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Mirza Redžepagić: “The inward dimension of my being, my belief, is the root of my creativity”

Born in Sandžak, but living in Sarajevo, this guitarist is one of the pioneers of the art of flamenco in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A tireless and curious researcher, he also possess knowledge about oriental sounds, in general, and the maqam in particular. Representative of the Spanish Association of Flamenco Guitar in the Balkans, in all these years he has perfected his technique in places like Andalusia, Iran or Turkey, and he has gotten involved on different projects that try to merge sound cultures that, really, have always remained united. In one of these adventures, NAiRUZ, Sufi music and flamenco embrace each other

“Spirituality, establishing connection to the Divine is important part of my life, and the music is the center of that travel”

“During the Moorish rule of the Spain from 8th to 15th century, Al Andalus was the cultural, scientific and philosophical centre of the world”

“The music of NAiRUZ also got few critics from some conservative religious circles, when they were criticising the flamenco dance in sufi music”

By César Campoy.

You are an expert in the arts of flamenco and maqam, but I sense that the first traditional sounds you heard had to do with sevdah. How was that path, that process, to become the musician you are today? Did sevdah take you to maqam, and did maqam take you to flamenco?
-I would rather consider myself as an explorer then as an expert, because it is very serious to consider one as an expert without a long time experience, and by that I mean an experience that is few decades long in certain music style, especially in art of flamenco and maqam music. So, an exploring is actually what I am constantly doing, discovering everyday new artists and their music but it is almost always concentrated on the music of the various traditions, mostly from the East and the music influenced by the East. Naturally, one of the first sounds that I was exposed to, were the sounds of Sevdah and the Balkan music. Even though at my teenage age when I was crazy about the rock and roll and the sound of the electric guitar, sevdah was always the music that we were closing our night gatherings in the park or at the parties when the guitar will take it’s place among the friends. As I was growing older and more mature as musician and a person, I started to feel our traditional music stronger, both artistically and culturally.
My flamenco story starts with an exploration of the classical guitar repertoire, where I realised that vast number of music composed for the guitar and the most beautiful one is Spanish music which was mainly influenced by the music of flamenco and the traditional music of the Iberian peninsula. I’ve put the spotlight of my quest on flamenco for it’s tremendous technique, beautiful melodies and very challenging forms and rhythms. It opened the door of the new world of guitar which I admired and wanted to step at that world with whole of my musical being. Through exploring of flamenco I came to the doorstep of the maqam world where actually I have started to meet real myself, at the therms of music and the sound.

I remember that Putuj vjetre that you played, under the name Bosanski Lonac, you and Kenan Mačković (voice and piano), with the collaboration, in the cajón, of Ešref Džanefendić. Sevdah and flamenco get along very well, don’t you think so?
Kenan and I met at the music academy and after few talks and music discussions we discovered that we share similar music taste. I was fascinated by his vocal quality, especially in the terms of the sevdalinkas which he has performed them since he was a child. We decided to record the song we both enjoyed a lot, performed by Safet Isović, Putuj vjetre, which was not from the popular sevdah repertoire. The idea was to arrange the song in our way and it resulted with the strong influence of the rumba flamenca, with one small Taranta intro, and the piano solo in jazzy style; sort of the mix of the various music styles that we were influenced by the time. We invited Ešref Džanefendić, my cousin and friend, an amazing person and artist, who tragically passed away this winter, to support us with his cajon playing. His unique energy and musical touch helped that the studio version of the song to sound good, in the way we wanted it to sound.
After that arrangement we decided to go on with the project and to continue that voyage of mixing sevdalinkas with flamenco and few other styles. It came naturally, where we felt that the melodies of the Bosnian songs fit perfect with the palos and aesthetics of the flamenco guitar, and we were performing the songs such as Đul Zulejha, Zaplakala stara majka, Kraj potoka bistre vode etc. in new arrangements mostly combined with flamenco rhythms with jazz improvisations on the piano.

