By Afra N. Ali Khan
It’s fifteen minutes to midnight. I’m standing on an elevated mound of the forest grounds, in a rainforest, to be precise. Around me is sheer quiet. From somewhere behind far in the distance rise the sounds of the sea, the waves rolling…lashing…sssshhhh…although it’s too dark to tell. Down below some distance from where I’m standing, there is a bright luminescence. Strange words are transported through the thick salty air, words that I can’t understand, although I can feel the rhythm with perfect familiarity. They say sound is universal…
I can see people dancing –hypnotized—around the spectacle on stage. Or perhaps, for better or worse, the effect was only on me. There are seven of them—minstrels, if you will—having taken claim over the stage. The lead singer, tall like the sky, dressed in a black chest-baring ensemble with a red sash caressing his washboard abdomen slithers and moves with agonizing perfection. There is an unexplainable dark quality to it that is not exactly telling. It’s somehow… otherworldly, between here and somewhere…His face shows the character of the mountains. He can play the field. He knows his subjects well, he knows what they want—and he delivers.
The bagpipe player — donning a white by-gone outfit hardly sold at any modern retailer’s — is in stark contrast to the mesmerist, a sight of angelic deliverance. What I see below me is an enthralling interplay between darkness and light, black…white.
The temperature starts to rise. Suddenly, all (almost) the band members have lost their shirts, bare bodied. It’s a wonder there are no casualties on account of frenzied female fans. I’m reminded it’s a “world music” festival. This is Kuching, Borneo. I suppose then that “world music” listeners can usually be expected some measure of restrained behaviour. It’s not what I have been used to seeing, atleast for a while.
Each member of the band held unto his own—a master musician unto himself. For the entirety of the night, time lost its count.
It’s now somewhere around mid-morning. We’re sitting on the beach side café. It’s sickly yet pleasantly humid. The sound of the waves coming from the sea in rhythmic lusciousness…hypnotic…Mojmir Novaković—mesmerizing frontman of Kries–is pinching coarse tobacco with his long, nimble fingers.
As I watch him intently, his head is bent down, his fingers expertly plying the intensely pungent shag. “The human imagination is huge and sometimes it’s even hard to talk about it,” he says, looking up at me with a sideway glance. He sifts the loose shag, finds it a bit coarse and goes back to pinching it.
“I mean…sometimes in your head you do crazy stuff. It’s much easier just to do the songs, and let people feel it. When everything around is magical and everything is possible. And for human beings, music is that…,” he recedes into his thoughts.
“Exactly! Exactly! Like any second the magic can happen. That’s the beauty of music. That’s why I do it.”
He gives me a small smile and starts to lace the stuff on fine fair paper. He rolls it, licks it, seals it and lights it gently onto his lips. Fire.
Bonfire, that’s what Kries (pronounced kree yes) means in the archaic Croatian language. He explains to me—his Croatian accent giving away very slightly – that Kries signifies every celebration connected with nature.
“The bonfire is a wonderful memory from my childhood, and it just felt right to use that name. And especially the symbol of it you know…getting people together at one place and having a celebration with a fire, with the warmth…it felt good,” he speaks softly.
“I know that last night people understood every single word I sang in Croatian because the energy was sent and if you’re open you can hear it. And they heard it, definitely. Consciously or subconsciously they heard it. I felt that energy coming back. That’s what happened,” he says gently blowing his tobacco.
The waitress comes around to take our order. I knew what I wanted.
“Wild Thing, please?” I tell her.
“What’s the Wild Thing?” Mojmir asks in a small voice, appearing very intrigued by the name of the drink.
“I had it yesterday evening. Really potent. Very natural.”
“I think…” he says looking at me suspiciously and then onto the menu.
“I’ll go for an Antioxidant.”
We break into a small laugh.
Krešimir Oreški joins us on the table. He plays percussion on the band. Kries came together when Mojmir and him first met at a music festival in Croatia. Krešimir at the time was already gigging with other bands and was hesitant about joining him. Mojmir is said to have influenced him with changing his mind, Krešimir reveals, as he moves into a chair opposite to Mojmir.
They both then started deejaying in electronic music and went on to record an electro album that was produced using traditional musical instruments influenced by the folk sounds of Croatia, but soon realized that they would rather put a band of their own together. In search of a lyra and bagpipe player who could understand band dynamics, it was easier finding traditional musicians playing in villages and on mountains with no understanding of playing in a modern band, or worse still, as they say, imposters.
But they did find their mates: Ivo Letunić on lyra, Andor Végh on bagpipe, Erol Zejnilović on electric guitar, Konrad Lovrenčić on bass guitar and Ivan Levačić on drums.
