Ranko Rihtman

Born: October 28th, 1948, Sarajevo (Yugoslavia, nowadays Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Nationality: Bosnian Croat

Eurovision record
As a conductor, Ranko Rihtman took part in the Eurovision Song Contest on one occasion, leading the orchestra in 1981 in Dublin for his own arrangement of ‘Leila’. This Yugoslavian entry, sung by Seid Memić-Vajta, finished fifteenth. Eight years previously, Rihtman had also penned the orchestration to Yugoslavia’s Eurovision contribution, ‘Gori vatra’. For Zdravko Čolić’s performance in the contest in Luxembourg, however, the orchestra was conducted not by Rihtman, but by Esad Arnautalić.

The son of Cvjetko Rihtman, reputed composer, ethnomusicologist, and professor at the Sarajevo Music Academy, Ranko Rihtman grew up in Sarajevo in the 1950s. “I am from a Jewish family with roots in Czechoslovakia and Croatia, but this heritage did not play a part in my upbringing. In my young years, Sarajevo was a happy place, with people of different ethnic backgrounds living together in harmony. Emotionally, my father and I were never very attached to each other, but later in life I learned to admire him as a musician and an intellectual. He could be very strict. Of course, he was a talented musician; and he must have passed this predisposition on to his children. There was a piano in the house – and I started taking lessons at seven. My elder brother had also played it but switched to the violin later. With my sister, I was always fighting over the piano, as we were both keen to practise. Together, we played four-handed arrangements of Mendelssohn and Beethoven; it was a special feeling playing that wonderful music. I was never forced to take any lessons – the love for music must have been in me from the beginning.”

“While my father passed the classical gene onto me, I have to thank my elder brother for introducing me to popular music. As a hobby, he led a vocal group which performed contemporary songs – San Remo hits, French chansons, anything. That is how I was introduced to the lighter genre. Later on, listening to Radio Luxembourg, when I first heard The Shadows and especially The Beatles, I was hooked. Somehow, I was touched by George Martin’s refined arrangements. The moment I heard ‘Yesterday’ for the first time, I couldn’t collect myself. That string quartet… I was blown away by it – completely! It is a misconception that Yugoslavian authorities were unhappy about youngsters listening to rock music from the UK and America. This may have been the case in other parts of Eastern Europe, but certainly not in my country. Somehow we found LPs from the West, playing them endlessly. Those records coloured my youth.”

“In high school, there was a club where pupils would gather to listen to music performed by their classmates. That’s where I had my first stage experience. Initially I was a singer, with my repertoire consisting of songs by Peppino di Capri and Paul Anka. Not much later, I also backed up others playing a very simple synthesiser which I bought myself. One of my classmates was in a pop group called Čičak. As it turned out, they needed a singer and keyboard player – and at some point, he asked me to join. I was sixteen at the time. Playing in Čičak was an excellent learning school, as the group experimented with polyphonic singing – and I could try my hand at writing vocal arrangements. In a way, we were rather successful; after a while, we were one of the more popular groups in Sarajevo. The summer months were spent on the Dalmatian coast, where we were one of many bands performing in bars and hotels. In 1968 and 1969, we were invited to take part in Vaš Šlager Sezone, RTV Sarajevo’s song festival. I also composed some songs for the group. ‘Ti si taj’ is the title that most people will remember. My early songs are little more than exercises of a young musician. Going along I found that composing is not my forte.”

“When joining Čičak, I took the decision to quit music high school. I felt I didn’t need any more formal training. As a musician, I wanted to develop myself – after all, that’s what all the other guys did too. Many of them were amateurs, unable to read music, but most of them were very talented. Somehow, in Sarajevo, there was this explosion of rock groups. There were more bands here than anywhere else in Yugoslavia. In terms of rock music, it was the centre of the country in the 1960s. I wasn’t aware of any rock boom at the time. We were just being creative, most guys weren’t in it for the money, and there was very little envy among different bands. Of course, my father wasn’t overjoyed at the life I was leading. When I graduated from secondary school, he wanted me to go to university now that I had quit studying music. At his suggestion, I studied physics. Even though my heart wasn’t in it, I completed two years, but, in 1969, I quit. The allure of music was simply too strong. One year later, I went back to the music academy, finally obtaining a degree at my father’s ethnomusicology department in 1975. I chose this department myself, independently from my father. By that time, I had developed an academic interest; I enjoyed immersing myself in complicated folk music structures alongside my work in light entertainment.”

The Čičak group, from left to right: Ranko Rihtman, Zoran Redžić, Milić Vukašinović, Dragan Danilović, and Mahmut Paša Ferović

“In 1969, I was approached by another band, Indexi. Indexi were Bosnia’s number one rock group. They had had two excellent keyboard players, first Kornelije Kovač and later Đorđe Novković. When they left, the other guys wanted me to fill the void. One of the first things I did with Indexi was in the recording session for ‘Plima’, one of the band’s best-known songs. The piano intro was done by me, but I also performed backing vocals. I still have warm memories of that session and specifically of that song. It means a lot to me. Joining Indexi was an important step for me. Soon I started writing band arrangements for the group itself and orchestrations for studio recordings. I never had the opportunity to study arranging as a subject at the academy; instead, I learned it by practising with Indexi – but not just arranging, also the production side of making a record. It was an ideal situation, because I was paid while learning! The psychedelic rock music the group was playing at the time offered plenty of opportunities to work with an orchestra.”

