BJ Nevenko is originally from Petrinja in central Croatia and moved to Graz, Austria in 1991, shortly after war broke out in Yugoslavia. Starting out as a journalist, Nevenko’s passion for music eventually took over and he became a pioneer of a Europe-wide movement that is re-interpreting traditional Balkan sounds. His Balkanica DJ nights have been electrifying audiences in Graz since 2004 and his current band, La Cherga – a seven-piece outfit combining acoustic drums, strings, percussion and vocals with electronic beats – seem to be almost continuously on tour. Nevenko took time out of his hectic schedule to talk to Southeast Europe: People and Culture about his eclectic influences and how all he’s ever wanted was to change the world.
How did you begin to mix Balkan music with more urban sounds?
I started as a DJ in the mid ’90s playing reggae records and dub – Transglobal Underground, Asian Dub Foundation, that kind of stuff. I was playing every weekend around Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. Then, in the late 90s, I started to produce my own stuff and to combine electronic riffs with this Balkan roots music – particularly from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and a little from Bulgaria. At the beginning I was playing with samples and quickly I involved musicians I would meet at parties. Most were from The University of Music and Dramatic Arts here in Graz, which draws great musicians from all over Southeast Europe.
So you were working with highly trained musicians?
They were all jazz musicians with an interest in roots music from Southeast Europe - Kletzmer or Macedonian folk music for example. But they were also interested in working with modern production, combining electronic beats and drawing on DJ culture. Jazz musicians are always interested in exploring strange music they have a natural tendency towards experimentation, so we made some interesting tracks. This is how I formed the band Balkanizer, and we played concerts in Austria, Germany, Holland and Italy. There were really not many bands on stage playing this sort of music at the time.
Tell us, please, about your latest project, La Cherga.
I founded La Cherga in 2007 and since then it’s really left me with no time for anything else. Last year we played between eighty and ninety concerts, from Copenhagen down to Istanbul. For me, this is the ultimate connection between east and west. We have a complex mix of influences, including dub and rock ‘n’ roll. It brings in everything I’ve been listening to over the years – it feels like the zenith of everything I have been working on throughout my musical career.