“They’re younger than Kreš and I,” says Mojmir, although he doesn’t quite remember his own age. He thinks hard.
“Am I 40 or 43? 43…43,” he makes up his mind. You can’t really tell an age on him.
Krešimir is 49.
“I’m the oldest,” he says. “And we have kids in the band, like… 30 years old.”
Mojmir is laughing softly, and gently blowing away wisps of smoke.
“Erol, Konrad and Ivan have been playing and jamming together since they were very young. They’re very compact. They function as one. That’s a blessing for us. And that merging happened very fast. For sometime we had two parts to the band, traditional and contemporary. But now I think after years it’s very organic,” says Mojmir.
“You see Ivo, he’s crazy. Crazier than any guitar player, and he grew up on Radiohead. And as a lyra player you can’t not hear those influences,” he continues.
“They were very open to making a new genre. And that’s what they did. They’re very skillful. They’re not about showing their skill. It’s about making the right notes and the right silence at the right place. That’s music.”
Krešimir agrees with Mojmir. A cool breeze begins to blow from the sea-front. People are laughing and lounging around the pool. Suddenly, everyone on the table is silent…simply observing the scene…
Krešimir breaks softly. “For some bands it’s about what kind of complicated notes they can do. But if we go to show our individual skills on stage, it won’t be music.”
“It would be a nightmare,” Mojmir joins him immediately.
It’s a hard task to describe the sound of Kries. Very simply put, they sing ancient, traditional Croatian chants reconstructed with a contemporary twang—slightly rock and subtle electro influenced undertones supported with traditional instruments like lyra and bagpipe that sustains a strong ethnic flavor—yet it sounds from another time. The line between what is traditional and what is contemporary in Kries’ sound is lost –even to themselves– but somewhere they balance it out.
“Those songs are powerful. They’re beautiful in very strange and archaic ways. And I don’t think that most people would be very happy writing lyrics in that manner…it’s very simple. It’s actually nothing, but when you sing it, it goes in a totally different direction,” says Mojmir, looking away into the view of the sea in front of us.
Krešimir pulls out his tobacco-ed stash. He also begins the ritual—pinching, plying, rolling, rolling…
“We cannot describe our music ourselves,” he says, while gently rummaging his fingers through the loose tobacco. The smell is sweetly intoxicating.
“We tried but…I think it’s old music we grew up with. There’s seven of us and we were all exposed to all kinds of music, with our likes and dislikes. So everything got filtered with the lyrics and traditional chants. It was impossible to keep it pure. We don’t even try to.”
He says that there are purists devoted to maintaining traditional music but it’s not on Kries’ agenda. “We’re not a completely traditional folk band. Rock musicians, ethno musicians, funk musicians, whatever you want to name it. Every single tune and style that we listen to and grew up with must have left some bigger or smaller impact you know.”
Their music can be complex and confounding in its structure, yet liberating in its non-conformity to rules of both tradition and musical delivery. Put seven unlikely musicians who grew up in generations slightly apart one another, with influences and backgrounds that are not exactly shared, and you have a recipe for stark musical diversity. But Mojmir Novaković as figurehead of the band soaks up the turf like he was born to do this.
“You have to have the guys on your back. It’s like any male community or group of people. It’s like going into a fight and you know someone has your back and they’re supporting you. You have to trust those people. I react on what they are doing and they react on what I am doing. It’s a magical thing. When you take that approach it’s not musical at all. It comes from energy, it comes from trust, and it has taken us years progressing into that. It takes time. It’s much easier to write down notes and everybody’s playing those notes, but I don’t like that type of music,” he says, a slightly dazed look on his face. He says he hadn’t slept at all because they had all stayed awake after the show.
The waitress serves our drinks.
“Antioxidant?” Mojmir smiles at me teasingly. “Really good I hope because I haven’t slept the whole night…thank you very much…” he looks up at the waitress.
“Nobody took the step we did in Croatian music,” he continues. “And…yeah, we are recognised but it’s a very small country, just 4 million people.”
They could be recognised for far more, what with their introverted and dark rock and roll flair that is not exactly very visible on the world music front. Last night was a good indication of that. Each of the band members on stage, intuitively absorbing and merging into each other’s sensibilities in tandem.
“We all did grow up with drums, and rock and roll,” Mojmir admits laughing.
He also does not think much of gliding with popular trends in music. To say, they don’t really have any idols from the world music industry. He’s also hardly behaviour for any popularity votes, but that’s Mojmir needing it in the least.
So was last night’s stripping a token of some rebellious stage act? or did it really get hot up there?
