THE BEGINNING The latest award that I've received is a lifetime achievement award. The newspapers reported on this, you've probably seen it. I've received various awards during my life: for the best television episode, for the best TV serial, for… As far as awards go, each confirms that you're doing a good job and that you're on the right track. It's also an obligation to do better. I know for sure that I've done everything in life as best I could.
I'm mostly known and remembered for Seven Young Men. Let me tell you, Seven Young Men were the best promoters of jazz music in this country. It'd be nice if people knew that. As a band, we started off performing jazz, but we soon realized that we'd have a hard time supporting our families and putting food on the table, because jazz isn't exactly a commercial thing that allows you to support yourself. Nonetheless, it was love, and we pressed on with it. On the other hand, as a band, we started playing other sorts of things as well. We switched to pop music and went into showbusiness, but our love of jazz never went away. It'd be nice if people knew that too. So, jazz came first.
I made my friends laugh
But, before all that… I was once a kid too. The little Jova. I remember my childhood, of course – is there anything better than that time of your life? I loved cracking up my friends and making them happy with a joke. I insisted on that during the school years so that later on, when I started to perform, it turned out to be something that could be included in entertainment shows. And so, I started doing entertainment shows. Initially it was sort of thrown together, but if you insist on something and keep at it, you will get better and better by the day. We kept at it and went on to become one of the best bands in Europe. When I say 'we', I mean Seven Young Men. In a way, I made TV viewers laugh the same way I used to crack up my school friends…
Gymnast at Partizan
When I was in elementary school I couldn't find my true calling. I wasn't a good student really. You could say that I scraped through as a B or C student. When I was in the second grade, something happened that caught my attention. We were doing gymnastics, and I was really drawn to that. I practices regularly, so on top of being good at it, I was very happy. I joined the Partizan sports club, and won awards as a gymnast. Soon I started to play the flute, and so I would perform at sports events both as an athlete and a flute player, and then as a choirboy as well. When something needed to be done, the teacher would say, "Radovanović, get over here!" Someone would then protest, "Leave Radovanović alone, he can't do the whole recital!" "Oh yes, he can! He does the job, he sings, he plays, he dances, the whole nine yards!" the teacher would retort. That's when I realized that that was going to be my calling, because I felt comfortable on the stage.
Bread rolls meant the world to me
I was born during World War II. In this country, people have three options regarding when to be born: before a war, during a war, and after a war. Like all mothers, my mother was the centre of our family. My father was running around making money, and my mother was the pillar of the family. The most important link in the chain, and we couldn't have done without her. My father was stricter, and my mother was the one to protect us. There were four of us children, but I never felt that because I was 15 years younger than my eldest brother and that made me feel like an only child. I wasn't spoiled. It was the post-war period, you know, and we lived in poverty… As an illustration – and just so you could understand, this happened after the war – my parents wanted to do something for me, to sort of cheer me up by giving me a present. Can you imagine what a bread roll meant back in the day? Getting one was impossible! All we got was cornbread and stuff like that. A bread roll was something you could only dream of! And so, in order to make me feel better, my father brought me a bread roll! My two brothers and sister were looking at it, and I could see they wanted to just tear it to pieces and wolf it down. I took a bite, all the while hollering, "That's bad for you!" But my sister and brothers took the bread roll and devoured it! Me yelling, "It's bad for you!" was in vain. I don't see my childhood in terms of poverty and being poor. It was rich with events. We didn't have any money, but no one in our neighbourhood did either, so that if you had some, you would share it with those who didn't. It was like a duty of sorts, it was unlikely that anyone would keep food from other people and eat it by themselves.
I took the least beating
According to my brothers and sisters, I used to take the least beating of all the children. I was obedient. I didn't make a distinction between my parents. You know that thing when someone asks you, who do you love more, your mom or your dad? Back in the day, I didn't love my mother or father more, it was equal. Now, I've said here that my childhood was nice, and it was, but the time after the war was horrible. Just generally. We would make a rag ball out of used cloth, and off we went, running around the street! The first time we got a small rubber ball, and sewed it up with the rag ball so it even bounced a bit, we were over the moon! We'd play out in the street from morning to evening, unlike today's youth, who you need to send out by force because they're on their tablets and phones. I think life was better then.
Mom's cakes were the tastiest
My mother made various delicacies. Like poppy seed rolls and apple strudels, which were just perfect! There were also various kinds of cakes that there was no recipe for, you would just slap together whatever you had in the house. Anything sweet would be scarfed in no time at all. I've never enjoyed food more than in my childhood, when my mother made cake. The four of us loved it, and we'd have other kids over – you would share everything, that was for sure. However poor you were, however little you had, you'd always share food. No one went to bed hungry.
