An Interview with Dr Nele Karajlić

Robert Šoko: In the recent days I stumbled upon some old books; about Ivo Andrić, from Ivo Andrić, notes by Ivo Andrić…I suddenly got Andrićized, however, I have to say, there are certain similarities  between his work and your arts. May I say things like that?? 

Dr Nele Karajlić: When we did this New Primitivism – when we started this it was conceived rather out of fear than a certain political engagement. And we didn’t know all these rules of etiquette. We were quite young. Personally, I felt some kind of oppression, anxiety in the air. I saw how gradually things were starting to adopt a nationalist cast. It was something entirely new for us. It wasn’t yet clear to us that a division between ethnicities would come to pass. We were quite young. But I felt some anxiety. We grew up in socijalističko samoupravljanje – the socialist “self-management” under the strong influence of western culture, which naturally flew in the face of all these national preoccupations. 

When the whole national story took off – and it started with the fall of communism and the establishment of parliamentary democracy – it caught us totally off guard.  We were not ready to find ourselves in the whole new story. 

We New Primitivists, out of anxiety and fear, started coming up with scenarios for the future of our national entities within the framework in the former Yugoslavia. We had all read Ivo Andrić. We had to read it in school. But what we took from him was the feeling that it was all about some distant Ottoman past. We didn’t understand that this international conflict, or the problematic relationship between our nations and the three monotheistic religions would still pose problems. We thought that we had to overcome it because of communism – and, especially, thanks to western popular culture, specifically rock and roll. Because communism in its very nature annulled  national identity. 

In thinking this, however, we forgot to take into consideration the constants, the perpetual and uninterrupted things that stretch through the centuries, and were going to play a role in our lives,  catching up with us, as it were. We didn’t foresee that these things  would have an impact on our lives. Again, I said, we didn’t have this political adeptness, but we had fear and through the fear we managed to see and predict what would happen next. From pure intuition we blindly hit the nerve.

Robert Šoko: OK, you hit the nerve. Top Lista Nadrealista (the New Primitives), with Zabranjeno Pušenje. And then with Emir Kusturica & No Smoking Orchestra you also hit the nerve, how come?!

Dr Nele Karajlić: You are talking now about music. I was thinking about politics. 

Robert Šoko: I am rather interested in the musical context, but politics are an inevitable corollary of music.

Dr Nele Karajlić: In music to some extent we managed to create an answer to the  punk wave, which at that time had completely overwhelmed us, from Australia to Alaska. Contrary to our colleagues, who were busy copying their Anglo Saxon idols, we New Primitivists created an artistic concept where the center of the world was moved here to Sarajevo. In a peculiar way we created a new subject matter in our songs and also in the way that we performed our songs. It gave authenticity to Zabranjeno Pušenje, which became our trademark. And as we can see, it has worked for forty years now. It has been a recognizable brand every step of the way. Even now as we are fighting over the name forty years later…

Robert Šoko: And then there is to my eyes a very interesting change. The band fell apart, but you reappear on the stage with Kusturica as a front man (of No Smoking Orchestra), and again it’s a huge success, this time on an international level. Leading off from punk, now we had this ethno element.

Dr Nele Karajlić: Yes. But thanks to our open-minded attitude to all of our influences and thanks to curiosity – Emir and me – we managed to find the punk that back then could be found in Balkan music. Because punk is kolo. We replaced punk with kolo. Because the beat of kolo is something that connects, let’s say,  Joe Strummer with us. Of course, I have to say that at that particular moment we were super lucky because the world market was open or susceptible to various world music trends, the World Music trend was at its peak. You had Buena Vista Social Club and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan etc. It means we hopped aboard a  train that was already in motion. 

The other fortuitous circumstance was that we came from nowhere, from a country that didn’t have a musical trademark; Yugoslavs didn’t occupy a place in the Western musical consciousness. If you went to Austria you expected a waltz. Argentina tango. Brazil samba. But we came from Yugoslavia, where we could play anything – we are talking about the nineties. Because people didn’t have a preconceived notion about us; they didn’t know what to expect.

Robert Šoko: Do you think that the fact that Yugoslavia in the nineties had a bad image gave a boost to the music?