Tell me about your trips to Andalusia. I imagine that you consider it essential to go to the cradle of gender to soak up its art. What have you learned?
-Recently after finishing the studies of the classical guitar at the academy I decided to go deeper with flamenco because I knew that I don’t want to be classical guitarist, performer who will play the music when you put the music scores in front of him. I wanted more, at the time didn’t know what exactly what I want, but, I was happy to know what I don’t want. So I went deeper with flamenco, and after a time of practicing the technique and getting known with the basics of flamenco, I felt that I have to go to Andalusia to learn more. So, at 2012 I spent summer in Granada, learning the art of flamenco at various places and from various Maestros. Beside the guitar stuff that I learned, I felt the air of Andalusia, met the people, get known with the history, culture, geography, food. In one word, I had to inhale the smell and the spirit of Andalusia which is the cradle of flamenco art.

I have a feeling that in much of the Balkans there is a special sensitivity towards flamenco.
-Balkan music is rich with rhythm, very melismatic [Note: Several notes sung in the same syllable] vocal lines, beautiful melodies and very demanding and virtuoso instrumental playing and by all of this aspects is very similar to flamenco. The lyrics topic is also similar, talking about love, happy and sad ones, about various historic events, about suffering and injustice. The spirit of the these two music styles is very similar and both strongly influenced by the culture of the East, flamenco by it’s Moorish culture and Balkan music by Ottoman culture. So, by naturally when a Balkan person hears the sounds of flamenco, it makes our body moves and our hands claps as we often do when we hear some of the Balkan music tunes. Even though some forms of Balkan music are very popular in Spain I don’t think that flamenco is know and popular in the Balkans at the same level. Of course, lots of modern Balkan folk music uses the rumba rhythms and some chord progressions of the flamenco, but in general I think that real art of flamenco is still unknown in the countries at the Balkan area.

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Flamenco is not just maqam, but it is not understood without maqam. I know it is difficult to try to summarize such extensive concepts, but, please, explain to us how this Arabic melodic system influences to the art of flamenco.
-Flamenco is flamenco. Throughout very rich history of the Andalusia and all the cultures that met there during the centuries it is very difficult to say that flamenco is maqam, or medieval, or gitano or something else. The fact is that during the Moorish rule of the Spain from 8th to 15th century, Al Andalus was the cultural, scientific and philosophical centre of the world. The vast number of great philosophers, mathematicians, artists and poets lived there and all of them left the strong influence that created the aesthetics of flamenco too. For example, Ziryab, who was “expelled” from Baghdad by his teacher Ishaq Al Mawsili, came to Cordoba at the beginning of the 9th century. Beside he was poet, mathematician, astronomer, culinary expert, he was great singer, oud player and music teacher. He brought oud, at the time 4 stringed instrument which is considered as the grandfather of the guitar. He established the music schools where he was teaching his students the art of music. So, since the 9th century there was a system established of teaching the music, and passing it to the young artists which created very high level atmosphere of exploring the art of music. This tradition mixed with the traditions of the other cultures that lived at the Iberia during the centuries influenced the aesthetics of the flamenco music.
Considering the maqam or maqamat, it is very sophisticated music system that is connected to the music of the Arab world. When you listen to Umm Kulthum, Sabah Fakhri, Fairuz etc. and compare them with the singing of Camarón de la Isla, Enrique Morente, La Niña de los Peines or Fernanda de Utrera, you will hear that the melodies are moving similar, with strong melismatics around the notes, that the style is very improvised and for me, the most important, is the atmosphere and the story telling really deep and strong. The guitar style of flamenco is composed in melodic, soloist style where the harmony is just the accompaniment of that melody which reminds a lot on oud playing. It is difficult to summarise in few sentences the influence of maqam to flamenco, but as it can be heard, that influence was strong.

Actually you are working in various music projects. One of those projects is NAiRUZ, which mixes Sufi music and flamenco. At what point is this adventure?
-It is difficult to separate any artist from his own persona. What I am is the music I create. Spirituality, establishing connection to the Divine is important part of my life, and the music is the center of that travel. The inward dimension of my being, my belief, is the root of my creativity and often I find that root in the Sufi music. On the other side, the external side of my being is flamenco. And that is NAiRUZ, the connection between those two. It is an exploration of the flamenco soul with the devotion of the dervish. NAiRUZ is the dialogue between two different musical traditions sharing the same core resonates with the soft sounds of flamenco guitar, oriental oud, Turkish ney and double bass, complemented by the sonorous Sufi singing and palmas as an essential form of percussion that helps accentuate the absorbed flamenco dance. It represents a mixture of deep rooted traditions with the art of being attentive to the present moment.

