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THE LIFE STORY OF VLATKO STEFANOVSKI: 'The road that I have been travelling on in my life isn't paved with asphalt.
Foto: Damir Dervišagić

LEGENDARY GUITAR PLAYER

THE LIFE STORY OF VLATKO STEFANOVSKI: 'The road that I have been travelling on in my life isn't paved with asphalt.

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He is simply Vlatko. The Leb i Sol Vlatko. The two have always gone in tandem. It is a less well-known fact that Vlatko isn't his real name. He has played at thousands of concerts. He has travelled to wherever he wished to be. He has built two houses. He has raised his children and is proud of them.

I've had no end of mischances – car accidents, illnesses, fractures, breakdowns. I fell from two meters high at the Belgrade Arena in 2014, during a soundcheck, when I had a guest appearance at a Zdravko Čolić concert. I got some serious injuries then. It was pure luck that I survived. I was in a car accident in Bulgaria once, with Miroslav Tadić. A head-on collision of our van and a truck. It was horrendous. I got electrocuted a couple times in Russia, and once in Ohrid… At a concert in Tetovo, a stone hit me on the eye. I spent seven days in a hospital with my eyes covered in a bandage. God alone has protected me thus far.

There've been so many mischances. More than successes and moments of glory. The road that I've been travelling on isn't paved with asphalt. It's been riddled with hardship, but also full of exciting times and nice encounters…

Vlatko Stefanovski
foto: Privatna arhiva

The day when Skopje was destroyed

I was born a long time ago, on 24 January 1957, in Prilep, as Vladimir. My mother Nada was an actress, and my father Mirko an actor and a director. My brother Goran was five years older than me.

I lived in Prilep for three years, and my memories of it are blurry and unclear. My folks worked at the theatre. I grew up in the yard in front of our building and on the balcony that looked out on the clock tower, which was a big attraction. We lived in quite a spacious apartment, with double-wing doors in the drawing room. It was located at the city centre, above a pharmacy which is still there.

We came to Skopje in the 1960s. We just landed in a new building, in a newly-built neighbourhood close to Debar-mala. My grandparents' house was nearby. I grew up hanging out with friends from the building. The 1963 earthquake brought in a tectonic shift in my life. My brother and I were in Ohrid with my father, but we returned on the same day because we had left for Skopje in the morning. When we were near Mavrovo, we found out that Skopje had been destroyed. I have vivid memories of those days. It was very traumatic and stressful for my parents. As a child, I thought it was spectacular to see buildings cut clean through, trucks and soldiers passing by, people screaming and crying, jostling for food and water… And then the evacuation – my brother and me were sent to Zlatibor for a month or two, and we stayed in the small houses next to the Palisad Hotel.

School under a tent

I started school in a tent, and studied under a tent, where we had improvised classes while the buildings were renovated. Afterwards we moved to the Taftalidže neighbourhood, and I've been here since 1964. It's a very interesting neighbourhood, located where orchards used to be up until the earthquake. Back in 1963, the Cold War was on, and everyone was trying to outcompete each other with donations. As a result, we got the Finnish, Norwegian, Mexican, and Czech neighbourhoods… I was lucky to live in a Finnish house, made of wood and absolutely fantastic. For years it smelled of impregnated wood. It had beautiful windows with blinds and, although it was modest, it was stylish. The Taftalidže neighbourhood was a very nice place to live in until a few years ago, when urban hysterics kicked in and everybody started to build houses. About three or four months ago I released the album titled Taftalidže Shuffle.

I went to the Jan Amos Komenski Elementary, which was a donation by the Czechoslovakian government. It too had that brand new smell. It was a fantastic school, with spacious classrooms and a beautiful yard to run, have fun, and play football and basketball in…

Vlatko Stefanovski
foto: Privatna arhiva

Open-eyed child

I was a child with eyes and ears open, immensely curious. I had too many hobbies before I discovered music. At first I drew and wanted to become a painter. Afterwards I discovered photography and made a home photo lab. For a while I was interested in mechanical engineering – how cars work – and then electronics, i.e. radios and TVs. My uncle was a car mechanic, and I would always go to his shop to watch cars being repaired. When I discovered music, I realized it was the most beautiful discipline that you could get involved in.

And that was that

But who thought about work in the 1970s Yugoslavia… God walked the earth, and no one worried about making ends meet. People grew up, studied, got their education, jobs, and decent lives, and you didn't have to be a sensation to get by. Everyone was comfortably off – not too rich, but they had everything they needed. Parents kept their salaries in the closet, and anyone could use the money and spend as much as they needed – pure communism. Unlike nowadays, back then we weren't victims of the materialistic and consumerist world. We had sneakers and jeans, and that was that. Today, if you don't have 25 pairs of sneakers, 17 pairs of jeans, and 150 shirts, you're standing out like a sore thumb. So, getting by wasn't an issue – all we wanted was to do what we thought was fun. We played football, volleyball, and basketball, but we also started bands because it was fun.