Dr Nele Karajlić: Yes. Even bad advertising is good advertising. For sure we got some backwind because of this war. Because in the West, especially in France, a lot of people knew that the situation in Yugoslavia was not so black and white as some people were making it out to be. And the fact that Yugoslavia was bombed, it is all not really as the professional spin doctors were making it out to be. The situation was more nuanced. In Italy, France and Spain a big percentage of people thought this way. At heart they knew the Serbs were not such bad guys; they privately sympathized with Serbia. Not their governments, but the people themselves. And this music as our cultural form/ expression which we put out, especially through Emir Kusturica’s movies, adopted an anti-globalist cachet. This anti-globalism is what accelerated us (the No Smoking Orchestra) into a high position of World Music and in the western European market. 

However, it all wouldn’t have happened if the music was not good. And Woody Allen also played music and so what? If the music wasn’t mesmerizing the masses it is hard to imagine any of these things ever happening. But World Music trend, the Balkan music trend, which we were dragging with us, and Goran Bregović, and Fanfare and Taraf at that time, we can say that it was all in top form that time (end of nineties, beginning of the naughties)

Robert Šoko: Do you think it will ever happen again? Now 30 years later.

Dr Nele Karajlić: I don’t see it. There is still an audience for what we are doing. The problem is, though, there are no new authors. It’s always a question, is there going to be an amazing genius. “Bella Ciao” also belongs to world music. But given that we are singing a song that is one hundred years old, it means that we have a problem with new blood. There is a lack of authors. Just like in anything else. The musical industry in western Europe, in the nature of capitalism, is continuously  demanding new forms, new styles, because we all want to live from it and make a good living out of it. 

If you sit at three tables with three different record companies, they are all looking for a new solution. In the whole of Western Europe people are very curious and impatient. The fact that No Smoking played for twenty years and Bregović is still playing, is a sign that there are still enough people interested in our songs. But the authors are missing, as Mićo Vukašinović says, a hit is missing. This is the thing with music in general. If you have a hit then you have everything. 

Robert Šoko: Is there anything that you would want to change now?

Dr Nele Karajlić: I would love to change a lot of things. I would have loved to be a footballer.

Robert Šoko: Does it mean you would regret becoming a musician?

Dr Nele Karajlić: No, but I could be playing for Barcelona now. When I see what assholes they are, these new players. These losers… 

No, seriously,  I think that the main problem is that we were born and lived in two different systems and were not ready for what came next. If I were to do things over again, at the very moment when I gave the band a name, I would immediately register it. And then we wouldn’t have any problems. But we lived in a system where, had I done this, I would have been kicked out of this circle, my raja, my closest circle. And everything is like this, with regards to copyrights, all of this is related to those socialistic times. Because when we started making No Smoking Orchestra, we didn’t have this problem. We had a 40 pages contract and everything was regulated. But in Zabranjeno Pušenje we were like, who gives a shit about this stuff.  When I have a look at the chronology of registering the songs from Zabranjeno Pušenje, it was a complete mess. We were in Communism. 

It was embarrassing to say in Communism, “hey this belongs to me”. Everything was off the cuff. We were all brothers. It was all public property. I would have done things differently, would have been a little more perceptive about what  would happen next. But back then only the waiters would be like this, operating in this capitalist fashion. The waiters were the only capitalists. And the small business owners…

Listen, when we started working with No Smoking, the formats, media, was vinyls, and the vinyls were 70 percent and 30 percent were cassettes. As time went on, the cassettes were on the up and up. In the nineties the cassettes were taking over the market. And then around ‘95 the CDs entered the scene. And now there is nothing. And all of this happened in my lifetime. And the same thing happened with musical concepts. Back then you didn’t release a single unless you had ten songs. When I was working with Emir Kusturica. Our last album was Unza  Unza Time, after this we realized that all we needed was one good song. All you need is one good song. Brega realized this as well. But nowadays all you need is one good song, and if you hit the nerve the industry is progressing artistically.

Robert Šoko: Where did you have the best audiences?

Dr Nele Karajlić: Everywhere. People think Argentina was our best audience, because we have good footage of the  „live in Argentina“ show. But everywhere, in Toulouse and Berlin.  And basically it’s the same crowd. The same applies for the audience: Berlin, Paris, Buenos Aires, they would all get on. It’s the same type of people, somehow.

Robert Šoko: Multilingual, Intellectual and sexy.

