Back To The Roots

All-Vrebalov concert in Sombor, Serbia, June 6, 2019

Sombor – a beautiful town in northern Serbia. This is where most of my family comes from. Last names of my grandparents are Gucunja, Knezevic, Ferencevic, and Malesevic. My both parents went to school in Sombor before moving to Belgrade for college. As a child, I used to spend summers there with my maternal grandparents: playing barefoot in hot afternoons in front of the house with my little sister and other children, splashing water from a tiny end-of-the-street pump-well, sitting with adults in the warm summer evenings and listening to their stories, breathing in the scent of flowers of my grandmother’s balcony, picking up gigantic watermelons at the market with my grandfather, waking up to the sound of neighbors’ pigeons being released for the morning flight.

My father’s mother Vera Gucunja was a pre-war communist. She died in the revolution and there’s a bust in Sombor’s main park celebrating her heroism.

In 2007, my maternal grandmother was still alive. I wanted to spend as much time with her as possible and I wished I could bring in my friends, musicians and composers, to experience the creative, carefree power of Sombor summers. So between 2007 and 2011, I put together Summer in Sombor, a week long composition workshop with the South Oxford Six composers’ collective that I co-founded in 2002 in New York City. Kala Pierson, Daniel Sonnenberg, Mike Rose and Ed Ficklin would join me in Sombor to make music for five summers. The workshop facilitated the creation of over fifty new works by young composers from Europe and the USA. We lived together for a week, made music, played concerts, talked about creativity and values. In the evenings we swam in the canal, ate fish paprikash, and had most inspiring discussions.

Kala Pierson, Daniel Sonnenberg, Michael Rose, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Sombor 2007

Sombor has always been about art. Some of the most significant figures from country’s culture come from Sombor: poet Laza Kostic, composer Petar Konjovic, painter Milan Konjovic who was a family friend, painter Dragan Stojkov, Zvonko Bogdan whose singing of traditional songs is iconic throughout the region. Those who have lived in our time – we would visit them in their studios, see them in a cafe, or just wave on the main street. At those visits, as a kid, I would play piano in the dark, high-ceiling rooms absorbing vibes and stories like the one about Kazimir’s nagymama (grannie) taking piano lessons from Ferenc Liszt. I was five years old when I learned to play my first piano tune with both hands – that was in Sombor, in the house of my father’s best friend Kazimir, with his grandmother, Liszt’s student as the legend goes, sitting by me.

Portrait of Franz Liszt painted by my grandmother Vera Gucunja

It’s 2019. My mom and grandparents are long gone. I occasionally visit Veliko Groblje where they’re buried surrounded by family graves dating from 1700s. Living in New York City for almost 20 years I tend to forget how important death is in Serbian culture. In my childhood, paying a visit to the dead used to be an equally common and important segment of visits to Sombor as paying a visit to our living relatives. To the dead we would bring candles and flowers. The living would usually get flowers and chocolate or brandy.

Tonight, June 6, 2019, I will be in Sombor again, presenting an evening of my music at SOMUS, Sombor Music Festival. It is a full circle – music will be performed by the TAJJ Kvartet with who I have worked for twenty years now, and by pianist and old friend Mihajlo Zurkovic. The evening will be moderated by Ira Prodanov, a musicologist and a high school friend with her own family background from Sombor.

After the rehearsal, TAJJ Kvartet and Aleksandra Vrebalov.
Timea Kalmar cello, Aleksandra Krcmar violin, Jovanka Mazalica violina, Jelena Filipovic, viola

We’ll have a concert at the beautiful 200 seat National Theater where over the formative years I had seen unforgettable shows during the annual Sombor Theater Festival.

National Theater Sombor

It’s exciting to go back. There’s purpose in giving context to the present through the past — in the context of my family it is through ideas, values, intangible output rather than through our physical presence in Sombor. I like the idea of bringing sound, creativity and new people into this place of my roots. Thus there’s purpose in actualizing the past through the present, by creating continuity, bringing beauty, friendship, and a sense of belonging to the people in the audience tonight. Even though most of them might be strangers, they aren’t — we share in the Sombor lineage.

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