How did you get your break?
My first break, after playing the local Balkan stuff in the hood, you know, was playing a klezmer gig. That was what broke me. That was with Harold Seletzky. He brought me to a whole other world. Up until then I was stuck in Ridgewood. Harold Seletzky is no longer around, but he was a composer of microtonal music. He had done music for commercials and he played the clarinet. Someone recommended me, and he came to my house and he asked me if I wanted to play in a place called the West End Gate at 112th street, with his band, The West End Klezmorim. That was thirty years ago. Back then – it’s kind of funny when I think about it – but I would never take the train if I had a gig in the Bronx say. Because they never had those gig bags for accordions and I would feel weird lugging an accordion on the train to a gig. I was young, but I was so old school that way. So Harold actually hired a guy to drive me. That was every Sunday. We would do Sunday brunch. For two years he would have someone drive me out there. And I ended up playing with him twenty years.
The last I had heard from you was this collaboration between you and Eva Salina, Sudbina in 2018. What have you been involved with since then?
Well you know I also play with Slavic Soul Party, with Matt Moran. Right now I’m freelancing a lot. And I also play in a klezmer band with Yale Strom. We just did a tour in Poland and Prague. So I play in a lot of different bands. Then I do solo. And what I have is my Balkan band. But because I’m so busy doing gigs and this and that, I never really have time to push my band. I’m always playing in other bands. So that’s kind of like the family band. We do authentic Balkan music from Serbia and Romania. But I don’t do that too much.
I think that would be what would appeal to me the most. You mentioned it is a family band –
Yeah, my nephews, my son sometimes plays with me. We played with – have you heard of Šaban Bajramović?
Well, when he came to New York may band toured with him.
Is that right?
Yes, before he passed away. Actually, I think I might have some pictures. You know, like I have all of these memories somewhere. I know I have one picture of me and Šaban Bajramović.
How did Šaban strike you?
I think he was amazing. He was great. I have to be honest. He kind of changed. In the old school in Serbia he used to just play the weddings and stuff, and everyone knew him. But then he got into this other style where he became more known.
He started to get fairly jazzy.
Exactly. Right. I’d have friends, and they would say, “Oh, yeah, years ago he played at our wedding.” It wasn’t a big deal. I mean, he had a good name. But he wasn’t that big. He was always getting into trouble. When we went on tour he told me some of the crazy stories playing those weddings and stuff. Tito stories.
And you spoke Serbian with him, I guess.
Serbian, right. And he spoke Romany. So, as I was preparing for him coming here to the States, I was learning all of his old songs, but when I played them for him, he didn’t even remember them. He was doing different stuff. He wasn’t doing those old songs so much no more. But he was surprised that I had learned them. He was surprised to see people who knew his old stuff in America. I think he was really happy. Because he had some other bands accompanying him. And he was like, “Wow you guys have really done good.”
What did he make of America?
He liked playing for a new audience. For him it was a new challenge. You know, just having the jazz – that hippy jazz whatever audience. Because years ago he would play for the Balkans, the Roma and everyone. So I think he really enjoyed that. But his impression of America was I think that he really liked it. There’s a video tape I’m trying to get, but the guy doesn’t want to give it to no one. What else can I tell you about him? We done a few concerts. At Joe’s Pub. Then we went towards Washington and some other places I don’t remember.
I had spoken with Matt Moran some time ago, and he mentioned you used to invite him up to the Bronx for Roma weddings, which he really got a kick out of.
Yeah, I don’t remember where. But I remember I used to play a bunch of kafanas. Like old school – you probably know what a kafana is?
Yes, of course.
Singers would come from Serbia, and I would have to accompany them. So, like the famous singers. I played in the Bronx. And a lot of them were in Ridgewood. I would do a lot of that. You know, I started doing that at age seventeen. And the money – I have to tell you – like, we would start at nine o’clock and we would go to three, four in the morning. We got paid fifty dollars a night. But I was making four hundred in tips. It was usually Friday, Saturday, Sunday and I would come home with like eighteen hundred dollars. Sometimes on a night I would make five, six, seven hundred dollars in crazy tips. Honestly, I’m making a living from music, but honestly, I was making more money as a kid. Sometimes you would make two thousand a night in a kafana or a wedding. The fee wasn’t that great, but the tips were crazy.
