One-on-one | Culture

Edin Zubcevic: “The destiny of culture in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a tragic one.”

By - 31.10.2017

Jazz Fest Sarajevo founder on culture in transition, fascism, and music as a universal language.

Edin Zubcevic is the founder and artistic director of Jazz Fest Sarajevo, and soon to be a creative director at the Ljubljana Jazz Festival. In the 20 years since the founding of Jazz Fest, it has become one of the most appreciated musical events in the region, hosting more than 700 artists over a few hundred concerts.

Zubcevic is also one of the founders and a producer at the Gramofon agency, that through its record label has released albums by some of the most significant postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina artists, including Dubioza Kolektiv, Adi Lukovac, Sikter, Amira Medunjanin, Damir Imamovic, and others.

A dedicated 20-year long career building the music scene and establishing artists whom the mainstream culture would probably never have given a chance, has led Zubcevic into a situation in which he has had to make some important decisions, that will surely have significant consequences on culture in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

K2.0 spoke to Zubcevic ahead of the 21st Jazz Fest Sarajevo, to be held in the Bosnian capital from Oct. 31 to Nov. 5. This year’s festival will be the penultimate edition, as Jazz Fest Sarajevo will cease to exist in 2019.

K2.0: This year’s Jazz Fest is the second-to-last. If the enthusiasm needed for this Festival to happen has not deteriorated even almost two decades since its establishment, what are the reasons for such a decision after 20 years of constant struggle?

Edin Zubcevic: Don Quixote’s enthusiasm and delusion aren’t something I identify with. We at Jazz Fest promote music as a universal language that doesn’t leave the option for misunderstanding. But we are doing this in a time of general misunderstanding, and at a time when, it seems, nobody understands each other on the topic of good, whereas common interests when it comes to doing evil always exists.

The basic problem of the Jazz Fest’s future is infrastructure — we don’t have a place to organize our festival programs. The reason is simple, but the explanation is complex. After the war in Sarajevo, not a single concert space was opened, not any facilities for any kind of music, whereas you had a tsunami of turbo folk and turbo pop music, and a general distaste based on raw and cheap emotions. This is a perfectly organized industry.

On the other hand, let’s say a quartet specializing in early music, or who plays only Bach, for instance, practically doesn’t have a place to perform in, let alone to take part in tours. Even if [a performance] happens for some reason, it would probably be a free concert, since the few organizers obviously don’t believe in what they represent, and therefore don’t dare to check the market for how much the audience is really interested.

Photo by: Imrana Kapetanovic.

For the past 20 years, we practically haven’t been able to reserve a hall 10 months ahead and be certain that we will get the hall to perform in. Sometimes it takes several weeks, and other times several months, to receive a response from some public institutions.

“Directors” are constantly replaced, and every new “director” brings in some new rules and goals of management. Normally, every director is worse than his or her predecessor, and twice as ambitious. Great ambitions, less knowledge, and no experience are a formula for disaster, but paradoxically, this doesn’t affect institutions, but others who lose time and money on that front.

Except for infrastructure issues which affect all aspects of the festival — from the program to production, and so forth, since if you don’t have certain types of space then you cannot at all perform certain kinds of concerts — another big problem is the lack of cultural policies. There are no cultural policies, but there is politics in culture.

For example, religion and religious communities who, unlike us, don’t pay taxes, have become subsidized more regularly and systematically than organizations on the independent cultural scene are. They receive funds from funds meant for cultural purposes. Religion, as an ideology, represents the core of our cultural reality, that is, of politics in culture.

The announcement of [Jazz Fest’s] termination after 2018 is also a statement, a protest against the situation in which music finds itself, the musical culture of this country.

How much has Jazz Fest contributed to understanding jazz as an important part of musical art in Bosnia over the last two decades?

We were always interested in music, and only then do we consider styles or, if you will, genres. Of course, this completely confuses the “jazz puritans” who love that music like they would archeology; the same thing is true with journalists, who know nothing about everything.

