Sometimes we get lucky by getting a chance to mediate in an important meeting between two people – we get to introduce them to each other on a so-called social occasion, only to understand much later that the meeting was about to have a long-term influence on both of them, personally and work-wise. As far as the album you have in front of you goes, I can say with no small amount of pleasure that I have the luck to mediate in such a meeting.
But let’s rewind the story for a second here. The long period of my active interest in music up to this meeting had taught me one small but significant rule: to most of those who tell us that they ‘play a bit’ or that they have ‘some of their stuff on tape’ I advice caution, at least; because once some of that music finally reach us, it, one can almost always be positive, won’t be the greatest recording one has ever heard. As a musical enthusiast, ever since the early days of the initial interest, I would feel the joy every time someone I just met would tell me that he or she is in music and would gladly share some of his or her work with me. Every time, with excitement and hope I would be expecting to bump into someone who, although completely unknown, or exactly because of that, would surprise me and, hey, why not, maybe even thrill me with his or her music. What a prospect: to come home, put one of those cheap tapes or as of lately, self made CDs in the stereo – and expect something new, exciting or even well played to come out. This is exactly what every music aficionado lives for. Time and time again, however, whenever I would come home and put on the works of my newly acquainted ‘great musical hopes’, I’d be faced with unknown ‘geniuses’ armed with a surplus of enthusiasm and lack of ideas or practical music skills. Since I moved abroad, the thing seems to have gotten even more extreme: the musicians from the old country seem, in the anonymity of their new countries, to have totally lost their sense of reality, as well as any capability of judging their own range and possibilities, the tapes and the discs I’d be getting would commonly range from ‘bad’ to, frankly, ‘quite unbelievably awful’. The permissive atmosphere of Amsterdam’s cultural climate gave them a push of sorts, the local musicians have a habit of making similar ‘products’, blissfully unaware of what they are subjecting their innocent audience to.
So when I heard some years ago, through another musician, that there was this guy here in Amsterdam who had just come over from Croatia and supposedly was a great guitar player – despite the fact that my enthusiasm never waned so far as to become a form of cynicism – I thought: ‘Ah, another one of those.’
However, partly due to my indestructible curiosity and partly because I had some faith in the judgment of the aforementioned colleague, I wan- ted to meet this guy anyway; who knows, I thought, maybe he too has a tape or a cd that he’d like me to listen to.
And so, during one of those terribly wet Dutch winters, I finally met the guy in a café. His name was Branko Galoic, and the first thing I noticed after a couple of minutes spent in his company was his modesty but also the energy and a positive ‘vibe’ about him, which was good news anyway.
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He finished his drink and left, but not before he handed me a compact disc – mentioning that it was his first album he’d recorded in Croatia in his own modest arrangements – an instrumental album to be more precise, and made, needless to say, on a string budget. Almost with a sort of sadness, I thought: ‘he seems to be a nice guy, but what can you do – his must be one of those ‘albums’, although I’d give a good money if it wasn’t.’ The things didn’t seem promising at all – he was a young man, which meant that he grew up during that terrible time, during the nineties, and even worse, deep in the provinces with all the implications of that – how could then, the music he brought me be any good? And believe me, this is not about prejudices – anybody with a grain of honesty and with any knowledge of those parts would’ve thought the same.
The moment I put the cd on – I realized that small miracles indeed do happen: although obviously recorded on a tiny budget, an album full of warmth and of surprising maturity was unfolding before my eyes and ears, far from being another of those demos which its authors in an attack of deluded self-consciousness call ‘albums’, this was a proper, serious album, where the playing oozed professionalism and musical dexterity. One could’ve recognized some famous players in Branko’s style, both in his electric and acoustic numbers, but his tone was nonetheless very impressive and definitely his own. In an organic combination with his stunning drummer and a keyboard player, Branko had produced an album quite different from the place it was made in.
I was impressed.
Branko Galoic - Releases
Now, the reason why Branko ended up in the place where I met him was the quality of his music. It sounds as a paradox, but that is the way things work in the environment where we came from, anyone with a bit of talent and drive, anyone who’s eager to get some work under his belt must grow tired of the place. It doesn’t like its talents, and they themselves don’t like the place, because of its narrowness and limits. So Branko got tired of it as well, and decided to go somewhere else and try his luck. He didn’t even care where the road would take him, as long as that place gave him an opportunity to play his music, and as long as he didn’t have to think about other, non-musical things all the time.
