Mostar Sevdah Reunion presents Sreta - " The Balkan Autumn"

Milutin Sretenović – Sreta - Rags to riches

“My life was fantastic”, he says and adds immediately, “but in a bad way”. He says it with humour,  showing his large, buck-toothed grin. It’s an old cliché that Balkan singers often have film-like life stories. But clichés exist exactly because they are often true.

Milutin Sretenović – Sreta’s story is an extreme version of it, a true rags to (almost) riches story. And if today he doesn’t enjoy real “riches", there have been some rags alright along the way. One just needs to ask him a question and the stories come pouring out, each one madder and extreme than the other.

 

He was born in Eastern Serbia, during the second year of the then newly-formed socialist Yugoslavia. Of five siblings, he was the youngest. When Sreta was just a month old baby, his father was murdered. Mobilised by the communist partisan army, his dad went AWOL, but was caught and mobilized by Serbian Chetniks, the hard-core nationalists. He escaped again. “He wouldn’t shoot at another Serb for anything in the world”, says Sreta today with conviction. His father became a fugitive, running from place to place, hiding, finding temporary refuge all the way down to Kosovo and Macedonia and back to Vojvodina in the North. Always on the run, from two armies and from two ideologies. Finally he got caught and shot, apparently with no trial.

 

His mother was arrested with the baby Sreta, who was just three weeks old, while the other kids were left home to take care of themselves. In prison, Sreta almost died but a friendly guard took mercy on his mother and got her free by saying: “Don’t you see the little one is about to die, let her bury him properly at least.” She took him home and against all odds - he got better.

“God didn’t let me die”, says Sreta now, “he let me live so that I could grow and entertain the folks. He wanted to let this voice live on”.

 

The family was banned from the town they lived in, so they moved around a lot. Sreta was a sickly child, life wasn’t easy, to say the least, and it will take some years before it got any easier. Finally they settled in Bor, in South-Eastern Serbia, where Sreta still lives. His mother kept the family fed and together by sewing at night and cleaning houses by day.  “We were dirt-poor, dressed in rags, couldn’t have been poorer”

The two older brothers were boxing for the local club. The coach saw a potential in the young boy, but the brothers objected: “We’re taking the beating for the whole family – you don’t have to”. When did he discover music? “I was twelve. A mate of mine from school sang, and I´d join him. His father was a violinist and guitarist, a music teacher too, but he played the cafes, loved it, a true “kafana” man. He’d heard me once and told me ‘listen, son, you can sing but you have to let me teach you the guitar, you have to learn about the notes and chords”  At 13 Sreta had already built a small repertoire – he loved Spanish, Greek, and Italian music. Did he sing folk songs then? “No, only pop music”, he says emphatically.

“Someone wanted me to learn a Gypsy song and I can’t speak Romani. You see, people often think I’m a Gypsy, because I’m dark-skinned. The life made me that way too’, he quips.

His first professional engagement was also difficult, and left him with some permanent scars. In 1960 he was only thirteen (“though I looked 17”, he’s quick to add), when he played his first gig - a New Year’s party in a café.

“I came home the next morning, loaded with cash, I wanted to surprise my mum. She almost broke down.” His mother went straight to the cops: “it seems that my son stole some cash – let’s stop him before he turns into a criminal”.

“She couldn’t believe I’ve earned all that money. It was what she made in a year. She just couldn’t believe that anyone would pay that sort of cash for singing.”

Did that hurt?

“Very much so. I was crushed.”

Yet he continued singing in the cafes, ditched school, and the gigs became regular. When the money started coming in steadily, his mother let him continue with it. The music scene in the small Bor was lively, there were many good players around, guitarists, piano players, drummers, yet, as Sreta points out, “they all ran as soon as they understood how good they were”.  This is the problem of every small town, especially one like Bor, situated almost at the border with Romania, which meant next to the first border behind which the darkness of the Iron Curtain began.  “When you came to Bor, you couldn’t go any further”, he laughs today.

Did the cafe life treat you well? The “kafanas” as they’re known in the Balkans is a world unto itself, not for everyone.

“Of course it has”, he shouts almost, and then proceeds by saying something completely opposite. “I’ve seen everything there! Suffered many a fool, because both the patrons and the publicans usually treat musicians as some sort of lowlifes, as Gypsies, as indecent, poor people. Everybody’s looking down on bar musicians. You had to play every request – still do – anybody can hit you, mistreat you.

