Mojmir Sepe

Born: July 11th, 1930, Črna na Koroskem (Yugoslavia, nowadays Slovenia)
Nationality: Slovene

Eurovision record
Mojmir Sepe, one of Slovenia’s most prolific light-entertainment composers of the postwar-era, penned the music to two Yugoslavian Eurovision entries: ‘Brez besed’ by Berta Ambrož (1966) and ‘Pridi, dala ti bom cvet’ by Eva Sršen (1970). For both songs, Sepe himself wrote the arrangement and conducted the Eurovision orchestra. In the 1990s, after Slovenia had become an independent state and Eurovision participant, Sepe made a comeback in the competition, conducting the Slovenian entries in 1997 (‘Zbudi se’) and 1998 (‘Naj bogovi slišijo’).

Portrait picture: March 2002

Biography
Mojmir Sepe was born in the summer of 1930 in Črna na Koroskem, not far from what was then the Yugoslavian-Austrian border, but he is keen to explain that his place of birth was a coincidence: “It is a complicated story. My mother was teaching at a primary school in the town of Celje. Also in Celje, my father, Franci Schiffrer, who had studied economics, was the manager of Yugoslavia’s first big shopping mall. Funnily, they never married until decades after I was born, when my mother was seventy years old! Though my father was a businessman, he was a bohemian at heart. His dream had always been to be an opera singer. For years, he had been training his vocal skills, and, finally, in 1930, a theatre in Prague cast him for a role – and so he went to Czechoslovakia, leaving his job in Celje. For most of the next two decades, he worked for the Austrian Volksbühne, a travelling opera and operetta group. He became a household name in Austria’s theatre world and even briefly was a vocal coach to Johannes Heesters! Coming back to my birth, though… when my father left Yugoslavia in ’30, my mother was pregnant with me. Because she was now living on her own in Celje and was worried about not receiving adequate care, she decided to briefly withdraw to her sister’s house in Črna to give birth to me. I received her surname, Sepe. Dad usually came to Celje once a year to visit me and my mother.”

“So I was raised by my mother alone”, Sepe continues. “In the house where we lived, there was a piano. My mother had bought it. In the evening, she liked to play and sing folk songs… and after a while, I began to sing along. In retrospect, even as a child, I was fascinated by harmonies. When we went to the local coffee-bar, I always stood there watching the violin player. I was hypnotized! While my mum was out working, I started trying to play the piano. I must have been about five or six years old. On my own, I created a little song and, when it was ready, I performed it for my mother. At that point, she decided to send me to music school. From the outset, I had no problems whatsoever to master the technique required to play the piano. I was making fast progress.”

Mojmir as a four-year-old (Celje, 1934)

For Yugoslavia, the Second World War started in 1941, when it was invaded by Germany, Hungary, and Italy. As for Slovenia, the Italians occupied Ljubljana and its surroundings, whilst the major part of the modern-day country, the Untersteiermark according to German propaganda, was incorporated into the Third Reich. Sepe: “I was just about to go to gymnasium, secondary school. As the Germans were much stricter than the Italian regime, my mother illegally took me to Ljubljana. In schools there, the Slovenian language was still being taught. In Celje and Maribor, this was not the case. Unfortunately, my mother could not find work in Ljubljana. Therefore, she had to secretly go back to Celje, whilst she left me to the care of my aunt – my father’s sister – in Ljubljana. After two years, however, a German official in Celje discovered my picture. He asked my mother if this boy was her son. Once she had answered to the affirmative, he immediately ordered her to bring me back to Celje. Believe it or not, but according to him I had the looks of a perfect Aryan! If she did not comply, she would lose the minimal allowance she received as a Schutzangehörige, a non-German inhabitant of the Reich. Mother managed to contact my father, who was staying in Innsbruck at that time. He travelled to Ljubljana and took me back to Celje… a journey of just fifty kilometers, but it took us two full days. Coming back there, all the boys in my new class wore other names… Friedrich and so on. All Slovenian names had been replaced by German ones…”

“While I was away in Ljubljana”, Sepe recalls, “my mother had become a partisan activist, engaging in resistance against the Germans. In the last year of the war, I also worked as a courier for the movement. My mother never liked Tito or communist ideology, but she wanted to play her part in the struggle against the oppressor. I also shortly was a member of SKOJ, the League of Communist Youth of Yugoslavia, but two weeks after the liberation, I was thrown out – something I never regretted at all! I will never forget that day in May 1945, when a long, sad column of Croatian and Slovenian collaborators passed through Celje. In an attempt to escape their fate, they were heading for the Austrian border before being arrested or shot by the partisans. One of these traitors, a surprisingly eloquent man, had a short rest and talked to my mother and me. He was convinced the end of his life was near. “They will shoot the lot of us”, he said. I have never learnt what happened to him afterwards, but before he went on, he offered me a portable radio which he was carrying on him: “This is for you, young chap!” It was a Siemens radio – very small, but what a fantastic present! It was thanks to this radio that I first heard jazz music… now is not that ironic, how the radio which used to belong to this tragic figure who had fought for an ideology which despised American culture, allowed me to discover that fantastic new music genre? This radio genuinely became the biggest love of my young days!”

