From labour camp to guitar hero: the summary fantastic thing about Branko Mataja | Music

War, slave labour, focus camps and life as a refugee: having survived such hardships, it’s no surprise Yugoslavian musician Branko Mataja was pleased to stay quietly in a Los Angeles suburb and construct customized guitars for the likes of Johnny Money and Geddy Lee. His dying in 2000 attracted no obituaries and his 1973 LP Conventional and Folks Songs of Yugoslavia remained unsung. Mataja had lived underneath the radar, a musician seemingly enjoying just for himself. Now, nearly half a century later, his music is lastly being reissued and it’s inflicting fairly a stir.

“What Branko did was not like what anybody else was doing on the time,” says David Jerkovich, a 43-year-old American musician who’s the pressure getting Mataja’s music heard. “His enjoying has this sort of outsider, intense high quality and it’s simply so distinctive to him. And his studio approach is unbelievable – he bounced and overdubbed sound in a fashion nobody else even approached.”

Jerkovich was cratedigging in a Hollywood used document retailer in 2005 when he got here throughout a replica of Conventional and Folks Songs of Yugoslavia, priced at $7. “He simply regarded so badass on the quilt that I had to purchase it,” Jerkovich says. “I used to be shopping for Yugoslav-era music as my mother and father are from Croatia – I’m a first-generation American – and I used to be wanting to realize a better understanding of their musical roots. I received residence and put it on the stereo and …” He pauses, then says: “It’s not like something I’d ever heard earlier than. What Branko has completed is take these historical melodies and constructed one thing very summary, very lovely, out of them.”

Branko Mataja: Tebi Majko Misli Lete – video

Conventional and Folks Songs of Yugoslavia was launched on a tiny label; Jerkovich thinks it was probably a self-financed launch. This and recordings Mataja issued on cassette a decade later are gathered on the brand new compilation Over Fields and Mountains, an album of chic, spooky magnificence: ambient electrical guitar soundscapes that bear comparability to what John Fahey, Robbie Basho, John Renbourn and even Dick Dale achieved, having included melodies and tunings from people, blues, Indian and Arabic music. Jerkovich additionally emphasises that Mataja’s experiments with tape delay and overdub methods are groundbreaking and akin to what Lee “Scratch” Perry and Brian Eno would later develop.

“He layered all these completely different sounds he was creating on a four-track recorder with outstanding talent and creativeness,” notes Jerkovich. “I discover Branko’s music slightly psychedelic, regardless that I do know that wasn’t his scene.”

‘It would open doorways’ … Branko Mataja. {Photograph}: Numero Group

Who, Jerkovich discovered himself asking, was this mysterious musician? Mataja (1923-2000) was born within the small coastal city of Bekar, then a part of Dalmatia, now Croatia, earlier than his household relocated to Belgrade. It was right here 10-year-old Branko constructed his first guitar. Throughout the second world conflict, Axis forces occupied Yugoslavia and {the teenager} was forcibly conscripted to Germany to work as slave labour. After American troopers liberated the focus camp he was held in, Branko hustled for the US military as a prepare dinner, barber, and pedlar of cigarettes, sweet and nylons. He additionally performed guitar in bars US troopers frequented. Discovering the US quota for refugees full and cautious of returning to Yugoslavia, Mataja was accepted as a refugee by the UK: he initially lived in a displaced individuals camp in Yorkshire. Right here he met and married a Montenegrin refugee, Roksanda Radonjic. The Matajas grew to become British residents earlier than emigrating to Canada in 1954, then in 1963 to Detroit, lastly settling in Los Angeles in 1964. As lengthy hair grew to become trendy and barbers struggled, Mataja was decided to give attention to his old flame: engaged on guitars.

He spent lengthy hours in his workshop, and having taught himself electrical engineering and constructed a house studio he started recording himself. The one time he left his workshop for any period of time was, apparently, to observe the World Cup. He had a son, Bata, who grew as much as be a profitable businessman supplying customised vehicles to the movie business. “Branko could possibly be seen to have lived the proverbial American dream,” Jerkovich says.

“Dad liked to share his music,” says Bata. “If individuals got here round the home he would play for them they usually’d go ‘wow’. However what he performed was well-liked songs of the Forties – Nat King Cole, Django Reinhardt, that type of music. I’m shocked he recorded these outdated Balkan songs as a result of I don’t recall him enjoying such.”

Bata additionally admits to being shocked when Jerkovich and his pal Doug Mcgowan tracked him down and declared themselves enamoured along with his late father’s music. Mcgowan works for Numero Group, a US specialist reissue label, however Bata refused his entreaties to license Branko’s recordings.

“Bata was busy along with his personal enterprise,” says Jerkovich, “and didn’t see the purpose in us reissuing Branko’s music. He did give us what turned out to be Branko’s second album, Folks Songs of Serbia – which he had self-released on cassette within the mid-Eighties and we had no thought of – and knowledgeable us about his father’s life, but it surely took 13 years earlier than he lastly got here round.” Having retired, Bata lastly relented and Jerkovich, who runs an LA recording studio, salvaged the now broken grasp tapes.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever perceive why Mataja radically re-contextualised the songs of his childhood; he by no means returned to Yugoslavia and had little interest in the sectarian divisions that shattered the nation. “Possibly he was making an attempt to attach along with his mom,” Bata suggests; Jerkovich wonders if Mataja was making an attempt to forge a sonic reference to a land he was torn away from as a young person. The haunted atmospheres his music conjures permit for all types of interpretations.

Branko Mataja in 1957.
One other world … Branko Mataja in 1957. {Photograph}: Numero Group

Mataja was, says Bata, “very cussed and decided, all the time experimenting, inventing issues. And fairly intense.” Music was his father’s nice love however, Bata observes, “he by no means considered it as one thing that might make him rich. He simply liked to make music. He was all the time inventing issues and experimenting – he was like a mad scientist in his studio – and when he was enjoying guitar, he was in one other world.”

Guests to his workshop is perhaps given an LP or cassette – that was the extent of his promo. Unwell well being compelled Mataja to cease enjoying guitar within the Nineties, and, depressed, he died of a coronary heart assault in 2000. He might simply have remained unknown had a younger musician not paid $7 for Branko’s LP in a Hollywood used document retailer.

“Fortunately they had been persistent,” Bata says of Jerkovich and Mcgowan. “I now want I’d completed it earlier as a result of after I hear individuals saying how a lot Dad’s music means – effectively, it’s very shifting. I solely want Dad was alive so he might expertise all of the curiosity and enthusiasm. He informed me ‘music is gorgeous – it should open doorways for you that you simply didn’t assume will open’. And he was proper!”

Over Fields and Mountains is out now on Numero Group.

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