“Well”, he laughs mischievously, “I wasn’t gonna put up with that kinda stuff’?.

During the seventies Bor was developing at a fast pace, thanks to its mines producing high quality gold and copper. Things got better for Sreta too: “I sang and played constantly, and everything was good. That was the era of Tito, so there were rules.”

The singer says he became a sort of local legend. The gig offers were coming in from the whole area. Finally he got an invitation from Belgrade, the country’s capital and the very centre of the music industry – the opportunity to make a record and make the singer’s name heard beyond the local scene. Remarkably, he passed.

“I just didn’t care”, he says today. “And eventually when I did want to make a record, in 1982, it came out badly. It’s as if I didn’t record it. I wish I didn’t”. He sound spiteful for a moment. He lightens up suddenly: “I got a copy of the record and gave it to my wife.”

One advantage came out of this missed chance. Well, sort of. “I started getting offers to do some studio work, singing back vocals. Or I sang the demos for other singers. The money wasn’t bad either. But studio work created a counter effect for me – if I took a shot at a song, other singers, the stars that is, would refuse to do another take”, he says with aplomb.

“We used to do it all live”, he explains, “live instruments in the studio, live singing, no technical trickery. The worst thing that happened in the eighties were drum machines and synthesizers. That killed everything – no dynamics, no soul. The only true instrument is one played directly and live, by real people playing their instruments. Just like now with Mostar Sevdah Reunion, all those years later, I’ve got the chance to do it again and do it properly – we’ve recorded everything live, without fooling the people with studio gadgets and tricks”, he adds proudly and gratefully.

The fact that he turned down and wasted so many opportunities, for many musicians, especially from that scene, could have been an excuse to turn to drink or even worse “stuff”. Especially when the nineties came. Serbia wasn’t hit by the war directly, but instead sank into poverty, deep corruption and insecurity. Another ten or more years lost, with badly paid gigs and all-round feeling of danger in the air.

“I never drank, never mind something else”, he says decidedly, quickly adding: “both of my brothers were prize fighters, one of them boxed for the national team. Both sang well too. There’s a connection – if you want to be a good fighter, you have to have a great feel of rhythm. With no sense of rhythm – there’s no good boxing”.

The three of you were a sort of gang. People in Bor feared you.

“I never said a bad word to anyone, ever. Always challenged to a fight. I used to fight with guys from the juvenile delinquents’ home. They were tough. Once at the bandstand, one of them hit me in the groin with a beer bottle. Both of my hands were broken from fighting, from hitting those bald heads. The fists couldn’t hold up. Yet, it was almost innocent, no knives, no guns. Especially compared with the Nineties”, he adds darkly. He smiles again:

“I am one of the most respected riff-raffs around here.”

We turn again to the problem of the skin and looks, the racism against the Roma people, and their reputation. The white majority was always making easy assumptions.

“Yeah. People always thought I am a Gypsy, as I said before.”

Even the great ones. Even the greatest – Šaban Bajramović, the genius of the Balkans’ Gypsy music, seems to have fallen for it too.

“First time I met him, he asked me something in Romani language. I said I didn’t understand him. He didn’t believe me and repeated it again. Finally he gave up and told me – ‘you gotta ask you mum who your dad was. Serbs can’t sing like that”, he laughs today.

“I’m a Serb, but I’m that sort of singer, that’s what he reacted to, to that special tone, with that sort of soul. We belong to the same type of singer – Louis Armstrong, Joe Cocker, me.”

And now, all those years later, he got the chance to demonstrate some of that soul to the world too. His possible breakthrough record, at the tender age of seventy, is out.

“When I went into the studio with Mostar Sevdah Reunion and my producer Dragi Šestić, I knew what was going to happen. The feel was fantastic: acoustic instruments, elegant playing, everything was quiet, just perfect. And all recorded live – what we made it’s all there on tape. And I’m a first-take man.”

Do you have any thoughts when you’re singing?

“I’m making my own films in my head when I’m singing. It can be a picture of a girl walking through the grass field, or anything. A singer is always imagining, drawing pictures in his mind or something.”

 

“Someone wanted me to learn a Gypsy song and I can’t speak Romani. You see, people often think I’m a Gypsy, because I’m dark-skinned. The life made me that way too’, he quips.