Schoolboy in Celje during World War II (February 1944)

Right from the start, young Mojmir was hooked on jazz: “During the war, we had been listening to bad German imitations of English and American dance music… swing in a marching tempo, so to speak! But Glenn Miller… my goodness, he was a totally different cup of tea. Just because I wanted to play jazz myself, I decided to embark on a trumpet course at the Celje Music School in addition to the piano lessons there. In contrast to my thoroughly classically schooled lady who taught me the piano, my first trumpet teacher was the conductor of a brass band. He knew a bit of everything about all brass instruments – not a real trumpet expert, but good enough for a beginner like me. After a while, I started playing the trumpet in Celje’s Amateur Symphony Orchestra, one of the best non-professional orchestras of Yugoslavia. In 1947, with some friends, I formed a dance band, Veseli Študentje – ‘The Merry Students’. It was a big band of twelve men. All of them were guys from Celje, who were studying at universities in Zagreb and Ljubljana. They came back during weekends. We played in dance halls for our peers. At seventeen, I was the youngest of the lot, but because, musically speaking, I was ahead of the rest, I became the band leader in all but name, leading the rehearsals.”

Though not as dogmatic as the Nazis, the new communist rulers of Yugoslavia were not fond of ‘decadent’ music from the West either. Sepe: “In Slovenia, authorities never really quite forbade playing jazz music, but they did not like it, that is for sure. Some little tricks were enough to keep ourselves out of trouble. When we received an arrangement of ‘Night and day’ (a Cole Porter song, ed.), we simply translated the title – so it became ‘Noč in dan’. No communist official was that much into modern music to know that the arrangement we were playing was from America. I also discovered that I had the ability to write arrangements myself. How I started? Well, we went to the cinema four times to see the same American movie, ‘Sun Valley Serenade’. This film included the Glenn Miller Band and songs such as ‘Moonlight serenade’… and after the fourth time, I managed to finally get the hang of the original Glenn Miller arrangement – and so, after having written down properly the parts for all instruments, we could play these titles with our own band.”

Seventeen-year-old Mojmir (standing, fourth from left) and his fellow members of the Veseli Študentje big band in Celje

Meanwhile, it had dawned to young Mojmir that he wanted to be a music professional. After graduating from secondary school in Celje (1949), he moved to Ljubljana to study the piano and trumpet at the local music academy. Simultaneously, he was recruited by Bojan Adamič (1912-1995), conductor of the Plesni Orkestar Radio Ljubljana or Radio Ljubljana Dance Orchestra. Sepe became the big band’s first trumpet player rightaway. How did Adamič know about this school boy from Celje? “Even in the context of Yugoslavia”, Sepe explains, “Slovenia was a more or less separate cultural unit. A small country with a tightly-knit music scene in which everyone knew everyone – so Bojan Adamič had already heard of me before I came to Ljubljana. For my audition with him, I had also brought an arrangement I had written to some American song. He was impressed – and so I became one of the band’s main arrangers as well. Looking back, it was incredible that I was considered good enough… after all, I had just been playing the trumpet for four years at that time. Today, such a situation would be unimaginable. On the other hand, there were very few trumpet players available in Slovenia with experience in entertainment music. In a way, Adamič had little choice. In the first couple of months, I was struggling to keep up with the level of playing, but I managed!”

Asked about the importance of Bojan Adamič for the development of light-entertainment music in Slovenia, Sepe comments: “It can hardly be overestimated. He was an accomplished musician with perfect pitch… as well as being the right man in the right place. Having fought as a partisan during the war and being promoted to the rank of major, he was acceptable to communist authorities. Thanks to his standing and eloquence, we were allowed to play anything we wanted. Thus, Slovenian radio listeners were given the opportunity listen to jazz and dance music from America and Western Europe. On a personal level, Adamič paved the way for me. Thanks to him, I had the job I wanted and made some decent money. As a result, I slowly lost interest in my classical music studies. Though my professors were always enthusiastic about my playing technique, they despised the fact that I made a career outside of classical music. “You are just like Adamič”, I used to hear from them. “We will put you in prison if you do not get away from jazz, you lazy bum!” A notable exception was Tone Ravnik, my piano teacher, who hated jazz, but respected my choice. In spite of him, I had had enough of the narrow-mindedness of the others. I felt I had all the background I needed to succeed in the part of the music business I was interested in. The teacher of harmony and instrumentation admitted that he could not learn me anything new… I had taught myself how to arrange in the students’ band in Celje. What would have been the use of a diploma? In 1952, I quit conservatoire once and for all.”