“We were trying out new things constantly. Just to give you an example… because I was fascinated by the sound of Procol Harum, Chicago, and Blood, Sweat and Tears, I decided I needed a Hammond organ too. What did I do? I bought myself a train ticket and travelled to London to get myself such an organ. That was in 1970. We were the only band in Sarajevo to have a Hammond at the time! That was me, but all the other band members in their own way influenced the sound of Indexi too. Of course, Slobodan Kovačević was a fantastic guitarist; arguably the best Yugoslavia had ever seen. You shouldn’t underestimate the role of Davorin Popović, the lead singer. In the beginning, I didn’t like his voice very much, but no other vocalist trying to sing our songs later even came close to Davorin. Somehow, his intonation was always so clear. Furthermore, he had the charisma of a real frontman; people liked him. Davor was the real trademark of the band.”

“Following a nationwide tour with Indexi in 1972, I took the decision to leave the group. An opportunity came along to join the Radio Orchestra (the Bosnian name of the big band is Plesni Orkestar RTV Sarajevo – BT) as a pianist. By that time, I wanted to focus on writing. Now that I had had a first taste of arranging with Indexi, that was the direction I wanted to take. I never thought of myself as a brilliant pianist, but working with the big band also meant there was the opportunity to write orchestrations. Being a student at the ethnomusicology department at the time, having fixed working hours and a fixed income at the broadcasting service were pluses as well, even though the salary wasn’t very good. Leaving Indexi didn’t mean I never worked with them again. In fact, I have remained an associate member until the present day. Over the years, I worked with them as a pianist and arranger in recordings, and as a conductor in music festivals. The ties with the rest of the group have remained strong – even now, fifty years on.”

Indexi in 1971, from left to right: Ranko Rihtman with Fadil Redžić (bass), Miroslav Šaranović (drums), Slobodan Kovačević (guitar) and – seated in front of them – singer Davorin Popović

“Mainly through my arrangements for Indexi, commissions to work with other artists started flowing in from the early 1970s onwards. One of my earlier orchestrations for a studio recording was ‘Gori vatra’, with which Zdravko Čolić won the Yugoslavian selection for Eurovision (which will be discussed in the Eurovision chapter below – BT). The song was a hit and my name was on the sleeve, so somehow I was part of the success, which helped in building my reputation in music circles. Following that, I worked with many popular artists who recorded their work in Sarajevo.”

“Of course, as an arranger, you need to know about the range and function of each instrument, but first and foremost your job is to find a sound that fits the music and the artist. In that sense, you have to be able to adapt to others. Having said that, I mostly approached the music the way I liked. This is especially true for two of the productions I am most proud of, both recorded in 1979. The first was the song ‘Modra rijeka’ by Indexi. When I spoke to Slobodan Kovačević, who composed it, he didn’t give me any suggestions as to how he wanted me to approach the arrangement. He gave me a free hand. I wrote a score in a style which was slightly symphonic, not just with strings, but including an oboe and a piano solo in it as well – certainly unusual for a pop song, but it sounded very good. The song was received very well, earning us great respect.”

“Not long after, Goran Bregović, who was band leader of Bijelo Dugme, approached me with a demo of his song ‘Sve će to, mila moja’ – and although he didn’t want to admit it, it was obvious to me that Goran was influenced by the sound of ‘Modra rijeka’. There was a stylistic continuity there which I thought was striking. It was only logical to choose a symphonic approach for this song as well, with a large orchestra and a choir. That was another huge success and an arrangement that I’m very proud of. Later on, I did a string of concerts with Bijelo Dugme, for which I conducted a full philharmonic orchestra. Those evenings on stage were among the best in my musician’s life. Goran Bregović later turned to film composing, but by that time his style had become a bit too eclectic for my taste. To my mind, his talent as a composer was in writing emotional ballads. ‘Sve će to, mila moja’ is perhaps the best example of that.”

“Meanwhile, my role in the big band of Radio Television Sarajevo had changed. In 1974, I switched from the piano to being co-conductor of the band alongside Esad Arnautalić. Esad was a very talented producer, composer, and arranger, always full of new ideas – the Vaš Šlager Sezone Festival was his brainchild. He also laid the foundation for the big band. Unfortunately, he lacked a formal background in music, which sometimes hampered him while conducting the orchestra. One time, when we were working on the recording of a set of arrangements for the Mali Šlager Festival, a song contest for children, a problem arose between Esad and the management of music production. In frustration and anger, Esad ran off, leaving the orchestra and the production team behind in the studio. At that point, the director stepped forward and asked me to take the conductor’s position in this recording session. Being one of the band’s chief arrangers, I was the natural choice; that’s how it began.”