Find me a flute
I loved playing music and ached to play. I get this feeling, if you'll believe me, that I could take any instrument and create something out of it, control the sound it makes. That's how it's always been. I remember once, there was this wedding, and they were singing, "The falcon flies low and high, oh Zora, oh Zorica…". So I said to my buds: "If I had that accordion or any other instrument, I feel like I could play straightaway!" Naturally, these pals of mine make a short trip to the market and buy a flute for me at the purchase price. To be frank, they stole it. They brought it to me, and for the next minute or so I was going "tootle tootle tootle-too", blowing and trying it out. As soon as I found the tones, I started to play correctly! My buds couldn't believe it! They went, "You're fakin' it, you've practised before!" and things like that. I couldn't convince them, but there was no need. Those were my first steps.
I played for free
My environment was merry and sound. Everyone loved folk music, but I wasn't much of a fan. When we got our first radio, which my brother had brought and turned on, I started liking jazz. I became obsessed with it, so I enrolled in a music school. It so happened that later on I managed to start a band, made up of beginners. It was called Domino. To get the sound that we wanted, all the money we made as musicians went into renting a piano. You know, there were no pianos at the Faculty of Technology, so we used up all the money that we had to rent a piano and get that rich sound when we played on Saturdays and Sundays. We played for free, but we were content. Jazz inspires great love, and you can never leave it. It's a kind of freedom. When you start playing, and then you improvise, it's like taking off and flying – you create what you create by yourself.
Seven Young Men
We had gigs at dances, and you wouldn't believe how crowded it was. That's when Seven Young Men would come to the Faculty of Technology to listen to me, and they ended up recruiting me. I didn't join them immediately, I went to Veseli Bendžo (The Merry Banjo) first, and then I joined Seven Young Men. It all happened fast. In 1962, I had a TV debut with Veseli Bendžo. That was a nice experience. I live off of that memory. I could never forget it, because it was exciting, creative, and also – I loved what I did, man.
Now, that was a great success. We were proud. We got an award as the best European band. Can you imagine what it means to be number one abroad for 15 years. And when we went into showbusiness, sky was the limit! When we decided to return to Yugoslavia, we started doing TV serials. Back in the day, it was difficult to make a show. We'd spend a long time preparing thoroughly for each episode. In our relationship with the audience, everything we did was family-oriented – children's songs, songs for mature listeners, and then jazz, which was just for us. We introduced the general audience to jazz, and we did it well.
I was hit hard when the band broke up. All my dreams came crashing down. Everything you had dreamed would happen was now gone… It was a horrible feeling. After the events in the war, well… It's hard even talking about it.. You know, we made entertainment shows, and there was no indication that things would get better during those difficult times. People were counting the dead, and for years we asked ourselves what would happen to all of us in the country.
Dejan Pataković and Željko Mitrović
When it was all over, one day a guy from TV called me up and said, "Let's work together a bit, entertain the nation, put a smile on people's faces, make these children feel better." I agreed to give it a shot, and he said straightaway that there was no money in it. I called a couple of actors, but no one wanted to work for free. Dejan Pataković, who wrote good scripts, agreed to do it, but the texts he wrote were intended for actors, and I am not an actor. I had two good nights' sleep and, because I knew how TV operated, I decided to work as an actor as well. I did both characters. I was a supporter of Partizan and Red Star. I played a football fan. It was about them having an argument. We did a really good job, but it was very very hard. Very demanding – I had to do one character, and then listen to the other one to make it seem like it was a dialogue happening live. It was a challenge, and we did it for six months. I got zilch for that. One day, I took the tape and brought it to Željko Mitrović. I explained what it was about, and he said, "I have to have this!" I called that show Pull The Handbrake. That was it as far as TV gigs went. I pulled the handbrake for real.
