It was a tough call. Amsterdam Klezmer Band with Yury Gurzhy Djing the after show or Dubioza Kolektiv at Festsaal Kreuzberg. I opted for Dubioza – and I didn’t regret my decision (though I am sure AKB rocked the house just as hard).
Dubioza Kolektiv is a kind of Bosnian goodtimes party band, whose English lyrics surprisingly make sense, even when their grasp of the idiom is a bit wonky. Dressed in black and yellow, they look like either third league Balkan football team on psychedelics or a swarm of demented hornets. Dubioza Kolektiv conveys tons of manic energy and native Balkan wit, dealing with themes such as war, immigration, diaspora life and smoking marijuana.
This concert had been scheduled to take place two years ago, and Corona fucked it up two years in a row. For me personally, it was the first concert in two years and though I was stiff, rusty and out of practice, it didn’t take long for the band to get me pumping my fist in the air and shaking my ass.
I shared a table with a motley group of children of Gastarbeiter – from the Balkans and beyond – which only Berlin could produce. There was an obese Croatian with a red mohawk sitting opposite me, a thin Macedonian in a three-piece suit and glasses, a blond haired Iranian and a bald, whippet thin man of indeterminate origin, with more crosses on his body than an Orthodox pope.
Much of Dubioza sounds the same, but this hardly matters – and, that is punk essentially. The songs were basically vehicles for incredible stage antics, stupendous energy and immense lyrical wit, both in Bosnian and in English.
At the end some stage divers took the stage, led by a massive black guy with a white dress shirt half ripped off his body and slightly the worse for booze. Recently Robert Soko and I had spoken about the conspicuous absence of black people at Balkan shows. Well, if Soko were here now, I would have said, “there is your man.”
Robert Soko: We are also looking for backstage miracles. Stories which are not supposed to go public. Little anecdotes, little unexpected trivial things, which sometimes are really essential. We are using as our reference, “Please Kill Me”, the bible of punk. It consists of many interviews, creating a story on a larger scale. Our book is not easy for us to moderate, but if any funny little anecdotes cross your mind, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
Robert Rigney: Maybe we can begin with early days. I take it you were one of the original founders of Dubioza
Vedran Mujagić: Yes.
Robert Rigney: It was wartime Sarajevo. A bunch of kids getting together to jam in someone’s basement while all round bombs were falling.
Vedran Mujagić: We were just teenagers, thirteen, fourteen years old. At least part of the band that lived in Sarajevo. And of course the obvious escape route from the condition we were in – the city was being besieged, there was no water – was to find a way to forget about all of this. And so we gathered in some basement to play music that was our weapon of choice.
This is also another story that you need another book to tell: the music scene in Sarajevo during the war. Not just music, but the whole cultural scene, theater productions, exhibitions. Everything happened on a bigger scale than at any time in the history of Sarajevo before or after the war. One says that two thousand culture productions took place during this three year period. If it weren’t for these two CDs called “Rock Under Seige”, with a lot of these bands playing – and this is captured quite terribly on CD as a document – nobody would be talking about this; it wouldn’t exist; it would just be a lost moment in history.
Out of all of these theater productions, always people remember Susan Sontag producing Waiting for Godot with Sarajevo actors. Everything else fades away. When the war stopped, most of the bands – because they were playing out of desperation – it was a way to filter out the bad news and focus on something else other than the war – after the war, most stopped because they lost their modus; they didn’t have any more reason for existing any more. Or they simply wanted to enjoy life.
These couple of years after the war were just the craziest. It was just party after party after party. It was really crazy because people were just happy to be alive. Only the stubborn guys were left playing music. Probably the same people who would do it regardless if war or no war. It was not en masse as it was during the siege.
Robert Rigney: Who was it in Sarajevo. You and…
Vedran Mujagić: Me and Brano, who is not here. He is ill so he can’t join us on this tour.
Robert Soko: He’s not coming to Berlin?
Vedran Mujagić: No. We joined a guy called Adi Lukovac. And he is one of the pioneers of electronic music in Bosnia. We formed a band, Adi Lukovac & Ornamenti. You probably haven’t heard any of it, but it sounds quite good, even now, twenty years afterwards. It was experimental, ambient, and then we wanted to put this ethno element in the air. So that was the first time that we experimented with fusions of this type.