Of course, to be able to achieve the latter he had to go through the typical musician’s ‘rite of
passage’ – he was busking, playing innumerable sessions and gigs with other musicians, literally from all over the world. It goes without saying that the non-musical jobs dominated the picture: menial jobs mostly. Typical immigrant ‘coming of age’, always as a semi or completely ‘illegal alien’. But Branko didn’t squander his time while trying to make ends meet: all the good and bad things, as well as different experiences and emotions, he was translating into songs, tunes and lyrics.
I didn’t know that yet at the time I was listening his Croatian instrumental debut, which I really got stuck in just as almost everybody else I’d been playing the record to. At the same time I was doing some work for Dragi Šestić, the producer of Mostar Sevdah Reunion, the renown Bosnian ‘world music’ band. I thought Branko and Dragi would be an interesting artistic combination, and decided to introduce them to one another. That was then the lucky occurrence I’ve mentioned earlier on. What I couldn’t have known was that once Branko played his new songs to Dragi, the Bosnian-Dutch producer, ignited by the same enthusiasm, was soon going to outline the whole tactic after that first meeting, of how to make a record with Branko and even how to promote him.
It all went smoothly after that. Well, almost. Dragi Šestić, in his resourceful way, had employed his modest logistics to the maximum, showing in a practical way how a whole professionally made album could be recorded and done out of basically nothing, with a minimum of resources (the trials and tribulations met during the recording process of the album is made of that typical musicians’ stories material, waiting to be told some day). But the work had to be done, and once brought together while working on the album, Branko and Dragi became good friends as well. Overall, this project, as a result of that loose and mutually questioning meeting, had developed into something what Dragi jokingly calls ‘a meeting of Diaspora brought together by a lowest common denominator’ – i.e. the music. The whole thing is before everything else about a couple of ex-pats (and not only) who don’t have the strict, business relations, but think of this work instead as a labour of love, something that might last longer, and even makes them feel proud when looking back upon it. It’s about people who understand each other, which, if put it in the context of where we’re from, is not so little a thing as one might think.
Again, the project did not come about without the usual assortment of problems (financial, organizational, etc. etc.), and its completion took a long time, often testing the limits of its author’s patience. But now that the album is finally out there, we don’ t have to think about it anymore. Which work of quality was ever delivered free of trouble? I don’t mention this without a very important reason: just as every work made in such circumstances, this one too had a ‘saving grace’. Working long and hard, Branko and Dragi during the long breaks have had enough time to think properly both about the musical direction and about the people they would like to see playing on the record. So different guests in the long of period of time would be invited to the studios in order to give their musical contribution and enrich the record. Their contribution to “Above the roofs”, Branko’s first vocal album, simply can’t be overestimated. Better yet: there is an almost Babylonian mixture of nationalities here, if we take a look at the backgrounds of the musicians who played on the record – a thing which could’ve happened only here in Amsterdam. Bassist Richard Degener, whose band served as a core of Branko’s own band in its current form; great guest musicians, like virtuoso accordionist and clarinetist Mustafa Santic and Nedjo Kovacevic on violin (Bosnian members of Mostar Sevdah Reunion); Dutch musicians such as drummer Casper Gimbrere, saxophonist Chris Corstens, and Udo Dermans, a German percussionist specialized in Turkish, South American, Spanish and all other sorts of ethno-percussions (tarabuka, congas) – they all have made possible this exceptional international musical mixture.
Two names though should get a special attention, I think – Bulgarian singer and bouzouki-player Janko Brekov and Bosnian accordionist Merima Kljuco. Together with Branko, they have delineated in a single song a sort of “Balkans circle”, surpassing the narrow ethnic and cultural walls, creating in the process a new sound which we’ll certainly hear more from in the future.
In this lies the poetic justice of this project: something that started as a jailbreak from narrowness and from lack of communication – the things Branko left behind and the reasons why he came over here -, it ended in something wide and free: in the interplay between similar minds, people from different parts of the world breaking down borders with their human and musical energy. On this album the thing went even further; it has developed – through inter- change, through camaraderie and the mixing of experiences – and into the best which they all jointly brought along. And, of course, in music. Always in music.