Sepe (to the right) with two other soloists of the Radio Ljubljana Big Band, saxophonists Ati Soss (left) and Dušan Veble, performing at the first edition of the Yugoslavian Jazz Festival in Bled (1960)

With the Radio Ljubljana Dance Orchestra, Sepe played in two live broadcasts every week. Moreover, he worked as a pianist in several other radio ensembles, most prominently the so-called Ljubljana Dance Sextet. In 1956, he founded his own jazz combo, the Ansambel Mojmira Sepeta. During its heyday, the sextet consisted of Mojmir Sepe (piano / trumpet), Ati Soss (clarinet / saxophone), Jure Robežnik (piano / vibraphone), Mitja Butara (guitar), Pavle Oman (bass), and Koko Jagodic (drums). With his ensemble, Sepe participated in the first two editions of the Yugoslavian Jazz Festival in Bled (1960-’61).

Mojmir Sepe, enthusing: “I founded the group with friends from Adamič’s big band. We were craving for more freedom as jazz soloists. With Jure and Ati, I was responsible for most of the compositions and arrangements. Both of them also were heavily involved as songwriters and orchestrators in the Slovenska Popevka Festival. With our sextet, we initially specialized in mainstream swing. Besides our appearances in Bled, we performed for the American army at the NATO headquarters in Paris in 1956 and 1959. In 1960, we recorded the first-ever full jazz album in Yugoslavia, released by the RTB company in Belgrade and simply called ‘Jazz Sepe’. Progressively, in the 1960s, we also played pop repertoire with my wife Majda as a vocalist. We did many concerts in Yugoslavia and twice toured the Soviet Union for one month, performing across the country – from Leningrad to Tblisi, from Jalta to Petrozavodsk. For these Russian tours, Vinko Globokar was added to the band – at that time, a fledgling young trombone player in the Radio Big Band, nowadays esteemed throughout Europe as a composer of experimental music. I think back fondly of the days of my sextet. These were wonderful times!”

Sepe playing a trumpet solo for a television performance with his ensemble and Majda Sepe (seated, far right) as a solo vocalist (1957)

Meanwhile, Mojmir Sepe also had begun to make his mark as a composer. In the course of the 1950s, he was responsible for some light symphonic pieces, including the wonderful ‘Pogled z gradu’ (A view from the castle), while he also wrote the soundtrack to Zvone Sintič’s short film ‘Skrivnost’. In 1952, for the first time, he tried his hand at writing a song, ‘Jesenska’, which was interpreted by vocalist Zlata Gašperšić and the Radio Ljubljana Dance Orchestra. Around that time, Sepe found the best possible muse for writing this type of repertoire: “One time, I was playing in a combo accompanying a fashion show here in Ljubljana. One of the mannequins was an eighteen-year-old girl, Majda. It turned out she had a very good voice as well – in fact, she was much better than the singers we were used to working with in radio. Coincidentally, she had been taking singing lessons with my father. It was not long before she was recruited to sing in broadcasts with the Adamič band. I composed much of her repertoire. Majda and I fell in love with each other. In 1956, we were married.”

In 1962, the first edition of the Festival Slovenska Popevka was held, a song contest for Slovenian popular music, following the fashion of similar events in San Remo and Split. In the following two decades, ‘Slovenska Popevka’ served as a catalyst for the fledgling Slovenian pop business. Mojmir Sepe submitted songs for the competition every year and won many first prizes with the expert jury and the general public. Winning entries included songs which have become part of Slovenian collective memory: ‘Malokdaj se srečava’ for Beti Jurković and Lado Leskovar (1963), ‘Poletna noč’ for Marjana Deržaj and Beti Jurković (1964), ‘Vsameš me v roke’ for Elda Viler (1967), and ‘Zakaj tvoj dom, zakaj moj dom’ for Jožica Svete (1969). Success continued in the 1970s with three winning entries, all interpreted by Mojmir’s wife Majda: ‘Med iskrenimi ljudmi’ (1972), ‘Uspavanka za mrtve vagabunde’ (1974), and ‘Pismo za Mary Brown’ (1976); the last-mentioned song was also performed on the Slovenska Popevka stage by Italian star Claudio Villa. Sepe won the festival an eighth and last time in 1978 with singer Janko Ropret and ‘Moje orglice’. Apart from his involvement as a songwriter, Sepe participated in Slovenska Popevka as an arranger and conductor, mostly for his own songs. Moreover, in the 1963 and 1964 editions of the festival, he led a combo of four musicians which presented alternative arrangements to all participating entries.

