Mention the name Vlatko Stefanovski to Sanja Neloska, an administrator in a tourist agency in Ohrid, south-west Macedonia, and her reaction is immediate: “He’s our country’s greatest ambassador,” she replies, delighted that a foreigner even knows the name.
The response is typical from any native of the southern Slavic state, such is the near-universal, near-reverential feeling towards the guitarist-singer-songwriter by his compatriots of all age groups.
Stefanovski burst onto the Yugoslav music scene in 1978 – a full decade before Neloska herself was born – as lead guitarist in the fusion-jazz-rock band Leb-i-Sol (it means Bread and Salt in the vernacular) with an eponymous first album. “We were like an energetic bomb, like on nuclear power. Wherever we played, we had huge, huge success everywhere,” Stefanovski tells bne IntelliNews in an interview, his voice today still reflecting the excitement and wonderment of those early times.
“Those were unconscious years, you know, when you are in your teenage years, you don’t know what’s happening, you are run by hormones, you are developing fast. In high school, I already knew – I thought of myself as the best guitar player in Skopje!”
In truth, he very possibly was. Born in 1957 in Prilep, a town in the west-central region of the then Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Stefanovski was largely raised in the capital Skopje: while his parents spent most of their time working in theatre, he spent most of his listening to his brother’s record collection. “Goran, my older brother – he’s now a playwright, a professor of drama – he’s the Woodstock generation: he was the one who showed me the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Hendrix, Cream. I was just soaking it up,” he recalls.
But the younger sibling was not content to merely listen. “I said, I wanna do that. It’s more fun playing than listening! Definitely!”
Stefanovksi strummed his first chords on his brother’s acoustic instrument, only to hanker for more. “I was dreaming of an electric guitar and amplifier. So I was talking to my parents every day. Oh man, I need an electric guitar and amplifier. Every day!” The persistence – or nagging – paid off: the parents coughed up, and the young Stefanovski was quickly hard at work, imitating the licks of his Western guitar heroes.
Fanfare for the Common Yugoslav
In 1976, with three “classmates and neighbours”, Stefanovksi formed Leb i Sol, and with two LPs released on the Serbian PGP-RTB label, they were hot material across Yugoslavia within two years. “We were a bit like Emerson, Lake and Palmer: beneath the complicated stuff, like improvisations based on Macedonian folk, we also had a couple of pop tunes that were huge hits,” Stefanovski recalls fondly.
It was pretty much any young rocker’s dream, playing arenas with up to 5,000 in attendance and a tour of the US in support of a Yugoslav theatre group – it didn’t get much better than this for most 20-something guitarists, let alone one from eastern Europe.
Somewhere in it all, Stefanovski even leveraged his musical fame to the good during his 12-month national service in the JNA, the Yugoslav National Army – a fearsome obligation that broke many a budding rock band of the day. Unusually, he was based in Stip, close to home (“I was famous. I knew some generals”), although even the privileged guitarist could not escape the first weeks of basic training. “Oh, man, that was still a heavy experience, mentally and spiritually,” he says, “There was no mercy. I wanted to die.”
Yet, like many who survived the ordeal, three decades on he values the experience. “I learned some very important things: how to clean your shoes, how to get up at five in the morning. In a way I learned discipline, and in creativity there is a certain amount of discipline. Without that, you cannot do nothing.”
Once free and back with Leb i Sol, Stefanovski found the band, like the Yugoslav Federation, was from the mid-1980s beginning to show signs of strain. “Egos, problems. Musicians, they think they are all the best. We behaved like rock stars. I had four roadies. But after a couple [more] years, I said, let’s face it, we were losing money. Buses, trucks on tour – these things are expensive. I’m more practical now.”
The group finally split up in 1995 (they have since reformed, under a different line-up), with Stefanovski, like many of his musical heroes in the West, shunning the pop-star role to develop more meaningful musical pursuits – which for him translates into working with an eclectic range of collaborators, from the London Symphony Orchestra to virtuoso guitarists like the Australian Tommy Emannuel and the Netherlands-born Roma Stochelo Rosenberg, with whom he performs at times as the “Kings of Strings”.
“I’ve played around the world, but I’ve never wanted to fight or struggle for worldwide fame. I was not crazy about success: I’m still crazy about playing the guitar, not about being on the covers of magazines,” he says. But is this, perhaps, only with hindsight, having been there and done that?
Either way, he is still keeping fans like Sanja Neloska and winning over new ones. “Ever since I became aware about things, I’m now 28, I’ve known about Vlatko’s music. Nobody ever told me to listen… His music, talent – it has true, real values… making our country known in foreign places for good and quality things,” she says. “I’m very happy that we [in Macedonia], as a small country, have such important persons as Vlatko that we can be very proud of.”
Vlatko Stefanovski is playing in Budapest on Sunday, May 22 at the Budapest Folk Festival