"Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee" by James Gavin

Extensively researched (and occasionally exhaustive) warts-and-all biography of pop music icon whose moment in spotlight lasted incredible six decades. The only female counterpart to Frank Sinatra (they both started as big band singers and conquered the world as solo artists just to experience decline as tide of rock music swept them aside) in her prime Lee was one of the biggest stars in the business and as video clips of her performances still attest, hers was a complete command of the stage, bewitching the audiences with unique combination of ice and fire. Projecting simultaneously the elegant reserve, classy sophistication and passion boiling under the surface, Lee would make people swoon just by lifting her eyebrow, flaming her nostrils or snapping the fingers in the impeccable swing rhythm. 

If in her music Lee was all soft, fluffy womanliness and on the stage carefully artificial package of bejewelled, gowned and coiffured vision, it comes as no surprise that behind the scene she might have been demanding, bossy and steely. Than again, everything that author James Gavin (who apparently can't make his mind between admiring his subject or gleefully revealing her eccentricities) exposes could be said for anybody who stayed in the business so long - on her way to the top Lee was probably hurt and abused so many times until she developed protective armour and personality that could stand up to anybody. Four husbands who basically run away from her and the countless testimonies of hairdressers, servants and secretaries paint the picture of romantic dreamer who often escaped in fantasy world of poetry, painting and music until the self-delusion eclipsed the reality. Hardly the first to note a convenient similarity between real life Norma Deloris Egstrom and fictional character of Norma Desmond, Gavin is often spot-on with his conclusions (her exaggerated stories of childhood abuse by evil stepmother were not remembered by other siblings who were living in the same house but "one has to make a distinction between the literal truth and the psychological truth. The story she told was the reality of how she felt about her experiences. One of the things that children often suffer from is not being seen. They feel like they exist in a landscape where they are lost, where nobody knows them. If they translate the emotional beating into literal, physical terms, their experience can be rendered the way they felt it. It’s a cry for attention.") though he seems so preoccupied with cellophane that he completely misses chance to explain the social context in which she lived and worked - what meant to have been a woman breadwinner in 1940s and 1950s, how it affected her professional and private life, for example - this is very important and the main reason why its not possible to ever again encounter another Lee, Fitzgerald or Holiday since they were product of their times. 

"Is That All There Is?" was surprise hit of 1969. and success of that macabre little cabaret number somehow marked the rest of singer's life: from now on, book documents agonisingly long road to darkness, which was not necessarily Lee's own making: the music business have changed, plush nightclubs disappeared together with their sophisticated audiences. What struck me as completely unfair is how much author focuses on cracks in Lee's cellophane: nobody would dare to comment on Sinatra getting old, fat and wrinkled but when it comes to woman, people seems to feel entitled to be cruel. Since the years stole away her youth, looks and eventually even the voice, only thing left was the willpower - surrounded with paid help and sycophants (the only thing these people ever achieved was to have been close to Peggy Lee) she was forced out of necessity to perform in a wheelchair, overstaying her welcome by few decades and gradually losing the connection with reality. Perhaps this was not exactly the author's intention but I walked away from the book with even bigger affection for the singer - its obvious she never found somebody to take care and protect her (was she too intimidating? too successful? too famous?) and for all his poking, Gavin still can't explain where all that talent, beauty, sensitivity and creativity came from.  Don't forget that Lee actually wrote big chunk of her repertoire at the time when singers didn't do this and she had complete authority and command of her shows, backing musicians and contracts. And now the book says she was "bossy" - well, yeah, how else can you achieve all of this - was Sinatra perhaps all soft and mushy pushover? 

"U duetu" by Marjana Deržaj and Majda Sepe (1962)

Cheerful little recording with four duets between two most prominent female pop singers from Slovenia seemed as obvious idea - since they often performed on the same festivals and worked with the same musicians, why not pairing them for a duet recording - though results are somewhat underwhelming. 

