisely - your father was a pilot. Did they approve of your career choices.
My late father was happy that I was playing music but he wasn’t too enthused about me doing it professionally. But he knew I loved it and he supported and helped me whenever I needed him.
I bought my first professional guitar when I joined “Corba”. Before that I had a Gibson but it wasn’t in the best shape. Then I bought a Les Paul guitar that cost 2000 Deutsche Marks back then. To me it was like two million.
I got the money thanks to my grandma who sent me some cash when she sold some estate in Slavonia, and my father who put aside a bit for me when I filled in the weather forcast with him and got 11 hits. Dad also added 1000 Deutsche Marks on top of it all. We weren’t rich by any means. My dad drove a Volga instead of a Mercedes, so it was very important to me to pay him back, even though he never asked me to.
After only a few months of playing with “Corba” I got enough to pay him back and I was so proud of myself. My dad was glad, as he said, that I did something with myself.
Photo: Dunja Dopsaj
Things were just starting to heat up when mandatory military service came along.
Already after our first album, Bora, Misa and Rajko had to go serve in the military. I had a year off during which I corresponded with Bora and he sent me lyrics so I could make music for them.
What’s interesting was that it was during this period that we recorded the single “Natrag u veliki, prljavi grad” when Misa was on leave and Rajko slipped out from his division in Sarajevo to fly over for two days. He would’ve gotten away with it too if one of our friends who was a journalist didn’t take a picture with us in Sumatovac and publish it under the headline “Riblja corba makes new single”. Rajko went back to the garrison and had to serve 15 days in prison for escaping.
You postponed your military service by enlisting in college.
I started working professionally in music in 1977 and already next year I became a member of the Musicians’ Association and realized I probably won’t be graduating from college. I enlisted because of military service and tried first in the history of art department but they didn’t accept me. Then I enlisted in nuclear physics in the Natural sciences and math college, which was insane because I failed my first year of high-school because of math which I then failed twice on the make-up exam - and the professor wasn’t that fond of me. I would’ve been ‘Very good’ in school if not for maths.
Then I enlisted in physical chemistry which nobody wanted to study. They had like 10 free spots and only five of us applied and we all got in. Then I enlisted in Yugoslavian and world literature and even attended class, but Bora, Misa and Rajko came back from the military and we started doing gigs.
We played a lot all the time and I think we probably had the most held concerts between all the musicians of our time. I started out when I was just 18 years old and in those first years with “Corba” we held like 200-220 concerts per year. We had some ‘Furgon’ van that didn’t have windows and only had a bench in the back that we’d squeeze into.
Your third album ‘Mrtva priroda’ made quite the ‘boom’ across the state back then.
It sold in 470.000 copies despite the fact that we published it for PGP which wasn’t very capable in terms of sales. Everyone told us that we would’ve sold up to 600.000 if we published with Jugoton.
You crossed over to that publishing house with your album “Muzicari koji piju” but the band situation wasn’t great.
When I joined “Corba”, Bora understood that I had an interest and a gift for writing lyrics and music and he was extremely understanding with me. He liked my work, but he also criticized me when I made something subpar. We became really close and made a lot of songs together. I think I made music for over 20 of Bora’s lyrics in the six years that I was with them.
We recorded the album “Muzicari koji piju” in Ljubljana and the band atmosphere already wasn’t right.
Before all of that I rented an apartment in Kosovska street and moved away from my parents’ home. There I had one room with a small magnetophone which could record four channels on tapes and I used it to make demos.
For our album “Buvlja pijaca”, the producer was Kornelije Kovac, who would come to my flat and I’d play for him everything I recorded. One morning he came to me and said let’s go to PGP to schedule a term for album recording.
However, seeing how I wasn’t that well known back then, I got the same term as folk musicians, especially Miroslav Ilic who was their biggest star recording in the famous Studio 5. On the other hand, a good part of the album “Positivna geografija” was recorded in my flat in Kosovska because back then programing was on the rise and we had LinnDrum, a rhythm machine that Bata Kovac had and which gave a sound that was pretty faithful to a real drum.
