The Kočani Orkestar is an extraordinary musical experience but also an extraordinary personal tale. The family of its leader, King Naat Veliov, has maintained the band for close to a century. As Naat remembers, at least since Naat’s grandfather Ahmet, settled in the town of Kočani, in what was still the Ottoman Empire in the final days of its sunset (1912-1913).
King Naat has worked with some of the biggest music stars of our time, including Bob Dylan and Luciano Pavarotti; he has disciples coming to Kočani the world over to pay tribute and learn from the great master of the Roma trumpet.
Naat spoke with Southeast Europe: People and Culture about his music, touring, his work with students, and plans to create a school for Roma music and folklore in Kočani.
What are your projects at present?
We recently did a short tour in Turkey and another in the Netherlands - we played in Istanbul, Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Upon return, we had a few weddings here at home. We do weddings, we also play in smaller places, like bars, disco clubs. Our music is enjoyed by many people, so we get many invitations.
How many concerts do you do per year?
Earlier we did around 120 per year. Now we do fewer, around 90 perhaps. Now there are many more musicians. In the past it was only me and Goran Bregović doing this type of music in the Balkans. Now many other musicians do this type of music; musicians from Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania. This number includes only the concerts, the bigger gigs. It does not include gigs in bars, clubs; those are a lot more.
Most of these concerts are abroad?
Yes. By far most of the concerts are abroad. At home we usually do the smaller gigs; the market for big concerts is small. And weddings, if we have the time of course. But sometimes we are also asked to play at weddings abroad. Back in 2008 we played at a gala wedding in Istanbul. The music from that gig was later produced as a soundtrack, a CD. The wedding took place at a golf court; the bride was a film director and she directed and filmed the whole event. Some of the wealthiest people in Turkey were present. There was perhaps a 10km long torch-lit path for the guests. It was nice.
When was Kočani Orkestar first created?
A long, long time ago. Already my grandfather played in it, then my father. Now I am leading it, and I have my sons playing with me. Back in the ‘90s I worked with other managers, from Belgium. I started in ’94 and worked with them until 2001. Before I learned to speak French, they were taking advantage of me. I did 3 CDs with them. They were selling the CDs before my eyes, and I never got a cent from them…eventually we split. We are hence called the Original Kočani Orkestar, or King Naat Veliov and the Kočani Orkestar. We have 6 CDs and the last one came out in June.
You have played with many people, many famous musicians…
I have recorded for Bob Dylan. He sent me the material, two songs, and I contributed. This was sometime back in ’95, ’96. We played with Pavarotti in Rome. I have played at the New Year’s programme at the Vatican. We have collaborated with Vinicio Capossela, Modena City Ramblers, Banda Adriatica. I have also recorded in Spain, with Spanish musicians.
Many musicians have used your music…
For me this is a pleasure. Some people were telling me I should protect my music from being used by others, but this makes me proud actually. Music should be free. I do not like the idea of restricting people from using it. Here in the Balkans, everyone has been taking the music of others. Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians, Serbs… everyone has been taking music from everyone else.
You have students coming to learn from you from all over?
Right now I have two students from France, these two came with a van. They are staying at my house right now. I have students coming from all over the world, all the way from Australia. Of course I invited them to my house, it is a big house, I did not want them to sleep in the van. We are like this in my country, hospitable. These kids are my students, they are like my children. They are educated musicians – I myself cannot read notes – they pick things up fast.
All the members of Kočani Orkestar are kin?
Yes. Right now it is my father, myself, my two sons, and cousins. There are right now three generations in the band, and we are expecting a member of the fourth generation, my grandson, to join us. He will join us next year.
Who are your favourite musicians?
The trumpet jazz legends. Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie…
What are your plans for the next period?
I want to set up a school for Roma music and folklore, in order to promote our culture and tradition. I will adapt one floor in my house for this purpose. It will be a school, but also there will be room to host visiting students, like these two French students right now. So that they have a place to stay. I plan to complete it this year, if all goes well. Then I could also properly advertise the school. Right now people come by themselves.
Kočani Orkestar discography includes: The Ravished Bride (2008), Gypsy Mambo (King Naat Veliov) 1999 (2007) , Fanfare Tsigane/A Gypsy Brass Band (2003), Alone At My Wedding (2002), L'orient Est Rouge (Naat Veliov) (1998).
**The European Commission does not accept or recognise in whatever form or content a denomination other than “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. All references, direct or indirect, to this country used in this article are those of its author.