His first professional engagement was also difficult, and left him with some permanent scars. In 1960 he was only thirteen (“though I looked 17”, he’s quick to add), when he played his first gig - a New Year’s party in a café.

“I came home the next morning, loaded with cash, I wanted to surprise my mum. She almost broke down.” His mother went straight to the cops: “it seems that my son stole some cash – let’s stop him before he turns into a criminal”.

“She couldn’t believe I’ve earned all that money. It was what she made in a year. She just couldn’t believe that anyone would pay that sort of cash for singing.”

Did that hurt?

“Very much so. I was crushed.”

Yet he continued singing in the cafes, ditched school, and the gigs became regular. When the money started coming in steadily, his mother let him continue with it. The music scene in the small Bor was lively, there were many good players around, guitarists, piano players, drummers, yet, as Sreta points out, “they all ran as soon as they understood how good they were”.  This is the problem of every small town, especially one like Bor, situated almost at the border with Romania, which meant next to the first border behind which the darkness of the Iron Curtain began.  “When you came to Bor, you couldn’t go any further”, he laughs today.

Did the cafe life treat you well? The “kafanas” as they’re known in the Balkans is a world unto itself, not for everyone.

“Of course it has”, he shouts almost, and then proceeds by saying something completely opposite. “I’ve seen everything there! Suffered many a fool, because both the patrons and the publicans usually treat musicians as some sort of lowlifes, as Gypsies, as indecent, poor people. Everybody’s looking down on bar musicians. You had to play every request – still do – anybody can hit you, mistreat you.

“Well”, he laughs mischievously, “I wasn’t gonna put up with that kinda stuff’?.

During the seventies Bor was developing at a fast pace, thanks to its mines producing high quality gold and copper. Things got better for Sreta too: “I sang and played constantly, and everything was good. That was the era of Tito, so there were rules.”

The singer says he became a sort of local legend. The gig offers were coming in from the whole area. Finally he got an invitation from Belgrade, the country’s capital and the very centre of the music industry – the opportunity to make a record and make the singer’s name heard beyond the local scene. Remarkably, he passed.

“I just didn’t care”, he says today. “And eventually when I did want to make a record, in 1982, it came out badly. It’s as if I didn’t record it. I wish I didn’t”. He sound spiteful for a moment. He lightens up suddenly: “I got a copy of the record and gave it to my wife.”

One advantage came out of this missed chance. Well, sort of. “I started getting offers to do some studio work, singing back vocals. Or I sang the demos for other singers. The money wasn’t bad either. But studio work created a counter effect for me – if I took a shot at a song, other singers, the stars that is, would refuse to do another take”, he says with aplomb.

“We used to do it all live”, he explains, “live instruments in the studio, live singing, no technical trickery. The worst thing that happened in the eighties were drum machines and synthesizers. That killed everything – no dynamics, no soul. The only true instrument is one played directly and live, by real people playing their instruments. Just like now with Mostar Sevdah Reunion, all those years later, I’ve got the chance to do it again and do it properly – we’ve recorded everything live, without fooling the people with studio gadgets and tricks”, he adds proudly and gratefully.

The fact that he turned down and wasted so many opportunities, for many musicians, especially from that scene, could have been an excuse to turn to drink or even worse “stuff”. Especially when the nineties came. Serbia wasn’t hit by the war directly, but instead sank into poverty, deep corruption and insecurity. Another ten or more years lost, with badly paid gigs and all-round feeling of danger in the air.

“I never drank, never mind something else”, he says decidedly, quickly adding: “both of my brothers were prize fighters, one of them boxed for the national team. Both sang well too. There’s a connection – if you want to be a good fighter, you have to have a great feel of rhythm. With no sense of rhythm – there’s no good boxing”.  The three of you were a sort of gang. People in Bor feared you.

“I never said a bad word to anyone, ever. Always challenged to a fight. I used to fight with guys from the juvenile delinquents’ home. They were tough. Once at the bandstand, one of them hit me in the groin with a beer bottle. Both of my hands were broken from fighting, from hitting those bald heads. The fists couldn’t hold up. Yet, it was almost innocent, no knives, no guns. Especially compared with the Nineties”, he adds darkly. He smiles again:

“I am one of the most respected riff-raffs around here.”

 

We turn again to the problem of the skin and looks, the racism against the Roma people, and their reputation. The white majority was always making easy assumptions.

“Yeah. People always thought I am a Gypsy, as I said before.”