A range of Bosnian artists surrounding Yugoslavian President Tito at his residence in Bugojno, with Ranko Rihtman second from left. Participants included male vocal ensemble Prijatelji and pop group Ambasadori with Ismeta Krvavac, Neda Ukraden, and Jadranka Stojaković (c. 1975)

“In the following years, Esad and I were good colleagues, dividing the workload between us. For Vaš Šlager Sezone, we usually shared the conducting work, with each doing half of the songs. We never counted the number of arrangements, but I suppose, also in that respect, we each roughly took on an equal load. In music style, he was closer to popular music, while I gradually became more jazz-oriented. As with Indexi, I had the opportunity to add my own flavour to the sound, which was rewarding. When I joined the big band, it was only a few years old – the youngest of the radio big bands in Yugoslavia – and in the beginning, we could only stand in the shadow of the quality radio orchestras in Ljubljana and Zagreb. Gradually, however, the orchestra became better and better. There was a very good atmosphere among musicians. Esad and I encouraged the guys in the band to write arrangements as well, which must have helped in creating a spirit of togetherness. They weren’t just playing what was put before them. Each had a contribution to the sound.”

“After obtaining my degree in ethnomusicology in 1975, I had to do my obligatory year of military service, which I fulfilled in Belgrade. Coming back to Sarajevo, I decided to study conducting. After all, I was a conductor in the big band now, but even if I hadn’t been, I might have got the ambition to go back to the academy. First, there was this dream which had accompanied me from childhood onwards. I still see myself as a boy alone in my room listening to a Tchaikovsky symphony, waving my arms to the music. It was a world that had always fascinated me. Besides, I was keen to get as broad a perspective of music as possible. After one semester at the Ljubljana Music Academy, studying with the great conducting teacher Anton Nanut, I came back to Sarajevo to complete the course. I obtained my degree in 1980. My final exam was conducting a classical concert with the RTV Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra.”

“Not much of the conducting technique of a classical conductor is required when leading a big band or entertainment orchestra. In fact, these are two completely different things. In light music, the main role of a conductor is in rehearsals – finding out quickly if there are any mistakes in the arrangement, looking for the correct style to play a piece, and knowing the possibilities and limitations of each instrument. Conducting a concert of jazz or pop music is never a problem – there is a drummer indicating the tempo, so as a conductor you don’t have to be involved that much. Still, most classical conductors couldn’t conduct concerts of non-classical music. In the instances where they try, they tend to be far too strict about the score – and especially in jazz, less is more and you have to leave the musicians the freedom to improvise and bring in their own interpretation.”

Part of RTV Sarajevo’s Big Band at a meeting of all Yugoslavian Radio and Television Orchestras in Hotel Radenci, Slovenia (1980), from left to right: Ismet Arnautalić (guitar), Milan Stupar (music producer), conductors Esad Arnautalić and Ranko Rihtman, Krešimir Vlašić (first trumpet), Fadil Redžić (music producer), and Slobodan Sokolović (first trombone)

“At that time, in the early 1980s, the big band played more and more productions which were rather jazzy. As it happened, Slobodan Kovačević, who was also guitarist in the big band, discovered a correspondence course of arranging from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I was fascinated. At Slobodan’s suggestion, I translated it into Serbo-Croat to make the course available for all orchestra members… but somehow this basic course triggered my curiosity. I sent a letter to Boston, asking them if they also had an advanced arranging course. Getting in touch with them only made me more eager. In the end, I decided I had no other option but to go there. I spent two summer semesters at Berklee (in 1982 and 1983 – BT). The second year, I was chosen to come back to be in Herb Pomeroy’s Composition and Arranging class. All in all those two summers in Boston were a fantastic experience. I never wrote so many notes in such a short space of time. The work was intense! On top of that, all around you, there is a universe of jazz – every night, there is some performance here or there. I saw some great musicians; Grappelli, Sara Vaughan, Lenny White, and Chicago. In terms of music, it felt like being in the centre of the world.”

“Those two summers in Boston gave me an enriched feeling – as an arranger, having learnt all those techniques, all those scales, I had the sensation of being a fish in the river. Harmonies are the heart of music… and I got really close to the heart of harmony at Berklee. As with my conducting degree, perhaps I couldn’t put all that much of what I had learnt in Boston to use with the big band back in Sarajevo. Most of the techniques which I was taught were a tad too special, too spicy. They have to be used carefully to avoid overload. Still, in the course of the 1980s, the jazz direction which the big band had taken continued. A big role in this was played by Duško Gojković (Serb trumpeter – BT), who was always happy to come down to Sarajevo to play with our big band. Over the years, some international artists like Gianni Basso also accepted an invitation from us. One wonders how far we could have gone in this development of playing more and more jazz if this senseless civil war hadn’t intervened…”

As a studio arranger, in the 1980s, Ranko Rihtman worked with many of the most popular Bosnian artists of the day, including Ismeta Krvavac and Davorin Popović, for whom he arranged and conducted the entry in the 1981 Split Festival, ‘Stavi glavu na blazinju’. In 1986, he also arranged Hari Mata Hari’s second studio album. Rihtman’s most lasting involvement, though, was with singer-songwriter Kemal Monteno. The working relationship between Monteno and Rihtman lasted for 18 years (1977-95).

In Boston for one of his two summer semesters at the Berklee College of Music, early 1980s

“Before Kemal approached me, he worked exclusively with Stipica Kalogjera, an excellent arranger from Zagreb. For some reason, he turned to me. Perhaps he wanted to change the sound of his music a bit? I never asked him. For the first album I worked on in 1977, I did half of the songs, while Stipica arranged the other half. To me, arranging Kemal’s song was inspirational, because I knew him well and liked to think that I understood his inner feelings. This allowed me to incorporate those emotions into the orchestrations. The extent of romanticism in his songs, this Italian flavour… somehow they fit my inner emotions. Kemal was a talented songwriter. I never met any other person without a formal education in music with so much musicianship and talent. It was unbelievable. In this genre, he was the best artist I have worked with.”

