Bojan Zulfikarpašić for "Vijesti": Music, like any art, can do miracles

One of the best European jazz pianists and composers, Bojan Zulfikarpašić, talks to "Vijesti" about music, the new album "As is", the beauty of diversity, inspiration, the former Yugoslavia, artificial intelligence...

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Bojan Zulfikarpašić, Photo: Luka Zekovic
Bojan Zulfikarpašić, Photo: Luka Zekovic
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

In my early life, I studied classical music and played rock, while I couldn't stand folk music. There was anything and everything, but mostly folk music was divided into original and newly composed. Today, it doesn't really matter how I felt about that music back then, but I actively fought against it. There was a certain idea that music was something that should be learned. Today, to put it simply, the narodniks won, there was a revenge of the narodniks in relation to art music, which is getting less and less popular, listened to, consumed... However, there is a lie behind that, because art is art.

This is what one of the best European jazz pianists and composers says in an interview for "Vijesti". Bojan Zulfikarpašić whose concert was announced for last night in Podgorica, at the opening of the manifestation "Jazz Appreciation Month in Montenegro - JAM 2024" in the Cultural and Information Center "Budo Tomović".

Despite the initial, repulsive attitude towards folk music, the rhythm and melodies of the Balkans are part of his uniqueness, and it is precisely this that gives his compositions a special stamp and authenticity with which he delights audiences and critics around the world.

Bojan Zulfikarpašić
photo: Luka Zeković

Zulfikarpašić was born into a musical family in Belgrade in 1968, and he started playing the piano when he was only five years old, while he met the Beatles album when he was six, he tells "Vijesta" and points out that this was enough for him to know his life in advance , the musical path. About that, but also about his new album "As is", music today, artificial intelligence, but also the beauty of diversity and the former Yugoslavia, Bojan Zulfikarpašić talks to "Vijesti".

What can you say about your new album "As is" and what its title symbolically testifies to?

The specificity of this album compared to the others I've done is that it somehow brings me back to my first ways of recording music. The first album I did was with my quartet in New York and we recorded it in two afternoons. Over time, people have three or four days each. The Beatles, by the way, took a month for one song. And on the other hand, the idea itself and the first recording of that song took an hour. In fact, they invented all these recording techniques, recording, working on the material. The budget they were able to get at that time, seeing the interest in their music, along with the number of sound carriers sold, allowed them to stay in the studio for months with all the recorders, assistants, them in white suits... However, with digital, which came, everyone slowly became able to do it at home, which is an even worse situation, because that way you can record every note you recorded at home, or record endlessly. So we've moved away from recording something that's live music, a man playing an instrument and singing. Some will call it technological progress, which it is, however, people are still as fascinated as ever to find a man with a guitar who can sing and play at the same time. That's a prelude to the information that this album was recorded in one afternoon. So I literally sat down, played and it ended up on the album. That's why the album is called "As is", that is, as it is. There is nothing to add or subtract, it is a cross-section of my situation at the age of 54, which I had when I was filming two years ago. I joked then about the times that were coming, and in which we are now. When I was recording, artificial (artificial) intelligence (AI) was gaining momentum, and I said with my album "Enjoy this moment of non-artificial intelligence". That may sound a bit immodest, I was joking when I wrote that, but the truth is that I don't believe AI can predict or simulate the way we improvisers operate.

What is the impact of artificial intelligence on music and what can this technological progress bring?

Anything is possible, which will be to the detriment of us as original artists, because music recorded by living people will be even more likely to be used for these purposes. On the other hand, you can't sue an AI because it uses something you created. I think it's another attack on what little we have left of copyright. It doesn't worry me because I've been sufficiently fed up with the power of music to deal with it despite all the financial and various other evolutions that force us to ask ourselves how to make it all a logical economy. Honestly, I would do music with the same love even if I didn't earn anything, but of course, I would be a little more bitter, because I remember the time when you could earn enough from art that a person could plan and have. All in all, I believe that artificial intelligence has no character, strength, power to help someone and make a moment for them.

Bojan Zulfikarpašić KIC announcement
photo: Promo

How much has music (or jazz music) changed compared to something that would be traditional, classical or contemporary, experimental, or you personally compared to your beginnings?