Mojmir Sepe leads his own band and girls croon for all they are worth, nothing really wrong with either musicians or the singers, except that I sense a certain cautiousness like they tried too hard. On their solo recordings, both Deržaj and Sepe reflected cheerful energy and enthusiasm but here they are somewhat subdued, be it because someone in producer's booth wanted it this way or for whatever reason, the spark is not here. Kind of recording for parents (or grandparents), something pleasant and ultimately bland - world away from Sepe's stomping "Stupid Cupid" or anything Deržaj did solo. Arrangements are fine and everything is tasteful, not sure what happened in the studio. "Pretty Blue Eyes" suggest that keys are wrong for their voices. Soon there will be another girl on local scene and when Elda Viler arrives, vocally she can chew both of them (at the same time) - hers was the sound of unprecedented clarity, power and beauty, really something unique and quite unforgettable. 

"Peter Brown" by Majda Sepe (1963) EP

Another early 1960s songbird from Slovenia and some more good-time Dixieland by same backing band and arranger Mario Rijavec.

Much has been said about beautiful Majda Sepe whose looks somewhat eclipsed her talent and it was generally assumed that she was great to look at - personally I dare to disagree and find her very good singer indeed, with original and instantly recognisable voice. That she started as a fashion model and initially sung cheerful ditties of the day was simply making the best of the situation and creating the name for herself. 

Majority of local singers at the time had to cover international hits and the early 1960s were particularly fruitful when it came to sunny ditties, hence this little EP recording on which Sepe was backed by Ljubljana Jazz Ensemble - four covers with Slovenian lyrics, arranged by Mario Rijavec who was surprisingly effective in everything from Dixieland to early Rock and young Sepe sings like dream, with youthful exuberance and lots of enthusiasm - her version of "Stupid Cupid" is very endearing. The cover photo shows her as stunningly beautiful, elegant and svelte blonde worthy of any Hollywood nightclub so the media focus on her looks is quite understandable, if perhaps unjust towards her. Just like her Croatian counterpart Gabi Novak, Sepe eventually moved away from novelty songs and matured into seasoned chanson singer but even at this early stage, her voice and music are very appealing. I would never even hear of it if its not included into digital archive of "Croatia Records" where you can find everything they ever released in excellent sound and this cornucopia of previously unknown riches makes me very happy indeed. 

"Naši Popularni Pjevači: Marjana Deržaj" (1959) EP

In the first flurry of its post-WW2 activity, the biggest national recording company "Jugoton" was recording music for all sorts of audiences - from traditional folk singers, to waltzes, opera, army choirs and children's storybooks. Government officials still frowned upon anything coming from the west but in far-northern corner of Slovenia they loved their swing, in fact most of continental Europe saw Rock as a passing trend and still danced to traditional New Orleans sounds. Denmark and The Netherlands particularly cherished this kind of music and even created their own variety of it.

In series of music catering specifically to audience in Slovenia (with its own language that instantly limited records appeal on wide, national scene) "Jugoton" decided to spotlight young, urban and definitely swinging chick Marjana Deržaj who unforgettably ushered good-time pop music in her homeland. She might raise an eyebrow or two, but the gal was fresh-faced and wholesome so I can't imagine anybody finding her threatening or subversive, although you never know, Swedish Alice Babs was exactly the same kind of sunny pop singer and had her share of criticism and troubles.
It seems that certain audience always finds youthful exuberance annoying. 

On this little, EP recording (released in the series "Naši Popularni Pjevači") Deržaj croons and chirps trough four dance numbers that all have strong Dixieland feel to them. "Only You" by The Platters is also here, but focus is on Ljubljanski Jazz Ansambel who to my ears sounds exactly like Firehouse Five, so its consciously old time New Orleans Jazz and very uplifting. As a vocalist, Deržaj projected innocent cheerfulness and a strong desire to entertain the audience, most of her recordings were genuinely happy affairs and for a while she defined popular music in Slovenia. 