The fact that more than 600 concerts were performed in Sarajevo as part of the Jazz Fest says a lot about us. Many domestic musicians have very successfully promoted themselves at the Festival, and most of them today have successful international careers.

In one Festival edition, we present more music than the amount of music presented in this country — not only in the past year — but perhaps in all its history, when we take into consideration the importance of musicians who regularly perform at our Festival.

The festival was practically everything we had in this country in terms of many musical genres, not only jazz. Our audience could ‘discover’ not only exceptional musicians but many other music genres as well.

Photo: Imrana Kapetanovic.

Is it even necessary to talk about the importance of music and culture to a society?

The situation in which this kind of question is legitimate is horrifying in itself. Unfortunately, this question is legitimate precisely because music and culture aren’t being talked about. Actually, they are being discussed, but only spoken about in passing.

That’s why we don’t have music and music production, or live and recorded music, and have an absence of culture. Even primitive societies have music, and culture, which is maybe why they don’t have identity issues. The issue of identity in Bosnia is the question of all questions.

When we speak about culture, how can we avoid the danger of presenting it as something elitist, but to present it as something elementary for every citizen? What is the destiny of culture in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

The destiny of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s culture is a tragic one, whereas the widespread absence of culture is a reliable indicator for society as a whole. The basic distinction between culture and sport, for example, is that culture is sometimes being presented as something elitist, and sport as something accessible to all.

Let’s take the examples of jazz and football. There is nothing elitist in jazz, the audience isn’t elitist, the musicians aren’t elitist. Somebody who has to travel for 24 hours only to perform for 60 minutes at the other end of the world is hardly part of an elite.

However, football players, mostly 20 year olds, are millionaires. They are fabulously rich and mostly uneducated, they run for the ball and everybody is worshipping them, experience mental breakdowns because of them, because they represent ‘something higher.’ They hold their hands on their hearts when the anthem is playing, they dress up in flags as if they were curtains — just because we scored a goal, everyone will be out on the streets.

However, nobody will go out on the streets for the reason of us being politicians’ slaves, because we work so they can have a job without any responsibilities and obligations. We feed legions of politicians, parasites, and it’s as if we all exist just for their sake, while it should be the opposite, but it isn’t.

It is obvious that many people working in culture mention the ever-decreasing support from responsible bodies and the increasingly poor conditions for continuing their work. Reactions to shutting down Jazz Fest have been numerous however, you say that “heartbroken people and ‘sorrow’ are empty stories.” Has our activism come down to statuses on social networks and public expressions of mourning?

Perhaps the comments are numerous, but there is a lack of genuine reactions — politicians aren’t really interested in all of this, citizens don’t care about water shortages and that the heating system they’re paying for isn’t functioning — only a fool can expect that they will feel touched by the fact that the oldest music festival in the country will cease to exist; this is also one of the internationally most reputable festivals and events that this country ever had.

"Because everything in this country is fake and nothing is as presented, while cultural workers themselves, and by this I don't mean myself and my colleagues at the Jazz Fest, have depreciated their roles and the status of culture, of course for the sake of personal interests."

For those who care more or less, or don’t believe that we will actually do what we have said we will, or think that we will ‘charge our mind’ — which isn’t surprising, because everything in this country is fake and nothing is as presented, while cultural workers themselves, and by this I don’t mean myself and my colleagues at the Jazz Fest, have depreciated their roles and the status of culture, of course for the sake of personal interests.

We can count on the fingers of one hand the reactions that were corroborated by attitudes. Everything comes down to the insignificant and boring statement of the current state of affairs, completely passively, and mainly disinterestedly.

But I still find it unbelievable that everything in our society is accepted as destiny. At the same time, while we indifferently accept bad things that are happening as something unavoidable, society is not ready to preserve what is good, and finally we have more bad than good things in our country. When we realize what has come and what went away, it will be too late.

With regards to that, how can we make people act proactively in their community and seek that which belongs to them?