“Well it was a combination of heat and…okay let’s just do it,” he confesses in all seriousness.
“Just like when Ivo wore his grandmother’s skirt on stage, but he lost it. He really looked his best. He likes to be different in everything, against everything. That’s his approach. But that’s just to clarify the truth also.”
He blows some smoke, looking into the distance.
“From my point of view that’s the right approach to anything in life. You have to accept that someone can say let’s question what you’re doing, let’s question if tradition is that important for us. Should we even wear it, or even play it? Let’s question everything because if we put tradition above everything it’s not good. Nothing should be above life, love and basic human things.”
“For example, in our country some people say, ‘When you talk you can lie but when you sing you don’t lie.’ That’s why in Muslim tradition and in Christian tradition, the priests sing praises. In my opinion they should never talk. They should just sing. Because that’s when we are closest to God.”
Krešimir nods his head. He finally seals his joint, lights it up and begins to speak about his role as a percussionist. He says he did not find any references to percussion history in Croatian music when he began learning traditional drum playing.
“I think in Christianity it was forbidden or something,” he says, blowing thick smoke to his side.
“So there were no beats, drums, or regional patterns like you have in Indian, African and Caribbean music. What I tried to do is reconstruct how it might have been and what I could do to make it more interesting in contemporary music. All the stuff I know I mostly learnt from Africa because half of my heart is living there…and from India, you know… from all the good music.
They have a saying about the drum. It is the ear of God. And the drummer has to play in such a spirit as to channel the messages from there to whatever place. And he should do that in respect, honour, great strength and courage because it’s not just, ‘Yeah let’s have some fun.’ That’s very superficial…This is what I don’t like about most modern music. Maybe they have a good beat, good tunes, I don’t know…You can sense it in the energy that it’s very superficial.
Music can be more than just beats, rhythm or movement. It can also be an experience beyond the ordinary. Music is unto life itself. And there are some such mysteries they have discovered or perhaps re-discovered in their career as musicians. Krešimir has spent the last seven-odd years exploring theories in sound.
“One of the greatest mysteries is music itself. Actually sound is a great mystery, sound as the foundation of music. Music is just a combination of sounds,” Krešimir explains.
“I’m on my spiritual path trying to discover who I am and the world I live in. What I noticed a long time ago is that every spiritual and religious tradition has secrets about sound, about the knowledge of sound.”
He gives a small laugh and looks expectantly towards Mojmir who has been silently listening and smoking. “Maybe he noticed it or not but I’ve reduced playing a lot. Reduced my notes and everything that I learnt, to try and find this deeper connection to sound itself, to a sound that penetrates. It’s not about notes, it’s not about how many notes you can do within a few seconds…”
He quickly leaves midway as someone from the pool calls for him.
“…it has to be the right frequency in the right place,” Mojmir finishes for Krešimir.
The band is currently planning to resume work on a new album that they started recording a few years ago but could not complete, partly due to Mojmir’s move to Brighton in England. Also, Andor lives in Hungary, Ivo lives in the very southern tip of Croatia and the rest are based in central Croatia. This has also resulted in fewer gigs playing together as a band since Mojmir’s move, but it’s important, he says, that they all stay together.
“Brighton is what London used to be. So it’s crazier in some way. But we spend a lot of time playing with other musicians. It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time,” says Mojmir.
He has come a long way on this journey. They all have. He was in university studying naval engineering when he decided to quit and pursue music, going on to form Legen—one of the most popular Croatian bands in the early 90’s. And how does he think his chosen life path has defined his journey in music this far?
“Oh…” he says, contemplative yet surprised. “I don’t know. If I knew the answer to that maybe I would have to stop playing music because I would figure it out. I can’t figure it out yet, it’s…” he stops for a long reflective pause and continues, “It’s my calling. I have to do it. It’s the only answer. I never planned to do this. I don’t know what my calling will be in two years. All I know is music will be a part of my life till the end of my life.”
The waitress arrives and quietly slaps a leather bound folder on the table. We both hassle and fuss over the bill.
“I’ve never quite understood why money is such a huge thing with people,” he says in a hauntingly quiet and calm demeanor that seems to be his first and last nature. It’s something you immediately notice when you first meet him.
“I used to have a girlfriend who thought I always tried to escape paying bills, but it was only because I never understood the concept of money. I just can’t,” he says looking very serious.
“Listen,” Mojmir announces to the waitress, pouring out his entire wallet in a cascade of notes and coins onto the table, “I’m leaving back to Europe in a few hours, so you can take all I’ve got.”
He looks up at me and gives a taunting smile. We part ways, but some things are always remembered.