“In those last years before the outbreak of war, there were quite regular commissions coming my way to write theatre and film music. The first film I contributed to was ‘The Smell of Quinces’ (in 1982 – BT), with me writing the orchestrations to the music written by Esad Arnautalić. Esad and I regularly worked on projects together – I particularly remember one being five months into the Siege of Sarajevo; Esad’s house was in a part of Sarajevo from which it was impossible to get to the radio studios. Instead, Esad sang me a song over the telephone which I wrote down on the other end of the line. Later, the telephone lines broke down and it became impossible to maintain even this form of contact. To my mind, however, my most accomplished film music was for ‘My Brother Aleksa’, which was broadcast as a TV sequel – and later reworked for cinema. When I heard Dragan Stojnić was the singer booked to record the vocal parts of the main character, I was happy. The man had a beautiful voice. He gave me the inspiration and I wrote the music on his skin. I never thought writing film music required some special talent. I composed it just like any other music. Just think… why are the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone or Nino Rota so good? It’s because their music works just as well with as without images. At the end of the day, it’s the quality of the composition that counts.”

“When the war started, my wife and I pretty quickly took the decision that we wanted to go. No matter how it ended, I didn’t want to live in a country in which nationalism played such a big part. Of course, everyone knew Yugoslavia needed to be reorganised, especially economically, but it was a tragedy that our country was killed at the hands of a bunch of primitives taking power in the respective republics. Friends in Ljubljana and Zagreb urged me to escape, offering their help to build a new life there, but I was too disgusted to stay in Yugoslavia. I didn’t want to be an emigrant in my own country. My wife and I decided to go to Israel. It was simply the easiest option. Through maternal lineage, she qualified as a Jewess, which meant we got a passport in a matter of weeks. Abandoning Sarajevo was extremely painful. I loved my city and my orchestra – the big band was my life. We had to leave everything behind.”

RTV Sarajevo’s Big Band performing in a concert conducted by Ranko Rihtman (1980)

“Coming to Israel we settled in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. The first stages of our stay weren’t easy. The Israelis achieved wonderful things in building up their country, but it took time to adapt to the extremely high pace of living and the Israeli mentality which involves a constant fight over each centimetre of physical and mental space. My initial problem was the language. We were offered Hebrew language courses, but it was hard getting beyond the level required at the local market. It was difficult, really difficult; it’s enough to say they write from right to left – everything in this language is the other way around from what I was used to! Then there was the question of how to earn a living. Nobody knew me. The easiest way to start was playing the piano in bars and restaurants. I was the pianist in a café in an expensive part of Tel Aviv for some time; and after a while, the work began to feel gratifying. I remembered how Herb Pomeroy had taught me to respect the work – any work – you were doing as a musician.”

“Then, in November 1995, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. In those shocking circumstances, the café closed down for a week or so – and when it reopened, the owner decided to do away with live music. Incredibly, though, in that same week, I was offered a job at the Yamaha Music School, where I taught elementary music lessons to young children – and not long after, I got in touch with Yehuda Cohen, a guy who owned the Hed College of Contemporary Music. When I heard this academy had its own big band, I approached him. Mr Cohen offered me the opportunity to work with the orchestra in a rehearsal – and though he was satisfied with my work, he told me he didn’t have a job for me. I thought that was the end of it, but some days later, I was telephoned by his secretary asking me to come back for a second meeting. There, Cohen told me he would like me to teach a summer course of jazz harmony and arranging to a group of students who had failed the first year. I designed a course – and after that summer, he offered me a permanent job as a teacher of those same courses. It was a lucky turn of events to lose one job and find a better one almost literally the day after. It was unbelievable.”

“That teaching job at Hed College was the best thing that could have happened to me. Though I never thought of myself as a natural-born teacher, the work was extremely rewarding. Most students were intrinsically motivated. It turned out I liked working with young people, sharing my knowledge and experiences with them. My two summer courses taken at Berklee came in extremely handy in building the curriculum. Herb Pomeroy probably didn’t remember me, but career-wise I owe this man a lot. As a teacher, I think I wasn’t that different from my father. When I followed his courses at the ethnomusicology department back in the 70s, he was strict, very strict. Now that I had groups of students in front of me, I found I incorporated this same strictness into my lessons. Apart from teaching, I was the principal arranger and conductor of the big band. All in all, my spell at the Hed College lasted 20 years – and I look back on it with happiness. As a teacher, I had an impact. For a good teacher, it’s not important that the students love you; it’s important that you love the students. It’s true, because they’ll feel it and follow the path you choose for them. Even now, years after I left Israel, some of them regularly write emails to ask how I am doing – and two who got married visited me on their honeymoon in Europe. All of that feels very rewarding.”

Ranko Rihtman with a group of his students at the Hed College in Tel Aviv

In the course of his 23 years in Israel (1992-2015), Ranko Rihtman regularly received commissions from his native Bosnia. In 1997, working with his old conducting colleague Esad Arnautalić, he composed the music to Ademir Kenović’s much-acclaimed film ‘The Perfect Circle’. One year later, Rihtman was asked to write the original arrangement to Bosnia & Herzegovina’s new national anthem, composed by Dušan Šestić.