With Bojan Adamič, the founder and long-time leader of the Radio Ljubljana Big Band (± 1968)

Sepe: “It was in the early 1960s that this second career of mine as a songwriter really got underway – and Slovenska Popevka was the main reason for it. In the first edition, in 1962, I did not win, but my song ‘Zemlja pleše’ was a huge radio hit for Nino Robič and my wife Majda. The biggest success of them all was ‘Poletna noč’, a chanson I wrote for the third festival in 1964. It did not only win first prize with the public, it also was number one in the Slovenian charts for two consecutive years! The single also sold well in Croatia, which was very unusual for a song recorded in the Slovenian language. With my compositions, I did not earn the money songwriters in Western Europe were earning, but my contract as a songwriter with a record company in Zagreb certainly was interesting. It provided me with a nice extra on top of my wages as a player in the radio orchestra. What amazes me most is that today, over fifty years after I created ‘Zemlja pleše’ and ‘Poletna noč’, these songs are still being played in the radio. The Festival Slovenska Popevka was reinstated after Slovenian independence, but it has never again attained the popularity it had in the 60s and 70s. Therefore, people keep on idealizing the old days of the festival. It is nice that my work is still being remembered, but at the same time I wish Slovenska Popevka could make a fresh, new start. The style of music presented nowadays in this festival is too old-fashioned to appeal to a wider audience.”

Though Sepe’s main ambition always was to create light-entertainment music intended for the Slovenian public, he submitted some compositions for Yugoslavian song festivals in Belgrade, Zagreb, and Split too. Besides, he took part three times in the famous Croatian festival of Opatija: after a third place in the domestic jury vote with Bojan Kodrić’s rendition of ‘Mak v polju’ in 1967, Sepe was awarded a gold medal by the international jury in the 1969 edition for his composition ‘Ljubi, ljubi, ljubi’, which was performed by Eva Sršen. Lastly, in 1978, he won the chanson competition in Opatija with ‘Kje je tista trava’, sung by his wife Majda. “That year, there was a competition for chansons beside the main contest for pop songs”, Sepe explains. “Obviously, the pop songs received much more public attention, but, frankly, this chanson award meant more to me than the prize in ’69. Though ‘Ljubi, ljubi, ljubi’ was a major success in the record charts, I never really whole-heartedly aspired at writing schlagers.”

In a discussion with a colleague at RTV Ljubljana, ± 1988

Due to an embouchure collapse, Mojmir Sepe was forced to give up playing the trumpet in the RTV Ljubljana Dance Orchestra. In 1970, he was appointed Editor-in-chief of the Popular Music Department of Slovenian radio instead. “In radio, I was responsible for all non-classical music”, he explains. “It was up to me to commission composers to write music for radio broadcasts and to buy suitable programmes from foreign radio stations. Of course, I had to get used to a nine-to-five job. After all, I was not your setpiece official, sitting at his desk all day. I really warmed to my new work, though, as I liked being amongst professionals from all different corners of the business. Contrary to radio stations nowadays, in which nobody with any profound knowledge of music is working – someone who can assess if a piece of music meets the standards –, I was a musician amongst the musicians. Of course, in this situation ties between radio on the one hand and composers and songwriters on the other were much tighter than they are today. A big plus of the editing job was that it left me with enough time to compose and arrange my own music.”

Beside his chansons, Mojmir Sepe wrote the music to several theatre pieces, including ‘Nagrada’, the score to Franček Rudolf’s play ‘Kože megle’. For ‘Nagrada’, Mojmir Sepe was awarded a first prize at the 1977 edition of the Sterijino Pozorje Yugoslavian National Drama Festival, held in Novi Sad. Being recognized as an important composer of light symphonic repertoire, Sepe was invited to conduct his compositions and arrangements abroad. “The most high-profile of these commissions was with the Radio Hanover Symphonic Orchestra”, he comments. “At Slovenska Popevka, I met a producer of Radio Hamburg who was interested in my instrumental compositions. In 1983, he invited me to Hanover, where I worked with the local orchestra for one week. It was exciting to conduct a symphonic orchestra, as I am not a trained conductor... just like Bojan Adamič, Mario Rijavec, and almost all the others in my field of music. When I started working as a conductor for song festivals, I asked the advice of some conservatory professors who were friends of mine. To conduct my own arrangements, this proved enough. I did something similar in East-Berlin, though that was not a classical orchestra, but a big band with strings.”

Conducting the orchestra at an edition of the Festival Slovenska Popevka in the late 1990s

In 1990, after more than forty consecutive years of working for Slovenian radio, Mojmir Sepe chose to go into retirement. “I could have stayed longer”, says Sepe, “but after all these years, I decided enough was enough. I was looking forward to the prospect of simply staying home and doing what I like best: writing music.” And writing music is what Mojmir Sepe did. In 1995, having been commissioned by the Slovenian Ministry of Health to compose a music piece for an international medical congress in Ljubljana, he came up with a potpourri of Slovenian folk songs, ‘Ljubljanske razglednice’ (Postcards from Ljubljana). Moreover, he penned the musical accompaniment to some seventy episodes of the popular children’s animation ‘Medved Bojan’ (Bojan the Bear), which was broadcast not only in Slovenia, but by Austria television as well. At the request of Slovenian public radio, Sepe also composed the music to poems by Slovenian authors France Prešeren and Tone Pavček. In 2004, he wrote the soundtrack to a documentary by Ivan Loncarevic about Slovenia’s accession to the European Union.

