Aleksandar Džambazov (Александар Џамбазов)Born: February 3rd, 1936, Stapar, Vojvodina (Yugoslavia, nowadays Serbia)
Died: January 25th, 2022, Skopje (Macedonia)
How did young Aleksandar get interested in music? “The music gene was part of my family. My father was a Wunderkind at the prim, the Turkish version of the mandolin. As a child, he was even sent to Istanbul to further master that instrument. My aunt, who was widowed and lived with our family, also played the prim. She used to sing lullabies for me as a baby, accompanying herself on the mandolin. As I was told later, I ended up singing lullabies for her, singing the songs she had sung to me… and she fell asleep instead of me! I was very lucky to meet Sergej Michailov. He was a Russian aristocrat who had fled the communist regime in the Soviet Union and settled down in Macedonia. He was an excellent composer and pedagogue, who had even taught the King of Japan. In tip, he managed to stimulate the miners and factory workers in our town to such an extent that they performed operas. He also taught music to the local children. Thanks to him, all children in town were fond of music, discussing the basics of music theory amongst one another! I passed an audition with him. Following that, Michailov became my violin teacher. I attended his lessons for three years” (1945-’48).
In 1948, Aleksandar’s father, who prospered under new Titoist rule in communist Yugoslavia and had become supervisor of all schools in tip, moved to Skopje. It was there that young Aleksandar continued his education. Apart from secondary school, he attended music school. Meanwhile, it had dawned to the people around him that he possessed a special talent for music: “The headmaster of regular school called my father, telling him that he should allow his son to focus fully on his music studies. He said that I had the abilities become Macedonia’s Paganini. It had been discovered that I possessed perfect pitch, being able to recognize eight, and later ten, different tones simultaneously. As I was so far ahead of the rest, the music school’s principal regularly sent me out to do some shopping for him while my classmates were toiling on tests in solfège and other basics of music theory.”
As a teenager in Skopje, Džambazov slowly lost interest in the violin and classical music altogether: “Though I had an excellent violin teacher, Ettore Balestri who played in the Scala in Milan before coming to Skopje, I did not enjoy playing very much. Parallelly, I got more and more fascinated by jazz. I discovered the recordings of American band leaders such as Xavier Cugat and Glenn Miller. The crucial moment, however, was in 1952, when I saw the old Hollywood movie ‘Bathing Beauty’, which featured the big band of Harry James. From that moment onwards, I knew I wanted to be a jazz musician. My objective? To become Macedonia’s answer to Gershwin! To achieve this, I had to learn to play another instrument, as it is hardly possible to play polyphony on the violin. A friend helped me on the guitar. By that time, I had also mastered the piano, which was my second instrument at music school. Being the favourite of the school’s principal, I was allowed to play jazz after the regular school hours. This was an immense privilege, because, in the first years after the war, jazz was frowned upon by communist authorities as it originated from the capitalist West. All of that changed after the Tito-Stalin split in 1948. After it, there was absolute artistic freedom in Yugoslavia. I got in touch with Dragan Djakonovski-pato, who was five years older than me. Really, that man is the father of pop and jazz music in Macedonia. He allowed me to join his jazz sextet. In 1953, when I was seventeen, I did my first public performance with Djakonovski’s band. I stayed for the next three years. As Italian music was extremely popular in Macedonia in those days, our band’s regular repertoire was full of Sanremo songs for which Dragan had written out the arrangement by listening to the original Italian records.
After finishing secondary school, Aleksandar Džambazov moved to Belgrade, where he studied music theory at the Belgrade Music Academy (1956-’60). Džambazov: “There was no conservatory in Skopje at that time, so I had to leave Macedonia in order to fulfil my ambition. Like other Macedonian students in Belgrade, I couldn’t afford proper lodging and stayed in a dormitory. For that reason, I couldn’t have studied piano – there were no possibilities to practice at home. Therefore, I chose music theory as my main subject, whilst I took piano, harmony, composition, and conducting as minors. My favourite teacher was Marko Tajčević, who taught the piano and composition. He wanted me to stay in Belgrade for one more year as his assistant, but, by that time, my finances had been exhausted to the last penny and I had to decline. In spite of the fact that Belgrade in the 1950s did not have the cultural buzz of Zagreb or Ljubljana, both of which enjoyed more western influences, the years I spent in Serbia were unforgettable. During my student days, I played in the jazz orchestra of Vojislav Simić. In 1960, we went to Joan-les-Pins on the French Riviera, where our big band won first prize in the local jazz festival. An indelible memory!”
