Robert Pešut is Magnifico, a 42 year-old singer from Ljubljana, who is called in Slovenia somewhat quizzically “the Slovene Madonna”. He is also known as a self-styled čefur, a term which wannabe Western Slovenes use to denigrate the backward Serbians, Bosnians, Gypsies and other Balkan types in the country. However, most people who go to Balkan parties in Berlin know Magnifico from his Yugo anthem “Hir aj kam hir aj go”, “Ubiće te” (I will kill you), a tongue-in-cheek song about Balkan violence and machismo, and “Giv mi mani”, a hedonistic, crassly materialistic, at the same time ironic, song about money and fame.
Magnifico loves to play the provocateur with Balkan stereotypes. He comes on like a Balkan pimp or Mafia boss on stage and in his music videos, wearing beard and dark sunglasses, a sharp white suit circa 1970, lots of gold and surrounded by girls in bikinis. It’s the chauvinistic aesthetic of Serbian turbo-folk, and yet Magnifico does it with a heavy dose of irony – although he claims he’s serious.
Shantel may have copied perfectly Balkan showmanship, but Magnifico is the real thing. He started off singing disco and schlager hits in Serbian and Italian (he has a big following in Italy). Later, in his albums “Grande Finale” and “Magnification” which is put out by Piranha records, Magnifico started singing in hilarious Borat-English, and – jumping on the Balkan bandwagon, which he was on to a certain extent from the very beginning – he mixed his disco beats, surf guitar and Yugo rock with Balkan brass, a la Boban Marković.
I met up with Magnifico in the offices of Piranha records in Berlin, shortly before he was scheduled to perform at Robert Soko’s Balkan Beats party. Magnifico was in a good mood, as before I arrived another journalist had presented him with a bottle of Jack Daniels, which he managed to polish off before our interview.
Is this your only gig here in Germany or do you have other gigs lined up?
No. This time only this gig because it is, like, the promotion gig for new release, and they just have released new single. So we want to make the people hearing what I am doing.
What single is that?
Called “Zum Zum”.
Tell me a little bit about that new single.
I take this story about one little, two little, three little Indians, but I put Gypsy boys instead of Indians. I found it funny. I know what is happening when you start to count people. Americans starting to count Indians. And I know what is happening next. The next step was: there is no Indians anymore. And a similar situation is in a country where I come from, from Slovenia, we also love to count Gypsies, you know; how many Gypsies we are; how many Gypsies we have. So I just a little bit changed the words, and this is more or less what the song is about.
What’s the situation with Gypsies in Slovenia?
Oh, of course we don’t like Gypsies. We don’t have so many…
It’s a different situation than in Serbia.
Serbia is the only country where they actually love Gypsies or don’t even like them or dislike them. They’re just there like it’s a common thing, nothing special. In Slovenia we don’t have so many Gypsies, but we have problems the small number of Gypsies we have. We don’t want to see them. We don’t want them to live next door to us. We don’t want them to be buried in the same cemeteries as us. We are pretty homophobic.
And are you influenced by Gypsy music? Does that come into play in your songs?
Yeah, of course. I’m from Balkans and it is mixed in everything. Gypsies are always taking all what is surrounding them and put his own fluid and tunes and when you mix this together this is our music.
Tell me a little bit about Slovenia. What kind of place is it?
I make a one song. It is very short. I just wanted to put it like a touristic slogan or something. But I don’t like it. It goes like: we don’t see nothing, we don’t feel nothing, we don’t hear nothing and we don’t give a fuck. Slovenia: we suck. So more or less is my country. It’s very small, homophobic country. We used to be better people. But after Yugoslavia fell apart we became homophobic and fascistic.
What does it mean čefuri?
Čefuri is me, let’s say. Čefuri is like čefut. The Germans call the Jewish people čefut. In Slovenia čefuri are mostly people who come from the southern part of Yugoslavia who are not Slovene. It was something normal because Yugoslavia was there, people mixed and married with each other. So we have let’s say one hundred thousand čefurs in Slovenia and also we have problems with that.
