Nele Karajlic: Sarajevo-born Belgrader who pushes the limits
As a musician, composer, screenwriter, anchor and author, Nenad Jankovic - better known as Dr Nele Karajlic - showed us that he would always push the limits and bring something new, interesting and unusual. Sarajevo-born man turned Belgrader talks for 011info about his youth and the way he works when inspiration strikes. He also elaborates on his new and unique project Rock El Clasico which he is working on alongside our famous violinist Stefan Milenkovic.
When was your first encounter with Belgrade?
I believe it was in the winter of 1967 or 1968. Our mother brought my brother and me to visit our aunt who lived near Danube station. I think there were still cars allowed in Knez Mihailova back then.
Going from Sarajevo to Belgrade in the winter was senseless because both cities were polluted. So it was like escaping from one dumpster to another. That was the first time I toured all there was to see in Belgrade.
What left the biggest impression on you during that first encounter? Did you sense the difference between the spirit of Sarajevo and Belgrade even all those years ago?
The giraffes and the Zoo, which was the symbol of Belgrade back then, were definitely the most impressive memories. In Sarajevo, we lived near Pionirska valley and there was another zoo there, but it was nothing like the Belgrade zoo. It was much smaller and there were fewer animals.
Then again, every city has its own story. Of course, by this I mean European cities because American cities are all the same, from north to south.
Sarajevo is a city that’s on a crossroads of echoes from old civilizations. It has a dramatic and sad history. Belgrade is nestled between two rivers and by its very nature more open, without all those mountains surrounding it like Sarajevo has. It’s easier to breathe - not just because of the kosava wind, but all those empires that conquered the city from century to century.
Sarajevo had never been the center of anything. In the 80’s of the previous century it was the center of Yu goslavian popular culture and that was the golden age of that city in a way. But it was never the center of anything before or after that, only the punishment. No matter which empire had it, it was always the border point.
On the other hand, Belgrade was always the capital city of something so it’s more open in a way than Sarajevo and accepted much more into itself. Just look at the population and you’ll understand. When I first visited Belgrade it had between 5 to 6 times fewer people than it does today, while Sarajevo remained almost the same.
And again, in those same 80’s, Sarajevo was an inspiration precisely because of its remoteness. The strength of Sarajevo’s pop movement was precisely because it didn’t submit to influences from outside like Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana. They made different music there and even if there was some mimicry, it was done with skill. Still, back then - just like today - you couldn’t do any work in pop culture without conquering Belgrade. You can’t rule Yugoslavia if you don’t rule Belgrade first. It’s the same today. You’re not in the region if you haven’t conquered Belgrade.
Kao muzičar, kompozitor, scenarista, voditelj i književnik Nenad Janković, poznatiji kao dr. Nele Karajlić, nas je navikao na to da uvek pomera granice i donosi nešto novo, zanimljivo i nesvakidašnje. Sarajlija koji je postao Beograđanin za 011info priseća se svoje mladosti, otkriva kako funkcioniše kada ga obuzme inspiracija i priča o svom novom nesvakidašnjem projektu Rock El Clasico na kome radi sa našim proslavljenim violinistom Stefanom Milenkovićem.
Kada ste se prvi put sreli sa Beogradom?
Mislim da je to bilo u zimu 1967. ili 1968. godine kada je majka, brata i mene, dovela u posetu tetki koja je živela kod Dunav stanice. Mislim da su Knez Mihailovom još prolazili automobili tada.
Pobeći iz Sarajeva u Beograd zimi bilo je besmisleno jer su oba grada bila zagađena. Tako da je bilo kao da bežiš iz kontejnera u kontejner. Tada sam prvi put i obišao sve ono što se mora pogledati u Beogradu.
Šta je ostavilo najjači utisak na Vas prilikom tog prvog susreta? Da li ste još tada osetili razliku u specifičnostima sarajevskog i beogradskog duha?
Žirafe i zoološki vrt koji je, tada, bio simbol Beograda bili su definitivno ono što me je najviše impresioniralo. Mi smo u Sarajevu živeli blizu Pionirske doline i tu je postojao takođe jedan zoološki vrt, ali nije bio ni nalik beogradskom. Bio je mnogo manji i siromašniji životinjama.
Opet, svaki grad ima neku svoju izgrađenu priču. Naravno, govorim o evropskim gradovima jer američki su, sa par izuzetaka, isti bez obzira da li si na severu ili na jugu.
Sarajevo je grad koji je na razmeđi tih nekih odjeka civilizacija. Njegova istorija je dramatična i, manje-više, tužna. Beograd je smešten između dve reke i, po prirodi stvari je otvoreniji i nema tih planina oko sebe kao Sarajevo, pa je lakše za disanje. I ne samo zbog košave već i zbog svih silnih carstava koji su uzimali grad levo i desno.
Sarajevo nikada nije bilo centar nečega. Osamdesetih godina prošlog veka jeste bilo centar jugoslovenske popularne kulture i u tom smislu to je bilo zlatno doba tog grada. Ali, nikada pre, niti posle toga nikada nije bio centar nečega već kazna. Koja god da ga je imperija držala, to je bila njena granična tačka.