“Coincidentally, in 1992, when I was still in Sarajevo, I also wrote the arrangement to the first Bosnian anthem, ‘Jedna si jedina’. It was based on a Bosnian folk song which was very popular, but the original melody is Turkish. It doesn’t have the structure of a Bosnian folk song. Dino Merlin, who wrote new lyrics to it, asked me to look at the arrangement. I like the spirit in which the anthem was created. Everyone involved was full of enthusiasm to achieve something positive in those gloomy days. When the decision was taken by the United Nation’s High Officer that Bosnia needed a new anthem, three melodies were chosen to take part in a competition, in which they were due to be recorded by the German army’s brass orchestra. Although I was living in Israel at the time, Bosnian authorities commissioned me with the task of writing those three arrangements. The creative process was challenging, mostly because I had never written for this type of orchestra. There were several brass instruments in it which aren’t part of a big band. In the end, a jury chose Dušan Šestić’s composition to replace ‘Jedna si jedina’ as Bosnia’s official anthem.”

“In 2015, I reached the pensionable age. I could have continued working at the music academy in Tel Aviv, but my wife and I decided we preferred to come back to Yugoslavia. We were looking for a peaceful place, which meant that Bosnia, with its ethnic divisions and nationalism, wasn’t an option. I consider myself a Yugoslav and a Bosnian, but in Bosnia you’re always first a Bosniak, a Serb, or a Croat. It makes me sick. In the end, we settled for Poreč in Istria, Croatia. It’s beautiful here, with the sea close by and a small forest close to our house. The Istrian peninsula is the place which is most similar to what Yugoslavia used to be like. People here are nice, not aggressive, without too many problems to worry about, and smart enough to keep the political issues in Zagreb at a safe distance. In Istria, you don’t need to feel inhibited to speak positively about Yugoslavia and about Tito – in a proper way, knowing that not everything was perfect in those days. In another sense it’s good to live in this part of the world as well. My father was born in Rijeka, a town close to Istria, so somehow I feel a geographical circle has been closed.”

“Although retired, I do accept some writing commissions now and then. The first was a Christmas concert in Ljubljana with Oliver Dragojević, for which I wrote symphonic versions to some of his most popular hits. The reactions were so positive that I was asked to take care of all symphonic arrangements for his 70th anniversary concert in Zagreb the following year. Since then, commissions to write pop arrangements for classical concerts in Slovenia and Croatia have come in regularly… but fortunately not too many, because I want to take things easy now that I finally can.”

Mr Rihtman with his former fellow conductor at the RTV Sarajevo Big Band, Esad Arnautalić

“The war and its political consequences may have changed Sarajevo, but it is still my city. In Israel, I often dreamt of coming back to Sarajevo to teach. It would have been difficult given the backwardness of the curriculum of the music academy there, but since my return I have been doing the occasional masterclass. Usually, academy students know nothing about pop music. Every year in May, at a festival of classical music for young musicians in Sarajevo, I give a one-week beginners’ course of jazz harmony. Everyone interested can sit in. Hopefully it helps them in their further careers. Fortunately, there is a big band in Sarajevo nowadays. It was founded by the drummer of the original big band which disbanded in 1992. I am happy to be in a position to help them by writing arrangements and conducting concerts. I come over a couple of times a year. Not surprisingly, local authorities don’t support the band in any way, but even so the enthusiasm among players is there and the level is quite advanced. Our most recent project is an album of Indexi songs, in part recorded in Zagreb – and it turned out pretty well!”

“Last April (in 2022 – BT), I came back to Bosnia to conduct the Sarajevo Philharmonic at the National Theatre in a concert of evergreen songs dedicated to Sarajevo. It was called ‘Sarajevo, ljubavi moja’. The programme included some Eurovision songs, like ‘Gori vatra’, but also hits by Indexi, Bijelo Dugme, and Dino Merlin. Of the twenty compositions, I arranged eleven myself. The concert should really be understood as a declaration of love to the city. This type of cultural expression is necessary to raise a sense of self-awareness in Bosnians, especially in the younger generation. That evening was a success, with people in the auditorium reacting enthusiastically. There are plans to do the same show every two or three months now. I worked on a very similar concert with the Zagreb Philharmonic at the end of 2021, with music from Sarajevo as a present to Zagreb; and subsequently also in Ljubljana. There are plans to take that concert on tour across the former Yugoslavia, with orchestras in Skopje and Belgrade having expressed interest. It’s a wonderful project to be part of.”

“I consider myself a lucky guy. I hardly ever had to take a decision or express an ambition in any direction. Joining Indexi, conducting the big band, teaching jazz harmony – everything just happened to me. My work was in all imaginable genres; jazz, rock, folk, pop, classical music, soundtracks, commercials; sometimes mixing styles and working on very different projects simultaneously. Having the opportunity to express myself as an all-round musician was the best situation imaginable for me. I feel rich because of all the experiences which crossed my path. I wouldn’t change a thing!”