"Hiljade balona i poljubaca" (1961) EP

Together with "More, mandoline i muzika", this little four-song EP basically introduced current (1961) biggest hits from legendary Italian San Remo pop festival. In future, some artists would actually record the whole San Remo-themed EP recordings themselves, but for now "Jugoton" was content to release this kind of compilations. 

Where on "More, mandoline i muzika" stately ballads had new Croatian lyrics written by Mario Kinel and classy orchestrations by Bojan Adamič, the atmosphere here is decidedly upbeat (the back cover actually instructs listener which song is tango, rumba or cha cha cha) and arranger is another Slovenian, Mario Rijavec who makes everything sound very happy, cheerful and extremely enjoyable. This time, Kinel is not the only lyrics writer, a chance is also given to Đorđe Marjanović and Arsen Dedić (both budding singers themselves) while singers are very enthusiastic indeed: everybody savours uptempo, dance numbers, which must have been a complete change from weepy ballads of the day. Lively Marjana Deržaj and Emir Altić gave all their worth to emulate Mina and Adriano Celentano, while otherwise moody crooner Dušan Jakšić lets his hair down in genuinely irresistible cha cha cha. The best of all is the sound of 18 year old Zdenka Vučković who sounds as everybody's favourite baby sister and who will eventually became first homegrown true pop star of entire decade. It is a wonderfully eclectic, uplifting little recording and naturally completely forgotten today. Definitely worth searching for and it can be found as digital download in "Croatia Records" archives. 

"More, mandoline i muzika" (1961) EP

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, local homegrown pop music was all about San Remo and Italian artists - for variety of different reasons, seems that government discouraged decadent sounds from the west but accepted harmless Italian crooners. Reading about the lists of objections (nothing too fast, too slow, too melancholic, too happy) one wonders how did people went around it - well, it seems that covering San Remo hits was the logical answer and influential music editor Mario Kinel somehow managed to serve all these recordings under explanation that they won in Italy and were therefore, proven quality.

Kinel (who else) naturally stands behind this project, which is a four-song collection of hits from San Remo '61. It is all done in version of local artists who carefully and extremely cautiously (some would say, almost trembling from a sheer respect) croon white-glowed ballads originally done by giants of Italian pop music. Lyrics are all done by Kinel and the stylish orchestra was conducted by Bojan Adamič - it is naturally very tame but actually incredibly charming and genuinely classy, since Adamič paid close attention to originals. Singers are all excellent, perhaps the biggest surprise is young Gabi Novak (whom Adamič just recently discovered as she was singing in some TV cartoon) with her sensual cover of lovely "Il Mare Nel Cassetto" - in original, it was a showcase for thundering voice of majestic Milva but Novak gave it completely different, softer sound and as at this time she was still singing novelties, this sophisticated ballad was probably a revelation. Both Marko Novosel and Vice Vukov are such high calibre talents that they could easily stand next to their Italian idols. Next to them, veteran Ivo Robić sounds a bit outdated but he was in a fine voice, even though his particular style hardly changed at all since 1945. 

"Isplači suze" by Tereza Kesovija (1962) EP

Another discovery from digitally remastered archives of former "Jugoton" (now "Croatia Records") is this little EP recording, the long unavailable and in light of her later success, mostly forgotten early, tentative studio debut. Kesovija eventually rose to prominence but it took her a good decade to find her style, which makes this recording even more interesting.

