Kornelije Kovac: I never stop composing
Regardless of what type of music you like, if you are from this region your favorite playlist probably includes at least a few songs written by the famous composer Kornelije Kovac. His songs are performed by Zdravko Colic, Lepa Brena, Bisera Valetanic, Jadranka Stojakovic, Zlatko Pejakovic, Dragan Stojnic and many other voices from the Balkan region.
Bata Kovac speaks for 011info about the road he travelled and reveals how a single failure can turn into something incredible. He also reveals he as many more plans for the future.
You come from a line of dedicated musicians who were famous in Subotica. Your father was a conductor and music festival director, while your grandfather was a member of the Symphony orchestra in that city. Growing up in that kind of environment had to influence you when you chose your path in music. It’s interesting, though, that even though you grew up in Subotica, that wasn’t your birthplace.
My father is from Hungary and my mother is from Serbia - from Nis more precisely, which is where I was born. Namely in the period around 1940, my father toured the country with his orchestra. One of his band members happened to be from Nis and he persuaded my father to move to that city, because it seemed that war was approaching.
And so it happened. My father got a job position in Nis in Social insurance and that’s where he met my mother and where I was born in 1942.
However, a year later we had to move to Subotica, because a law was instituted saying that foreigners could no longer work in the country. So I grew up in Subotica with my father’s family who spoke Hungarian and Serbian and my mother who quickly learned hungarian and proceeded to speak it very well for the rest of her life.
As soon as you grew up a little, your music education began.
That’s right. My father enlisted me in music school, which I attended alongside my normal school. That’s how I got to music high school where I had great professors. I loved piano and solfeggio which is very important in music education because it teaches all that music actually consists of - rhythm and melody.
Your dream was to enlist in the Music academy in Belgrade. However…
I’ve always been drawn to Belgrade and my dream was to live there. I think I visited Belgrade for the first time in 1946 when my father brought me there to visit my uncle. Later on I’ve always been fascinated by our capitol any time I visited and I enjoyed looking at the city and its people.
Still, when time came for me to study, I didn’t make the cut for the Music academy in Belgrade and I took it very hard. I was so disappointed. But I was also lucky. A colleague of mine from Subotica who played the cello invited me to come to Sarajevo and enlist in the Academy there.
So I went there and took the test in several subjects for the entrance exam. Everything went very well, I got accepted, rented a room and continued my studies there.
As it turned out, this city played a big role in your entire career.
Since I got to Sarajevo, I had been very lucky. I went to a dance in that was taking place inside this hall in Sarajevo. There were lots of young people and everyone was dancing and enjoying themselves. And that’s where I heard a very interesting band. Their music was fascinating to me because they also played famous jazz songs, not just dancy pop music and I was surprised by that.
It just so happened that an acquaintance of mine played in the band. He used to play in my father’s orchestra and I didn’t even know he was there to serve his military time. He waved at me from the scene and invited me up while they were on break.
He asked me what I was doing there, I answered I was studying at the Music academy and, to my surprise, he invited me to play something with them.
So I sit down with them and play a few songs. I see this full hall and everyone is staring at me wondering ‘who is this guy’. We agreed to play three simple jazz songs and everything went great. When we were done, I waved to my acquaintance and said I was going back to the audience, but he asked me to wait a moment because he had something to talk about with his band.
I didn’t know this at the time, but they were actually discussing whether they should invite me into the band, right on the spot. So they made me this offer and I accepted immediately. That’s how I became a band member for the first time.
Sadly, they asked their keyboard player to leave because of that. I felt so bad for him and apologized to him profusely whenever I’d run into him over the next year.
Performing with them opened yet another door for you.
Two guys who worked for Radio Sarajevo happened to be attending a dance where we were performing and they heard me play. They loved everything and waited for me after the performance give me an offer to call them for filming if I was composing or arranging anything. You could say it wasn’t just a door that opened up for me, but an entire Alibaba’s cavern.
The first thing I did was to form a jazz trio BKB (bass, drum and piano). I made a jazz arrangement and we prepared a few more songs and that’s how we recorded our first material.
What was that first experience like, recording at the studio?
When we went there for our very first recording, they had to explain to us how everything worked first. They told us stuff like “See that light next to the piano? When that turns green, you have to be completely silent, then start playing and we’ll start recording”. To us, it was like another world. And they didn’t let us count before we started. You know ‘one, two, three…’ - we had to do it gesturing in the air, in total silence. We had to start over a few times because we weren’t used to that kind of work and we were falling apart. But we managed it all in the end. When we’d make a mistake we would stop and they’d criticize us for that because then they had to cut the tape and reattach it, so they demanded we come completely prepared. Those were all big things when we were starting off.
It was on this radio station that you met many musicians and also made your first hit.
I met some young singers there, including Kemal Monteno, Dragan Stojnic…
Then I met a man called Zarko Roje. I was told about him, that he wrote beautiful songs. So I talked to him and asked if he could write me some lyrics or suggest some of his existing work. He said come back in two days. I did, and he gave me some lyrics. When I got to the third one, I only read it halfway through before asking if we could get it.
It was the song “Cetiri mladica idu s Trebevica”. I wrote the music for those lyrics, we recorded it and it’s still on air to this day.
The song became a hit and let you break through in the music scene.
What we recorded with Radio Sarajevo was on air all the time. Then we heard there was a jazz festival in Bledo, Slovenia. I suggested to my band we compete and so we became the first Bosnia and Herzegovina band to perform in that festival even though there were a few good jazz bands in Sarajevo, but most of them had gone to Germany or France. It was a real pleasure to perform on that festival and our song spread around the country after that performance.
I remember I’d be going back from the Academy and I’d pass by a school and suddenly hear my song, being sung by an entire class - around 30 of them. I was gobsmacked. It was my first hit in 1963.