Ranko Rihtman in the Eurovision Song Contest
In the days of the former Yugoslavia, the usual selection method for the country’s Eurovision entry was allowing the various republic’s broadcasters to submit songs for a national final. In total, between Yugoslavia’s Eurovision debut in 1961 and its last participation in 1992, five songs of Bosnia’s RTV Sarajevo won the right to represent the country on the international stage – with three different conductors being involved, first Radivoje Spasić (1964-65), then Esad Arnautalić (1973, 1976), and lastly Ranko Rihtman (1981).

The first of the two entries conducted by Arnautalić, ‘Gori vatra’, had an arrangement penned by Rihtman. In the international final in Luxembourg, this Kemal Monteno composition was performed confidently by Zdravko Čolić, nicknamed ‘Tom Jones of the Balkans’. The song scored meagrely with a fifteenth place, but it became a hit across Yugoslavia nonetheless – and has meanwhile reached the status of a classic. When Rihtman was asked to write the arrangement for it, his career as an arranger was still in its infancy.

“It wasn’t my first orchestration, but it was certainly among the earlier ones. At that stage, I had just left Indexi to focus on my studies and work as a pianist in Sarajevo’s Radio Orchestra. I don’t even remember who asked me to do that arrangement. I was friends with Kemal Monteno, but it wasn’t him who approached me, nor was it Esad Arnautalić. The decision was probably taken in the production team of RTV Sarajevo. They must have felt that I deserved a chance. To me, it was a big challenge to work on a Eurovision song; and a song which was to be performed by Zdravko Čolić, who was a very popular artist. I was happy to be given the opportunity.”

“Kemal Monteno came to my place, playing the song for me on his guitar. I was at the piano, writing down the chords while listening to him. From the beginning, I sensed this song had potential. I can’t explain it, but sometimes a song catches you right from the beginning – which is helpful, because in those cases the arrangement usually builds itself. If this doesn’t happen, an arranging commission can turn into a battle, with the arranger having to fight his way through a song. This certainly wasn’t the case with ‘Gori vatra’. Pretty soon I figured out a bass line for the chorus. Kemal loved it. Then I also had an idea for the intro. All the while, Kemal was at my side. We were creating it together, in a spirit of friendship. Later on I became Kemal’s record arranger, but we were already a good team years before.”

Ranko Rihtman (left) with songwriter Kemal Monteno and Zdravko Čolić after winning the 1973 Opatija Festival, which doubled as the Yugoslavian Eurovision selection

“Yes, the arrangement was very brassy, but that was the standard form of a Eurovision arrangement in those days. Of course it needed that frame. When you’re arranging an Italian song, you have to listen to Italian music. When you’re writing a soundtrack, you have to acquaint yourself with the idiom of film music – not in order to imitate someone else’s style, but just to feel the flavour of it. I’ve always told my students in Israel that listening is perhaps the single-most important part of being an arranger. When you’re working on a song for Eurovision, you’d better make sure it fits the frame of sound of the contest. When taking part in a competition, you want to score well; that’s why we were in it! No, we never thought about winning. For us, Yugoslavs, it was natural to be there and just perform to the best of our abilities.”

“That was the spirit in which I wrote the arrangement – and as far as I was concerned, it ended there and then. I didn’t think about what would come out of it. Esad Arnautalić was to conduct the song in Eurovision. He was the big band’s only conductor at the time – so it was only logical that he went to the contest with Čolić. I wasn’t recognised as a conductor yet. I don’t think Esad had an especially difficult job. When the orchestra is good, the role of a conductor in pop music is limited. I must have watched the contest on television, but I remember very little of it. Perhaps I was too indifferent about the conducting job at the time, but that’s part of my character. The most important thing for me was having my name on the record sleeve of a Eurovision song. Eurovision was a popular event in the former Yugoslavia. I was part of a winning team. It was important for my reputation among musicians in Yugoslavia, but not something that I was extremely proud of – either then or now.”

“It was the first time I wrote an arrangement for Čolić. Some years later, when he won the Vaš Šlager Sezone Festival in Sarajevo with ‘Zelena si rijeka bila’ (in 1974 – BT), the arrangement was mine as well. Shortly after this, Čolić moved to Belgrade where he teamed up with Kornelije Kovač as his main songwriter and arranger. That’s where my contribution to his career ended. Looking back, I don’t consider ‘Gori vatra’ to be among his best songs. It was popular, but I was never sure if this was because of Zdravko being popular anyway or because the song was so good. Most probably it was a combination of the two. Čolić had several much better songs in the course of his career, Kemal Monteno wrote many songs which were better, and I did several much better arrangements. It was a good song, full stop.”

Seid Memić-Vajta performing ‘Leila’ on the 1981 Eurovision stage in Dublin

Three years after ‘Gori vatra’, a Bosnian song won the national final in Yugoslavia again, but ‘Ne mogu skriti svoju bol’ by Ambasadori scored abysmally in the contest, finishing with just a couple of votes. It is not clear if there is a correlation between this result and the decision by Yugoslav broadcasting authorities not to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest the following years. It was not until 1981 that the Balkan republic returned – and yet again with a Bosnian song. The Yugoslavian national final in Belgrade was won by Ranko Boban’s composition ‘Leila’. Its performer, Seid Memić-Vajta, originally a rock singer, gave the simple love song extra character by virtue of his striking, gritty vocals. At the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, this Yugoslavian entry, arranged as well as conducted by Ranko Rihtman, finished fifteenth among twenty participants.