Robert Soko: But with Adi Lukovac & Ornamenti you already started experimenting with this ethnical sound.
Robert Rigney: How did that ethnical component manifest itself?
Vedran Mujagić: It was more in the use of saz, accordions and some singing, some melodies. And because it was ambient, not this trumpet, brass, energetic part of the Balkan scene, but other parts; with sevdah and a more low energy part. But it shaped us, because it showed us the way to break barriers and break rules. Because none of us – I went briefly to music school, but broke it off, so I didn’t have enough of this theoretical knowledge to approach it from that side. But we simply experimented in a rough fashion through trial and error. And then the band stopped working and Adi continued with his own project. Unfortunately he died in some crazy car accident some years after we started Dubioza.
Robert Soko: When did you start Dubioza?
Vedran Mujagić: In 2003.
Robert Soko: And Dubioza refers to dub music, doesn’t it? From the very beginning it was quite a dubby sound with a female vocalist. Adisa Zvekić.
Robert Rigney: Who was also with La Cherga.
Vedran Mujagić: Yes, she is the sister of one of our singers, Adis…Yes, it’s just dub. Word play. Dubious. Dub. And also in Bosnian “dubioza” means a whole universe of things, if you are in some crazy situation, or if you are in debt or depressed. You are “dubioza”. It’s irreparable. From the very beginning we were seven or eight people. So it was always a collective effort. And the thing is we basically just started experimenting. Because the singers, they were from another band in Zenica.
Robert Soko: Sarajevo, by the way, for the benefit of our readers, is actually a small town near Zenica in central Bosnia.
Vedran Mujagić: Ha, ha. Well the Zenica guys, they also had a band, Gluho Doba, and they split and just by chance at some party where Brano was DJing we met them. And we just wanted to try something out. From the moment that these first recordings were made – the first demos – six months later we had a CD on the Gramafon record label, a record label that a friend of ours was just starting for art and jazz and other non-profitable forms of music. And he heard these demos and he said let’s do it. And he was the guy that pushed it. He pushed us very fast, and we didn’t have time to think, let’s see, how are we going to produce this. We just jumped into it. And then at the moment we had the CD we said, “OK let’s do concerts. Let’s promote this CD.” And then it just went very fast from this moment. Like in this next month our tenth album is coming out.
Robert Soko: But from what I understand if you happen to be born in 2003, for me Dubioza starts being big on the European scene from 2012-2013, don’t they? Am I right? It took ten years.
Vedran Mujagić: It took ten years, and it was a rough ten years. Because during those ten years when we started, we were still under that visa regime that didn’t allow us to go anywhere else aside from Croatia and Serbia, which were visa free. Even Slovenia, where we started first – our first tours were in Slovenia, which is crazy because it is a small country, but they have an amazing club scene infrastructure. Now it’s crumbling, but it is something that was a holdover from the Socialist period, from these omladenski centari – these youth centers. Any small town that is not on a map has an amazing club with a lot of history with American and British bands playing. You cannot imagine what a back catalogue of concerts we found in some villages in Slovenia. It was the first place that we started touring intensively. And from that period it was characteristic that we played on weekends, and then on Monday we would go to the embassy and wait in a queue and wait for a visa with a new pair of invitations for the next two shows. We went through passports like, three, four times a year because we had so many visa stamps. It took time, really. And also, the band evolved. We were looking into the ways how to perform live. Because it didn’t start in a premeditated fashion. Ah, let’s do this and this is going to be live. We just recorded stuff and then reverse engineered it how to perform it on stage. And this was like the first three albums: we were really looking the way how to do it.
Robert Soko: Am I right in understanding that once the girl left – she stood for this swing voice, this dubby atmosphere – once she left, you guys changed. Something happened in Dubioza Kolektiv. When this girl left – Adisa is her name, if I remember – I don’t want to be negative towards her –
Vedran Mujagić: No, no. She was against this heavy use of Balkan influence.
Robert Rigney: That’s interesting, because in La Cherga they often made use of Balkan elements.
Vedran Mujagić: Yes, and even now the thing that she is doing is very Balkan. She is living in Norway now. She is not doing much, but she had a career in bands that were more Balkan than Dubioza was. But at that moment she didn’t like that, so we democratically decided to scale down that thing.