Dr Nele Karajlić: There are some countries where we were not well received. For example Greece. Even though Emir Kusturica is a god there…

Robert Šoko: And I had the same experience as a DJ in Greece. I couldn’t get the people.

Dr Nele Karajlić: Bregović figured out how to deal with the Greeks. He made an album with a Greek singer, and this is how he deals with the Greeks.

Robert Šoko: What about your latest project: Rock El Classico with Stefan Milenković. Do you think that this project, after everything, will hit the nerve again.

Dr Nele Karajlić: If I was a bit younger, it would. By ten years.

Robert Šoko: Why?

Dr Nele Karajlić: Because you have to invest a certain amount of organizational energy. I am sure if we put Rock El Classico in the Berlin Philharmonic, people would go for it and it would hit the nerve, but I am afraid that I don’t have the strength to make it happen. Berlin is important. These Western capital cities give us a certain legitimacy. But it has potential. You could play it at the philharmonic but also at a stadium.  If I was younger, I would sit in the car with you, and we would go to Berlin, and then we would slowly start meeting people, etc. Also a big problem is that we are expensive at the start. This guy, Stefan Milenković – his fees are high. Because there are two people: him and me.

Robert Šoko: Monty Python and New Primitives? Can we compare the two?

Dr Nele Karajlić: Well, no. In Yugoslavia we had the wrong impression that Monty Python had an impact on the New Primitives, our TV show. This is partially true because Monty Python was for the first time screened on Yugo TV in 1973-74, and taken down immediately because it was not in accordance with the spirit of socialist society. It is interesting to note that TV Sarajevo broadcasted it first. Which is remarkable  because Sarajevo TV was the most conservative , but at the same time was moving much more things than TV Zagreb or Belgrade ever did. 

Now the real answer was a series called Teversenove Bajke, where young actors, directors – straight after the first screening of Monty Python in 1973 or 1974.

The New Primitivists were happening in ’84 and ’89. By the time that Monty Python was broadcasted we already had two series of Top Lista Nadrealista. We had already established our brand. What is the difference between the two? Monty Python was an artistic concept. We were rather socially/politically motivated. Our goal was to talk about society rather than make fun of it. Monty Python was a perfectly done lampoon, everything was prepared. With us it was upside down, we weren’t so prepared, we were more improvised. Off the cuff. 

Robert Šoko: One thing I remember. The joke about the non-aligned movement and Michael Jackson.

Dr Nele Karajlić mimicking his own voice as a TV presenter: (…)  and as we remember, dear spectators,  a long time ago Michael Jackson also belonged to a non-aligned country. Ha, Ha. (for most of the non-aligned countries were African.)

Robert Šoko: Difficult to imagine this today?

Dr Nele Karajlić: You would be fucked over!

Robert Šoko: Nowadays that would be considered a pure racist joke,  but I’m sure you guys didn’t even think about that?

Dr Nele Karajlić: Of course, we didn’t have this awareness. Good that you remember this.

Robert Šoko: Ivo Andrić again, a great writer and  a Nobel prize winner. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not kissing your ass. Both you and Andrić deal with Bosnia, different ethnicities,  conflicts and coexistence. Ottomans till the present. And you are also very controversial as an artist. There is a certain bravado. Why is it?

Dr Nele Karajlić: Thank you for putting me in the same category as Andrić. But yes, his approach, the whole approach of his generation, the Mlada Bosna, against the Habsburgs, had a very similar approach that we had. But it was just that we had music and they had politics. 70 years difference.  Well, Mlada Bosna was a multinational project. Most were Serbs but it was not so important. Just as the majority of Partisans were Serbs, but it was not important back then. They knew the map of Europe would change. The assassination…You were ready to lose your life for an idea. The cult of sacrifice. That was what Mlada Bosna was all about…

© Robert Šoko, Berlin | interviewed in Belgrade, on 13. June 2023

© Robert Šoko, Berlin | interviewed in Belgrade, on 13. June 2023

Nenad Janković (born 1962 in Sarajevo, Bosnia), known as Dr Nele Karajlić  is a musician, composer, comedian, actor, writer and television director living and working in Belgrade, Serbia. One of the founders of the New Primitivism cultural movement in his hometown of Sarajevo, he was also the lead singer and co-author for one of former Yugoslavia’s best known bands, Zabranjeno Pušenje (No Smoking) and later with Emir Kusturica & No Smoking Orchestra.