I personally went in a direction where it is less and less important for me to prove my muscles and how much and how fast I can run up and down my instrument. I'm not interested in that, I'm more and more interested in the act of making music, group or solo. And when I'm alone on stage, for example, it can be a group, taking into account the energy of the people at the concert.

But, back to the question, everything has changed. One of the engines that pushed people to do music, earlier was the success that came with it and the economic aspect of making money that allowed you not to depend on other people's decisions but to be independent, and then you can plan the next step in relation to your needs, not to please someone. This has also changed due to the fact that no one buys music anymore, but we are all used to listening to it for free on YouTube, and behind each of those services and platforms there is a wealthy man who is getting richer and the question is what he invests that money in. Looking from that perspective, the whole idea of ​​music and economic construction has changed.

The second thing that has changed is that a man has to sell himself as a born genius before whom there was nothing and after whom there will be nothing, and during his time likes and money mattered. I listened to music by starting to listen to other people who gave me the idea, because of which and thanks to whom I started doing this. I had mentors, I learned, listened, met and over time developed so much that one day I managed to recognize someone in the front row of my concert who looked at me the way I looked at all those other people when I was that kid in his place, and they in mine.

Bojan Zulfikarpašić
photo: Luka Zeković

It is some kind of timeline that is logical, which is called life. I think that line exists in all arts, while in our age of social networks, everything has to be sold as if it were genius by itself. We live in some false times, if we look at it from that aspect. Music is still necessary to this day, whether good or bad. Music is like food, so we don't need to talk about tastes, but we should talk about the offer. If 99 percent of the offer is the same, people won't know there's anything else.

You found that in jazz?

It's not that I like to be a minority who will spend my whole life convincing others that something is great music, but I was simply carried away by that adventure, improvisation in jazz and everything else. I managed quite well, I managed to make a living from music, to have a family, to plan my next step and everything else. I know that it is much more difficult for young musicians who come on the scene today to get to all that.

In your music, there is a certain combination of musical heritage and the heritage that you carry with you from this climate, even though you have been living and creating based in France for more than three decades. Did it come under the influence of Serbia, where you have roots, or some kind of nostalgia after leaving?

It's also obvious from the music I play, so it's easy to guess where I come from. Maybe you wouldn't say exactly from Serbia, but from the Balkans for sure. The Balkans is a huge area. I went to France, while Yugoslavia still existed, although it has come to the point that today borders are felt and exist. In my early life, I studied classical music and played rock, while I couldn't stand folk music. There was anything and everything, but it was mostly divided into original and newly composed.

Today, it doesn't really matter how I felt about that music back then, but I actively fought against it. There was a certain idea that music was something that should be learned. Today, to put it simply, the narodniks have won, there has been a revenge of the narodniks in relation to art music, which is getting less and less popular, listened to, consumed... However, there is a lie behind that, because art is art. Art is something that has its own definition, criterion, even though today someone creates music just to find a shorter and easier chorus, or to lower his cleavage even lower or whatever, and these are formulas that work not only in Serbia or Montenegro, but everywhere to the world.

So how did that Balkan sound come about?

As a man who left here and found himself in France in a moment, I realized that in my suitcase I also packed that sound of the Balkans that I wanted to release by playing. If I did that, say in Belgrade, it was greeted as if I was playing nonsense, while in France it had a different effect. Experienced people, good jazz musicians around me were more and more interested in that, than in my knowledge of American or any other jazz. That's how my approach to everything changed, because I realized that I'm from where I'm from and that it's in me and part of that sound and that music that I can't locate as Balkan, but it's obvious that at each of my concerts, since I started to mix those sounds and rhythms of the Balkans, with jazz improvisation, at the end of every concert people from Palestine, Israel, Kyrgyzstan would approach me, which encouraged me to think about what it was all about with an ethno-musicological approach...

When I started playing with a drummer from Algeria, it turned out that we grew up on the same music. How is it possible, the south of Europe, the north of Africa, and in fact it is a question of mixing cultures under the framework of one empire under which people happened to be - the Ottoman Empire. The whole region called the Balkans has that same color. Balkan is a Turkish word meaning blood and honey...