Even the great ones. Even the greatest – Šaban Bajramović, the genius of the Balkans’ Gypsy music, seems to have fallen for it too.

“First time I met him, he asked me something in Romani language. I said I didn’t understand him. He didn’t believe me and repeated it again. Finally he gave up and told me – ‘you gotta ask you mum who your dad was. Serbs can’t sing like that”, he laughs today.

“I’m a Serb, but I’m that sort of singer, that’s what he reacted to, to that special tone, with that sort of soul. We belong to the same type of singer – Louis Armstrong, Joe Cocker, me.”  And now, all those years later, he got the chance to demonstrate some of that soul to the world too. His possible breakthrough record, at the tender age of seventy, is out. “When I went into the studio with Mostar Sevdah Reunion and my producer Dragi Šestić, I knew what was going to happen. The feel was fantastic: acoustic instruments, elegant playing, everything was quiet, just perfect. And all recorded live – what we made it’s all there on tape. And I’m a first-take man.”

Do you have any thoughts when you’re singing? “I’m making my own films in my head when I’m singing. It can be a picture of a girl walking through the grass field, or anything. A singer is always imagining, drawing pictures in his mind or something.”

 

He’s a singer with lots of power. His baritone and the gravel-voiced howl have something of a classic soul shouter, but with a Balkan twist.  Does he get tired? That sort of vocal phrasing must be tasking at times, especially given the long hours in cafes?

“Never. I used to work for ten hours straight, no break. Never had any problems with my voice. Actually, at gigs I need an hour or two just to get started, then I can sing the whole night. Never been to a doctor. It’s my constitution, my body works that way.”

Still, he’s perhaps the best with the way he treats a ballad. He can croon, he can sigh with sadness of a man who’s been hurt yet persisted. His tone reflects his life and all the experience. He’s been married twice, first time at nineteen to his first love. Didn’t see her much because of the work, so they divorced. Now he’s a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather. He earned a lot and lost a lot: “my weakness was spending. I’ve earned a ton of money with my singing, and gave it all away. I used to make heaps of cash one night, spent it in the next bar the same evening. I took girls to hotels and restaurants, I could spend ten thousands German marks in two days, went home with just enough cash for the ticket.”

So now it’s back to square one?

“Yeah. I’m not exactly poor, but I’m not rich either. I don’t care. I’m happy. As long as I have my music, and my voice.”

It’s not that odd he insists repeatedly on that voice. It’s not arrogance: his whole story is in his voice. His story is his voice. And people, wherever they are, love to listen to stories. Exactly the reason why the world should meet this man – his voice still has many stories to tell.

 

Djordje Matic

 

Sreta - Video

streaming links

Album and Production Credits

Produced by Dragi Šestić

 

Recorded at the Pavarotti Center, Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

during the period June 2016 - July 2017

Sound technicians : Saša Karabatak and Sead Zaklan

 

Mixed by Dragi Šestić at the Snail Records Studio, Amsterdam, The Netherlands - 2017

Mastered by Wim Bult at Inlinemastering, Amersfoort, The Netherlands, January 2018

 

Mišo Petrović - lead and solo guitar (tracks 1,7,11 and 12) and backing vocal on 11

Sandi Duraković - Rhythm guitar (tracks 1,7,11 and 12)

Marko Jakovljević - double bass (all tracks)

Senad Trnovac - drums (all tracks)

Ivan Radoja - violin (tracks 1,7,11 and 12)

Gabrijel Prusina - piano (all tracks except 5)

Boris Vuga - accordion (tracks 2,5,6,8 and 10)

Nedim Kurtović - electric guitar (track 4)

Ivan Sušac - trumpet (tracks 4 and 6)

 

Photography by Miki Olabarri Powell

Design by Jasmina Cina Zvonić

websites (c) & digital catalog management by Wim Bult

 

English Translation by Djordje Matić

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snail Records 2018

 

Dragi Šestić

Founder/Artistic Director/Producer/Bookings

mail : dragi@snailrecords.nl

 

Wim Bult

Mastering/Website/Stores

mail : wim@snailrecords.nl

 

postal address

Snailrecords

De Baander 64 |                       3823 VK | Amersfoort |

The Netherlands

website design by Wim Bult (c)

Mostar Sevdah Reunion presents Sreta - " The Balkan Autumn"

website design by Wim Bult (c)

Mostar Sevdah Reunion presents Sreta - " The Balkan Autumn"