“The story of how I got involved is pretty similar to what I told you about ‘Gori vatra’. I was an arranger for RTV Sarajevo; and looking for somebody able to write arrangements for this type of pop song, the production team turned to me. I wasn’t over the moon to be asked. Firstly, I can’t say that I was very impressed by the song. It was not my cup of tea. Vajta was a big star in Yugoslavia, but I never really understood why he was so popular. When the producer and Ranko Boban came to me to ask me to write the orchestration, I promised them to do it on the condition that they use that same arrangement on Vajta’s forthcoming album. I didn’t want to get into a discussion about fuzzy details afterwards. Boban agreed, and so I wrote it. I told myself to stick to the character of the song and put it into the frame that they were expecting from me. It was a commission I worked on as a good music professional. Of course ‘Leila’ was a song that required a totally different approach than ‘Gori vatra’. It had to be less orchestral in its approach. I mean, this is Vajta – you can’t write a Mahler-type orchestration for this type of performer. It would have sounded ridiculous. My arrangement was rhythm-oriented with some orchestral elements gently in the background.”

“The national final in Belgrade wasn’t a pretty affair. Every republic’s television centre had its own interests, which resulted in rather unsavoury political games going on behind the scenes during rehearsals about who would vote for which song. I took it as a fact of life, but didn’t like it at all. I stayed far away from all those discussions. In the end, when Vajta won, there was a row between television officials from different parts of Yugoslavia. This type of fight is a reflection of the human character, but it made me all the more determined to stick to doing my conducting job; also in the Eurovision final in Dublin.”

Ranko Rihtman being introduced to the audience at the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest

“Coming to Dublin was a nice experience. I had never been to Ireland before. My wife was with me. It was a week I will not forget. First, there was the pleasure of seeing parts of this beautiful island. Dublin was a city bustling with music, but behind the facades it wasn’t that difficult to note that there were social issues as well, with young kids roaming the streets long after dusk. As for the local mentality, if you can make a generalisation about national character, I would say the Irish are actually very close to Bosnians. They have a big artistic heart… and they are straightforward and sincere. When their horse races are due, they simply don’t go to work; they stop doing whatever they were busy with, pop into a pub to have a beer and watch the races. At that moment, nothing else is important. Compared to the English, people in Ireland are so much more emotional.”

“In Dublin, Vajta and Ranko Boban mainly kept themselves to themselves. They were a team and I wasn’t close to either of them. Vajta is a nice person, but as an artist he’s not very steady. He needs a very strong guiding hand. Ranko Boban was there for him, soothing his nerves. I wasn’t particularly keen to get involved. In the course of the week, I was much closer to the backing musicians. There was my old friend from Indexi, Slobodan Kovačević, on guitar; and with us, there were also three girls singing backing vocals (Neda Ukraden, Jadranka Stojaković, and Ismeta Krvavac – BT). All three of them were stars in Sarajevo, enjoying successful singing careers in Bosnia. It tells you something about the atmosphere in the world of arts in Sarajevo that three established artists agreed to be at the back of the stage. It was an atmosphere of friendship and teamwork. The girls, Slobodan, and I spent a lot of time together in Dublin. Absolutely, we enjoyed ourselves.”

“The organisation by the Irish was spot-on; it must have been an enormous task for them, but they made it look simple and smooth. The orchestra I got to work with in the festival was highly professional. I remember there was a break in the rehearsals, and when I was at my conductor’s desk five minutes before we were due to restart, I was dismayed to find that none of the musicians were back yet. For a moment, I was annoyed, but I needn’t have been – because five minutes later everybody was there and ready to continue working. It was a very good experience. The orchestra members were relaxed. From their point of view, the arrangements weren’t very demanding. In a Eurovision Song Contest, complicated arrangements have no place. The rehearsals were easy. The musicians knew their parts perfectly when I first conducted them. The only reason we had to play the score a second time was because the production crew were unsure about their cues. As I told you before, the job of a conductor in such a festival is easy. I wasn’t nervous because there was nothing to worry about.”

Ranko Boban (in white, centre-stage) with Vajta (in black, to his right) receiving first prize at the 1982 edition of Vaš Šlager Sezone with ‘Naša pisma’. On the far left, also in white, is the song’s arranger and conductor Ranko Rihtman

“I never expected to win or do well with this song and singer. The performance was fine; we couldn’t have done more than this. Vajta and Boban might have felt disillusioned, but I simply don’t know more about it – it just goes to show that I wasn’t close to either of them. Remember I was essentially in the contest to do a job. I wasn’t so involved emotionally. Back in Sarajevo, I was a little annoyed to find that Ranko Boban didn’t stick to the promise he had made to me. Instead of releasing the song with my arrangement, he had Vajta record a new version without strings (done by Mirko Krstičević – BT). That new arrangement was included on Vajta’s album. It was a good studio arrangement, a very simple one; ok, fine, except that Boban had given his word that he wouldn’t do it.”