Robert Soko: When you are saying “Balkan”, you are using two kinds of things coming into play in addition to this ska-punk that you pay, is this sevdah music, and the trumpet which stands more for the Serbian style of music – lately nor so much. But at some period you applied this music. But is this what you see as the Balkans, and did you have any reproaches in Bosnia because you used it. You know what I mean. Certain dislikes.
Vedran Mujagić: I mean there is always this process where any type of band – no matter the genre, when they move from the hundred capacity club to larger capacities, then you get haters who say, “Ah, you were good before you sold out.” It’s normal and I think it happens to every band. And of course when we put more Balkan stuff into third and later albums, people said, “Ah you sold out.” You folkers, and this and that.
Robert Soko: How did you take it. It must have hurt, a bit.
Vedran Mujagić: Not really. Because we had this experience with Adi as well. And we knew it has to do with how the scene grows up and matures. At the same time the people who were hating us for folk elements were listening to, I don’t kow, Flogging Molly or Pogues – Irish punk…
Robert Rigney: Who used folk elements. It was cool for them.
Vedran Mujagić: Yeah, yeah. It was more an identitarian thing than anything else. Even now you have a bunch of bands in the Balkans, who are trying so hard to be British. Singing in British accents and doing the latest trend in indie rock that you hear on some radio station in Seattle.
Robert Soko: But none of them made it as far as Dubioza. I mean, you were able to transmit a certain Bosnian sensibility into something that is Europe-wide or global.
Vedran Mujagić: But this is something we realized, even with Adi – that this is not our disadvantage. This is our only advantage. This identity of people who are coming from a completely crazy area, but who are not just going there and interpreting things from our past, from our traditions. We are just reinterpreting them and putting them into the context of a contemporary situation. Even when we used these elements we always do it consciously – either with sarcasm or it’s humor. Or even when we sing in a very bad Eastern European accent – you know, we exaggerate even. Because it is important that when the listener hears it for the first second, he realizes “Ah, it is Eastern European singing, I am from Bosnia, take me to America.” It takes a totally different atmosphere and context, rather than having perfect English.
Robert Rigney: When did you guys start writing songs in English? Right from the get-go?
Vedran Mujagić: Actually, the first two albums were in English. Because we didn’t know that we could write in Bosnian.
Robert Rigney: Did you already have an audience in mind outside of Bosnia?
Vedran Mujagić: Well, we didn’t plan much. If we would have, then we wouldn’t get anywhere. It was not something that was calculated. Because most of the time these collaborations don’t work. A lot of people tried to calculate. I’ll put this with that and that. No. We just went to the floor, and somehow the context in Bosnia changed. Some big protest happened. And we went there as citizens, and then we wanted to support them. It would have been ridiculous to support a local, grass-roots initiative with a song in English. So we tried writing in Bosnian. And a lot of people said, “Oh, this is good. Why don’t you write something else?” And the next album just came a couple of months later.
Robert Rigney: What was the protest?
Vedran Mujagić: Just a bunch of stuff happing at the same time. And the tipping point was the murder of a kid in Sarajevo. Just, a guy got killed. He was fourteen years old. It was 2007. And this album came out in 2008.
Robert Rigney: Who writes the lyrics in the band?
Vedran Mujagić: It depends. Some things are written by four people. Some are one. Depends.
Robert Rigney: I mean, it sounds good. Fucked up, but good.
Vedran Mujagić: I think we realized fairly early on, that we are not some poets. And we don’t take ourselves too seriously about our writing process. We are also always correcting one another.
Robert Soko: Are there any internal fights when you write? Who has the upper hand? Who is actually the boss here?
Vedran Mujagić: Not really. Brano is writing most of the music. And he is also the producer. So he is kind of directing the thing musically, and then lyrically we talk.
Robert Soko: Where does it happen mainly? In the rehearsal room or in the studio?
Vedran Mujagić: In the studio. Brane has a studio in his house, and we gather there, either two of us or four of us, or the entire band. But it depends. Some albums are written like that, others not.
Robert Soko: The chemistry between all of you is still good? I am asking because what I understand Dubioza is you and Brane from Sarajevo and Adis and Almir from Zenica. I think this is the core. This is the marriage where it actually happens. And it is still intact.
