What do you know about your family’s roots?
My family’s roots are intertwined like those of many European families. One of my grandmothers comes from Hungary, the other has Moravian roots. One of my grandfathers has roots in Germany, but he worked for a while in Bohemia where my father was born, and then moved to Croatia. The other grandfather has Hungarian roots. My parents lived in Croatia most of their lives and have always considered themselves as Croats. Thanks to my father’s jobs as a diplomat we traveled a lot when I was a child. I lived in the U.S.A. for three years, and a year in Indonesia.
Did music play an important role in your earlier life?
I love to remember magic moments from my childhood when members of my family or friends enjoyed themselves spending hours and hours around some table singing songs and telling jokes. Of course, there was always some wine on the table and some food. The basic rule was that no song should be repeated and everyone had the chance to sing. One of my uncles played the accordion and the guitar, and another uncle played the violin. My aunt sang and played the accordion. My parents were great singers and they knew many folk songs from all the former Yugoslavia areas. I was too young to participate but listening to live folk music and laughter probably made an impact that has made my whole life move in a certain direction – always longing to repeat those magic childhood moments. I began to sing later when we moved to the United States where my sister and I went to a regular public school (from 1953 till 1957). The music I loved to listen to came from various sources: radio, TV, records. I was about ten years old when I fell in love with the folk singer Burl Ives and the songs he sang; songs I still love to listen to and sing. When we returned to Croatia I continued to sing folk songs coming from English-speaking countries. In my late teens I was in Indonesia with my family and I stayed there for a year. I learned some Indonesian folk songs and I accompanied myself on the guitar when I sang. I learned many things there; it was a totally different world and culture. When I returned to Zagreb, my hometown, I discovered that I also liked folk songs coming from Slavic countries and I learned many of them as a student (I studied English and Russian at the Zagreb University). After completing my studies I worked in Zagreb as a language teacher for several years. Then I went to Russia to improve my language skills, and I participated in a course in Moscow for non-Russian teachers of Russian. I met my first husband there (a businessman from Yugoslavia working in Moscow), got married after knowing him three weeks and stayed in Russia for twelve years.
What did you do in Russia?
The beginning was great: I fell in love, got married, and became a mother – my daughter Irina was born in Moscow. It was not a very happy period for me later on (Irina’s father and I separated) and I did not like my job of a translator in a foreign trade company, but music was something that always kept me going and I loved learning new songs. I continued to love folk songs and I built a very wide repertoire. I love to cook and I was always trying to make people enjoy themselves at my home by making them sing with me after a nice meal. Again I was probably trying to repeat the lovely moments from my childhood days.
Why did you come out with your music so late in life?
When I was still a student (in my twenties), I decided not to become a professional singer. After participating in various radio shows, talent contests and even a theater performance – a musical show against the war in Viet-Nam (something like the famous „Hair“), I saw many things I did not like. I learned that in many situations being a singer was not just about singing and I saw how people change in the show business and become enemies over the sole issue of who is better, who is more successful, and how much money is earned. I decided I would keep my singing as a hobby and it remained that way until I was 47. Yes, it was unusual to begin singing in public at that age. It was the beginning of the Nineties and there was a war going on in my country. In the summer of 1992 I stayed in Zagreb because going anywhere for a summer vacation was out of the question. Since my teenage years I collected songbooks. That summer I spent playing my guitar and learning songs from a book I had bought previously but had never really studied the music to see what was in it. The book was a collection of folk songs from Međimurje collected by Florijan Andrašec, poet, musician and folk song collector. First of all I was impressed by several songs about people caught in war circumstances. Although the songs were about previous wars that had been were fought as many as centuries ago, they were timeless and universal. They were so beautiful and touching that I had to learn to sing them. As always, I sang them to my friends and the reaction was very strong: „Where did you find that? “ „Do we have such songs here in Croatia?”,”Wow, those songs are more beautiful than the songs we listen to, songs coming from other countries“.
I realized something then and I was even ashamed of myself: I knew so many folk songs coming from other countries but I did not know many folk songs from my own country (I did not know then what I learned in the meantime: it is quite a common situation in many countries that people are not interested in their own folk music but love music coming from some other country or countries). I was really shocked because then I realized (a friend told me) that there were many more books containing forgotten songs from Croatia, some of which had never been recorded – and the songs could only be found in the form of written lyrics and musical notations.
After I learned to sing some 30 songs (from the mentioned book) accompanying myself on the guitar, one of my friends organized my first appearance in public for a wider audience (in April, 1993). I still have the feeling that the songs themselves were the ones that took me on this journey and that I have not yet reached the end of the road. So my first album was released in 1994 when I was 48. To date I have recorded 14 albums, the fifteenth is on its way and there are still many traditional Croatian folk songs waiting to be recorded. I never planned as a goal any of the things that have been happening to me since I began singing, I just followed my heart and I still make decisions that are based more on my feelings and less on reason.
Why is Međimurje so important to you?
Međimurje is a very special region, the area from which most of the songs I sing and record come from. Perhaps it is due to its geographical position that Međimurean folk songs sound different, ancient, and intact. The tunes are often in modal or in the pentatonic scales, similar to the situation in many European countries in medieval times. It was difficult to travel from Međimurje to other regions in the old times because it is surrounded by rivers making it almost like an island, and this was probably the reason why songs stayed the same and preserved up to the 20th century when the majority of them were noted down by music-ethnologists, for example the famous Vinko Žganec, and many who assisted him. The dialect spoken there is specific and the lyrics of Međimurean folk songs are very poetical. Women are highly respected in the songs and love is always deep. Many songs are about staying forever faithful to one’s partner in life. Many songs are sad because loved ones have gone away to fight some war in a distant country or the men have gone to work far away from home in order to provide for themselves and their loved ones. It is often the case that men don’t ever return, and if they do come back, they are sick and wounded. Although the songs tell about dramatic life situations, they never protest directly, and there is never any anger in them; only sadness, grief and pain. To me they are more powerful than any protest songs written with the intention to tell about injustice and wrong in the world.