“Conducting in Eurovision wasn’t just another job. Like the arrangement for ‘Gori vatra’ in 1973, it was an interesting addition to my CV, different from anything else I did; and, even though the job was so easy, it was a good experience. Thinking purely as a musician, though, Eurovision wasn’t even close to the most memorable moments in my career. For instance, I conducted a symphony orchestra and choir in five concerts with Bijelo Dugme in a huge sports arena in Belgrade, each of those evenings attended by some 5,000 people. During those concerts, I realised that art is the only thing in life that allows you to live your life completely in the present. In all the other moments of your life, you’re either thinking about the past or about the future… but when you’re in the midst of a big concert of good music, it grabs you; you’re living fully in the present moment. As you may understand, that wasn’t an emotion I felt when I was conducting the orchestra for Vajta in Dublin. It was a case of appearing for three minutes – nothing more. Two completely different stories.”

In the course of the 1980s, and into the early 90s, Ranko Rihtman contributed to several more entries in Jugovizija, the Yugoslavian Eurovision pre-selection, as an arranger and conductor – including two more efforts by Vajta, ‘Sandra’ in 1986 and ‘Opusti se’ in 1987. “Well, I don’t remember these song titles,” Rihtman admits, smiling. “As an arranger, I was involved in several more albums with Vajta after his Eurovision participation. Having been offered the opportunity to work with him, I saw no reason to turn him down. It was a commercial move on my part. Vajta continued being successful in Yugoslavia during those years. But those aren’t arrangements that I’m particularly proud of. In each arrangement you can express yourself in some way or another, but there was less opportunity to give Vajta’s music my distinct trademark than was the case with artists like, let’s say, Bijelo Dugme, Indexi, or Kemal Monteno.”

Ranko Rihtman with Ismeta Dervoz (Krvavac) at the 1999 Eurovision Song Contest in Jerusalem

In 1999, when the Eurovision Song Contest final was held in Jerusalem, Ranko Rihtman was invited by Bosnian television to join their delegation for the week leading up to the contest. “It was a very nice gesture from them to invite me and my wife to be their guests. Of course, we were living in Israel at the time. In the delegation, I met many former colleagues – and it was heart-warming to note that, when we met, it was as if we had never been apart. I left Bosnia in 1992, but the friendship was still there. They quizzed me about my experiences in Dublin all those years before, and it was nice to meet Ismeta Krvavac again (or Ismeta Dervoz, as she called herself by then – BT), who, as you remember, was one of our backing singers in Ireland. Ismeta, who had meanwhile switched to Bosnian television, led the delegation in Jerusalem. Of course I also met our soloist Dino Merlin, who was a good colleague. When I was still in Sarajevo, Dino and I joined forces to create Bosnia’s first anthem, based on a folk melody, ‘Jedna si jedina’. That was when the war had just begun. It was nice to meet again in peaceful circumstances at the contest in Israel.”

“These days, I still watch the Eurovision Song Contest, but not with the same amount of interest as in the old days. There is something I don’t like – not so much about Eurovision in particular, but about the development of the music industry. To me everything sounds the same. I don’t have a clue how they choose the best song nowadays. Every entry seems to have a similar style of production and the same staging. Sometimes, forcedly, some folklore is added here and there, but in a way that, from an artistic point of view, is very cheap. The visual aspect has won in importance. All of this explains why an orchestra isn’t required. Unlike the old days, it was no longer an important part of the picture or of the production in general. In today’s pop music, conductors and arrangers hardly have a place. In the days of the former Yugoslavia, the radio studios were the most advanced in the country, with the best equipment – and all artists wanted to record their material with us. Later on, private studios popped up everywhere, giving artists and producers the possibility to record their material in a way that was much cheaper and much simpler… the result being that arrangers all of a sudden were like dinosaurs! I wouldn’t say I deplore those developments; I guess it’s just the way of the world.”

Other artists on Ranko Rihtman
A Sarajevo-bred musician of a younger generation, Muhamed Fazlagić was the first Eurovision representative of Bosnia & Herzegovina as an independent state in 1993, one year after Rihtman left for Israel: “If Ranko Rihtman hadn’t escaped earlier, he would probably have been my group’s conductor in the contest. I was close to Dino Merlin… and Dino was close to Ranko. He would have been our logical choice for Eurovision, certainly given that Dino had written the song for our group. When thinking of Ranko, I would say nobody was more important in raising the level of the big band in Sarajevo than he was. He was always gathering younger people around him, keen to educate them and make them better musicians. He is a genius – a great musician, conductor, and a wonderful person and patriot besides that. I have nothing but the greatest respect for him.” (2020 & 2022)

Mr Rihtman with Macedonian singer Kaliopi (2013)

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker did an interview with Ranko Rihtman, July 2022.
  • A YouTube playlist of Ranko Rihtman’s music is available by clicking this link.
  • Thanks to Ismet Arnautalić for getting me in touch with Ranko Rihtman; as well as providing the bulk of the photos above.
  • Infinite thanks go out to Amina Šišić for agreeing at short notice to act as an impromptu interpreter for parts of the interview – and for being present at the conversation in its entirety.
  • Various interviews with Ranko Rihtman with Bosnian media, available online, were consulted as a preparation for our conversation with him.
  • Photos courtesy of Ismet Arnautalić, Ranko Rihtman, and Ferry van der Zant.
  • Thanks to Mark Coupar and Edwin van Gorp for proofreading the manuscript; and to Edwin van Gorp for uploading it onto the website.


Songs conducted
1981: Leila