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The concept nairuz, which gives name to your project, it would become a secondary maqam. Is that so?
-Nairuz derives from old Persian and symbolises the birth of spring, the blossoming of nature (Nowruz, Nevruz, Nooruz). In oriental maqam music it is the name of the music mode, maqam Nairuz. It is part of the Rast (maqam) family and for me it is really interesting maqam because it sounds major, but the end of the scale is in minor mode and you have two tones that are quarter tones, and they’re creating this major/minor feeling. So when you play in that mode, scale, you can go through different moods playing with it. Symbolically, that is music of NAiRUZ, we go through many musical moods during our performances.

How did the option of merging flamenco and Sufi music arise, always with the maqam present in your creations? Obviously, the sources are the same, but the process of mixing both styles must be complicated, right? Or is it very intuitive?
-It is very intuitive. A lot of music that we play is improvisation, where we let ourselves go in the mood that we are in. Band is consisted of experienced musicians that are good in improvisations and enjoy it, so every time we perform it is a new experience to us. Of course, there are some forms and structures that are fixed, but we go with the flow as much as we can. So as merging of flamenco with Sufi music, it comes naturally, without too much of thinking about it. Usually in rehearsals I start few falsetas and Almedin [Varošanin], the singer, just joins, without thinking is it por bulerías, soleá or tarantas.

Is there a palo that combines much better with Sufi art? Maybe the seguiriya?
-With Almedin’s singing skills and his amazing skills of improvisation it is not so hard to combine it with palos flamencos. Seguiriya, soleá, martinete or taranta definitely, but we have compositions in bulerías, tangos and por alegrías also.

What are your historical references when combining all these sounds? Aziz Balouch, Kudsi Erguner ..? Are you interested in experiences such as Burruezo or Faiz Ali Faiz?
Kudsi Erguner definitely, because Almedin is performer of the Sufi music of Turkey. The lyrics that he sings are mostly of the Sufi poets in turkish language (Mevlana Rumi, Yunus Emre, Ahmed Yesevi etc.). Recently I discovered Aziz Balouch and I enjoyed it a lot, especially the way he transformed the melodies into flamenco palos, it is amazing. Faiz Ali’s project with Chicuelo, Miguel Poveda and Duquende is one of my favourite flamenco blending projects, and one of the most successful I must say.

I do not know if you are already using any other instrument, but traditionally, you have used the flamenco guitar, both in the orthodox way and turning it into other instruments such as the oud. How do you study and build that process of transformation?
-I learned a lot from my guitar mentor and great friend Sanel Sabitović, fantastic guitarist and composer who live and works in Berlin. He showed me the door to the maqam world and helped me to understand it. His performing style has great influence to my playing and actually whenever I have a some new idea, he is the first person that I am sharing it with and accepting his advices and discussing about it. Beside guitar I play Arabic oud, and since I try to imitate maqams on guitar I added two small frets on my guitar so I can get the quarter tones which are essential in performing maqam music. It is still not precise as the fretless board such as one on oud, but it gives the spirit of maqam to my flamenco guitar.

In the same way, the following question: How do you work the sufi modes that Almedin recites when adapting them, for example, to a bulería? Is it necessary to establish changes in the voice?
-Actually, I try to adapt the acompañamiento as much as I can to Almedin’s singing. Since, as I mentioned, his singing style is very improvisational I don’t want to interfere too much with some strict harmonic “rules” of flamenco progressions but I try to follow him as much as I can. Since I know Almedin for a long time, and we played together a lot I can assume where his melodies are going, in which directions, so the most of the times I am managing to acompañar him good.

What link exists between the Arab tarab and the duende?
-Basically it is the same thing. Tarab in Arabic is word for musical enchantment, ecstasy, it is the word that describes the emotional effect of music. The same is with duende, as by the words of Manuel Torre: “It represents that mysterious power that one can feel but no philosopher can explain”.