How is it now compared to then?
The thing is, if you have a famous singer from the Balkans – but they don’t get visas no more, so they don’t come. If a singer comes then you make amazing tips. It’s all about the singer in weddings. It’s not so much about the accordion player. Except when you play at the Roma weddings. There they really want a good band. If the music’s no good – I mean, the food has to be good, too – but if the music is no good, that’s the big talk. The music is number one. What else? It might be interesting to know that I learned from my father. I come from a family of musicians. My son plays. My father plays. I started learning from my father. My brothers used to play, but they stopped playing. So, it’s like a whole family of accordion players.
And from Banat, which is a region of Romania close to the Serbian border.
Right. It’s really Serbia. I don’t really know the history of it, but it’s more Serbia and on the border to Romania.
Have you been back?
The last time I was there was maybe four years ago. It was great. You know, when I got married in Serbia it was great. The music was all over the place. I had a great band at my wedding. And when I got married I was playing with the musicians. And I remember my dad coming over and saying, “You can’t play, you have to go with your wife.” You know, I got carried away because they were great musicians. But it was great. And I actually visited one of the famous legends who is no longer with us. Perica (Guli) Jovanović. He is Serbian Roma. He accompanied the famous singer Vida Pavlović. He was one of the main accordion players. Because my wife comes from the area where all those musicians are. So I got to see all those famous musicians, which was great.
Your wife is also Serbian?
Yeah, yeah. Roma.
You mentioned some famous singers came to perform at kafanas in New York. Some of them might ring a bell. Who were they?
I played all the Queens kafanas. All of them. Some of them didn’t even have names. They were just kafanas. And there I played with Šaban Bajramović. I accompanied once Džej.
Yeah, he was fantastic. Too bad he died so young.
Oh, you have heard of him? So I learned all these repertoires. That was the first time I met him. He was surprised that I had learned all his songs. It was the first time he had come to America, and he didn’t know what to expect. So he was surprised I knew all his Roma style, the way they play. He was expecting more American style. He just had this picture in his head that he was going to go over there and play with “Americans” over there.
He came to Berlin the year before he passed away and I saw him perform and he was sort of blown away that there was an American guy there that knew his stuff and got into him. He was very happy about that.
Oh, yeah, yeah. They all like that. Now they are finding that’s hip. You know, American people – they are like, wow, American people are playing Balkan music and are interested in this music. And there were a lot of singers who didn’t have names. There were a lot of great singers that weren’t famous, but they were just as good. And some honestly were even better. But a lot of these Balkan guys, they don’t really know how to publicize themselves. So they just play for their crowd. Like, that’s what I done. Now, through Matt some Americans, more people know me. But before that, I just played in my neighborhood. Never outside. It was only strictly for the hood.
What was the neighborhood?
Ridgewood. And that’s were all the weddings were. So this is what it is. In Ridgewood, Queens, it’s mostly just Serbian and Romanian Roma. And there are also a number of Albanians and different cultures here from the Balkans. Bronx is more known for the Macedonian.
Albanian Macedonian or Roma?
Yeah, a lot of the Muslim communities over there. Like Macedonian Albanians, Roma. That’s Bronx. And Ridgewood is known more for the Serbian and Romanian. I guess, Greek Orthodox, most of them are.
The whole Balkan scene was big up until around 2007 in New York. In Berlin it lasted till around 2012.
When you say the “Balkan scene”, which one? Because I kind of went through two Balkan scenes. There was the “real Balkans” only for the Balkans. And then there was the Balkan scene that was popular for Americans.
When was that first Balkan scene you were talking about?
When I was a kid. When did the war happen between Bosnia and Serbia?
The Bosnian war ended in 1995. And then there was the war between Serbia and Kosovo which was in 1999.