In total, an astounding number of over 400 songs and 500 arrangements by Mojmir Sepe can be found in RTV Slovenija’s music library. In recognition of his merits for Slovenian music, he received numerous prizes, including a Ježek Award for his creative achievements for Slovenian broadcasting (1996) and a Viktor Media Award for lifetime achievement (1997). When Sepe turned seventy, in 2000, he was honoured with a concert of his own work at the Cankar Auditorium in Ljubljana. At his eightieth birthday, the Slovenian Association of Composers bestowed upon him the honour of a Kozina Award for lifetime achievement in music, specifically praising his semi-symphonic works. Also in 2010, he was honoured with the Golden Order of Merit by Slovenian state president Danilo Türk. One year later, he received the honorary citizenship of the city of Ljubljana.

Mojmir and Majda Sepe have one daughter, Polona, and two granddaughters. In 2006, Majda passed away, succumbing to an incurable disease, aged 68.

At Sepe’s eightieth birthday in 2010, he received the Slovenian Golden Order of Merit from Slovenian president Dr. Danilo Türk

Mojmir Sepe in the Eurovision Song Contest
Joining the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in 1961, Yugoslavia was a maverick member state, being the only communist country amongst the Western European union of broadcasters – and the Eurovision Song Contest. From the first year onwards, the Yugoslavs organised a selection programme with different entries vying for the right to represent the country in the international final. In the early 1960s, Yugoslavia boasted just three TV broadcasters: RTV Beograd (Serbia), RTV Zagreb (Croatia), and RTV Ljubljana (Slovenia). For the 1961 national selection, held in Ljubljana’s National Drama Theatre, each of them submitted three songs. One of the entries representing RTV Ljubljana was Mojmir Sepe’s composition ‘Crni klavir’ (Black piano), interpreted by Jelka Cvetežar. The competition was won, however, by Ljiljana Petrović’s rendition of ‘Neke davne zvezde’, penned by another Slovenian jazz musician, Jože Privšek.

Mojmir Sepe about Yugoslavia’s debut in the Eurovision Song Contest: “For composers like me, taking part in such a festival was a huge opportunity... an opportunity to connect to the west. Of course, Yugoslavia was less isolated than countries like Romania and Hungary, which were under Russian influence – but nonetheless, our cultural ties with Western Europe were not very tight either. Everyone wanted to take part, though we had no clear idea of what the Eurovision Song Contest was like. For ‘Crni klavir’, I had written an arrangement with a two-minute piano intro, which meant the song as a whole lasted over five minutes. I had no idea that three minutes was the maximum length for a Eurovision song. When some broadcasting official explained it to me, I had no other option but to chop off this beautifully written instrumental introduction!”

Mojmir Sepe in 1966. Photo taken from the official 1966 Eurovision Song Contest programme

In the following years, Mojmir Sepe kept on competing in the Yugoslavian pre-selection. In 1962, he came second with ‘Sulamit’, performed by his wife Majda. In 1964 and 1965, his songs ‘Kakor bela snežinka’ and ‘Vzemi moj nasmeh’, interpreted by Stane Mancini and Marjana Deržaj respectively, also failed to make it to Europe. “Of course I kept on trying... why not?”, Sepe responds when asked about his many entries in the 1960s. “It was a challenge and I liked that. One of the issues for a Slovenian songwriter in Yugoslavia, however, was the language problem. Croats and Serbs share their language, but they do not speak Slovenian. How to write a song that would appeal to them even without words? I thought I had come up with a very good idea with ‘Sulamit’, a song with an oriental feel to it, which I hoped would string a chord with the Croatian and Serb jurors – and it nearly paid off, because it came second. The cleverest idea, however, was Jože Privšek’s... he worked with lyricists and singers from Serbia – and he succeeded in winning the Yugoslavian selection in 1961 as well as in 1962. Having said that, if his two entries had not been good songs, he would not have won no matter in which language!”

Finally, in 1966, Mojmir Sepe managed to win the pre-selection – and with an entry in the Slovenian language, ‘Brez besed’. It was performed by Berta Ambrož. This melodious chanson is considered by many as one of Yugoslavia’s strongest Eurovision entries of all time. Where did Sepe find the inspiration? “I remember being impressed by the voice of this young lady from Kranj, Berta Ambrož… so the song was specifically written for her. For the lyrics, I relied on Elza Budau, who worked in radio, but also published a couple of novels… an author who knew how to write intelligent song lyrics. It certainly is one of my better songs – in a way, I am quite proud of it.”