Until people are really troubled by something, they won’t start doing something about it. It seems that nationalist politics have a whole future in front of them, while our dark is infinite.

Photo: Imrana Kapetanovic.

Why have you chosen to accept the position of the art director of the Jazz Fest Ljubljana?

This is a great professional honor and challenge. In Europe, there are magnificent art directors and Ljubljana could have received anybody, but here we are, they chose me, so I also chose Ljubljana.

This is an opportunity for me to do my job in a situation of normal professional circumstances. I am wholeheartedly accepting all future challenges, because I’m part of a wonderful team. At [the Cankar Center], the largest and most significant cultural and congress center in the former Yugoslavia, there are more than 140 employees, six brilliantly equipped halls, and over 2,000 programs are being implemented.

Ljubljana has surely gained a lot with you coming there but does this mean that Sarajevo is at a loss?

Sarajevo is always at an advantage with me, just like I am always at a loss when I’m with Sarajevo. I fought for the city’s freedom, together with those better than me, as a skinny university student of philosophy, and everybody from my family, even though we didn’t have to. We could have just creeped out with some fifth column parole saying ‘let everybody do what they are capable of’ — and I knew anything else better than to shoot and fight in a war.

I spent the war in a radius of a few kilometers around my street — which speaks of the nature of the war I took part in. We fought for freedom, but we got a miserable, unjust, and prospectless truce.

I don’t believe that anybody fought for what we now have, altogether, or separately. But we fought for it, each army for itself, only for ‘our guys’ to ride us — ‘their guys’ were the enemies in the war, whereas today only ‘our guys’ are our enemies in the period of truce. This is how it happens in unhappy love.

I will never give up on Sarajevo and Bosnia, because I can’t and I won’t. I would also like Sarajevo and Bosnia not to give up on themselves. Sarajevo and Bosnia will always be at an advantage, at least in my case. I hope we will find the way to survive as winners, and not as somebody who only survived and saved their neck.

In the end, I would like to ask you one seemingly pessimistic question is there hope for our society and the region in general?

There is no hope, and also no basis for optimism, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight or that we should give up on the fight to improve this society. The problem, but also a tragedy is that we aren’t sure anymore that the notions of general good are really good for the majority, because it is this theoretical majority that gives a basis for nationalist policies to define not only what is good and bad, but to redefine identity in all ways available to them.

From time to time, they tell us in an Orwellian manner what and who we are, who are our friends and enemies, and then starting over again. This happens every time an election comes or some other need is expressed.

Photo: Imrana Kapetanovic.

Economy and social security, not to mention justice, are evidently not part of national issues, if we are to judge by the practice of politicians. For example, religion is the basic mean of politics. Religion remained an ideology, so the people that were political commissars fifty years ago, today are religious leaders who ‘discretely’ influence all spheres of life. Politics found a way to ‘involve God’ as their eternal endorser, and a voiceless ‘witness’ to show that they are on the right path and they are the ones they should be, because they are afraid of God and the people, but everything they do is against God and the people.

We live in a very dark era. In a time when the wretches of fascism not only rise from the grave, but are alive and healthily march on our lives, streets, and schools. Today in Bosnia, there is no political force that will change the political scene, to replace or substitute those in power. This provides the all-ruling and eternally-reigning national parties with a sense of safety. Just as dictators, surrounded by head nodders, lose a sense of reality, so catastrophe and total ruin happen ‘suddenly’ and quickly, so maybe one day in Bosnia citizens will have to bring down this government, because there is no other political party to do it.

I don’t know whether that will ever happen, and especially if we will live long enough to see it happen. In the end, if we haven’t given up during war, should we give up during peace?

Unlike citizens, the Jazz Fest doesn’t have this dilemma. If we must be nomads forever, without a roof over our heads — then we really will become nomads forever — no city or country will be our only home, no nation, no ideology will be ours. K

Feature image:  Imrana Kapetanovic.