So I guess the Bosnian war was when the real ethnic scene died out. Because I remember I would play in a kafana – look, I grew up in America so I couldn’t separate the Serbs from the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslims. I just put everyone in the same picture. So after the war, I was still playing in the kafanas, But it started to get really bad. That same person that I played for last month, he asked me for a particular song. And if I played that song after the war, he was ready to fight with me. So, that was the thing I really had to learn fast. You know, like playing for the different sides.
And this scene was pretty much under the radar, so to speak, of the general American public.
You mean in Ridgewood? This is how it was. I would play in a kafana or whatever. Everyone was fine with it. But there would be one or two elderly people. I say elderly, but you never know who it is. But there could be two elderlies there who could start a whole fight; who could start a big thing. Or there would be people who were fine with it, playing both sides. On the other hand, there might be one guy who could ruin the whole wedding.
So, there were some tense situations.
But, as I said, this was after the war. Now it’s better. But it’s still not great. Now you would feel comfortable. Because there is not that much going on. Like, the real ethnic stuff. A lot of it has changed to the pop. At the Roma weddings here in Ridgewood, which there are not a lot of, there are probably two or three weddings a year -I mean parties. I don’t even know why that is. But years ago when I was doing this ethnic music, I played two or three parties a week. It was crazy. I played for Romanians, for Serbs –
How do you account for the fact that it has become so quiet in the scene there?
You know, also a big part of it is a lot of them moved from here. But it’s a good question. I don’t know. It’s just not happening so much no more.
Maybe the coronavirus played a role as well.
No, no. Because this slowdown has been happening over the last ten years. Ten, fifteen years. It’s not like it was. And sometimes in the bars – like there is one bar here, and they use just one keyboard player. And it’s not like the real ethnic stuff.
In Berlin the focus is mainly on these banquet halls, where the weddings take place, where in one given night there’d be three or four weddings going on. Maybe a Turkish wedding, an Arabic wedding and a Roma wedding –
I think there, there are a lot more people. In Ridgewood there used to be a lot of Roma from the Balkans. I think that is a big part of it. That there is not that many. Some of the Serb Roma moved to Pennsylvania. But still, there is not a lot happening. I don’t even know why it died out.
That’s too bad. Something else I wanted to ask you about. You spoke about two scenes. The one you just spoke about. But what about this Balkan Beats scene, that was more Balkan Beat Box and Gogol Bordello? What was your take on that?
I think it’s cool, honestly. It’s different, you know. I’m open to it. Like, why not?
Balkan Beat Box, when you listen to their tracks, does it resonate with you at all?
I don’t know their music all that well. I’ve heard some stuff, but I think it’s good. Our saxophone player in Slavic Soul Party used to play with them. Peter Hess. The band’s in Israel now, right?
Yeah. There was Ori Kaplan and Tamir and Tomer (I always get these two guys confused). Balkan Beat Box broke up and two of the guys just formed a new outfit, and it’s some Israeli thing right now. They are mostly based in Tel Aviv, as far as I know.
I think he even told me – because a lot of them had kids, so it was hard to travel. And he said some ideas they had were starting to change.
I talked to them in 2009, and they were trying to distance themselves from the Balkan scene already at that point. They thought that it had become too cliched, or something, too overblown. They were a little bit wanting to know from me, why I was so interested in Balkan Beats, like what was the fascination. But I had spoke with Ori a couple of years before that. I had a really good interview with him at the peak of the Balkan hype, where he was trying to tell me that Balkan Beats was the new thing – the new punk.
I think Balkans are cool with it. Because to them it’s new, so they say, “Why not?” But sometimes I hear some Americans from the opposite side, saying, “Oh, they shouldn’t be doing that. It’s not the real ethnic stuff. But why not? And it’s a new generation. You can’t play the old ethnic songs for a new generation.
And also if they are listening to the Balkan Beats stuff, they may get turned on to your brand of ethnic Balkan music as well. So it’s good for everybody, I think, right?
Yeah, I think the critics are being a little too closed minded.
One thing I wanted to ask you. You know this Eugene Hütz, don’t you?
Yeah. We opened up for him once with Slavic Soul Party.