EPS release of Yugoslavia’s 1966 Eurovision entry ‘Brez besed’

The 1966 Yugoslavian Eurovision heats were held in Belgrade – and the locals had a clear favourite: Serbian teenage idol Đorđe Marjanović. “But the audience in the concert hall did not vote!”, Sepe laughs. “There was a jury, and, all credit to the members, they did not succumb to any sort of pressure and voted for my song. Most of the crowd were in shock when the results were announced… and Berta was booed when she returned to the stage to sing the song a second time. I admired her for performing as confidently as she did in that situation. There was another unpleasant incident… Berta and I travelled to the Eurovision Song Contest in Luxembourg by train, but, as it turned out, Berta had to perform in a television programme in Ljubljana and could not catch the train which had been booked for us. Therefore, she took a taxi to Jesenice on the Yugoslav-Austrian border, where she arrived just in time to get on the same train. Some journalist had seen Majda and me together in the railway station in Ljubljana. Majda was just there to say goodbye and wish me luck, but he wrote an article in which he claimed she had boarded the train as well, hoping that she could sing ‘Brez besed’ in Luxembourg if Berta would not make it to Jesenice in time. According to him, Majda had secretly left the train in Jesenice when Berta arrived. It was a load of rubbish, but some people believed him.”

Mojmir Sepe did not accompany Berta Ambrož to Luxembourg merely as a songwriter, but as the arranger and conductor of his own song as well. For him, the Eurovision Song Contest in Luxembourg was not his first trip to the ‘Free West’, as he and his jazz sextet had twice performed for American NATO personnel in Paris in the 1950s. Was he nervous about conducting an orchestra for millions of TV viewers across Europe? “I remember being a little stressed”, Sepe admits, “though this did not have to do with the orchestra. There were no hiccups during rehearsals. As some of the musicians spoke German, there were no communication problems. All I had to do was count in the band in the right tempo… nothing could go wrong. However, I was slightly overcome by the earnestness of the occasion. Unlike today, the Eurovision Song Contest was a dignified affair. Back then, there were no huge crowds of fans, no banners being waved in the audience – there was just this modest auditorium full of men in dark suits and women in evening gowns. All conductors were supposed to wear a tuxedo. Now, I had never worn a tuxedo before, so I had to go out and buy one!”


Mojmir Sepe conducting the orchestra for Berta Ambrož’s performance of ‘Brez besed’ in the 1966 Eurovision Song Contest final in Luxembourg

“What was more”, Sepe continues, “journalists who had attended the first rehearsals were convinced ‘Brez besed’ was the number one contender to win the contest. Why they were so outspoken is beyond me, but imagine… Berta and me, all of a sudden being surrounded by representatives of foreign record companies who wanted to buy the international recording rights of my song. I spoke some German, but hardly any English and no French… and there was just the two of us – RTV Ljubljana had not thought it necessary to send a head of delegation with us to take care of PR. We did not even have a couple of records with us to give away to delegates! Franck Pourcel, that famous conductor from France, was very interested in my song as well. He asked me if I could write out the melody for him, which, of course, I did. Still, I could not believe we had a chance of winning. Just for a moment, I got carried away… and that was when the first jury gave us a lot of points. After that, Udo Jürgens was a runaway winner and we tied for seventh place with Spain. I was quite happy with this result. Cover versions of ‘Brez besed’ were released in various countries (Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands, ed.) and I had never dreamt that would happen when I composed the song!”

After two more attempts which failed in the Yugoslavian heats – ‘Nebo na dlani’ by Marjana Deržaj (1967) and ‘Grad iz peska’ by Majda Sepe (1969) – Sepe won the ticket to the international final for a second time in 1970 with ‘Pridi, dala ti bom cvet’, performed by eighteen-year-old Eva Sršen. The lyrics were by a radio colleague of Mojmir Sepe, journalist Dušan Velkaverh. Again, Sepe wrote the arrangement, which he conducted in the international festival final in Amsterdam. ‘Pridi, dala ti bom cvet’ managed to pick up four points and finished eleventh.

Mojmir and Majda Sepe, early 1970s

Asked about the origins of ‘Pridi, dala ti bom cvet’, Sepe comments: “This was a song I wrote for Majda. She was to sing it in the pre-selection in Belgrade, but a couple of weeks before the TV broadcast was due, RTV Beograd changed the date of the programme. Unfortunately, Majda was left with no other option but to withdraw, as she had already accepted an invitation to perform in East-Berlin on that day. Therefore, I had to find someone else to sing it. I picked Eva Sršen. She had made her debut in the Opatija Festival in ’69, where she had done well performing my song ‘Ljubi, ljubi, ljubi’. I was not there in Belgrade when she won it. Afterwards, some of the jurors expected me to replace her with Majda. They had been handed a demo tape with Majda’s interpretation of the song and said they had only given their votes because they were so impressed by Majda’s version. However, I refused, as I felt it would have been unfair to Eva. Moreover, I genuinely believed the concept of a young, innocent girl could work. Gigliola Cinquetti had won the Eurovision Song Contest a couple of years earlier… so, why not us?”