Source Wikipedia


An Interview with Dr Nele Karajlić

by Robert Šoko,  June 2023

Robert Šoko: In the recent days I stumbled upon some old books; about Ivo Andrić, from Ivo Andrić, notes by Ivo Andrić…I suddenly got Andrićized, however, I have to say, there are certain similarities  between his work and your arts. May I say things like that?? 

Dr Nele Karajlić: When we did this New Primitivism – when we started this it was conceived rather out of fear than a certain political engagement. And we didn’t know all these rules of etiquette. We were quite young. Personally, I felt some kind of oppression, anxiety in the air. I saw how gradually things were starting to adopt a nationalist cast. It was something entirely new for us. It wasn’t yet clear to us that a division between ethnicities would come to pass. We were quite young. But I felt some anxiety. We grew up in socijalističko samoupravljanje – the socialist “self-management” under the strong influence of western culture, which naturally flew in the face of all these national preoccupations. 

When the whole national story took off – and it started with the fall of communism and the establishment of parliamentary democracy – it caught us totally off guard.  We were not ready to find ourselves in the whole new story. 

We New Primitivists, out of anxiety and fear, started coming up with scenarios for the future of our national entities within the framework in the former Yugoslavia. We had all read Ivo Andrić. We had to read it in school. But what we took from him was the feeling that it was all about some distant Ottoman past. We didn’t understand that this international conflict, or the problematic relationship between our nations and the three monotheistic religions would still pose problems. We thought that we had to overcome it because of communism – and, especially, thanks to western popular culture, specifically rock and roll. Because communism in its very nature annulled  national identity. 

In thinking this, however, we forgot to take into consideration the constants, the perpetual and uninterrupted things that stretch through the centuries, and were going to play a role in our lives,  catching up with us, as it were. We didn’t foresee that these things  would have an impact on our lives. Again, I said, we didn’t have this political adeptness, but we had fear and through the fear we managed to see and predict what would happen next. From pure intuition we blindly hit the nerve.

Robert Šoko: OK, you hit the nerve. Top Lista Nadrealista (the New Primitives), with Zabranjeno Pušenje. And then with Emir Kusturica & No Smoking Orchestra you also hit the nerve, how come?!

Dr Nele Karajlić: You are talking now about music. I was thinking about politics. 

Robert Šoko: I am rather interested in the musical context, but politics are an inevitable corollary of music.

Dr Nele Karajlić: In music to some extent we managed to create an answer to the  punk wave, which at that time had completely overwhelmed us, from Australia to Alaska. Contrary to our colleagues, who were busy copying their Anglo Saxon idols, we New Primitivists created an artistic concept where the center of the world was moved here to Sarajevo. In a peculiar way we created a new subject matter in our songs and also in the way that we performed our songs. It gave authenticity to Zabranjeno Pušenje, which became our trademark. And as we can see, it has worked for forty years now. It has been a recognizable brand every step of the way. Even now as we are fighting over the name forty years later…

Robert Šoko: And then there is to my eyes a very interesting change. The band fell apart, but you reappear on the stage with Kusturica as a front man (of No Smoking Orchestra), and again it’s a huge success, this time on an international level. Leading off from punk, now we had this ethno element.

Dr Nele Karajlić: Yes. But thanks to our open-minded attitude to all of our influences and thanks to curiosity – Emir and me – we managed to find the punk that back then could be found in Balkan music. Because punk is kolo. We replaced punk with kolo. Because the beat of kolo is something that connects, let’s say,  Joe Strummer with us. Of course, I have to say that at that particular moment we were super lucky because the world market was open or susceptible to various world music trends, the World Music trend was at its peak. You had Buena Vista Social Club and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan etc. It means we hopped aboard a  train that was already in motion. 

The other fortuitous circumstance was that we came from nowhere, from a country that didn’t have a musical trademark; Yugoslavs didn’t occupy a place in the Western musical consciousness. If you went to Austria you expected a waltz. Argentina tango. Brazil samba. But we came from Yugoslavia, where we could play anything – we are talking about the nineties. Because people didn’t have a preconceived notion about us; they didn’t know what to expect.