At that time, in the early 1960s local pop music was strongly influenced by San Remo and Italian artists, so like almost everybody else Kesovija covered Mina and Milva, even if this was actually not suited for her voice at all. Ubiquitous mastermind Mario Kinel, who himself idolised Italian music and encouraged homegrown artists to follow their steps, wrote Croatian lyrics for all the selections here, which were naturally covers - the theme of the project was crying and tears, hence the title - orchestration and arrangements (courtesy of Nikica Kalogjera) are stylish and competent, but it must be said that (just like majority of local pop recordings) this sounds as something that could have been done in previous decade and have nothing to do with than current international trends. Considering that 1962. was a year of "Telstar", Duane Eddy, Chubby Checker, Everly Brothers and The Shadows, heavily orchestrated covers of Italian canzone seems as tunnel vision - either from being overtly cautious not to step or anybody's toes (western influences were still censured) or out of personal liking, Kinel groomed young artists as local copies of San Remo winners, while rejecting Karlo Metikoš because he dared to sing American Rock (famously, Metikoš gave him later the signed copy of his French smash recording). Young Kesovija have already sung on popular homegrown festivals but everything from this era sounds as she tried too hard to lower her voice into wrong key (emulating booming alto of Milva), while her natural voice was crystal clear soubrette type bell. These songs were all wrong for her - the worst offender here being mind-boggling decision to cover "Non, je ne regrette rien" by Édith Piaf where 24 years old singer wrestles with stately funeral march. It is still an interesting oddity, even if its completely false start. 

"She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth" by Helen Castor

I saw the BBC documentary first - which was excellent - and promptly became Helen Castor groupie, since I love the combination of her passion, knowledge, intelligence and beauty. So it wasn't long after seeing another documentary made by Castor that I decided to actually read her books - the fact that I had already seen the documentary (and was vaguely familiar with the story) didn't discourage me at all - the book is far more detailed and it was joy to read, with Castor's warm personality echoing trough the pages.

Some authors have recognisable voice and Castor is blessed with one - she also has extremely likable personality, compassion for her characters and understanding how their destinies were shaped by historical circumstances. Never patronising or condescending, she makes it all extremely readable and exciting, while making it clear that she knows the subject inside out. It is quite a feat to balance all these facts, dates and documents without sinking into dry academic language (many have slipped on this one, emphasising their research to the point of monotony), or to resist taking sides - when facing gossips and hearsay, Castor refuses to indulge into guessing and simply states that we have no evidence to believe what chroniclers wrote down. Since the history is written by victors, no wonder contemporary chroniclers criticised 12th century Empress Matilda (who, as only surviving child of deceased king had all the rights to the crown) for being arrogant and authoritative - something nobody would dare to mention in front of her father, because she didn't won her battle. "Matilda was facing the challenge of becoming queen of England not in the conventional sense of a king’s partner, but in the unprecedented form of a female king. And kings did not deport themselves with a ‘modest gait and bearing’. Instead, they were – and were required to be – supremely commanding and authoritative, as her father and her first husband had been." On the other hand, Eleanor of Aquitaine showed no meekness or submissiveness whatsoever - she was wealthy, adventurous lioness - but longevity made her outlive almost all the opponents so chroniclers  were forced to grudgingly admire her strength and influence. (Its interesting to note that her power became truly established once she became elderly woman and was accepted as a mother figure rather than young unruly wife who couldn't be controlled by husband)

Eleanor's adventurous life is hard to surpass but the next two ladies come very close to match her in almost mythical, white heat of excitement - Isabella of France dared to overthrow her husband from the throne (and served as potential inspiration for character of Hamlet's mother) just to end her days in relatively comfortable house prison, while the spectacle of fierce Margaret of Anjou (the force behind "Wars of the Roses" that is so complex that is almost impossible to follow) finally losing the battle and being driven in a carriage like some ancient Roman prisoner in a triumphal procession, stone faced and grieving for a dead son is impossible to forget. Rounding the omnibus, Castor eventually finishes with Tudor women who clawed their way to the throne and neatly connects the dots, explaining how Elizabeth I avoided the destiny of her famous predecessors by not allowing any husband or son to eclipse her power. While the book is fascinating in its scope, it actually gave me a taste for reading more about "Wars of the Roses". How anybody actually lived and survived trough those times is really a miracle. 