By the time of his graduation in Belgrade, Džambazov was beginning to make his mark as a composer of popular repertoire as well. In 1960, two of his compositions were selected for the Opatija Song Festival. One of these songs, ‘Pesma povratka’ (lyrics: Sava andorov) was interpreted by the famous Croatian songstress Gabi Novak. “In 1960, 402 compositions were submitted to compete in Opatija”, Džambazov recalls. “It was an honour that my creations were selected from that bunch to take part in the festival final. Opatija was the Yugoslavian answer to the Italian Sanremo Festival and became the most popular music festival in Yugoslavia by far. Everyone wanted to take part. In those days, there was lots of enthusiasm amongst singers, songwriters, and arrangers, whilst bribe and corruption to get your song selected did not exist yet. In the following years, more of my compositions competed in Opatija. This resulted in my melodies being published in Yugoslavian songbooks along with the most popular Sanremo songs.”
In total, between 1960 and 1976, twenty-one of Aleksandar Džambazov’s compositions took part in the Opatija Song Festival, making him the record holder amongst Yugoslavian composers in terms of number of participations. Some of his most popular Opatija compositions include ‘Pred branovi’ for Radoslav Graić, ‘Ti i jas’ for Marjana Deržaj (both 1961), ‘Ljubav i motor’ for Miki Jevremović and the 4M quartet, which was awarded a special jury prize in 1962, ‘Stom te vidam’ for Dime Popovski (1966), and ‘Dojdi’ for Violeta Tomovska in 1967. For most of the songs mentioned, Džambazov worked with lyricist Gjoko Georgiev. In the 1960s and 1970s, Džambazov’s creations were recorded by many other Yugoslavian artists, such as Nina Spirova, Tereza Kesovija, Vice Vukov, Zdenka Kovačićek, and Ambasadori. Moreover, his composition ‘Sunčani januar’, interpreted by Zvonko piić, took part in the 1963 Belgrade Song Festival.
Meanwhile, Džambazov had returned to Macedonia, being employed by local broadcaster RTV Skopje, editing radio opera programs and producing classical music recordings for radio broadcasts (1962-’64). Prior to that, in 1961, RTV Skopje had made him president of the committee charged with the foundation of the broadcaster’s big band. “My old friend Dragan Djakonovski became the chief conductor of the big band”, Džambazov recounts. “Because of Dragan’s enthusiasm, I approved of the inclusion in the band of two musicians with no music school background at all! It was a set piece big band of some twenty elements. Because Djakonovski’s wife wanted him to move to Bitola, however, he moved the entire orchestra there, and soon after that he left for Belgrade, leaving the musicians without a conductor. Though I would have preferred to stay on as a radio producer, which left me more time to write my own compositions, I undertook the musical directorship of the RTV Skopje Big Band & Jazz Orchestra at the request of the broadcaster. That was in 1964.”
Aleksandar Džambazov was the chief conductor of RTV Skopje’s Big Band & Jazz Orchestra, renamed the MKRTV Big Band Orchestra in 1993 after Macedonian independence, for thirty-seven consecutive years (1964-2001), possibly a world record for any light entertainment conductor. During the latter half of his tenure, Džambazov was assisted by Berklee-bred musician Ilija Pejovski. Džambazov: “Most of the orchestra’s work took place in the TV and radio recording studios. We did two recordings every week, with instrumental and vocal music, ranging from folk and pop to jazz, depending on what our producers asked us. We also did some touring in Macedonia, but not very often. The most important thing was… we had absolute artistic freedom to play the music in a style we wanted. Younger people seem to think that, under communism, state control was everywhere, but this is simply not true… we could do as we pleased. That is why Tito was the idol of many Yugoslavians: after all, he stood up for our freedom against Stalin.”
What is Mr Džambazov’s fondest memory of his long time with the big band? “It is impossible to answer that question… perhaps I should mention our participation in the Radenci Festival for Instrumental Music in Slovenia. That was a wonderful manifestation, organized with the objective to popularize instrumental music in Yugoslavia. All big bands taking part were given the same piece of music – often a folkloric theme from some part of Yugoslavia – and the award was given to the best arrangement. In 1984 and 1985, my orchestra won first prize for best program choice in this Radenci Festival. Maybe slightly more high profile were the commissions to accompany all songs in two editions of the Opatija Song Festival and two editions of the Split Song Festival in Croatia in the 1970s… we were honoured to be part of those big events!”