But he was making this big thing about him being a Roma. I mean, in all fairness, he did have Roma roots somewhere, but when you listen to his music, there wasn’t anything particularly Roma from the Balkans about it. And in fact, he seemed a bit like he was jumping on the bandwagon. Also Eva Salina didn’t think he was all that authentic. But do you have any personal impressions of the guy. Had you met him before?
I have to tell you one thing, in that movie with Madonna his pronunciation was good, actually. But, you know, I can tell when there is a Roma. Even if you have some distant roots, I can tell. And he might have some roots. Sometimes I have people coming up to me and saying, “Oh, yeah, I have some roots from the Gypsies.” They might have, but I can tell when it’s a Roma person.
Do you know a guy called Ismail Lumanoviski?
Oh,yeah, of course. He just played at my daughter’s wedding.
Is that right?
I had my family band play outside, and the whole block was rocking. This was like, a few months ago. We had drinks. We had to watch out because of the police. Putting out a live band, you would hear it for blocks. But we had to do it and get it done with, because I was worried about my parents’ health. So we wanted to get the wedding done…What might be interesting to know it, like, now I’ve had one of my nephews, when he wanted to learn Balkan music, when he was fourteen, fifteen, he just went over there and learned. They come here and practice, that’s how they learn. My nephew plays the violin. We take music very seriously. I make a living from it. But it’s not about money. We look at it like a very serious thing. You don’t just do the job to get it done. You have to enjoy it, and it has to be great. With other bands outside it’s not always perfect. In my house there can’t be no fake stuff. If I’m playing in front of Balkans, then it has to be perfect. A lot of times, honestly, I’ll bullshit. You know, like it’s bullshit me playing outside for the other public. But when it’s for the Balkans then you can’t bullshit. They know when you’re bullshitting. It’s a different band. Everyone is ethnic when you are playing Balkan music. With Slavic Soul Party it’s great, but they’re not Balkans, you know.
I was talking with a Roma clarinet player from Istanbul, Cüneyt Sepetçi. He was discovered by this American band, A Hawk and a Handsaw. Obviously he’s coming from a more Turkish direction, but he was saying that the difference between playing a Roma and a non-Roma audience, is that he plays the more odd meters with the Roma. Whereas when he plays them for non-Roma the crowd doesn’t get it.
But doesn’t the American crowd like the odd meters?
This is what he said. That the odd meters killed the dancefloor.
That brings me to the question of how long ago was that?
Maybe five years ago.
That doesn’t sound right. Because with Slavic Soul Party we play some odd meters and they are cool with it. It’s actually interesting for the musicians.
I like it personally.
Well, everyone has different experiences also.
I found this quote finally from Ismail Lumanovski. He calls his band New York Gypsy Allstars. And I asked him if all of his band were Roma, and he said, “If we have to consider anyone a Roma, then it has to be me. But I think the name comes from the fact that in New York everybody feels like a Gypsy. Because everyone is going from place to place, no one owns anything. We’re playing music, having fun, living for the moment.” Does this resonate with you. How do you respond to this quote?
Kind of. Because a Gypsy is like, coming from every where, right? Kind of. But it’s like a Gypsy but with no roots. Like, you know all those bad things they say about the Roma. So that is kind of like that. I feel that that is kind of stereotyping. It kind f doesn’t really connect with me.
Because when I think of Roma and their music, I constantly think of a people very rooted in certain traditions.
And Roma music doesn’t have a style, but it does have a style. You know what I’m trying to say?
So, saying the people are playing from all over – that’s Gypsies? That to me doesn’t really sound right. I mean he plays jazz, he plays classical, he plays funk – what then he’s a Roma? No. That doesn’t make sense, does it?
No, not at all. But he’s a nice guy, Ismail?
Awe, he’s great. I love him. He’s a great player, he’s awesome.
They had a couple of hot albums, but nothing of late.
As for myself, I keep thinking I have to push my band and get myself out there. There are a lot of headaches because it’s a family thing. It’s good quality music, but at a concert level. I’m older now, but I still have the drive.
Well, Peter, thanks a lot for this interview.