The passing of the band members
But, let me go back to Seven Young Men… Band members passing away always hit us hard. Words cannot describe it. That's life… I have lost many people who were dear to me. When I was younger, that would shock me out of my wits. These days, I talk with Ljubiša about anything other than music. Ljuba and me catch up as old people, not as musicians. I remember, the last performance we had was at a restaurant in Sarajevo. Arsen Dedić was there too and… not sure who else. Back then, you had high-quality shows at motels. Yes, at motels too. There wasn't a single place in the former Yugoslavia that we didn't go to and perform there. We would turn watering holes into theatres. It stayed with people, and they would talk about it for a week. To head out to a place where you didn't have your audience, that was magnificent. We made nice arrangements for opera arias just to introduce opera to ordinary people. I remember this one time, I went to the market, and a farmer guy says to me, "You did a great job there, I don't like a darn thing about opera, but what you did was really good." That's how people saw it. And then… when some members passed away… it was painful…
Tito exempted me from military service
As for how I served in the military, now that's quite a story. Whenever there was a big party at any of Tito's residences, we'd have guest appearances. It'd be overseen by hosts of police officers, security, the lot. We were sort of encouraged – that's what it was like back in the day – because none of us was a member of the Communist Party, and we were Tito's favourite band. Once, when we were abroad, and he was on his ship travelling around the world, he invited us to join him. At that point we had signed our contracts, and our military service was postponed. The seven of us never did our military service because of a memo from Tito's Office that said that it would be better if we spread culture abroad than be in the military. That was a time when the newspapers were full of headlines like "Yugoslavian thieves", so in order to put a stop to that, headlines like "A very good band conquering Europe hails from Yugoslavia" started to appear. We were more valuable to Tito as promoters than as soldiers wallowing in the mud and shooting. That's the one thing I don't regret – not doing the military service – because I didn't like any of the stories that I'd heard. I'm proud of being exempted. We did our service in a different way.
I've never mixed business and pleasure. That aspect of my life was different. Music was my love. And I wasn't looking to find a partner for life. I met my wife at The Belgrade Radio & Television. It was love at first sight. True love. The one that happens only once. It was as if an express train had hit me. Until then, I didn't believe that there was such a thing. It was strong, powerful. And that was it. I knew that we were going to be a family. So I got a son and twin daughters. My maternal grandmother had twins. She lived to a 103 years old. I have to tell you this. When my grandma was 99, this one time she complained to me, saying: "I'm ashamed of still being alive." You never know when your time will come. I'm content with my life. I can say I'm a happy person, especially because I have a family that I love. My wife's been through a lot. If you don't have someone by your side who understands, then your marriage is a failure. My wife understood it all, both my work and my inclination to music and travel.
My son didn't recognize me
Just imagine, I took my wife to a hospital to give birth, and three days later I went on a trip. And I was gone for seven months. Or, this other time, I went away when my son was small. My wife would show him a photo of me, as you do, just to make sure he knew that he had a father. Back then, there was no technology allowing you to have video-calls. Now, picture the moment when I came back from a trip. My son saw me, started hollering, "Dad!", and ran away from me! He recognized me, but didn't feel that I was his father. I burst out crying like a child. It hit me hard. Those are the kinds of things you had to accept. I was careful as a parent, and none of my children ever took a beating. Not once! But my tongue got all swollen up talking instead. I remember once, my son was six, and he left his slippers on the floor in the middle of the room. I said, "You can't do that." And instead of picking them up, he says to me, "Dad, I saw you do it yesterday!" So I explained to him that it was wrong of me to have done that too. That's how I raised my children. You can't just preach to a child what you don't do yourself. Children learn much more by observing than by listening.
My grandchildren entertain me
I'm a happy grandpa. I have two grandsons and two granddaughters. I'm no entertainer there – I'm the one being entertained. It's just so delightful. If you only knew how lively one of my grandsons is! And my granddaughters – that's a whole different story! Talent is a wonderful thing, it doesn't go away. When he was two, my grandson behaved a bit like an entertainer, but now, as he's growing up, he seems more interested in sports. You never know when true talent will emerge in a person. I have to quote Petar Božović here: "I know who the culprit is – it's talent, which pushes us towards toil and trouble." Nothing like a talent to push you to do something. Everyone's like that.
Mistakes I've made
I've made a slew of mistakes in my life. They're unavoidable in life. I've been convinced many times that I was right, and then I'd apologize because I realized I wasn't. That's life. Sometimes I wouldn't notice certain things, and then, when it was all over, I'd get it. I have very few friends, and I've always taken good care of them. But you will make mistakes. If I could do it all over again, I'd be sure to change a few things. I didn't get enough education. If I was born again, I'd get all the highest degrees. I was a craftsman and enrolled in a music school as a craftsman. But I didn't graduate. When you join a band, you have concerts and go on trips, and you can't go back. I'm glad to have been an actor at Atelje 212, even it was just one season. I left the theatre too, although I really loved the stage. So that's what I still want to do. My advice to young people is to get a good education. To them it may seem like a waste of time, but that is the knowledge you will need later in life. In my life, I learned from the mistakes that I'd made, running my head against the wall. And not everything's been comical, I've had my share of crying too.