So yes, Sarajevo turned out great for me and gave me the pleasure of creating more new songs. I’d turn those songs in for the Opatija festival every year and one time I even had three of my songs accepted, so I was competing against myself.
And then you met the Index band.
It just so happened that the management of all the dances we performed for decided to bring in a new band. I went to listen to their rehearsal and yes, it was the Index band and they were playing some of their own stuff. Some of their band members had heard about me and since they were trying to rehearse a song of their own, they were arguing on how they could perform a segment to be in the style of the Beatles. So they asked me “How would you explain it to us, Kornelije?”
I just sang it for them, they tried out and that was that. I turn to leave and they’re like “Wait a moment, we need your help for another part of the song”. One thing led to the other and we ended up going home from the rehearsal together. As we walked, one of them asked me if I wanted to play with them. Did I ever!
Already back then, they had a style that was ahead of its time. That’s how I joined the Indexes and I spent a relatively short time with them, just over a year. Still, many people got the impression that I spent a lot longer with them.
Working with the Index band started your career outside of the country.
We’d gotten an offer to go perform in Russia, alongside several other musicians. We spent two and a half months there on tour. It was really great. The audience in Russia loved us because we resembled rock bands from the West and they were rooting for us.
When we performed, we usually played Beatles songs and the other musicians we followed played a different kind of music - Italian, British…
The crowd would go in a trance during our part of the concert. The audience would throw their coats in the air and wouldn’t let the host announce the next band, asking for us to play more instead.
After one such performance, we were greeted by a ‘trio’ dressed in black suits who wanted to talk to us about something. They come with us to the wardrobe and say “Look, you played great but we wanted to warn you about a few things. First, the guitarist had yellow shoes on while everyone else had black. You have to all wear the same colored shoes. Second, we were expecting you to play music from our ‘Yugoslavian brothers’”, which actually meant they wanted us to play our own songs, composed by Index.
After Russia, you came to Belgrade as someone who had already made a name for themselves in the music industry in 1968 and that’s when your rise there began.
There were many good bands in Belgrade, but they were mostly covering foreign songs. The Indexes had their own records and I had a few of my own songs I’d written for them and it was just something I wanted to do. That’s how I started talking with various free musicians when I got to Belgrade. There weren’t that many of them, because most were involved in bands.
Still, little by little, I pieced together the “Korni band” which was primarily made of former members of “Elipse”, Bojan Hreljac and Vladimir Furduj, then Velibor Borko Kacl from “Zlatni decaci” and our front singer was Seka Kojadinovic, soon to be replaced by Dusan Prelevic. We changed singers often, so this position saw performances by Dalibor Brun, Dado Topic, Zdravko Colic and Zlatko Pejakovic.
We worked a lot. We attended the festival in Opatija, we represented Yugoslavia in the Eurovision competition in Bryton in 1974…
Many resented us because we were in the newspaper headlines all the time, but the truth is the press wrote what the audience wanted to read about - we didn’t ask that of them. People just loved us.
Korni group was a nursery of sorts, we can freely say a jumping board for many singers who would start their own careers and become stars.
The singer is always very important. The audience will vote for your band if they fall in love with the singer, and the singer who gains popularity like that will be successful in their entire career. Unless, of course, they make a terrible mistake.
We were enthusiastic about our work, we practiced, went to festivals, performed abroad, so all the singers who performed with us were destined to go on and have successful careers of their own. I’m sure they would’ve succeeded even if they hadn’t been with the Korni band.
You continued your career abroad, which was unusual back then for our people.
That’s true, back then it wasn’t so easy to just go and work abroad. I went to London to visit a studio and I offered to be the producer for a British band. I also offered to bring in some bands from Belgrade and Sarajevo and that’s how it all started.
I worked on numerous projects in England, working with such great names like Bernnie Marsden from Whitesnake, Hans Zimmer, the movie composer, producer and arranger. Jones from Led Zeppelin… I also worked in Spain as a composer, producer and arranger. I wrote about that period in my novel “Tamne dirke” and described how it was to work with their singers and also to bring our own performers to record in their studios.
Working abroad is both nice and also not so nice. While they’re praising you everything is okay, but the moment you get too good at something and you start getting calls from other sides than your original employer, it can get pretty ugly.
You continue to work today as well. How much has Covid deterred your plans?
I was very deeply affected by the death of Sanja Ilic. You can’t predict anything these days. It’s enough for someone to just pass by you at a bad time. Because of Covid, I can’t risk working directly with associates in order to prevent disease. If I catch Covid at my age, I could be the next to go. I follow all the measures suggested by medical experts, even while our younger generations don’t trust them and continue to party.
I’ve gotten vaccinated, but even after revaccination the doctors say you should still be careful for at least two months, so I’m not rushing into anything.
Still, I have a few songs I’m working on - I go over them every morning at home, on my tiny piano. I also prepared a few finished numbers and recordings that I sang, so that the singers I’m presenting them to can hear how they sound.
I keep hoping that this Covid business won’t go on for much longer, and as soon as it’s over we’ll go back to normal, working inside a studio that has all the latest equipment used in Europe.
I miss company, more than anything else. We all do. We can’t go to the theatre or movies. We don’t know who could be spreading the virus without even realizing it. Sándor Petőfi
There was a song by Sándor Petőfi which caught your eye back in the day. Have you written the music for it yet?
Sadly, I have not. Petőfi wrote a song about two dogs - one of them who lives with its master and only gets a bit of food after its owner eats. And the other who lives in nature, free, but always struggling against hunger and cold because it wants respect. I like that song very much and it’s stuck with me for a long time. I’ll write music for it sooner or later, and I also have a few other songs that I plan to write music for. I never stop composing.