For the second time, Mojmir Sepe conducted his own composition in the Eurovision Song Contest. This time, the Yugoslavian delegation travelling to the festival was slightly bigger. Majda accompanied her husband. Having learned from the experience of 1966, Sepe’s music editor Croatia Concert had prepared a promotional flyer about the composer. International press attention for the Yugoslavian entry, however, was considerably lower than in Luxembourg. Sepe: “When I came to the rehearsals and heard the Irish entry (Dana singing ‘All kinds of everything’, ed.), I knew we had lost. There was another innocent girl with a sweet little song – admittedly, better than our song! In spite of that, we got along very well with the Irish delegation, which was headed by Kevin Roche. He became a good friend. In the following years, he always sent Irish performers to Slovenska Popevka, the annual Slovenian song festival. More than in Luxembourg, I enjoyed the experience of being at the Eurovision Song Contest. The Dutch did a good job on the production. I recall the magnificent opening tune of the broadcast, written by Rob Pronk (a jazzy arrangement to Pieter Goemans’ evergreen ‘Aan de Amsterdamse grachten – The canals of Amsterdam’, ed.). While it was being played by the orchestra, images of the city-centre were shown – all in all, very professional!”


Sepe’s second performance as a conductor in the Eurovision Song Contest was in Amsterdam (1970), where Eva Sršen interpreted his composition ‘Pridi, dala ti bom cvet’

Including his two winning entries in ’66 and ’70, Mojmir Sepe competed in the Yugoslavian heats as a composer and arranger no fewer than eleven times. The last three of them were ‘Od srca do srca’, performed by Bele Vrane (1971), ‘Mnogo srečnih let od tod’ by Oto Pestner (1973), and ‘Irena’ by Oliver Antauer (1982). “Frankly, I did not have in mind to participate at all in 1982”, Sepe reveals. “By the 1980s, I was not too interested in writing for Eurovision anymore. It was not until RTV Ljubljana’s Eurovision committee explained to me that they had only received a handful of compositions, neither of which were good enough, that I was convinced to have another go. ‘Irena’ was a song I wrote for Ivo Mojzer, but as he had obligations elsewhere, Oliver Antauer had to be recruited as his replacement.”

After declaring independence, Slovenia participated as a separate country in the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time in 1993. It won a semi-final of seven countries from Central and Eastern Europe eager to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in Millstreet (Ireland). Only three of these new EBU member states were to progress to the international final. This so-called Kvalifikacija za Millstreet took place in Ljubljana. Though the orchestra of RTV Slovenia was conducted by Petar Ugrin that evening, Mojmir Sepe had an important role as well: he was the juror on behalf of Slovenia, giving his maximum of votes to Estonia’s entry ‘Muretut meelt ja südametuld’. At the end of the programme, Sepe took over from Petar Ugrin, conducting the outro tune, his own instrumental arrangement to the 1975 Yugoslavian Eurovision entry ‘Dan ljubezni’. “I had to run from the studio where the jurors were sat to the auditorium to conduct the orchestra”, Sepe recalls. “Originally, the plan was to have juries calling from all member states with the results, as was customary in the Eurovision Song Contest… but there was still a war going on in Bosnia and Croatia. One could not be sure if telephone lines from these countries would work. At that point, it was decided upon to have just one juror per country… and I was asked to take care of the Slovenian votes.”


Ljubljana, 1993: conducting the outro music of Kvalificacija za Millstreet, his own arrangement of Yugoslavia’s 1975 Eurovision entry ‘Dan ljubezni’

The first three Slovenian Eurovision entries (in 1993, 1995, and 1996) were arranged and conducted by Jože Privšek, but, in 1997, it was Mojmir Sepe who returned to the Eurovision stage as a conductor after an absence of twenty-seven years. The Eurovision Song Contest took place in Dublin’s Point Theatre, where Slovenia was represented by ‘Zbudi se’, an intricate song by Zoran Predin and Saša Lošić, interpreted by Tanja Ribič. Slovenia finished tenth amongst twenty-five participating countries. How come Mojmir Sepe, a pensioner who had in the past usually conducted just his own songs, got involved as a musical director in 1997? “Saša Lošić personally asked me to write the arrangement to his song”, he explains. “I liked the song and therefore I agreed to do it. It was not a typical Eurovision song, not a schlager suitable to impress large audiences, but a good piece of songwriting nevertheless.”