"The Roswell Incident" by Charles Berlitz & William Moore (1980)

The Facts:
On June 14, 1947 something exploded in the air above the remote farm in Roswell, New Mexico. The government sent army to collect the debris and whatever was left from explosion, while curious locals and visitors were strongly discouraged from approaching the scene. Some guessing was involved but immediately refuted by US government who claimed this was just a weather balloon that crashed. End of the story.

The Legend:
Not satisfied with official press release, in the subsequent decades lots of people came with their own theories what actually happened and with time these theories just grew bigger and bigger until at certain point it seems everybody simply knew this was an UFO crash, with dead bodies on board and government simply decided to do research in secret, in order to create their own space ships & weapons & whatnot. 

"The Roswell Incident" was the first of many books published on the subject and its interesting not because of the subject - which is fascinating but not very convincing - as because of the description how something that has simple explanation can grow into elaborate myth and given enough time, start having its own life. (Come to think of it, something similar to religious cults) Since government quickly hushed the whole affair, people became suspicious and because they were told to keep silent about the subject (for patriotic purposes), they created their own explanations that just got wilder and wilder with time. Its never a concrete witness but a hearsay, rumours and distorted memories of the relatives who can't remember exactly what was whispered in private. This book starts very good but in just a few chapters I got tired of uncredited witnesses, anonymous testimonies and all these stories coming from the people who passed away long time ago. You can actually follow how the story got wilder and wilder with time. It starts with mysterious pieces of material ("not from our planet") and than it ends with dead Aliens kept in formaldehyde, somewhere in secret army hangars. Decades later the truth finally came out - government had to keep it quiet because it was a nuclear test surveillance balloon and naturally this could not be published in the press - hence sharp reprimands from the officials and that is why everybody was told to keep quiet and just forget about it. It could have been better if this was immediately printed and to hell with it, because in the meantime half of the planet became convinced that we keep dead aliens in formaldehyde and nobody can convince them otherwise now, its absolutely fascinating how some ideas become public knowledge and tons of people will have their opinions about them, although the truth is very simple. 

"Murder on the Orient Express" by Kenneth Branagh (2017)

When they heard about new version of famous Agatha Christie classic, my friends wailed "oh no, not another one! who's going to watch that?" and than promptly went to cinema to see it. Even with my initial reservations - after all, I have read almost all of Christie's novels and saw enough adaptations - I became curious so I had to see it. First, let me state here that I love Agatha Christie - I think she was genuinely great master of the genre (although not the only one, allegedly there were other popular authors at the time who got forgotten while her work is constantly in print) and her little chamber masterpieces are still continuously attractive to readers. But the idea that her novel can be splashed on the big screen in this day and age of bug-budget extravaganzas means that unfortunately it has to be somehow pumped-up and overblown, after all, action in her novels is usually limited to conversations around the tea table.

As director Kenneth Branagh is fine, if not particularly original or inspired. Since the story happens in the train, he goes for strange camera angles, filming people from above their heads and so on. Occasionally (like in last scene that he places - for no reason - in a tunnel) the movie looks stunning visually and there are lots of spectacular exteriors while the train rushes across the mountains (by the way, nonexistent, real locations are flat grain fields famous as breadbasket) but here lies the catch: Branagh decided to make visually spectacular piece out of what is basically salon murder genre so its all overblown, even the script meanders around original idea (enough to make me wonder is this the same novel I read), not to mention inclusion of black characters (and policemen) well Christie was elderly lady of her times and she knew foreigners only as servants.