Doctor Spira often made an appearance too. He wasn’t a producer but he had a lot of good advice for me.
Back then Zika and Cvele played with me and Loki was serving in the military so Bata played the keyboards for our first album. When the second album came along, Loki was back from the military and our front setup consisted of Zika, Dejan Cukic, Loki, Cvele, Vlada Golubic the drummer and Nele the guitarist. Our manager who - as advised by the famous Peca Popovic who named the group - was Sasa Dragic.
When I made the band there existed some group called Fun Boy Three where three guys sang together. I liked that a lot so we made “Pozitivna geografija” after their example.
After that we got the offer to play for New Year’s in Dom omladine where our opening group was the band “U skripcu”. That’s when Sasa Habic came along who was already well-known as an excellent young producer. So we made an agreement with him and Bata Kovac and the two of them worked on our second album.
Photo: Dunja Dopsaj
What’s interesting is that the idea behind your first album wasn’t to start a new band but the circumstances were such that you ended up leaving “Riblja corba”.
I thought that the first album would be my solo album from “Riblja corba”. When I was in Ljubljana where we recorded “Muzicari koji piju”, “Pozitivna geografija” was already done.
Seeing how “Corba” got to mix an album in London thanks to Jugoton, I didn’t go with them but rather stayed in Belgrade and did the concert in Dom sindikata without meaning to make it a long-term thing.
Then everyone from “Corba” came back and we toured Yugoslavia in March for four months. The deal was that we all gather again in September, so I went to Mljet. When I returned to Belgrade I found out that “Corba” was looking for me because they wanted me to go to Greece with them for a gig. But I’d promised to play ten labor actions with the “Instructors” and didn’t want to call it off. When we went to Dubrovnik for a gig, I bought a newspaper and read the headline “Rajko and Bajaga no longer play in Croba”.
That was a misunderstanding with Bora, but there was never a specific fight between us - we just stopped playing together.
How difficult was the beginning of “Bajaga i instruktori”?
I have to admit looking back I had a lot of courage and I believed in what I did. I know that my engagement in “Corba” was at least twice as profitable for one concert on tour than it was for our entire band when we played in those labor actions. It wasn’t easy in that first year. I had to give up my apartment in Kosovska and go back to living with my parents.
But already with my second album and the concert in Tasmajdan we started doing well and I managed to create a band I’ve stuck with for 37 years now.
You went on a very important tour in USSR in 1987, three years after the beginning of Bajaga i instruktori.
Back then we still had an agreement between “Gost koncert”, the only concert agency in USSR and our “Jugo koncert” so our musicians like Djordje Marjanovic, Arsen Dedic, maja Odzaklijevska, the Indexes and others would hold concerts there organized by them.
There was an audition where you’d prepare a program and a committee would evaluate it. We played many concerts in USSR during those two months - sometimes up to three per day. We crossed many kilometers and there were even times when we spent days on the train and then hours on a plane so we performed in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania.
It was a huge experience and I can say I really started singing there. In “Corba” I was the guitarist and backup singer so I was a bit spooked by singing because it never used to be my priority. But in this tour and thanks to the many concerts we held, I really got my vocal color and strength formed. Vocal cords are also a muscle which can be trained by singing. We really came into our own as a band during that tour.
Photo: Dunja Dopsaj
There were also many unusual situations during that tour.
For example, we’d arrive in Kiev and play in a hall which was their equivalent of our Pionir hall. We’d play three concerts in three days, selling out every single time. I asked how that’s possible when nobody here knew about us, let alone the lyrics to our songs.
They told us the audience doesn’t even know the program or whether it would be basketball, water polo or a concert. They buy tickets for three months in advance and show up. There was a huge audience for not a lot of events.