Did Sepe feel less pressure, now that he was ‘just’ involved as a conductor, and not as a songwriter? “Yes, I felt more responsibility when I took part with my own compositions. Moreover, with Berta Ambrož and Eva Sršen, there was this tight bond between composer and interpreter… Now, as a conductor of someone else’s work, my role was mere technical: making sure the music would be performed well. Of course, as a conductor, I hoped the song would do well, but I did not feel involved that much on a personal level. This time, some work needed to be done in rehearsals. ‘Zbudi se’ had a complicated a-capella intro. The orchestra had to fall in a couple of bars later (Sepe tackled this problem by clapping his hands as a signal to the singer on stage). On top of that, some adjustments had to be made in the soundmix. In the concert, everything went well.”


Mojmir Sepe conducting ‘Zbudi se’ for Tanja Ribič in the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest, Dublin

Had Eurovision changed a lot in the twenty-seven years of Sepe’s absence? “Well, it was not quite the carnival yet it has turned into later onwards, but it was obvious things were changing. The audience in the hall mainly consisted of cheering fans. The festival was turning into a TV event, whilst, in the 1960s, the focus was firmly on the music. I also did not like the fact that the role of the orchestra in the contest had been marginalized. It was hidden away on a side stage far away from the cameras. Apparently, the producers did not want the orchestra players to be seen. It was obvious to me they wanted to get rid of the orchestra, because it did not fit into their concept of a TV show. Having said that, I had a wonderful time in Dublin. I got along well with the other members of the Slovenian delegation. Moreover, for the first time in many years, I met my old friend at Irish radio, Kevin Roche. He used to visit the Slovenska Popevka Song Festival each year back in the 1970s.”

One year later, when the Eurovision Song Contest was held in Birmingham, Mojmir Sepe was back as the conductor for Slovenia in what proved to be the last Eurovision edition with live orchestral accompaniment. Slovenia was represented by singer Vili Resnik and ‘Naj bogovi slišijo’, composed by Matjaž Vlašić with lyrics by his wife Urša Vlašić. The song was produced and orchestrated by Sašo Fajon. “… but Sašo Fajon has never conducted, so he could not do the job in Birmingham. Therefore, RTV Slovenija asked me to step in.”

The Slovenian participants in the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest in Birmingham, from left to right: singer Vili Resnik, arranger Sašo Fajon, conductor Mojmir Sepe, composer Matjaž Vlašić, and lyricist Urša Vlašić

Following a rule change in 1997, all delegations were completely free to choose if they wanted to make use of the orchestra or not at all. The arrangement to the Slovenian ballad included lavish strings and an oboe solo, but in the Eurovision final, not a single note of this was played by the BBC Concert Orchestra. What had happened? Sepe: “It was not until after the first rehearsal that they decided to do away with the orchestra. In this rehearsal, the orchestra played very well… there was not the slightest problem, but then the girl at the piano (the piano on stage was ‘played’ by lyricist Urša Vlašić) started what I would call a ‘lady’s show’ – she was unhappy about the orchestra, though I never quite understood what it was she did not like. They decided they preferred to work with the full backing track recorded in Slovenia after all. I could do nothing about it. Of course, I was unhappy. I considered going home, but what happened in the end was that I took my bow, then gave a signal to start the backing tape and just stood there for the remainder of the song.”

“It was an idiotic situation”, Sepe continues. “Back in the days I worked at RTV Ljubljana, I had occasionally worked with fertig-sound… that is, the orchestra and I had pre-recorded all music for a television show, in which we pretended to be conducting and playing live. That always felt strange, but at least we faked to a playback tape we had recorded ourselves. But here in Birmingham was a superb orchestra… but still they preferred a playback tape recorded in Ljubljana. Probably, most viewers watching the Eurovision Song Contest did not notice – but it should not have happened”. Thus, Mojmir Sepe became involved in the swan-song of the orchestra in the Eurovision Song Contest in a way he detested more than anyone else. One can never prove that ‘Naj bogovi slišijo’ would have done better with the backup of the BBC Concert Orchestra, but all the same, it failed to impress European audiences, finishing eighteenth with just seventeen points.

Sepe during an excursion in Birmingham with singer Vili Resnik (to his left) and songwriter Matjaž Vlašić. Immediately to the left of Resnik, Hungarian conductor Miklós Malek can be distinguished

Other artists on Mojmir Sepe
So far, we have not gathered any comments of other artists about Mojmir Sepe.

On stage at an edition of the Festival Slovenska Popevka with TV host Blažka Müller Pograjc (late 1990s)

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker interviewed Mojmir Sepe in Ljubljana, July 2015.
  • In preparing the interview, an earlier article about Sepe by a Slovenian journalist was very useful: Samo Koler, ‘Mojmir Sepe. Living Legend of Slovenian Music’, in: EuroSongNews, no. 72 (2000), pg. 30-33.
  • Photos courtesy of Mojmir Sepe and Ferry van der Zant.

  

Songs conducted
1966: Brez besed
1970: Pridi, dala ti bom cvet
1997: Zbudi se
1998: Naj bogovi slišijo