Throughout your career, have you encountered problems with so-called purists or conservatives?
-It happened a lot when I was performing sevdah music with Kenan, especially after our second single, Mila majko, šalji me na vodu, where we arranged the song with the beatboxer. We got commentaries both of love and hate. For me that is good, because the worst that can happen to the artist is that your music is nice, or ok or fine. When it is disgusting, or “I can stand it” or on the other side innovative and amazing it means that you’re doing it good. Purist line in sevdah is still strong and what I really don’t like is that it is strong among the young people and musicians too. Often they refer to the period of “golden” ’70s and ’80s of sevdah which is quite wrong, because it was a new thing at the time.
The music of NAiRUZ also got few critics from some conservative religious circles, when they were criticising the flamenco dance in sufi music or the “destroying the pureness of the poems with too much guitar” as well of few commentaries from “the other side” that the music we play is “too Muslim” or questions like “why do repeat so many times Allah or Muhammed”. Funny, isn’t it?

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Music has to be very magical when it is able to unite two musicians with Sandžak roots (you and Almedin Varošanin), a Mexican-Israeli (Daniel More) and a Slovenian bailaora (Urška Centa). How does this process of union take place until the formation of NAiRUZ?
-The first concert we played was at Sarajevo Jazz Fest, in 2018 where we performed as trio. With Almedin I was playing before on many occasions and I always had a plan to make this “project” with Almedin more serious. Few months before the invitations for Jazz Fest I met Daniel More, in Belgrade, we played together concert in Belgrade Synagoge. I liked his playing style and I invited him to play together. With Slovenian dancer, Urška Centa, I was collaborating at the time in various flamenco projects in Slovenia where I was playing quite often. After our performance at Sarajevo Jazz Fest, which was very successful, I invited Urška to join us for a next concerts and it resulted very good. I felt it after first few bars of four of us playing together that that’s “the thing”, and yes, it was “the thing”.

In your travels through countries of the East such as Iran, you have also found that flamenco there is very dear and respected. Is this true?
-Iran is huge country, with rich history and amazing people living there. Sadly, political situation and media propaganda often creates a picture in our heads that is far from true. I went there because I am in love with the art, culture and music of Iran. And I met a lot of amazing musicians and artists. In Teheran, for example they have around few hundreds of flamenco guitarists, dozens of guitar luthiers. They have a flamenco scene with cantaores, guitarists, dancers, percussionists and they play really good. I spent some time with few of the flamenco musicians from Teheran and I enjoyed it a lot.

Is NAiRUZ a step forward and an evolution of other projects of yours like Tareb y Duende, or do you keep several paths and several options open?
Tareb y Duende was a project the led to creation of NAiRUZ. With my dear Nina Ćorić, flamenco singer from Zagreb, at the time (2017) I performed quite often in Bosnia and Croatia and for Zagreb Flamenco Festival Tareb y Duende project was performed together with Nina, Almedin and Davor Maraus on percussion. We hade another concert few months later at famous Zagreb venue, Lisinski, but after I realised that I want to do something else together with Almedin. And that happened, in the form of NAiRUZ.

There is a record project, if I’m not wrong. The prestigious Sarajevo label, Gramofon, has already released the single Taslim. Tell me about a possible physical edition.
-Yes, on December 2019 we published first single Taslim for Gramofon label. We got a great support from Edin Zubčevic, the director of Gramofon and Sarajevo Jazz Fest as well, in form of two concerts of NAiRUZ organized by Jazz Fest production, one in Mostar and another in Sarajevo, which were sold out. With this COVID-19 pandemic we are unable to meet and to work full as a band and we’re waiting for the better times to meet and work. The album material is ready, we’re just waiting for the moment when we can meet all together and record it.

What other projects are you currently working on? What are your plans for the future?
-During lockdown I was practicing the music of the flamenco maestros, something that every flamenco guitarist needs to refer to. I enjoyed it a lot, playing all of this beautiful malagueñas, zapateados, verdiales, farrucas, soleás by Sabicas, Esteban de Sanlúcar, Niño Ricardo, Paco de Lucía and many others. And recently I got an idea to record 7-8 of this flamenco classics and put it on my YouTube channel, one video every two weeks. Few weeks ago I recorded with Almedin video of NAiRUZ Duo, 4 pieces in a form of a small concert and we will soon publish it on social networks. Also, there are some concerts booked for the month of May, and let’s see, we hope it is the beginning of the returning back to normal life and playing concerts again.

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