S druge strane, Beograd je stalno bio glavni grad nečega, tako da je, s te strane, mnogo više otvoreniji od Sarajeva i mnogo je više primao. Samo pogledajte broj stanovnika i biće vam jasno. Beograd je, u vreme kada sam ja prvi put bio u njemu, imao 5-6 puta manje ljudi nego li danas, a Sarajevo ima, otprilike, isto stanovnika danas kao i onda.
Opet, tih osamdesetih godina Sarajevo je bilo inspirativno baš zbog tog zapećka u kome je „raslo“. Snaga sarajevskog pop pokreta bila je upravo u tome što nije podilazilo spoljašnjim uticajima kao što su to činili Beograd, Zagreb, Ljubljana. Kod nas se drugačije sviralo, a čak i ako imitiraš nekoga, to činiš vešto. Ipak, ni tada, kao ni danas, nisi mogao da uradiš neki posao u pop kulturi, a da ne osvojiš Beograd. Ne možeš carovati Jugoslavijom, ako ne caruješ Beogradom. Tako je i danas. Nema te u regionu ukoliko nisi osvojio Beograd.
Photo: Ivana Čutura
What was it like to grow up in those times?
During those formative teenage years for all of us born in the 50’s and 60’s, we were all swept up in this huge wave of Western pop culture. Growing up, when it came to music, movies and books was the same everywhere - New York, Moscow, Sarajevo or Belgrade. If you gathered up five people from various countries in the east and west who were born in, say, the year 1960, you’ll learn that they all listened to the same records, watched the same movies, read the same books. That’s the cultural difference that didn’t exist for our generation between Sarajevo and Belgrade. There were formal differences. Here, people would hang out in taverns while we went to cafes. There were more live music performances, but it was quality music on both ends. The key features were, however, the same.
When you attended high school, you entered the creative sphere that would give rise to New primitivism.
High school is the period when you get your necessary education in order to activate your spirit. By that, I don’t just mean formal education - both in music or otherwise - but generally, learning about the world that surrounds you. We were drawn to rock music and later that curiosity and a relatively good education gave rise to this artistic concept that we named New primitivism. When we planted that seed, we realized that we had made something that gave us a lot of room to maneuver. New primitivism is a lot like the soccer club Barcelona - wherever the ball goes, there’s always one of us - someone who’ll take that idea and make it a reality.
Ranging from music to top lists of surrealists and everything you did, what’s unique is that there’s a thread of foresight that runs through everything, which is something you achieved when you were very young. It’s very fascinating how you understood the world even back then.
When you’ve lived on the outskirts of civilization for 400-500 years the way Sarajevo did and when you’re surrounded by people who have it in their genetic code to guard the civilization you belong to, then you think about that much more than if you lived in a more comfortable place. It’s a lot easier to be a prophet in Delphis on the outskirts of Greek poleis than in Athens which was the center.
Our understanding of the world was not rooted in our political literacy, but in some fundamental understanding of the world around us and ourselves. Because it was our own selves that to one another represented these future events. We saw the future in each other. How it all came e together so precisely, I’m not sure.
Of course there was the fear we all held of what would happen if this country called Yugoslavia fell apart. It was like tossing a Chinese vase off the seventh floor and think it wouldn’t break. No way.
Photo: Ivana Čutura
How does your creative process work?
The moment I get struck by inspiration, I can’t sit still until I make that idea a reality. If I come up with a detail that’s important for my book, I don’t stop or rest until I’ve written it out. Then again, while I don’t have any inspiration, I could be playing chess on my computer, watching football...nothing really “works” until I’m struck by inspiration. That’s just one part of my creative process, of course. The second part is work. What you’ve written in that one night or few hours it took to get your inspiration on paper is then polished and sculpted for months.
Of course, every artist works differently. My colleague Bora Corba can write a song in 15 minutes. He wrote “Avionu slomicu ti krila” right in front of me, in only seven minutes. His wife had left Sarajevo for Belgrade via airplane. We were sitting in the lobby of Holiday Inn and he started saying the lyrics and writing them down. I was awestruck. It took me six month to write the song “Nedelja kada je otisao Hase”.
It boils down to the individual. Some people can be killed by their art, like Jim Morisson and others can live forever through it like Picasso.
You are an accomplished musician, composer, writer, actor...how do you manage it all?
Whatever I choose to do, my idea is to make sure it’s not boring. When I’m writing a book, I want it to be fun. Not fun in a derogatory sense, but in a way that pulls you into a more serious story.
Everything I did, I always did in order to coax that inspiration out of myself. I’m the kind of person who will take up a task and then keep at it until they drive it to the furthest limits they can go. That was what it was like with Surrealists and the songs, books, plays…I did it all the same way.
Photo: Ivana Čutura
What’s interesting is that you keep pushing borders with every new project and you’ve set new goals with the concept Rock El Clasico that you are working on with the violinist Stefan Milenkovic.
I really hope that’s the case and that the really monumental works are yet ahead of me, so that people will talk about me for something I have yet to do. What I do are usually things I find challenging. I couldn’t see myself as a classic rock musician who publishes a new album every couple of years.