Is your music different now that you have been working with the Kololira (band)?
The kololira (English: hurdy gurdy) is by no means an instrument specific for traditional music in Croatia. There is not a trace of evidence that it had ever been played in my country. So why should I wish to use this instrument to accompany Croatian folk songs? The basic characteristic of Međimurean and some other folk songs coming from northern Croatia is that in the past times (up to the middle of the 20th century) they were sung a capella. When instrumental accompaniment gradually became the trend, many different instruments and styles were used, often altering the songs completely as to rhythm and sound. When I heard some folk singers using the hurdy gurdy as accompaniment to their singing, I felt that it could be the adequate instrument for Međimurean songs. It was then that I suddenly had the wish to play it myself. However, I did not have the means to buy one because it is a very expensive instrument. Luckily, I learned that Martin, a musician I had worked with previously, bought a hurdy gurdy and was learning to play it. And luckily, he agreed to participate in a Croatian Radio project with me and two other musicians. We performed at the EBU festival in Varna in 2012, liked it very much, and decided to keep making music as a group; some more music based on traditional Croatian folk songs. It seemed silly to keep using the name hurdy gurdy in Croatia, and we constructed a new word – the Croatian name for the instrument based on the names it has in some other countries. Our friend Antonia suggested that it would be a perfect name for our group – and here we are now – Kololira.
What is characteristic for Kololira?
The trend in Croatia today is making very complicated arrangements, and sometimes it seems as if the most important goal is competing in who will be the most original in this. Because of this my Kololira guys were shy at first about their singing because they considered themselves „ not good enough“, and they said that many rehearsals would be needed to become good enough to sing in front of audiences. I am glad that I succeeded in persuading them to just stay as natural as possible and not to worry about the arrangements or the results. What I had in mind (once again) was the singing I remembered from my childhood days. People got together and sang. There were no rehearsals and it was always a different group of people singing. But it was always great because there was fun in the air and great energy. In general, I always tend to keep things simple and my slogan is most often: „less is more“. Mostly we have one-part singing in Međimurean song arrangements. This was actually the tradition preserved in Međimurje up to the 20th century. We do not strictly follow tradition, especially with our choice of instruments, but we prefer less complicated arrangements when we sing because we feel this to be more powerful when applied to our specific choice of songs.
You also have your own theater performances?
During the past two decades I have been doing everything possible to promote forgotten folk songs. If someone had told me what I would be doing in my post-fifties I would never have believed it. The monodrama “Why I Became a Folk Singer at 47 or the Fear of Cloning” was, in fact, the result of my protest against something that had been going on for some time – you were requested (usually by some TV station) to pretend you were singing, while in fact you were only opening your mouth to a recorded you. My frustration was so great that I had to do something about it. I had to tell people about it – the nonsense of having great musicians not actually playing and singing but only acting. There was no Facebook at the time or other social networks, or the possibility to just publish it somewhere on the Internet and have people read about it. I never planned a theater performance. When I came out with the „monodrama“ in public, to me it was just my show with more talking than usual and telling the story of my life to (mostly students) in a student club, singing along the way and telling them how and why I became a singer. I concluded the performance with the request „Please don’t ever ask me again to just pretend I am singing“. In Croatia we call it „play-back“singing.
I never planned to ever repeat the performance but things turned out differently. My performance was recorded by the sound-man on his brand new cassette recorder and many people wanted to have the recording. Then an extensive article was written about the performance and published in a serious monthly theater magazine. I met Suzana Marjanić (the author of the article) on several occasions, and each time she tried to persuade me to continue with the performance saying that I should keep the „monodrama“going. I told her I was no actress and it was all right to do it once but I could not keep on repeating the same words, learning everything by heart like they do in the theater. And then I got the idea to try something else with the performance. It was successful and I kept on „performing the monodrama“. The general scheme/pattern was the same and has remained the same: I „travel“ through my life with the help of songs I learned and sang in various countries and various periods of time, incorporating them into the story about things and situations in life that I don’t like, that make me unhappy.
So yes, it is a theater performance when I perform in a theater (besides my guitar I have other elements on stage; I change my outfit several times, for example), and yes, it is a concert. However, it is never ever the same, and it can be performed anywhere. The audience can be a very small one or a big one. The songs vary and I tell about the most recent situations in my life.
Another performance/show that is very important to me is based on Croatian murder ballads and is entitled Oj ti tožni človek (Oh, you poor man). First it was important to me because I found yet another way to promote folk music working with participants of my workshops, and my director friend Mario Kovač. We succeeded in making a real musical show with singing, instrument playing, and in telling a story with the help of songs. The story is about human life in general, with all the suffering, pain and sadness. However, I succeeded in inventing a way out of it all – a happy ending in spite of all the deaths and murders.
We performed the show in different places and towns. One of the most interesting ones was during a film festival at the Veliki Tabor castle. It was a perfect setting for the ancient gloomy songs. One of the shows taking place at the Močvara club in Zagreb was filmed by a TV crew and a half-hour film was produced and broadcast on Croatia’s main TV station several times.
But the best result was in the making of my recently released album 33 balade. It is a triple CD album, and the third disc contains songs from the performance Oj ti tožni človek (Oh, you poor man). https://dunjaknebl.bandcamp.com/album/33-balade