Album cover

Virtuosity from Yugoslavia: The Story of Branko Mataja

 

Branko Mataja (1923-2000) was born in the small costal town of Bekar, then part of Dalmatia, now Croatia. Shortly after that, Branko's family relocated 500km east to the Yugoslavian capital city of Belgrade. It was there, tinkering under the glass kitchen table in his parents' tiny home, that ten-year-old Branko Mataja built his first guitar. 

The second world war came to Yugoslavia when Axis occupiers arrived in April of 1941. One day after playing soccer, Branko returned home and changed clothes and went back out without his identification papers. Italian troops were stopping people in the street and demanding to see IDs. Branko, still a teenager, was arrested and thrown into a truck and brought to Germany to work in as a slave laborer. 

Whatever difficulties he endured, Branko's experiences during the war never came to define him, except insofar as he was able to gather new skills in that time. After the Americans liberated Branko's camp, Branko went into business as a cook, a barber, and peddler of various goods — nylons, cigarettes, chocolates and so on. He made friends with an American sergeant who took Branko into town where Branko played the guitar in clubs while the sergeant hit on the local women. Branko rode a motorcycle, and dreamed of escaping the madness still surrounding him on all sides.

Branko's certificate in lieu of a passport, U.S. Zone of Germany

After the war was over, Branko was given a chance to return to Yugoslavia, where the fighting that marked the region for much of the 20th century continued. By now Tito was in charge — communist revolutionary Josip Broz Tito, first prime minister, later president, and finally "president for life" until his death 1980. Tito was at work on a project, the Yugoslav State Commission for the Determination of Crimes of the Occupiers and their Collaborators. Branko said no thanks to returning home, and that he wanted to go to America. He was told by the Americans that the quota for Yugoslavs was full. Branko replied that his mother was American, which was the truth, but nothing he could prove, and the request was denied. 

Branko did however get his second choice, England. He lived there for a time in a DP Camp (Displaced Persons) outside North Yorkshire, where he met his wife Roksanda. It was there they had their son, Bata, in 1949. Branko worked in a textile factory, and as a barber. The Matajas became British citizens, and emigrated to Canada in the 50s, where Branko worked steadily as a licensed barber. In 1963 the family entered the United States, migrating first to Detroit, then Salt Lake City, to Las Vegas, and finally to Los Angeles in 1964.

~

In 2005, a Los Angeles musician named David Jerkovich was well into an obsessive phase of exploring his musical roots as the son of Croatian immigrants who settled, like so many others, in the relatively sleepy Southern California community of San Pedro, located just across the harbor from the major port city of Long Beach. Jerkovich bought most affordable Yugoslavian records on sight, both the official state label releases of Jugoton, and whatever private label items he could find, most of them produced and pressed in America. His emphasis was on popular recordings, which could border on a kind of Yugoslavian answer to schlager music — upbeat, rhythmic, possibly saccharine and even irritating — largely because that's what the old country had to offer, at least on the Jugoton label. One day Jerkovich bought a half dozen titles for $7 each from the back room of Counterpoint Records & Books in the Franklin Village neighborhood at the foot of Beechwood Canyon. Jerkovich was not looking, or prepared, to be blown away by a record entitled "Traditional and Folk Songs of Yugoslavia", but here was that record, by someone he'd never heard of named Branko Mataja. 

'Traditional Folk Songs of Yugoslavia'

Returning home to turntable, Jerkovich found the record's magic unmistakable from the first notes. In the shimmering electrified guitar tones was something plaintive, pining, a refracted echo of an imagined life as it may have been in an old country of long ago. This was conceptual music of the homeland — familiar tunes filtered through a novel, somewhat bizarre sensibility. It was, Jerkovich immediately realized, the "emotionally saturated" crown jewel of his search — the LP he'd been searching for all along without knowing it. He played it for his roommate (full disclosure, his roommate was me), and we began to obsess over the record and the mystery of this obviously exceptional guitarist. For, as the liner notes to the album bluntly state, "Branko is the consummate artist."

~

In 1949, a man named John Filcich, a lifelong avid folk dancer born in Fiume, Italy, now Rijeka in Croatia, in 1924, began Festival Records, a store and distributor dedicated to the dissemination of international music. Festival placed an emphasis on folk dances of Eastern Europe, but covered music from around the world, from popular songs to folk music to ethnographic recordings. The first Festival shop opened in Oakland; Filcich took over a second shop in San Francisco in 1958, and moved to Los Angeles and started his third shop, also called Festival Records, in 1964.

