Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The Lost Balkan Tapes: a Christmas story

A couple of days ago, a nice thing happened that has made me very happy. It happened almost by accident. At work, we have a #music channel on Slack and some of us frequently share music that we like and recommend to the folks in the company. I really like those kind of work-but-not-related-to-the-actual-work kind of things. It helps developing a friendly Organizational culture, and it is also a simple way to get to know each other better.


I was born and raised in the Stockholm area of Sweden, but my dad and his parents (my grandparents) came to Sweden in the late 1960s from former Yugoslavia. They, like many from the Balkans, Finland, Italy and Greece, got job offerings from Swedish companies and they decided to give it a try. They began working with manufacturing chocolate here in Stockholm. I don't know that much about their life over there before Sweden, other than the stories I've heard many times when growing up.

One of my favorite stories is about my Grandfather and when he escaped from some kind of prison camp, set up by the World War II Occupation of former Yugoslavia. He was only a teenager back then, but managed to run away from the guards into a forest - and then catch a passing train, on its way away from the camp. In my imagination, the train was moving fast and he jumped on it in the same way Indiana Jones would do. I remember him telling me and my brother about going undercover, calling himself Ivan Something-something when the train conductor asked who that kid from nowhere was. I loved that story and wanted to hear it over and over again.

Another favorite story was about my Grandmother. She used to be a singer in the 1950s, early 1960s and performed all over the country. I remember the day she told me about the famous people she used to sing for, such as the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie! When I grew up, Reggae and the Rastafari culture was a big thing among us kids in the suburbs, and I certainly knew about Haile Sellasie. My grandma has not only met him, but also has sung for him! Wow. As I understood it, she was popular and during a period of time she was often hired to sing when the officials of the Country expected a visit from abroad.

I have heard only a few songs on cassette when we hang out in the apartment in Fisksätra (a concrete suburb in the Stockholm area that I have spent a lot of time in). I remember the music sounding quite good. But honestly, as a kid and later a young adult, I wasn't really that much of a fan of Balkan Folk Music. Still very cool to hear her sing. She occasionally sang some songs for us too, but time & smoking cigarettes had made her voice different than from the recording of those cassette tapes.

Years later, with both grandma and grandpa no longer around, I thought that the tapes were lost & gone forever. If I recall it correctly, some of it was even accidentally overwritten. Oh no. I made some attempts to find information (and possibly music) online, but failed. I gave up hope of finding anything. This was many years ago.


Back to work. I decide to share some nice Reggae music in the Slack channel. I found the Gratitude Riddim when browsing my online music app, good stuff! The friends at work got inspired and also shared some Jamaican vibes and we had a fun conversation going on there. Then, one person added a picture of Haile Selassie that took me right back to those childhood memories. So, naturally, I told them the Story about my Grandmother and that she has sung for him. But sadly the music is gone, you know. My friend probably got curious, and I believe he just googled her name.

”Wow, very cool to hear about your grandma. Is this her?”
(with a link containing music)


What? Huh? No, wait. That can't be her. Or. Is it? Naw. Gotta be someone else. Then again, how many Folk Music singers from the Balkans named Ikonija Vujic can there be? After a while, I realized that it is in fact my Grandmother! He actually found about 15 songs. All of them beautiful & melancholic Love Songs. Old school Balkan Folk Music with the Tamburitza instrument. Is it the great Janika Balaž playing? This is just me guessing, but according to Wikipedia he lived in the exact same area where my grandparents (and my dad) used to hang out back in the days. They must have met sometime!

I can't think of a better Christmas gift than this and I am forever grateful about these findings. It happened almost randomly, by accident. If I hadn't shared those Reggae songs in Slack, I would still be thinking that the music of my Grandmother was gone. But the Lost Balkan Tapes of Ikonija Vujic have been found again. Thanks to my friend at work and the enthusiast person that has published a huge amount of Balkan Music from the past. Thank you! 🙏

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