I went to the Georgi Dimitrov Preparatory School. I wasn't a very good student, especially in mathematics and chemistry, but I was doing better at physics. It's more interesting – the laws of gravity, inertia, action and reaction. Right behind you – where we're sitting now – is a hall that used to be the canteen with a small stage in it. There I played at my first dances, with my bands, in year three of prep school. That's when I had my first serious girlfriend – Biljana.

Vlatko Stefanovski
foto: Privatna arhiva

Permission to have long hair

I grew my hair when they let me, after prep school. The prep school principal would be sitting at the entrance on Monday mornings and measuring our hair. Then he would say, "You, go get a haircut. You too …" We would hide our hair under jackets and caps – God only knows what we tried.

The guitar was an on and off sort of hobby. I dabbled a bit and didn't get all excited straightaway, because I had an affinity for other things. I was already playing in more serious bands, with older musicians, for example in a band called Breg, with Miki Petkovski and Garo Garabet Tavitjan in the line-up. I was the youngest member, and was learning the ropes there until I felt this powerful urge to have a band of my own and play the kind of music that I imagined, that I had in my mind. I enrolled in the English Language and Literature programme and completed my studies. And then Leb i Sol happened, and I gave it all up.

Leb i Sol lasted a full 20 years, from 1976 to 1995. I know that we were the best, we were a terrific band. A four-piece act, with changes in the line-up, of course, but terrific. We knew that we would set alight any place we went to.

A picture from 1949

Mother on the album cover

I put a photo of my mother on the cover of the album Mother Tongue. It was a picture from a play that she was in in Kragujevac in 1949. She had a guitar as a prop. She had been an actress since a young age, and was employed at the Joakim Vujić Theatre when she was 14. Afterwards she moved to Skopje and married my father.

Vlatko Stefanovski
foto: Privatna arhiva

Concerts and songs

I don't have a favourite concert. I'm fond of performances in different places and in different periods. I cannot say that any one is the best or the most significant. The best ones are those when you close your eyes, forget about everything, and let music carry you away. When you serve a higher truth or a higher goal. When you shut yourself off entirely, when a different kind of force or energy takes control of you.

I cannot pick a single song. They are all creative impulses. At times I wrote lyrics in between dreaming and being awake. I usually get a flash of an idea before going to sleep, so I jump out of the bed and write it down. I keep pens and notebooks next to my bed. But, I wrote all the lyrics from my last album on my phone. However much you resist, you cannot get away from the new technology.

Leb i Sol broke up due to material fatigue. We got tired of each other. It's very simple, like with all the great bands. Why did Pink Floyd and The Police break up?! Only The Rolling Stones remain a band apart, they still haven't broken up. We got back together in 2006 and had a big reunion tour. It was worth it – it was really good.

Vlatko Stefanovski
foto: Privatna arhiva

A lot of pain in a short while

Love… Well, I've had failures and good relationships. Both disappointments and stellar moments with some girls, here in Skopje, from my prep school. But, I had a pretty stable marriage. I lived for over 30 years with one person, who sadly left us too soon. Today, on this very day, she would have turned 61. Gordana Milić Stefanovski.

Sadly, the past couple of years have been rough… My brother passed away too, very soon after my wife. A year apart. And I just couldn't bear any longer what had been happening to me. It was too much. I wasn’t ready for so much pain in such a short while. That was a very difficult period of my life. I can't talk about it anymore. Sorry.

Vlatko Stefanovski
foto: Privatna arhiva

Parents

I've been missing my parents for many years now. I was quite young when I lost them. I lost my father when I was 24, and my mother when I was 27. As long as your parents are around, you have a "backup" for everything, financially, emotionally, in every possible way. Afterwards you find yourself exposed to the elements, and you let the chips fall where they may. You cannot go against fate though. This is something you have no control over.

Children

I'm very proud of my children and hope they keep making good in life. My daughter Ana has a PhD in Italian Literature from Padua. She teaches Italian in Ireland and has a postdoctoral position. I haven't seen her in eight months because they are under lockdown. My son Jan is a student at the jazz academy in Štip, and he plays the drums with me in my band VS Trio. He played the drums on the album Taftalidže Shuffle, he is very talented and musical. I'm glad that he doesn't play the guitar, because he doesn't get compared to me. It really is a good thing that he's chosen a different instrument – now we can play together.

Vlatko Stefanovski
foto: Privatna arhiva

The right words always come to me too late

The right words always come to me too late, as does what I would do. This is why, when you find something – grab hold of it! Don't leave it until tomorrow. That's been the right solution for me so many times. For example, once I arrived in New York at night and saw a great guitar in a shop. I thought to myself, surely you're not buying a guitar on your first day? So I left it for the next day. It wasn't there the next day – someone else was faster and had bought it. You always make the wrong kind of compromise. The same goes for people, houses, and friendships. When you find a true friend, hold on to them and take good care of them. When you find the right girl, hold on to her and take good care of her.