And are you from a mixed background as well?
Yeah. My mother was in some strange mix. When Turk empire came to Balkans a lot of people run from them to the north. And my mama is of that kind of situation. My father is Serbian. But I’m born in Slovenia. So I was feeling Yugoslavian and I still do. But it doesn’t exist anymore. So I cannot be good Slovenian. I cannot feel that way. I cannot be good Serbian. So European usually is the right thing for me.
Are you popular all over the former Yugoslavia or just in Slovenia?
No. I play everywhere of course. But let’s say the last ten years. Before that it was – not impossible – but disgusting to play…I don’t want to play on cemeteries, let’s put it that way. But I was working in Slovenia when Yugoslavia fell apart and I didn’t know what to do so I was stuck in Slovenia and I worked in Slovenia and a make many hits. So I am sort of institution in Slovenia. And I am very happy that I can go play around. It means a lot to me.
One of the things that I like about you is the way that you use English.
You see, my English is very poor. But I wanted to make my own lyrics in English. I don’t want someone to touch my words. I said to me, okay, even if it’s not everything grammatically okay people will understand me. No one speaks perfect English except for English. And if I draw something it sounds more true. And sometimes it’s okay if you are an artist if you are determinated with a language. So I have to be not very simple just to understand me what I have to say.
Do you feel comfortable writing lyrics in English?
Yes, it is a lot of fun sometimes. People laugh. I have some English friends and I ask them, “Is it okay this?” And they start laughing. “I understand but it’s not okay. But leave it. It is understandable. It is enough.” I like English language because nobody is getting angry, you know, when you are misusing English. There are no purists. I don’t know, maybe in England. But the English language allowed me to express myself even if I am not so good.
Tell me about a couple of songs. Ubiće te?
Ubiće te is…In Balkans you know we are emotional creeps. Emotional idiots. You know, when you love someone so much that in the end you kill them. You do something bad to them. Even when you start to fight with each other we do it with a passion. It is not like normal war. It is a war when you want to kill your brother and to take his wife and do bad things. You know, with a lot of passion. It is a story about that I will kill you with a smile. And I will cry because I kill you.
And Hir aj kam hir aj go? It’s a story about Diaspora Yugoslavs?
Yes. There are many of them. The best ones went out from ’91 to let’s say ’99. Who have possibility to go he go.
What’s your favorite songs of all of the songs that you’ve done?
No, I don’t have. I cannot listen to my songs because I only see what I do right. If people say, “Oh, I like this song,” I’m so happy. Me too.
When you don’t sing in English do you sing in Serbian or Slovenian?
Last two LPs I didn’t sing in Slovenian. More or less in English and I have two or three songs in Serbo-Croatian. Now it is the same. We have Serbian language and we have Croatian language and Bosnian language. I did this actually in the same language.
Tell me how you got involved in music. I understand that you had a very varied career doing a lot of varied things. You were a footballer for instance.
Yeah, of course, like everybody. I just wanted to be a musician. I love music. I started composing songs when I was, I don’t know, twelve. But it was like a fun, you know. And I had bands, you know. But I really wanted to be a musician. It is old love. And football. I wanted to be a professional football player. But now I realize that I was not so good. At the time I thought that I was so good but now I realize that I was not.
And I understand that you also have a following in Italy as well.
Yeah, because previous album was released by Sony Italy. So domestic territory was Italy. And I made there tour. A lot of things for me are happening in Italy. But I am happy to leave Sony. When we started one year later with the collaboration with BMG it was a strange situation. All the people that I know had left, went somewhere else, I don’t know. Some new people came and I had no communication with these people who had no communications with me. And I’m happy now with Piranha. And we have more space here as well. Sony is all right but you have to be Madonna or something. You have to fill the pocket.
How much of a following do you have in the West? Because I think this is the first time you will play in Germany.
