A sensation of rapidly growing proportions in the region of Southeast Europe and beyond, Toni Kitanovski & Cherkezi are a band which combines jazz extravaganza with Roma wedding brass music. They came about when Kitanovski, likely the best jazz guitarist in this part of the world, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s most famous one, invited them, fascinated by the music Cherkezi played. The result is fusion of magnetic appeal. Their new album is due in the summer of 2010. SEE People and Culture met with Toni Kitanovski in multimedia centre Mala Stanica in Skopje.
What projects are you working on at present?
I have just completed the mixing of my new album with Cherkezi. The album will be released by the Enja label, from Munich, probably this summer. Yesterday, we just completed the shooting of a documentary; a Slovenian production, directed by Petra Seliskar, and focusing on a great Slovenian underground poet from more recent history, Frane Milcinski - Jezek, who passed away in the 80s. Next, I will be completing a jazz album. I haven’t released a jazz album in a long time. It probably won’t be released in [the former Yugoslav Republic of] Macedonia, but abroad. The core band for the album is a trio, but it also expands into a quarter and a quintet. My favourite trumpet player on the planet, Greg Hopkins, takes part in it and my favourite percussionist Izzet Kizil from Turkey. Plenty of additional plans, concerts; we should start a tour somewhere in March...
What is the title of the new album with Cherkezi?
This is my second album with Cherkezi, and most probably it will be called “Shukar” [shukar means “good” in Roma, author’s note]. The name of the first one was “Borderlands”, released in 2006.
You once described your cooperation with Cherkezi as “destined”. How did it come about?
Everybody wants to know this (smiling). Everything I have ever done with Cherkezi has been spontaneous, without special planning.... I did not have any interest in the local folk music before I left to the US where I lived for some time. Only after I learned a lot about music there, especially about avant-garde movements, I started to understand...
I essentially grew up listening to African music. I lived across the street from a student dormitory, which hosted many students from Africa, from the non-allied countries. They had many records which I would borrow every day, and scratch them on my old gramophone...this was my music. When I first heard Cherkezi at a party, twenty years ago, they sounded so avant-garde to me. They naturally played čoček [a common folk dance music in the Balkans, author’s note]. I remember I thought it would be great to do jazz music with these people, especially something New Orleans style, which is similar in terms of orchestration. Some 8-9 years passed, and somebody called me about a project which was also supposed to include a Roma brass band, and I took the offer only because it was an occasion to invite them to cooperate. That big project did not come through, but what happened instead was what we are doing now...we went through changes; some of the people passed away, Cherkez himself [the leader of Cherkezi, author’s note], passed away two years ago. Young people came in; some of them study jazz; one is my student at the Jazz Academy in Štip, but some of them had not attended a day of school in their lives. They play together, they are peers. The energy is wonderful. They are all young now, only one member is older.
Do you play a lot together? Did you rehearse together a lot for the new album?
We did not rehearse a single second for the new album. This is also how we often do it when we are on tour. Even when we play a new piece which I have, for example, composed in the van, or on the plane. I would just give them the basic information, the scales, the rhythm, and everything sounds fantastic at once. And this is how I like to play jazz. This is what I learned in the US. Rehearsal is a rare thing. Why would we rehearse when everyone can play everything perfectly? I had maybe three rehearsals in all the years I spent in the US. This is common, but we are talking about excellent musicians. I am glad I could do the same here.
The combination of you and Cherkezi is unusual. You are an academically educated jazz musician, and you are playing with a local folk band?
It is a bit specific, but I do not think I could do this with another, similar band. Cherkezi are special. Their tradition, established by the Cherkez (the band’s leader, Cherkez Rashid, author’s note), is to take music seriously. They understand it as art, not as a way to make a buck, or simple fun. They are fun of course, but they adhere to serious artistic principles. Their sound is special. They do not have that circus tone which is common with such bands. I am not interested in that aspect and neither are they. The work is artistic. I have not heard of any other Roma band I wanted to work with. They are the only ones.
I red in some of your older interviews that you would like to go to Boston but you are not doing it out of fear you might decide to stay there? I understood it like an artistic nostalgia?
I have not been to Boston for quite some time, 6 years or more...I did not mean it only in that regard though. I like the US a lot, it is a big country....if we talk about music, the comparison would not only be to [the former Yugoslav Republic of] Macedonia, or the Balkans, but Europe overall. Some of the music done here in the Balkans, is actually much more interesting than what happens in Europe... for example, some of the best jazz musicians I have heard were in Tirana [Albania] and Pristina [Kosovo]. This sounds a bit crazy I know. If you do not hear it, or feel it by yourself, you cannot believe it. People who are essentially self-taught, and since they did not know what they should learn – they learned everything. They have their individual expression, and no ego-trips.
Then, professionally you are comfortable in this part of the world?
I feel good. Even too good (laughs)...
I read you once said that with a good drummer and a good bass player you can feel good anywhere...
That is true (laughs).
Is there are project you are dreaming about?
Honestly, I am living my dreams. I am doing exactly what I want to do. When I do music, I start thinking about it, and by the time I have written it down, I do not even need to hear it any more. I have already heard it in my head. But there are people who I feel close to like artists and friends, and this is what I enjoy – to work with them. And if I work well with someone, some instrumentalist, I really do not have the need to change that. I can play with them forever.
You were one of the founders of the Jazz Academy in Štip (town in Eastern part of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, author’s note), How is this project coming along?
It is good that young people have the opportunity, a place to study, if they want. Perhaps I am not a strong believer in institutional education, especially of jazz education....
Yet you said in the past you were impressed with how jazz was taught at Berklee, where you studied yourself? That the methodology of teaching was important...
True, it is. But I think you essentially learn because you get to work, collaborate with other people, who as yourself are in love with the same thing. Some of them are more experienced and are called professors....
Do you like working with students?
I adore them. They are all great. It is about nurturing what they bring in as energy, individual sensibility, minding that they stay on the right path...although it is also hard. I now understand it is difficult to work both professionally as a musician and as professor. I feel overloaded at times. But it is good; all of them would have had to go elsewhere if it wasn’t for the school in Štip. Now they can stay home, have more accessible education.