Friends and a dog

You know the old adage, it was on social media the other day: at 20, you have 50 friends; at 40, you have 20; and at 60, all you have left is a dog. I too have a Labrador that my children brought home, and I walk him twice a day. It's a bit of a joke, but it's true. I have lots of friends. Just yesterday I got a fantastic gift from a friend – a poster from Bob Dylan's concert in Skopje, signed! It's not every day that you get such gifts! I have people to go for a glass of wine with, but getting together with friends can be a little tiring, however much fun it might be. And Covid has trained us in being alone and isolated, which is really bad. We may have been lonely, but it was in the company of people at a coffeehouse. Now we are both lonely and alone. That's terrible.

I haven't met Eric Clapton

I've had interesting encounters with great artists, shared a few moments or a dinner with them, and swapped stories… I haven't met Clapton, for example, but I have met all the other guitar players - Jack Black, Allan Holdsworth, John McLaughlin, Derek Trucks.

I don't consider myself great at all. I can play the guitar and write a song or two – I have that skill and hope to keep it. Before this conversation, I played the acoustic guitar for about an hour in my yard. That means I don't rest on my laurels waiting for a Grammy or an Oscar. It's not like that.

Vlatko Stefanovski
foto: Privatna arhiva

The need to distance myself

I have a need to distance myself because I was in the limelight for too long. It makes perfect sense. If you've played at 5,000 concerts, then you feel the need to distance yourself. Always being in the limelight isn't good for your mental health. You need to step back and take a look at your life and activities from a different perspective, critically. I can say that I'm quite pleased with what I've done, and I have no unfulfilled aspirations. I've done many good things, and I don't know if they have reached everyone that they should have. Perhaps I still have work to do in the sense of bringing more recognition to what I have done, but I'm too lazy to do promotions.

Vlatko Stefanovski
foto: Privatna arhiva

A house by the sea or in a mountain

I can only mourn the loss of people dear to me, I don't mourn anything else. No, I do not have any regrets. Maybe I have made mistakes, but I don't think any of them are ghastly. I have made mistakes like everyone else. I wouldn't want to have hurt anyone badly, because unfortunately people sometimes unwittingly hurt each other deeply. I try to do not what I must, but what I should. To help my children a bit more, as well as my associates. And take my time writing my autobiography…

Hopefully I'll get a chance to visit some nice places in the future – mountains, seas, lakes. You know, we should be modest and optimistic. I'm not exactly in my prime, and I'm thankful for every new day. I've built a lot in my lifetime – two houses and a studio. I'm tired of craftsmen, I just cannot be bothered any more. I just want to buy a cabin by the sea or in the mountains. A wooden lodge, a bed, a desk, and a view. Nothing else. What people need is a view, not square footage. As Americans say, there are three principles – location, location, location. I dream of a small makeshift studio with a great view. So, the smallest of studios with the grandest of vistas. That's what I've been conjuring up in my mind.

Vlatko Stefanovski
foto: Privatna arhiva

Dragoljub Ðuričić

Monument to eggs and frankfurters

I feel so sorry for Dragoljub Đuričić [author's note: died of Covid; played the drums in the band Leb i Sol], he left us too soon. He was one of the best people that I've known. He had such a big heart, really an incredible guy. He stayed with me while we rehearsed some album songs. This one time, he says to me, "Look, Stefanovski, we need to erect a monument to eggs and frankfurters. If we didn't have eggs and frankfurters, we would die of starvation!" Exactly right. Every day: "What are we having today? Let's have eggs and frankfurters."

Vlatko Stefanovski
foto: Privatna arhiva

Dragoljub Ðuričić

Monument to eggs and frankfurters

I feel so sorry for Dragoljub Đuričić [author's note: died of Covid; played the drums in the band Leb i Sol], he left us too soon. He was one of the best people that I've known. He had such a big heart, really an incredible guy. He stayed with me while we rehearsed some album songs. This one time, he says to me, "Look, Stefanovski, we need to erect a monument to eggs and frankfurters. If we didn't have eggs and frankfurters, we would die of starvation!" Exactly right. Every day: "What are we having today? Let's have eggs and frankfurters."

Starting to cook

Going to the market every day is like a ritual

I have to admit that I've learnt how to cook. I can make a moussaka and stuffed cabbage rolls, not to mention fish and grilled steak. I really have mastered cooking. I had to. Well, ok, I could have eaten out all the time, but it's much better when you cook. I go to the market every day, it's like a ritual. I used to drink beer, but now I only drink wine.

Vlatko Stefanovski
foto: Damir Dervišagić

Written down by Jelena S. Spasić

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