Vedran Mujagić: I think we have found some formula. Dubioza is old enough, and we have enough experience not to make these rookie experiences, of having a fight about unimportant things. So we kind of know, where we are going now.
Robert Rigney: To go back to the lyrics. Do you then bounce the English lyrics off of a native speaker to get feedback?
Vedran Mujagić: I think we are quite OK with English. Of course, we ask for opinions. At one point Bill Gould from Faith No More would give us his opinions. His Kool Arrow was our record label, so of course we talked with him a lot and he gave us some quite valuable feedback. And he’s a guy who adores Balkan.
Robert Rigney: Can you recall what he said about the band?
Vedran Mujagić: That’s a crazy story. I met that guy in Sarajevo in a bar. He was just there as a tourist. You are Bill Gould!? It was crazy. Because he had this history. He is friends with Gino, and also he released Kultur Shock. So he had a history with Sarajevo. So we just kind of connected. He is just really a nice guy. He is also a good guy to talk about the Balkan scene because he is totally obsessed with the Balkans. He is an important link.
Robert Soko: Are you guys a little bit tired? I’m saying this because. Because we are trying to put the focus on thirty years of Balkan music after the wars, up until the present day. Aren’t we all a little bit tired?
Vedran Mujagić: I don’t know. It’s still fun for us. It’s fun playing. It’s fun creating. The thing is, we meshed in so many styles and we changed so much during these years that it kind of helped us not get bored. And also the feedback from the live shows – this constant demand for concerts, for live shows and the fact that the band grew and never stopped growing. Even now. This venue is going to be full. This is the largest venue in Berlin we have played. We played a zillion times in Berlin. SO36, Lido, Yaam, I don’t know where all else. In the past it was 300, 400, now it’s a thousand. It’s growing. This is an example. Also we grew in the Balkans from 100 capacity clubs to 20,000 in Belgrade or Pula or Zagreb. In UK, in France, in Spain…We never had a feeling that we were stagnating. And this is a kind of feeling that helped. It killed some of our colleagues who toured just Balkans. Because in the end it’s ten to fifteen festivals, and you kind of lose your value among the audience, because they have seen you a zillion times. Because you have to tour if you want to live from your music. And most of the income is live shows, and you are just sentenced to do this loop over and over again. And then you get bored, the people get bored; they have seen it over and over again; you can not reinvent the show every year.
Robert Rigney: You also have a strong following in East Europe, in Poland, for example.
Vedran Mujagić: Poland is a strange story. Bulgaria and Poland. Before we started touring there we never had an idea how much ex-Yugoslavian rock and new wave and punk had an impact on that area. Because they were behind the Iron Curtain. And it was a different type of animal from Socialism that was had in Yugoslavia. But somehow these committees that determined what was acceptable for Polish youth or Bulgarian youth, somehow swallowed the idea that punk and rock from Socialist Yugoslavia was okay. And then new wave and then…It’s crazy. The first time we went to Poland after our show there was like music playing and after song after song we started to think that something strange was going on. And we realized it was this Paket Aranžman, a Yugoslav new wave compilation from the beginning of the eighties. But it’s in Polish! They just translated it and re-recorded it. And I think this is the reason why they accept ex-Yugoslavian bands even now. Even the generations that don’t remember Communism, they really accept us as an almost domestic act. The first time in Bulgaria we played in front of an audience of two thousand. Are you crazy guys? We showed up there and it was packed! And people were singing the lyrics. This was ten years ago, before anything else happened.
Robert Rigney: You have a live album in Poland as well.
Vedran Mujagić: Yes. This crazy festival, Poland Rock. It’s a story for a separate book as well. It’s an event that is happening on the German border. It’s a hundred some kilometers from here. It’s an event that gathers something like 700,000 people. It’s really huge. You cannot imagine how big it is. The stage and everything. And it’s free. Because the guy who runs it, his main work is charity work. He’s doing rounds and rounds of these charity auctions throughout the year and he collects money, literally millions of euros of donations and then he distributes to hospitals. He’s really a good guy, and a big deal. Such a big deal that the Catholic Church is a little bit jealous and is trying to undermine him because he is doing more charity work than them. And as a way of saying thanks to all the guys who participated, he started making this festival once a year. He also runs a competition for Polish bands, who then play on this big stage. And this is why it’s free.
Robert Rigney: And they loved you guys.