It was also interesting to me that girls would constantly bring us flowers on the stage, which was a bit confusing to me. Then I found out that in most halls getting up from your seat wasn’t allowed, but it was allowed if you were bringing flowers to the stage. So the girls would get dolled up, bring us flowers and get seen by everyone on stage. They brought us flowers for their own sake, not for us.
And so we’d end up with tons of flowers after the concert and get approached by a babushka who sold the flowers. We’d give them back to her and she’d re-sell it to the next audience.
During this tour your famous song “Ruski voz” was born.
That was in Gomel, in the hotel where we were staying. This city is located only 80km away from Chernobyl where the disaster struck just a year earlier. We heard that it was good to have lots of vodka because of radiation. Prohibition of some kind was in effect back then and I don’t even know how we managed to get illegal vodka. Either way Zika had the melody and I went to his room where we drank a lot, I wrote lyrics and that’s how the song came to be.
You are one of the song-writers whose lyrics have the most varied interpretations. Does that stem from the fact that your songs are very socially aware?
I wrote all my songs depending on how I was feeling at the time. I never felt the need to explain them because I feel that everyone should interpret them how they feel is right and that everyone’s interpretation is valid. There aren’t many of my songs that are actually dedicated to anything specific, they’re mostly about what was going through my mind at the time.
Bata Kovac helped me a lot with lyrics, even though he himself doesn’t write any. Namely, while I was with Corba, he was one of the most prolific composers of that time, but he couldn’t write lyrics. His late wife, Spomenka, would write them but even she couldn’t keep up. So I did over 20 sets of lyrics for Bata’s music. He was a true professor. He’d put in marks in syllables how the melody should go and didn’t let me change a single thing. For example, I’d write an entire song and one word should have three syllables but in his lyrics it has to have two. I asked him if I could change it and he said no, I had to respect the composer. It helped me a lot. I practiced, looked for different ways and that’s how I mastered the technique of writing.
On the other hand, I wrote about how I felt and what I thought. Some things are completely misinterpreted by people and others are spot on. The important thing is that the songs themselves stick.
In the movie “Mi nismo andjeli” you are mentioned as one of the “Notable hunks of Belgrade”. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s a cult-status movie and I’m glad to be mentioned. It’s probably because it was a popular culture reference at the time since we were a famous band. I guess I had a bit of a ‘good boy’ reputation seeing how I was a rock musician who didn’t cause any scandals, while on the other hand punk was very popular and very misunderstood by older generations.
Photo: Dunja Dopsaj
You also did music for theatre and movies.
I like to make music for them and I was always happy to be called. The first feature film I worked on was for Misa Radivojevic’s “Ni na nebu ni na zemlji” where the song “Moji su drugovi” originated. I was always lucky to have hit songs from those movies.
For Dusko Kovacevic, I did the music for his movie “Profesionalac” and now I’m working for “Nije lose biti covek”, a movie that’s not finished yet and the singers will be Lena Kovacevic and Gordan Kicic.
Of course then there’s the movie “Hotel Beograd” and what’s interesting about that is that the song “Darja” which has over 10 million views didn’t make it into the movie. By the time I recorded it, they’d already edited the movie and then it was put into the credits for the Serbian version. I felt bad that it didn’t make it into the movie itself, but it took off with the people.
I also worked for the theatre, “Buha” and “Terazije theatre” like for the musical “Zenidba i udadba” and now for “S druge strane jastuka” whose script was written by Steva Koprivica.
What are your plans moving forward?
We managed to do a big concert in Belgrade which was a huge wish of mine. Last year we had three gigs during Covid times. On the year of the bombing, we had 40 concerts and that was our poorest season so far.
This year we had Arsenal, Palic, Rijeka and Belgrade and there will be more concerts during the summer.
During the pandemic we finished up music for Dusko Kovacevic’s new movie that will premier in December and with Sasa Lokner I finished music for the play “Macak u cizmama” for the Buha theatre, directed by Jug Radivojevic.
Finally it’s time for a new album. For now we’ve got one song and we’re moving ahead at full speed.