On the positive side, acting is excellent indeed. Its one of the best known ensemble extravaganza and naturally very attractive as a showcase of large group of celebrity actors. Johnny Depp is surprisingly effective as bad-mannered gangster haunted by his past and Michelle Pfeiffer stands out as a husband-hunting hussy, while the rest of the cast keeps very well, including always dependable Judi Dench. The weakest link would be Branagh himself who should just do the directorial work, but he also decided to play Poirot himself. Well, its genuinely impossible to improve on David Suchet but Branagh bravely attempts it and doesn't really come off, he is neither fussy or idiosyncratic enough, in fact he occasionally slides into Shakespearian shouts and exclamations and this is not how Christie describes her hero. At least this is not what I remember, its hard to tell now because these movie adaptations have their own lives and everything gets so distorted that I am not even sure anymore. However, David Suchet is God.


Earliest Arsen

Lo and behold, in the on line digital archive of "Croatia records" (previously mighty "Jugoton") I found two little EP recordings recorded in the early 1960s with my dearest late Arsen Dedić making first steps in the recording business. Strange thing is, previously I had no idea these recordings exist at all and I just assumed he started with that clumsy (and, in hindsight completely inappropriate) cover of "Let's Twist Again" and that "To sam ja" from 1963 was his first solo recording. Wrong! 
A year before that, he was already a member of vocal quartet (vocal quartets were all the rage back than) modelled on bands like Four Freshmen, The Four Lads, The Four Preps and such.

You can find Kvartet Melos on pop festival Zagreb '62 where impossibly young and earnest Arsen sings completely fine main vocal in front of his doo wop guys. Later in life his singing style metamorphosed into completely different, stark and declamatory recitation so it comes as a shock to hear his young and powerful voice, he really blasts full power and doing it perfectly believable. This was time when ancient Mario Kinel had huge power and influence over choice of "Jugoton" recordings so naturally he moulded these newcomers in relative clones of his other successful projects like Duo s Kvarnera or Trio Tividi, in fact he imposed his lyrics on the guys although Arsen was (as time will show) perfectly capable to write his own, superior texts. At this time he was still doing it under pseudonym Igor Krimov in order to hide his moonlighting from Music Academy, although having picture on the cover probably blew away the disguise anyway. The music recorded here are mostly international covers inspired by above mentioned vocal quartets, which even than in 1962. was old hat - doo wop was basically thing from previous decade - but for the local music market this was breath of fresh air. On cover of "Lady Is The Tramp" guys swing like mad and Ljubljana Jazz Orchestra actually sound genuinely inspired. You would never in a million years think that Arsen Dedić could swing, but here it is. 

Not long after his dabbling in vocal quartet, Arsen went solo and this is something I only discovered recently. This little, completely forgotten, four-song EP recording preserves his earliest sound and the way he was when he first stepped on a music stage. Still very far from the chanson he will perfect later, these are lovely, lilting little pop ballads (with one exception international covers) and even if everything sound old-fashioned and very quant nowadays, the best thing about recording is Arsen's voice - he was really fresh as a rose back than and his young voice was impossibly attractive. Besides singing songs by Henri Salvador, Domenico Modugno and Gilbert Bécaud, the one and only homegrown number is a funny little country song by Vili Čaklec. Lyrics are written by Arsen himself, still hiding under pseudonym Igor Krimov (but his real name on the cover?) and its just amazing how this recording was never compiled or saved anywhere, it is completely obscure and even I never heard of it until recently. Even though later in life he had built amazing body of work, I perfectly understand listeners who preferred his old 1960s music (something that apparently annoyed him as he constantly focused forward and to future projects). Wonderful gift for fans and collectors. 

"King Solomon's Mines" by Sir Henry Rider Haggard (1885)

As I am getting older, it gets more and more obvious that I can't possibly read all the books in the world (or see all the movies there were made, hear all the music recorded, etc) - the fact that gradually gets even more complicated as with the passing of the time I realise what I remember are simply impressions, how certain pieces affected me, so occasionally I go back and re-read old favourites, just to find them completely different than the first time around. However, I do my best to discipline myself into checking out what I perceive is important, even though I am vaguely familiar with the titles in theory. The perfect example is this fantastic old adventure classic that in reality I have never read before - I knew about it, I knew the author, but somehow it never came my way. So the time has come. And I needed a break from what I was reading previously.