No, I play two times in Dortmund and Rudolfstadt. And Berlin is my first time. I don’t know. I think European audience is the same everywhere you go. They like the tunes. They like it, you know. They don’t really think about what I’m saying, what I wanted to say. And it is okay with me. I just want to make them dancing, laugh, singing. That’s the point.
Tell me what about your opinions on Balkan music? For the past ten years it’s become quite popular in Western Europe and also in America. In New York there are Balkan parties. In San Francisco. Brazil also. South America.
I am very happy about it. This is maybe one good thing with this war, you know. We became well known all around. And it is much easier now for us musicians from Balkans because we don’t need to play r & b, you know, which we are not so good. Or we don’t have to pretend that we are MTV artists. It is something that I have in me. If I was a black man I would surely do rap or r& b or soul. But now the most easiest thing to do is to play like I play. And I am happy that the thing becomes a genre. And I don’t see it will stop.
How do you account for the popularity of Balkan music in the West?
I don’t know. I think it’s because Balkan music is very wide open. You can easily take samba groove and put Gypsies on it. It’s easy to take techno and put a brass section on it. Everything goes. Like food. Like Mediterranean food, you know. On pizza you can put whatever you want. It’s still good. And I think that Balkan music is something like that, you know. It’s very open. And you can even play r&b Balkan style. And our emotion is something obvious. People haven’t heard it one hundred, two hundred times. And it is something new.
In Slovenia what kind of music do people listen to, young people?
From turbo trash. But trash, you know. Because they want to offend their parents, you know. It’s not good music, but the kids say, “this is the only thing my mother and father don’t like. I will do this.” And of course turbo trash and a lot of Western music. Electro, MTV, you know.
There are a couple good Balkan DJs in Slovenia. Leni Kravac and Haris Pilton.
Yes, I know them, yeah.
And what about the music scene in Serbia?
Yeah, Serbia is somehow the center of everything. And they look strange. “What the fuck is going on with these Western people?” Because in Serbia alternative bands they wanted to sound like some bands from London or something. Not really pa-pa. No, we have enough of this. But still you have many, many, many good musicians in Serbia, especially in Belgrade, which is I would say the center of the Balkans. Really wide open. But this is also the land of turbo-trash, you know, and they don’t like it. It is a little embarrassing. But it is also an inspiration for making music; for making something new. Even rock & roll is something that had a bad smell, back in the forties, you know. Nobody wanted to play rock and roll because negroes did that, you know. And they have bad words. But when Presley started to sing and compose like them it becomes something new. So, I think the same situation is happening here.
Are you influenced or inspired, even in an ironic way, by turbo folk?
Of course I am. Not just in an ironic way. I don’t think it is so bad as they say. You can find many nice tunes and nice melodies there. Even nice lyrics. But the situation is…What situation is?
Who are some artists from the former Yugoslavia that you admire?
Oh, many of them. Especially artists from the beginning of the eighties. This new wave. It was really something special. It defined me like a man, like a thinking man. I don’t know if you know Rambo Amadeus.
He’s a good friend of mine. I’m godfather to his son. The Plavi Orchestra. Losa. Then Electronicki Orgasm. Many of them. They are not active really anymore. Except Rambo. But they are really great.
Tell me about your musical influences. When you listen to your music there is some Gypsy brass, there’s some kind of American style rock and roll…
I like trash. I was inspired by, as you say, turbo trash. I think you can hear in my music everything I hear on the radio. Yugoslavia was one phenomenon I mean we heard a lot, a lot of Mexican music back in the sixties, seventies. It is so funny. And then we put some Croatian lyrics. And nowadays there are many people that thinks that Mama Jaunita is Serbian. And I was inspired by Beatles. Very, very much. And everything that I heard. I don’t have a collection of CDs. I just listen to music while I am driving the car on the radio. I am actually a radio listener.
You’ve been compared to Borat with your style of speaking English.
He can compare with us, mother-fucker. Borat. I think he saw us somewhere, you know. Because he stole every idea of us. But okay, he’s funny. But like America, he ruined everything, the romanticism. It is not just funny, everything. But we are Borats of course.