Aleksandar Džambazov stood at the cradle of the Festival na Zabavni Melodii Skopje, commonly known as the Skopje Fest, the most important Macedonian pop music festival, which ran until 1980, and was given a second life after Macedonian independence from 1994 onwards. Džambazov: “I was approached by the government of Macedonia to organize a concert of Macedonian classical and pop music to stimulate composers. After consulting my composer colleagues, however, we decided to turn it into a competition. I suggested to allow twelve compositions into the festival each year, which would each be performed by two or four different artists – ideally two, one from Macedonia and one from another Yugoslavian republic, each in his or her own mother tongue – in different arrangements. After my proposal had been approved by the government, the first Skopje Fest was held in 1968. All songs were accompanied by my big band, which was turned into a true Revijski Orkestar or Festival Orchestra with the addition of classical string and woodwind players from the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra and the local opera orchestra especially for the occasion. In the first twelve years of the festival, I always was the chief conductor, usually helped by Dragan Djakonovski and one or two conductors from other Yugoslavian broadcasters, such as Bojan Adamič from Slovenia.”
Maestro Džambazov did not make his mark in the Skopje Festival as an arranger and conductor only, but as a composer too. His composition ‘Sramežlivi luge’, interpreted by Violeta Tomovska, Ljupka Dimitrova, Zafir Hadzimanov, and Dime Tomovski, won the first edition of the festival in 1968. Later onwards, two more of Džambazov’s compositions were declared winners of the competition: ‘Samo ti’, interpreted by Miki Jevremović and Zoran Milosavljević in 1971; and ‘O, ljubav neverna’, performed by Zafir Hadžimanov in 1978. He took part in the festival with many more songs, which were interpreted by the likes of Ɖani Maran and Zoran Georgiev. In 1969, Josipa Lisac and Elda Viler sang his composition ‘Doviduvanje’ (arranged by Stipica Kalogjera), which only came second, but went on to become a huge hit success across Yugoslavia.
Another of Džambazov’s brainchildren is Zlatno Slavejče, the Golden Nightingale Song Festival, a singing competition for children which has been held annually since 1971 (with the exception of 1981) and therefore is one of the oldest children’s song festival in Europe, second only to Italy’s Zucchino d’Oro. In the early years of the festival, Džambazov wrote dozens of arrangements and composed no fewer than thirteen songs for the competition, of which ‘Mojata učitelka’ was declared winning entry in 1976. This song constituted the debut of the later famous Macedonian pop star Kaliopi, at that time just nine years old, who had been discovered by Džambazov during an audition in Ohrid. Apart from that, Džambazov composed the theme tune for Zlatno Slavejče, ‘Za site deca’ (For every child), which has become an evergreen in Macedonia. Between 1971 and 1989, Džambazov and his big band accompanied all songs competing in the Golden Nightingale. Though the big band was skipped from the competition in 1990 due to a lack of budget, Džambazov has remained involved as a member of the selection committee.
In spite of his long spell at the helm of RTV Skopje’s Big Band, Aleksandar Džambazov found time to create a quite impressive oeuvre of serious music. In 1966, his ‘Rhapsody for Skopje’, a piece for piano and orchestra with unmistakable Gershwin undertones, won the 5th International Competition for Symphonic Jazz in Italy. Moreover, he composed ‘Smile before dawn’, a piece for piano and vocalist based on a poem by Jovan Koteski (1967), ‘Seven Dance Variations’ for piano and orchestra (1977), and several choral pieces. In the genre of brass band music, Džambazov wrote countless orchestrations, whilst many of his compositions, such as ‘Te čekam’ for Olgica Andonova (1970) and ‘Zemjo naa najskapa’ for Dragan Mijalkovski (1975), took part in Yugoslavian music festivals for revolutionary and patriotic songs. Apart from all this, he composed the music to radio and TV plays as well as several movie soundtracks, most notably for the film ‘Memento’ in 1967.
For the first edition of the MakFest (1986), another pop music festival held every November in tip, Džambazov submitted two compositions, both arranged by Stipica Kalogjera: ‘Ti si moja sudbina’ and ‘Pej za ljubovta, pij za mladosta’. On the 11th of October 1998, three years prior to his retirement from the conductorship of the MKRTV Big Band Orchestra, Džambazov was honoured with the Award of the City of Skopje in recognition of his entire oeuvre and his contribution to Macedonian music. Since his retirement, several more oeuvre prizes have been bestowed upon him. In the 2014 edition of the Days of Macedonian Music Festival, his masterpiece ‘Rhapsody for Skopje’ was performed in public for the first time in forty-six years by the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra. “The Rhapsody is the composition which is dearest to my heart”, says Džambazov. “As I mentioned before, I did not have as much time as I wanted to create my own music, but the prize which this piece won in Italy as well as the critical acclaim are ample satisfaction to make up for that. With this piece, I feel I have given Macedonia something which will live on to following generations.”