How the Roma got upset
Publicly, no one ever got upset with me for doing an impression of them. I tried not to offend people. If I have – and that's likely been the case – I'm sorry. A long time ago – the newspapers had stories on this – there was a hit song, "And they say the Gypsy's crazy". I sang about Gypsies, but they started being called the Roma in the meantime. So some people got upset… Well, how on earth are you supposed to sing a song like "O, Cigane moj" (Oh my Gypsy)?? I grew up in the Belgrade neighbourhood of Zvezdara, and there were a lot of Gypsies there. Many of them were musicians, so I picked up their language too. I had toyed with the idea of translating "Crazy Gypsy" into Spanish, and some people got upset, but that didn't last long.
You ask about unfulfilled desires? Well, I don't have any. I don't because I never set the bar so high as to have unfulfilled desires. Unfulfilled desires and goals leave a person disappointed. I have done everything that I wanted to do. My wishes are different now. More realistic. Health and a happy family. I like it when my children and my friends laugh. When people are happy. I wish everyone could be like that.
Sorrow and tragedy
It's tragic when you lose a parent. When that happened to me, I couldn't even fill out the form. Literally. Someone asked me, "What is your brother's name?" I didn't know. It was a shock, in the true sense of the word. And then you do what you have to do… The band had signed contracts, I needed to go with them. A week after my mother died, I had to sing and dance. It was a struggle with myself. I don't know how noticeable it was. Afterwards I was told no one had noticed, but I alone know how I felt inside. Words cannot describe it. It's like being split asunder with an axe. Just horrific. Wouldn't wish it on anyone. But, it was the line of work that I had decided to go into, so I had to deal with it. My mother died before my father. My father lived to a 90 years old, and my mother passed away before him. She had diabetes, and it was inevitable.
My legs are giving out
My health is stable. My legs are slowly starting to give out, but what can you do… I haven't had corona, nor has my wife. We've managed to protect ourselves from it. You have to protect yourself. As Raša Popov aptly said once, old age can be nice only if it doesn't hurt. For the time being, I just touch wood. I'm not giving up, I walk three kilometres a day. This one guy, who was a technician with Seven Young Men, comes over whenever he has time, and we go out for a walk. It's nice by the Sava, you know. The water smells nice, it's quiet and peaceful, just beautiful. My day is full. Perhaps I'm a little short for time, but I can't complain. The only thing I stay away from is heat.
Give me something funny
We're a very witty nation, but I don't see anyone working on it nowadays. Being a comedian is a very fragile sort of plant, and needs to be cultivated for years. Once someone said to Zdravka Krstulović, an actress from Croatia, "Why don't you come for New Year's, we need something funny," and she replied, "Humour is a fragile plant, it is cultivated all year round, you cannot just pick it for the New Year's." It denigrates our profession, really. Give us something funny for the New Year's? New Year's Eve TV programming should be prepared for two months. I don't even know what to call the stuff we watch nowadays. It's like a merry-go-round. I often wonder if the New Year's Eve programming is this year's or from five years ago – it's all exactly the same. Making someone laugh is the hardest thing to do. TV must open its doors to talented people. Nobody's born knowing – you got to work.
What I'm proud of
People are very polite and appreciative when they accost me in the street. Let me share this with you: I just loved it when a middle-aged guy once told me I had made his childhood much nicer than it otherwise would have been. Imagine that! That sentence! I remember that! I'm most proud of my family and making people happy, making them laugh. In a sense, everything that I've been through was learning something new.
When they poop, they poop
Is that it? You got enough? What else? OK, let's add a bit more to the stories galore! Being a father to twin daughters is a lot of fun. The most fun thing that could have happened to me ever. It was like an assembly line in a plant. When they pooped, they both pooped. Incredible. It was identical. I'd be giving a bath to one, and my wife would be giving a bath to the other. You had to do everything at once, not one thing at a time! It was so hectic, and we had to practice and act as a team. I have an anecdote for the end, I've talked enough. When my daughters were little, my son was a bit older and used to hang out with a buddy of his from the neighbourhood, who came over often. I would say to my son, "Miloš, Daddy's off to work, you'll see me on TV!" And this happened many times. So, one day, that buddy of his was over and asked him, "How come my dad keeps saying the same thing when he leaves for work, and I've never seen him on TV??"
Interview by: Ljiljana Stanišić / Photo credit: Private archive