Bojan Zulfikarpašić
photo: Luka Zeković

So, that cultural heritage attracted me to jazz, because jazz is a musical mixture of everything. It is logical for me to do what I do, although what attracted me to jazz the most, compared to some other aesthetics, is precisely the danger and challenge of throwing it into the void. It's the desire for some adrenaline, because when I improvise, I don't even know where I'm going, let alone the people in the hall. However, they don't need to know, it's enough to feel something, because music has that abstract feature of emotion that can't be explained by the vibration of a string.

In that emotion and moment of improvisation is perhaps the depth of the music. What does improvisation represent for you, inspiration, that moment when the music overwhelms you?

It is interesting that all musicians, from Beyonce to R&B singers, say "jazz is the teacher". It's actually a simple approach to music, and the only difference is that in classical music you start immediately with the notes - you read them to know what the composer intended. In jazz you can pick up things by ear and arrive at the same complexity and form. I grew up in a family where people came to my parents' house, played music every evening and it was an extremely ordinary situation that after the feast they would start playing guitars and so on until three in the morning, whatever came to their mind. It's definitely something that freed me in the very idea that I don't have to learn music just from written paper. I started playing classical piano at the age of five, and I got my first Beatles album at six and that was the end of my classical development. I continued in order, purely because I had to finish school because of my parents, and only later, when I decided on jazz, I realized why I should practice the instrument, but not for others, but for myself.

Speaking of inspiration, I said before, one of the biggest lies we have is on social media where everyone is a born genius. Music, rhythms, melodies exist around us and have always been there. Only the music that we managed to record remained, meaning that which was close to churches and monasteries, because the Italian monks invented notations for notes, until the moment when we got around to recording music, even with this pocket device (telephone ). Very little of the earlier music remains on paper, and yet a lot remains around us and there non-stop. This is what man calls inspiration. Inspiration comes to us and is there. Those who know how to look will see. Those who know how to surrender to feelings will feel. No majority or group required. I like to be part of humanity, but I don't miss anything when I'm alone.

Bojan Zulfikarpašić
photo: Luka Zeković

And to round off the story with a concert. Do you have any expectations from such events, either from yourself or the audience?

I have expectations every time. I can't say otherwise, because then I could stay at home, I wouldn't travel for three days, literally... I care and I always have very high expectations, I also start from my experience, because I also witnessed concerts that changed me and made me a better person as an okay person. So, music, as well as any other art, can do wonders. These are my expectations - that people will at least have a good time, travel around a bit with music and feel better. That is the specialty.

Yugoslavia was ahead of Europe

You mentioned the Balkans. You stated on one occasion that only when you went to France did you realize how diverse the Balkans are and that perhaps Europeans do not have a realistic view of us. What is your attitude towards the Balkans today when you don't live in that region?

We talked about this in part before, so now I would like to mention Yugoslavia in the context of only the idea of ​​Yugoslavia in which I grew up. That Yugoslavia was ahead of Europe, precisely because we managed to mix all differences in one country and unite them by the only common characteristic that we still share to this day, whether we want to admit it or not and no matter how hard we try to chase after or forget about that, to that word, which is that we are Slavs from the south. Nothing simpler - South Slavs.

As for the comparison with Europe, there has always been a mixture of everything here, the very geography, the transience of others, which is why it was incredible to me that it was precisely in this part of the country that we wanted to achieve some ethnic purity that will never be achieved. It is somehow my way and idea of ​​how cultures should be open. Culture is exactly what unites humanity. Culture is a wonderful tradition, but tradition is at the same time a terrible thing subject to the principles of the past, dead people and their deeds. The following follows from the logical conclusion: so that I would not make the same mistakes that they made, the tradition should be taken using Chinese chopsticks, so dose it little by little.

In addition, the characteristic of modern man today is that he travels without problems, learns languages, adapts to better understand where he comes from, and the best way for a man to understand where he comes from as soon as possible is to go and see other things. When he returns to his country, it will be much clearer to him what is good and what is not good. Every microcosm has its good and bad sides. And Montenegro, and Serbia, both together, and all of us who were together, and Europe has its own. This became clear to me when I was in Indonesia, in Jakarta, which has 36 million inhabitants - one city. Where is Europe? It's funny how ignorant we are of most of the inhabitants of this planet and their culture.

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