When I crossed over from Zabranjeno pusenje to No smoking orchestra it was as though a whole new world of wonder opened up in front of me. And again, when I worked on that play about Tesla, it was so intriguing to me to see what will happen with it. Writing my book is also a huge inspiration.
The heart of the matter is that all I ever did was tied to an artistic concept, just like it was with Zabranjeno pusenje and the Surrealists which were tied to the New primitivism movement. And just like the music we made with the No smoking orchestra was tied to Emir Kusturica movies. That was a part of some art concept, not just our strategy, wishes, thinking, but also our affinities. Especially during the time I spent working with Emir. Now it’s clear that there was an actor, director and musician hidden in both of us.
Now I’m entering a new story with Stefan Milenkovic - how to create a new artistic concept based on which we’ll be able to bring in painters if needed.
What’s the idea behind that project?
The idea is to create a fusion - a combination of different musical pieces inside of a single one.
Everyone knows that story about how Bach was found when Mendelson bought beef from his butcher and the piece came wrapped in a sheet with some notes on it. It always fascinated me that this man started playing those notes and realized they were genius, so he went back to the butcher to see if there was more. I was interested to know what would’ve happened if there were someone else’s notes there too? Would those have been Bach’s as well? What if some unknown composer was unfairly left out?
Then I thought about the future and a time when there’s no life left on Earth. If some new intelligent beings come along, they’ll find traces of us and there’s no way they won’t find music. It’ll be on some broken records or saved in some virtual form that they’ll easily decipher. What if they found bits of music and brought them together, not realizing they just melded Zabranjeno pusenje with Tchaikovsky?
That was the initial idea.
What helped us along was the fact that I’ve always loved classical music and have always been fascinated by bands who play classical pieces - but also classical musicians who play rock music. But none of them made it so that rock and classics are inside the same piece. That’s what Stefan and I would like to explore - what it’s like when it’s brought together inside one song.
Photo: Ivana Čutura
Were the differences between your and Stefan Milenkovic’s backgrounds a good or a bad thing for this project?
The most important thing is to always keep an open mind and then you can always understand what the other person needs. Stefan works on notes, I work on the rock principles, but both of us - as well as everyone else involved in this project like my band, the composer Ana Krstajic who deciphered my ideas and turned them into notes and the Wonder Strings string quartet - all know how to work on both principles. In other words, we understand each other very well.
Of course, Ana Krstajic works as a sort of translator between Stefan and myself, but once we start playing music then there’s no need for any translation.
Seeing how you are creating something completely new and unique together, do you see Stefan differently now than before you started working together?
To me, he’d always been a curious boy. That’s how I saw him when he was 10-11 years old when we first met and that’s how I see him now. It’s amazing how much he experiences music as play. It’s the most beautiful part of it all. With all the obligations that music brought him, he sees it as something to play with and never goes far from his violin.
I’m the other way around. When I get back from a tour or a shoot, I avoid music as much as I can.
In that way, Stefan is a much bigger music lover than I am.
When will the audience be able to experience and hear Rock el Clasico?
The birth date will be 21st of June next year, when we’ll stage a concert in Tasmajdan. For the moment, we’ve recorded the video for “Gile sampion” number that the audience can see if they want an initial impression. We will continue working during the following nine months and as long as it takes for the birth to happen. I think everyone will be interested to hear this fusion of rock and classical music.
We’ve already done several numbers and “Gile” will be our opening story. I think it turned out great, combined with Tchaikovsky, more specifically the main theme from “Swan’s lake”. In this construction it’s almost difficult to tell where Tchaikovsky begins and Gile continues and there’s a special charm to it.
In addition to that number, we’ve also prepared “Devil in the Business Class”, “Zeni nam se Vukota”, “Pit bul terijer”, “Zvezda nad Balkanom” and “Fikreta” which all sound amazing.
Photo: Ivana Čutura
You’ve written “Fajront in Sarajevo” and two parts of the book “Solunska 28”. Can we expect more written works from you?
“Solunska 28” was meant to be a trilogy and I owe the audience to publish the final part. The first part has to do with WWI, the second with WWII and the third will touch on the 80’s and 90’s of the last century. I meant to write that book when the show “Slozna braca” came in, centered about the inheritors of the famous characters and that’s kept me busy for the past year. The writer in me was therefore pushed aside, but he’ll be back.
I like writing. It’s the best thing because you sit at home alone, you don’t depend on anyone else, there aren’t producers, musicians, actors or technicians - just you. Still, it can also be the hardest kind of work because all those other people can also help you when you need it, whereas a writer is on their own no matter what.
Of all that you do, what’s closest to your heart?
The biggest thrill, hands down, are concerts. You can’t compare it to anything else. When you come out in front of 100.000, 5000 or just 500 people, you get this unique, exciting interaction and understanding that all these people are giving of themselves to you and you’re doing the same for them. It touches you deep inside when people who listen to your music and follow you ask that you give yourself to them completely. It’s the biggest thrill there can be and the reason I’m looking forward to the concert on Tasmajdan on the 21st of June.