The Library of the Macedonian Association of Composers, Lyricists, and Music Publishers contains 1,450 pieces of sheet music in which Aleksandar Džambazov was involved as a composer, arranger, or producer. His son Igor (born in 1963) is one of Macedonia’s most popular actors, singer-songwriters, and TV hosts.
Aleksandar Džambazov in the Eurovision Song Contest
Džambazov relationship with Kaliopi was special, as he had discovered her back in 1976: “When she was just nine years old, she did an audition with me in Ohrid to be admitted to the children’s song festival Zlatno Slavejče. As most of the children coming for such auditions were nervous, I always attempted to make them feel more at ease by telling some jokes. Here, to the contrary, walked in a young girl who claimed that she wanted to sing opera repertoire and knew over one hundred songs by heart. I was somewhat sceptic about her confidence, but when she started singing, I was blown away. She sang real arias from ‘La traviata’ and other operas. Of course, she passed the audition and, what was more, she gave me the inspiration to write a song for her with intervals, specifically suited for an operatic voice. With this song, ‘Mojata učitelka’, she won Zlatno Slavejče in 1976. Later onwards, she became one of Macedonia’s most popular singers, touring in Yugoslavia and abroad. It is a privilege to have discovered her and to have written her debut song.”
“At the time of her participation in the Skopje Fest in 1996, however”, Džambazov continues, “she was passing through a psychological crisis with some personal drama, including the divorce from her husband with whom she lived in Switzerland, and the illness of her young child. Purely as a singer, she is one of the best of our country, but in 1996, she was not really in good shape, so to speak. Nonetheless, ‘Samo ti’ was chosen as the winner, and I remember well conducting it in Skopje, but, musically speaking, the song did not have a future, because it did not have anything special to appeal audiences. As you can imagine, I was not surprised when we were eliminated.”
It took sixteen more years, until 2012, for Kaliopi to finally make it to the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Crno i belo’, penned by herself in collaboration with her former husband Romeo Grill. In Baku, Azerbaijan, ‘Crno i belo’ managed to qualify for the Eurovision final, finishing thirteenth.
In the 1990s, with many countries from Central and Eastern Europe eager to enter the competition, the European Broadcasting Union tried several formulas to make for a three-hour-contest. After the never-repeated solution of an audio pre-selection in 1996, which cost Kaliopi dearly, a relegation rule was introduced, meaning that the countries with the worst scores in the past five years would have to miss out on one festival edition. Due to these complicated regulations, Macedonia was doubly punished, as Kaliopi’s failure to qualify automatically relegated the country from the 1997 competition as well. Finally, in 1998, the Macedonians made their debut in the Eurovision Song Contest, with ‘Ne zori, zoro’, a somewhat underwhelming ballad composed by Grigor Koprov. It was performed by Vlado Janevski, a crooner in the style of Dean Martin.
‘Ne zori, zoro’ was selected for the Eurovision Song Contest using the old formula of the Skopje Fest. In the 1998 edition of the Skopje Fest, Aleksandar Džambazov shared the burden of conducting the songs with Kire Kostov. Since Vlado Janevski’s song was amongst the portion of songs conducted by Džambazov, he was allowed to accompany Janevski as a conductor to Birmingham as well. Džambazov: “Unfortunately, ‘Ne zori, zoro’ was not the best song in the competition. I believe the entry which finished second (‘Samovilska svadba’, also written by Grigor Koprov, arranged by Slobodan Marković, and performed by Sao Gigov-Gi, BT), would have stood a better chance of doing well in the Eurovision Song Contest. Vlado Janevski won because he is such a charming person… not because he is a good singer. Moreover, he was very good at writing appealing lyrics. He won on the wings of his huge popularity with the Macedonian public.”