Tell me about your relationship with Piranha and how did you get to know Christoph Borkowsky?
They called meto Womex in Sevilla.
How did he find out about you?
It was two years after the release of Export-Import, the previous album. And my manager from Italy said, ‘Oh, they want you at Womex.’ That’s all I knew. And then we played at Womex and after a few months. Someone called from Piranha and said, “hey, can we meet? Maybe we can do something together.”
Tell me about your personal style. You have a lot of “bling”. Who are your role models?
On the stage?
No, I just want to make myself ready-made for the stage. I think is nice when you buy a new suit, you know, for the stage. I don’t like to be in jeans. It is more because of respect to audience. That is why I put a white suit or something which I don’t wear every day.
So tonight you’ll be playing at Lido. What can we expect?
We’ll play our songs with a lot of passion. We are happy to be here. We wait. I don’t know what it is going to be like. But we do our job as always.
You’re friends with Robert Soko?
How do you know each other?
Through his Balkan Beats he’s been doing. His compilation. He started with “Hir aj kam hir aj go”. His compilation. The first one was “Hir aj kam hir aj go”. And then his company called me. Of course he’s from Bosnia. It was like, “Hello, how are you?”
What do you think about Berlin? Have you been to Berlin before?
I’ve been here a couple of times. I love it.
I feel like home here. People are open minded to know. At Piranha they are understanding what I am doing. They support me. It’s great. It’s a great city. I really enjoy here. It’s nice to be here. Really. It’s my town. I can really say this is my town. I’ve seen every European town. They are very beautiful, nice, but Berlin – I have the feeling that I can be here for a while.
How long are you staying for?
I will go back tomorrow.
And what are your plans for the next year? Are you going to come back to Berlin and play?
We have some meetings with some bookers.
Do you have a tour in Europe coming up?
I hope so. That’s why I’m here in Berlin to get the right people to see my show so I can work more.
Last question: where is this Balkan trend going? Has it peaked? Will it become a genre like reggae? What?
I think it is going that way – to become a genre like Latin music, like reggae, like Caribbean. Because it’s very funny when we came to Belgium or to France or to Italy and we find that Italian try to play really Balkan style everything. In Germany you have Shantel. He is more Balkan than Balkans.
Are you friends with Shantel?
No, I don’t know him. I just know what he is doing. I think we are on the move.
What do you think about Shantel, what he does?
It’s funny to me a little bit, you know. Germans have, you know…I saw one artist called Gentleman play reggae more Caribbean than Caribbean do. He even tried to speak like them, you know. It is a little bit funny. But he’s very good, you know. And the same situation is for me with Shantel. He make good things but like he pretends, you know. What the fuck, you are trying to be so Balkan, you know. It is not the point, you know. But he work a lot and he is very successful. What the fuck can I say? He is not really my style.
What about playing in London or New York?
I would love to. I would love to, but I have to work more.
Balkan music in England is not very popular.
I have a meeting in London with a guy. He’s from Sony England. He really love my music, especially “Hir aj kam hir aj go”. But in English you know, you have to sing in English. Because they didn’t like me to sing in…they didn’t understand you. Frankfurt, Germania…And he want me to go to studio and sing again and I say, no, I can understand it but it will be so stupid if I start to act like I’m English, because I’m not. Maybe it is more stupid than if we leave things as they are. But in the end nothing happened. They didn’t release anything there. Sony released in fifty countries around the world, from Russia to Japan to everywhere, but not in England. But I am still happy, okay. I would like to play in London, but we will see.
In Slovenia you live in Ljubljana?
What kind of place is that?
Not so bad, if you have money and if you’re old and you want peace, nobody to interrupt you. If you like it when it is boring, you know, then welcome. But it is nice place. Small city but still capital of one European state. So in a small place you have everything. More or less everybody know everybody. Not so bad.
Robert, thanks for the interview.