Old and rusty it might have been, but "King Solomon's Mines" is still a powerful, magical experience that keeps the reader's attention some 130+ years after original publication. Literary ancestor of every Indiana Jones-like character who came afterwards, it follows adventures in exotic lands (in this case, heart of Africa and certain Kukuanaland), it bursts with action and is filled to the brim with genuinely thrilling, unforgettable scenes. Some might object to outdated colonialist attitudes of the time but please do take in account the historical context, when exactly novel was written and you understand that Haggard was not half as racist as people today claim - in fact, he divides his characters not so much between the colour line as between heroes and antagonists. Black warriors are noble, strong and brave, while some other characters are deliciously scary and stay carved in our memory long after we finished the novel.

Interesting thing is that supposedly main character Allan Quatermain is not really a hero here - he just happens to be the person narrating the story, but for all purposes he is simply a accidental addition to adventure (search for a missing person who disappeared while searching for King Solomon's Mines) - often, in the middle of the fights he would duck, curse and hide, while his fellow companions would do the physical part. In this, he resembles mythical Odysseus who had brains, while others used brute force. Initially the book rubbed me all wrong with its description of elephant hunt - but once I got over what was perfect Victorian fantasy, the things really start cooking and eventually I got completely swept away into witch hunters, elaborate fight scenes and dark mountain tunnels. The farewell between heroes and Umbopa was very well written and it got me even a little bit teary.

"Go now, ere my eyes rain tears like a woman's. At times as ye look back down the path of life, or when ye are old and gather yourselves together to crouch before the fire, because for you the sun has no more heat, ye will think of how we stood shoulder to shoulder, in that great battle which thy wise words planned, Macumazahn; of how thou wast the point of the horn that galled Twala's flank, Bougwan; whilst thou stood in the ring of the Greys, Incubu, and men went down before thine axe like corn before a sickle; ay, and of how thou didst break that wild bull Twala's strength, and bring his pride to dust. Fare ye well for ever, Incubu, Macumazahn, and Bougwan, my lords and my friends."

Well, I'll be darned if this was not excellent and very powerful, specially if you previously went trough everything they went together. It is really unforgettable and I perfectly understand why this basically old adventure novel continues to live on, because Haggard (who was far from haggard, looking as some adventure hero himself) somehow managed to write genuinely thrilling adventure with timeless quality. And I love the novel's dedication: to all the big and little boys who read it. Which I found very affectionate and true, because of this I loved the novel even before I start reading it. Just a perfect, perfect escapism. 

"Bolen leži mlad Stojane/Mi se sobrali dvanaest drugari" - Macedonian Folk Music (1958)

While I'm still on a roll with various ethnic music from different parts of former Yugoslavia, I decided to check music from Macedonia.  Now, although Macedonia is definitely very far away from where I grew up (spiritually and geographically) the sound of the language is actually somewhat close to my heart because I have spent twelve months of National Army Service there so kind of get the idea of phrases and even music. (You hear very close sound in nearby Bulgaria, which to my understanding is centre of bitter dispute among neighbours) In any case, I always liked Macedonian music so this little single was just a perfect gift from me to me.

Side A has duet Vaska Ilieva and Nikola Badev in traditional Macedonian folk ballad - guy is fine but lady is extremely idiosyncratic (to put it nicely) and even though Ilieva seems to have been highly regarded in her homeland, her strong, nasal wail might be acquired taste. Here she was actually still very young and sweet, on some later recordings she really goes strident. Side B has another traditional folk song but this one was recorded by almost-operatic Blagoj Petrov Karađule who had truly magnificent voice - it is perfectly authentic vocal as it should be, with thrills and frills that demand strong control of vocal chords worthy of any opera house. Of two sides B would be my preference for the simple reason that I truly enjoy singer's voice much more. Both songs have very sophisticated, semi-classical background that might not really be authentic (my guess is that some conductor or the other decided to make it more classy) but everything sounds perfectly fine.