What does Aleksandar Džambazov, sixty-two years of age at that time, remember of his stay in Birmingham and the rehearsals with the BBC Concert Orchestra? “When I arrived at the first orchestra rehearsal, the English maestro (Martin Koch, BT) guided me to the conductor’s podium. I said: “Thank you, maestro”, to which he replied: “No, I am not the maestro… you are!” That was witty and very polite of him at the same time, making me feel very welcome indeed. The way the orchestra played was phenomenal. This kind of songs – with easy arrangements – was a piece of cake for that great ensemble. The sound engineers did their work wonderfully too, which allowed the string section to be heard well in the sound mix – often a problem in live shows. The British organisation was perfect and I was much impressed by the interval act with violinist Vanessa-Mae. I liked her a lot! I also had a little chat with one of the hosts of the show, Ulrika Jonsson.”
For Džambazov, one of the nicest aspects of his trip to Birmingham was meeting Stipica Kalogjera and Mojmir Sepe, his old friends who conducted the entries from Croatia and Slovenia, respectively. “We were part of the nucleus of arrangers and conductors who regularly met back in the days of those countless music festivals across Yugoslavia”, says Džambazov. “Kalogjera had often conducted in Macedonia. We always had an excellent connection. Because of the falling apart of Yugoslavia and the disappearance of the festivals, I had not seen him for years. We were together at every opportunity, having a drink and a chat.” Stipica Kalogjera himself confirms he and Džambazov had a good time in Birmingham. The Croatian conductor comments: “The three of us, Mojmir Sepe, Aleksandar, and I, spent some hours together remembering the glorious days of the Opatija Song Festival. We also went on an excursion together to the Swan Theatre in Shakespeare’s birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon. It was very nice meeting my old friends again.”
During rehearsals in Birmingham, Džambazov also met Dana International from Israel, the transgender artist who eventually won the contest with ‘Diva’. “I was not aware of the fact that ‘she’ had been born as a ‘he’”, Džambazov laughs. “I happened to be in the concert hall during one of the Israeli rehearsals and noticed that Dana International had a hard time reaching the higher notes. Conducting from the front row, I tried to indicate the correct pitch to her. After the rehearsal, I went to see Stipica Kalogjera and some others, commenting about how badly she had sung, but how pretty she was. At that point, one of the others – I do not remember who it was – told me she had been born a man. I was flabbergasted to hear that! Only moments after, while I was still in shock, Dana International walked past our group and stopped to say ‘Thank you maestro’ for my help in the rehearsal. I was so confused that I did not immediately know what to say and, in the end, I exclaimed some swear words in Macedonian or Croatian. I was greeted by a surprised face… and she walked away. That was the end of my affair with Dana International!”
In the Eurovision final in Birmingham, Vlado Janevski and ‘Ne zori, zoro’ picked up a mere sixteen votes, finishing nineteenth among twenty-five competing songs. Džambazov: “As mentioned before, Vlado Janevski is more of a charmer than a singer… and he did not manage to charm Europe like he had charmed us, Macedonians! The final score for our song was absolutely correct. In spite of the choice of singer and song for Macedonia, which was a slight disappointment to me, I thought it was a special event to be part of, first and foremost because it has such a huge audience. Generally speaking, it is always worthwhile to participate in international events. Funnily, afterwards, many of my friends who had watched the program on TV commented how many times the camera showed me while conducting the orchestra during Vlado’s performance.”
The 1998 Eurovision Song Contest was the last festival edition with a live orchestra in place. As Macedonia was drawn twenty-fifth and performed its song after all the others, Aleksandar Džambazov is the last person ever to have conducted a song competing in the Eurovision Song Contest. What is more, he is the only-ever Macedonian conductor to have taken part. “Well, I deserve to be in the Guinness Book of Records anyway for being the conductor of the RTV Skopje Big Band for thirty-seven consecutive years”, the maestro jokes, “and here are two more reasons why I should be in it! Do you know if I can make any money out of all these records? On a serious note, I was quite upset that Dana International won Eurovision without using the orchestra at all. I am very sad about the destiny of most music festivals. The live orchestras have virtually disappeared everywhere. The notable exception is the Sanremo Festival in Italy, which still upholds its tradition of quality. Dana International’s victory was the start of a big tragedy for music.”
Other artists on Aleksandar Džambazov
As a child, Nataa Guleska participated in the Golden Nightingale Children’s Song Festival, organized by Aleksandar Džambazov. She has remained in touch with him ever since: “Maestro Džambazov is my spiritual father and I love him very much. Since his wife passed away in 1997, he has not been the same person – he has become more introverted, but he is an adorable man… a humanist and a non-materialist, like all true artists. He keeps a huge alphabetical archive of all members of his family, which contains many artists and musicians… he has a tendency to take care of everyone except himself.” (2014)