Vedran Mujagić: He invited us once and they loved it. And we went three times altogether, and the last time they recorded it and included it on vinyl and on CD.
Robert Rigney: In 2003 when you started the band, the Balkan wave was just beginning to pick up. What did you make of that?
Vedran Mujagić: We were really grateful that this happened because it opened many doors to us. We were aware from the beginning that it is a trend. Before that it was Cuban music or Panjabi. And a lot of things changed. Of course you realize in World Music and how it overlaps with popular music, it kind of goes popular and then wanes a bit. But it never disappears. Cuban music is still here. Cubans are still touring and playing festivals and everything else. So we realize that even if it goes down it will never disappear. Especially if we manage to overcome the problem that a lot of traditional Balkan acts are having because the repertoire is very narrow. Even if it is a thousand songs, it’s the same thousand songs for all the bands, and most of these bands don’t write a lot of new music. And these bands are reliant on these few limited songs that everyone wants to hear. If you have a Balkan party, then you want to hear this, this and this. And it is a problem for DJs I guess, as well and for anybody on the scene.
Robert Soko: It comes down to a hundred songs.
Vedran Mujagić: And for us, for you and for me it might be boring. But for the people that are coming for Balkan music and Balkan parties, they really want this. And we kind of realize that we can not do that, because we don’t play that well. The competition is too great. It doesn’t make sense. Let’s play with some elements and surprise people. Because especially in the beginning people are expecting just another Balkan brass, Gypsy band. And then we started with heavily distorted guitars and stuff and some electronica and heavy drums – What the fuck is this? They were totally caught by surprise. It’s this moment of surprise that you can get the people’s attention. And then they recognize some brass and some melodies, and then they are: Okay, this is it.
Robert Rigney: But there is no formula that you have. I just develops originally.
Vedran Mujagić : Yeah. And we were never afraid to try anything. And we also learned through doing things with other people. When We met Džambo Aguševi for the first time we were totally blown away, because he is a young guy. He’s Turkish, Macedonian. They speak Turkish among themselves. For me and for us he is the best.
Robert Soko: He didn’t make it that big.
Vedran Mujagić: He’s quite young for their standards. And he’s doing a lot in Turkey. Playing with Baba Zula and all these names. And also it’s a parallel universe. They play in France at a festival for 20,000 people, and the next day they play a wedding in Bulgaria.
Robert Soko: Yes, this is the way Gypsies do it.
Vedran Mujagić: It’s crazy but the thing is he was so inspiring. Since we met him not a single album went by without him on it.
Robert Soko: Didn’t you also play with Marko Marković?
Vedran Mujagić: He was the first guy that we worked with from that scene.
Robert Rigney: What was it like working with Marko?
Vedran Mujagić: It was good. I don’t want to compare. But it was different. But when we met Džambo we really fell in love. This guy, he is also younger and we really connected really well.
Robert Rigney: And definitely the most well know figure who you collaborated with was Manu Chao.
Vedran Mujagić: Yes.
Robert Rigney: How did that come about?
Vedran Mujagić: It’s a long story. He, still when we were playing with Adi. In Sarajevo it was 2002, I think. He just wanted to play a show in Sarajevo for some reason. They played some Eastern European tour, and it was totally unscheduled. He just called his tour manager and said, “I want to come to Sarajevo and play.” And by coincidence the tour manager of this tour was also our manager. And he called us, and we said, “Of course.” Let’s figure out how we are going to do it. We were connected at some festival. And we met him. And when we started with Dubioza we kept meeting him and saying hi on various different occasions and festivals. And we kind of became friends. The first song we collaborated with him was on Happy Machine. It was just a song that sounded like Manu Chao that we sent him. The name of the song was “Red Carpet”. And on this last album there is one with him as well.
Robert Rigney: What direction do you see yourself moving in the future?
Vedran Mujagić: I don’t know. This pandemic break was really tough. We released an album in January of 2020, and we just started touring. We had a hundred some shows booked for the next year. We finished in February with UK and ended the tour in Amsterdam in a sold out show. It was perfect. And we were like, let’s go home for two weeks and then continue, and then everything got locked down. And the album was basically killed. It never got a chance to get wider attention. Basically, we are promoting it now. The French release has just come out a couple days ago. So we are redoing that, doing parts of that. Since that first album in Bosnian we have been working it so that we do one album in Bosnian and one in English.