"Pjesme I Plesovi Naroda Jugoslavije - Kosmet" (1959)

Carried away with my sudden enthusiasm for old "Jugoton" archives, I continued my musical research with this 1959. EP recording for no other reason that I am vaguely familiar with music of other parts of Ex- Yugoslavia (each "Songs and Dances of Yugoslavia" recording covering a particular area) but honestly have no idea what kind of music they have in Kosovo. So there you go, where no man has gone before. 

Released in 1959. under the title "Pjesme I Plesovi Naroda Jugoslavije - Kosmet" ("Songs and Dances of Yugoslavia - Kosmet") this compilation was probably amassed from tracks already recorded previously by local folk artists. The cover picture shows male vocal trio dressed in traditional folk costume and this is perfect description of the music inside the package: rough-hewn, lilting, soulful and somehow yearning under the surface, despite strong rhythms. Since I was born in completely different part of the country and don't understand a word, this could all be from the Mars but I approached it all as an interesting music experiment and immediately noted certain similarity with music from nearby Macedonia and Bulgaria - its easy to imagine this as a kind of village dance music because each song has sinuous rhythm accented with dazzling drums and quite virtuosic accordions. The first thing you notice are singers and their strong, wailing voices but I kept my attention on excellent backing musicians who are really very good, in fact personally I enjoy some of these players even more than featured singers who are probably perfectly authentic but sound a bit harsh to modern listener. Ladies are also represented - Manakovska Gonđa and Pakaštica Behiđa - who are naturally much sweeter-sounding than their male colleagues, though their high-pitched voices remind me very much of music from India so its very interesting to contemplate how such strong Asian (Middle Eastern?) influence came all the way to Balkans. It is probably not something I will listen very often but its quite eye-opening (ear-opening?) and obscure enough to appeal to me.

"Slovenske Narodne Pjesme" (1956)

Browsing trough enormous archive of former recording company giant "Jugoton" (now "Croatia Records") that is now available on line, I was intrigued with series of EP recordings released roughly from mid-1950s to mid -1960s under the title "The Songs and Dances of Yugoslavia" ("Pjesme i plesovi naroda Jugoslavije"). The homegrown recording companies were still in the earliest stages, so they experimented with everything in attempt to find the audience and titles of releases perfectly describe this technique: little bit of folklore, classical, brass orchestra and pop schlager, peppered with occasional international hit. This particular series had actually interesting context as to showcase various music traditions from completely distant parts of the country, so each recording would focus on separate areas, like Bosna, Kosovo, Dalmacija, Vranje, Vojvodina, Pomoravlje etc. Occasionally the arrangements went too much into semi-classical direction (in attempt to make traditional folk music more legitimate, I guess) but for the most part things were kept simple as they should be.

This particular recording - which I actually bought on line and was surprised with crisp, clean sound of original mono 1950s recordings - showcases traditional folk music from Slovenija. The mountainous area, graced with beautiful lakes and Alps, was at the time northern part of Yugoslavia and naturally has its own, recognisable music that leans toward either sprightly Polka or a cappella vocal quartets, both represented here. The recording is divided between two sides - side one are lovely, cheerful duets between Danica Filiplič and Franc Koren (with energetic accordion), while side two are somber a capella numbers by vocal quartet Fantje Na Vasi which sounds timeless (listener can easily imagine this type of music being performed two hundred years ago). Since I was already familiar with opening song (lilting "Petelnička Bom Vprašal") on the spur of the moment I decided to buy the whole compilation and its delightful. The best thing about it is that producers decided to keep it simple and authentic, instead of adding layers of symphonic strings and operatic singers, this is local equivalent of Alan Lomax and his field recordings.