Robert Šoko: Do you think that the fact that Yugoslavia in the nineties had a bad image gave a boost to the music?

Dr Nele Karajlić: Yes. Even bad advertising is good advertising. For sure we got some backwind because of this war. Because in the West, especially in France, a lot of people knew that the situation in Yugoslavia was not so black and white as some people were making it out to be. And the fact that Yugoslavia was bombed, it is all not really as the professional spin doctors were making it out to be. The situation was more nuanced. In Italy, France and Spain a big percentage of people thought this way. At heart they knew the Serbs were not such bad guys; they privately sympathized with Serbia. Not their governments, but the people themselves. And this music as our cultural form/ expression which we put out, especially through Emir Kusturica’s movies, adopted an anti-globalist cachet. This anti-globalism is what accelerated us (the No Smoking Orchestra) into a high position of World Music and in the western European market. 

However, it all wouldn’t have happened if the music was not good. And Woody Allen also played music and so what? If the music wasn’t mesmerizing the masses it is hard to imagine any of these things ever happening. But World Music trend, the Balkan music trend, which we were dragging with us, and Goran Bregović, and Fanfare and Taraf at that time, we can say that it was all in top form that time (end of nineties, beginning of the naughties)

Robert Šoko: Do you think it will ever happen again? Now 30 years later.

Dr Nele Karajlić: I don’t see it. There is still an audience for what we are doing. The problem is, though, there are no new authors. It’s always a question, is there going to be an amazing genius. “Bella Ciao” also belongs to world music. But given that we are singing a song that is one hundred years old, it means that we have a problem with new blood. There is a lack of authors. Just like in anything else. The musical industry in western Europe, in the nature of capitalism, is continuously  demanding new forms, new styles, because we all want to live from it and make a good living out of it. 

If you sit at three tables with three different record companies, they are all looking for a new solution. In the whole of Western Europe people are very curious and impatient. The fact that No Smoking played for twenty years and Bregović is still playing, is a sign that there are still enough people interested in our songs. But the authors are missing, as Mićo Vukašinović says, a hit is missing. This is the thing with music in general. If you have a hit then you have everything. 

Robert Šoko: Is there anything that you would want to change now?

Dr Nele Karajlić: I would love to change a lot of things. I would have loved to be a footballer.

Robert Šoko: Does it mean you would regret becoming a musician?

Dr Nele Karajlić: No, but I could be playing for Barcelona now. When I see what assholes they are, these new players. These losers… 

No, seriously,  I think that the main problem is that we were born and lived in two different systems and were not ready for what came next. If I were to do things over again, at the very moment when I gave the band a name, I would immediately register it. And then we wouldn’t have any problems. But we lived in a system where, had I done this, I would have been kicked out of this circle, my raja, my closest circle. And everything is like this, with regards to copyrights, all of this is related to those socialistic times. Because when we started making No Smoking Orchestra, we didn’t have this problem. We had a 40 pages contract and everything was regulated. But in Zabranjeno Pušenje we were like, who gives a shit about this stuff.  When I have a look at the chronology of registering the songs from Zabranjeno Pušenje, it was a complete mess. We were in Communism. 

It was embarrassing to say in Communism, “hey this belongs to me”. Everything was off the cuff. We were all brothers. It was all public property. I would have done things differently, would have been a little more perceptive about what  would happen next. But back then only the waiters would be like this, operating in this capitalist fashion. The waiters were the only capitalists. And the small business owners…

Listen, when we started working with No Smoking, the formats, media, was vinyls, and the vinyls were 70 percent and 30 percent were cassettes. As time went on, the cassettes were on the up and up. In the nineties the cassettes were taking over the market. And then around ‘95 the CDs entered the scene. And now there is nothing. And all of this happened in my lifetime. And the same thing happened with musical concepts. Back then you didn’t release a single unless you had ten songs. When I was working with Emir Kusturica. Our last album was Unza  Unza Time, after this we realized that all we needed was one good song. All you need is one good song. Brega realized this as well. But nowadays all you need is one good song, and if you hit the nerve the industry is progressing artistically.

Robert Šoko: Where did you have the best audiences?