Robert Rigney: So that you don’t alienate your fans.
Vedran Mujagić: It just doesn’t make sense to sing in English to local audiences because also lyrically and thematically we are more local and more politically engaged on a local level. It didn’t make sense to translate those lyrics in English, or the other way round. So, the result is we have this schizophrenic career: one in the rest of the world, and one in the Balkans. And most people would probably say, “The Balkan is good enough”. But we never wanted to do it that way, so we continue after our own fashion. And we are coming out soon with a Bosnian album.
Robert Rigney: Has there been any response from the States?
Vedran Mujagić: We did only one tour in the US, because it was quite hard logistically.
Robert Rigney: And also I’d imagine with the visas.
Vedran Mujagić: Yes, that part,too. And we did South by South-West. And then we built the tour from Austin to the East Coast. It was good. It was a strange experience.
Robert Rigney: Why was it a strange experience?
Vedran Mujagić: I mean, it’s different than touring in Europe, of course. We had a tour bus with all of the equipment. We really did proper touring without compromise. Out of maybe ten shows maybe half were sold out. It was a really good response. We played in good clubs, some good venues. And the audiences were mixed. There were some Balkan people. but there were more Americans. And we did especially well in Latin America.
Robert Rigney: Is that right?
Vedran Mujagić: Yes, because the band grew in Spain. And so we got some gigs in Latin America. We played in Columbia. We played in Chile. For some reason a lot of Mexican people came. So it was a good miy of crowd. I can’t wait to go back. Because we really want to do West Coast.
Robert Rigney: Listening to your songs, you sing a lot about rakija and smoking weed. How much do you indulge as a band, and do you have a certain policy like not doing it on tour, or whatever?
Vedran Mujagić: There are no strict rules. But there are rules that we voluntarily follow, and that guarantees that we don’t collide on stage. We don’t do crazy stuff. There was one moment that it almost got out of hand around ten years ago. It was crazy, because we played so many shows that you started to understand why bands start to do drugs. Because it really requires a lot of energy to get yourself together and go on stage and play a show every night, night after night. But then at one moment we said, “OK, this is not good.” We heard some recordings of shows that we thought were really good, and we were just drunk.
Robert Rigney: From rakija?
Vedran Mujagić: From a combination of alcoholic beverages. But everyone is old enough and they know what they are doing. So you don’t need to control who is drinking. Everyone knows that they have to concentrate to warm up their vocal chords. Because if you play four shows in a row, you really need to conserve your energy.
Robert Rigney: I think your song “No Escape From Balkan” is great. It’s my favorite song of yours. I just thought I’d let you know. The lyrics are good, too.
Vedran Mujagić: I just think it’s a song that illustrates well things about Balkan music, identity, stereotypes. If you wanted to present the band with one song then this would probably be it. And also the music video and everything – it is a good story from the beginning.
Robert Soko: Let’s round it up with a question I am asking all Bosnians. Why do we think we are the best fucks. We think that we fuck the best, don’t we?
Vedran Mujagić: These are one of the stereotypes that are very true.
Robert Soko: I grew up with this. And I want to clear it up once and for all by asking Bosnians this question: Why do we Bosnians think we are the best fuckers?
Vedran Mujagić: Well, we also think that we are the smartest. There is always the story in a neighborhood how one guy from the neighborhood went to Germany and fucked up the system and brought home the loot. No, it’s always like that. He over-smarted everyone else. It’s simply not that. People most of the time are not prepared for these loopholes that Bosnians are finding in the system when they go to the West. At least in the beginning of Bosnian people’s encounter with Western civilization. It’s just a different way of thinking. But you see enough people so well integrated that these stories wane. And also this story about how we are good fucks – of course, we really want to think that we are the best fucks.
Robert Soko: Isn’t there a little bit of truth to it? Come on. I think there is.
Vedran Mujagić: The good thing about Bosnians is that most of the jokes – you know, British people always tell jokes about Irish and Scottish, French people tell jokes about Germans, and Bosnian people tell jokes about Bosnians. And we always joke around at our own expense. When we say that we are good fucks, there is always a bit of irony involved. Most of the time.
Robert Rigney: Vedran, thanks for this interview.
Vedran Mujagić: Thank you.