Dr Nele Karajlić: Everywhere. People think Argentina was our best audience, because we have good footage of the  „live in Argentina“ show. But everywhere, in Toulouse and Berlin.  And basically it’s the same crowd. The same applies for the audience: Berlin, Paris, Buenos Aires, they would all get on. It’s the same type of people, somehow.

Robert Šoko: Multilingual, Intellectual and sexy.

Dr Nele Karajlić: There are some countries where we were not well received. For example Greece. Even though Emir Kusturica is a god there…

Robert Šoko: And I had the same experience as a DJ in Greece. I couldn’t get the people.

Dr Nele Karajlić: Bregović figured out how to deal with the Greeks. He made an album with a Greek singer, and this is how he deals with the Greeks.

Robert Šoko: What about your latest project: Rock El Classico with Stefan Milenković. Do you think that this project, after everything, will hit the nerve again.

Dr Nele Karajlić: If I was a bit younger, it would. By ten years.

Robert Šoko: Why?

Dr Nele Karajlić: Because you have to invest a certain amount of organizational energy. I am sure if we put Rock El Classico in the Berlin Philharmonic, people would go for it and it would hit the nerve, but I am afraid that I don’t have the strength to make it happen. Berlin is important. These Western capital cities give us a certain legitimacy. But it has potential. You could play it at the philharmonic but also at a stadium.  If I was younger, I would sit in the car with you, and we would go to Berlin, and then we would slowly start meeting people, etc. Also a big problem is that we are expensive at the start. This guy, Stefan Milenković – his fees are high. Because there are two people: him and me.

Robert Šoko: Monty Python and New Primitives? Can we compare the two?

Dr Nele Karajlić: Well, no. In Yugoslavia we had the wrong impression that Monty Python had an impact on the New Primitives, our TV show. This is partially true because Monty Python was for the first time screened on Yugo TV in 1973-74, and taken down immediately because it was not in accordance with the spirit of socialist society. It is interesting to note that TV Sarajevo broadcasted it first. Which is remarkable  because Sarajevo TV was the most conservative , but at the same time was moving much more things than TV Zagreb or Belgrade ever did. 

Now the real answer was a series called Teversenove Bajke, where young actors, directors – straight after the first screening of Monty Python in 1973 or 1974.

The New Primitivists were happening in ’84 and ’89. By the time that Monty Python was broadcasted we already had two series of Top Lista Nadrealista. We had already established our brand. What is the difference between the two? Monty Python was an artistic concept. We were rather socially/politically motivated. Our goal was to talk about society rather than make fun of it. Monty Python was a perfectly done lampoon, everything was prepared. With us it was upside down, we weren’t so prepared, we were more improvised. Off the cuff. 

Robert Šoko: One thing I remember. The joke about the non-aligned movement and Michael Jackson.

Dr Nele Karajlić mimicking his own voice as a TV presenter: (…)  and as we remember, dear spectators,  a long time ago Michael Jackson also belonged to a non-aligned country. Ha, Ha. (for most of the non-aligned countries were African.)

Robert Šoko: Difficult to imagine this today?

Dr Nele Karajlić: You would be fucked over!

Robert Šoko: Nowadays that would be considered a pure racist joke,  but I’m sure you guys didn’t even think about that?

Dr Nele Karajlić: Of course, we didn’t have this awareness. Good that you remember this.

Robert Šoko: Ivo Andrić again, indisputably a great writer and a Nobel prize winner;  both, you and him deal with Bosnia, different ethnicities,  conflicts and coexistence. Ottomans till the present. And you are also very controversial as an artist. There is a certain bravado. Why is it?

Dr Nele Karajlić: Thank you for putting me in the same category as Andrić. But yes, his approach, the whole approach of his generation, the Mlada Bosna, against the Habsburgs, had a very similar approach that we had. But it was just that we had music and they had politics. 70 years difference.  Well, Mlada Bosna was a multinational project. Most were Serbs but it was not so important. Just as the majority of Partisans were Serbs, but it was not important back then. They knew the map of Europe would change. The assassination…You were ready to lose your life for an idea. The cult of sacrifice. That was what Mlada Bosna was all about…

© Robert Šoko, Berlin | interviewed in Belgrade, on 13. June 2023

----- ACHTUNG ----

BALKAN BEATS BOOK

we are looking for a publishing partner

+++ ACHTUNG +++

BALKAN BEATS BOOK

we are looking for a publishing partner