Shortly after discovering Branko Mataja's "Traditional and Folk Songs of Yugoslavia", David Jerkovich returned to Counterpoint, where the store's owner filled details on how the record came to be there in the first place. It seems that one Festival employee began at some point to take home records from the LA store, once in a while, here and there, slowly enough to avoid notice. Eventually, over the course of two or three decades, this employee amassed one of the largest collections of international music on the west coast. 

Branko on stage

 

Sometime around 2005, that employee's collection found its way to Counterpoint. After this story got back to me, I made my first of several visits over the next fifteen years to the Festival warehouse, an overwhelming, barely lit hoard of unsold stock from half a century of enthusiastic accumulation by Filcich, by now well into his 80s. Two more copies of Branko's record popped up that day, but Filcich, who credits his longevity to the daily consumption of raw garlic, had no recollection of Branko Mataja. 

~

A few years later, David and I made contact with Branko's son Bata Mataja, and visited Bata at his large workshop in Sun Valley, full of custom cars in varying states of deconstruction for use in various industrial and narrative filmmaking — commercials and action scenes. Bata seemed reluctant about sharing Branko's music. He wasn't interested in selling copies of the record or Branko's even rarer second album, a cassette entitled "Traditional Folk Songs of Serbia", and would demur on signing any kind of licensing agreement for the next decade. 

Bata left home at the age of 19. He worked first in the movies as a location scout and line producer, but gravitated towards all things automotive, and gradually built his own business, B.A.D. Company — which had three meanings — first, because a former business partner said bad things about Bata, next, for Best Auto Detailing, and finally, as one of Hollywood's premiere automotive shops, as Big American Dream. B.A.D. reigned supreme for three decades. If a production needed a Rolls Royce cut in half for whatever reason called for in the screenplay, and then put back together, B.A.D. was the company to call. If a prototype car needed strip painting (a temporary, removable paint job) for a photoshoot, just call B.A.D.. If Jay Leno needed something customized, Bata got the call. A self-made millionaire, Bata Mataja would buy land overlooking Leo Carreo Beach in Malibu and build his own home, a fantastical museum of automotive history. Now in his early 70s, Bata retains a lifelong fixation on efficiency and hard work. Only after years of pestering would Bata slow down long enough to relate his father's story. 

~

The family relocated to North Hollywood in 1964, when Bata was fifteen.

Branko worked as he had in Ontario as a barber, but saw fewer clients — and undoubtedly grew disenchanted — as the 60s rolled on and hairstyles became increasingly shaggy. (In our age of relative cultural homogeneity, it would hard to exaggerate the cultural gulf between a suave, clean-cut immigrant like Branko and a slouching young pothead with hair down to his shoulders.) Branko began to repair guitars professional and related instruments and studio gear, working in conjunction with at least two still-extant local shops, Dick Charles Music and Grayson's Tune Town, both in Glendale, but decided to establish his own fully-furnished workshop in his garage. It appears to have been there in the garage at 5811 Satsuma that Branko recorded his two albums. 

Branko's Ontario barbering license

 

Over the years Branko worked on guitars owned by people like Johnny Cash and Geddy Lee. He produced a business card with a picture of himself in a workshop so tricked out that visitors were inevitably surprised to discover it was out of a residential garage. 

Branko had "an incredibly large collection of vinyl," according to his son, but "I never saw him listening to any of it." Bata is unclear on whether the traditional songs came from records, or from memory. He would play songs on the guitar "over and over and over and over and over, for hours and hours. The only thing that would stop him from working on guitars or playing his music was the World Cup." Other than that he was in the shop, where he would smoke his pipe, and repair instruments, or he was recording. (Along with an obvious addiction to work, after a time spent smoking cigarettes which Bata convinced him to drop, an ever present tobacco pipe seems to have been Branko's one major vice.)

Branko built several guitars over the years, but two seem to be the source of most to all of the music he recorded. The first was, as Jerkovich, also a deeply technically-minded musician explains, "classic jazz guitar, hand built. Solid construction and incredible workmanship. Pearl inlay work is insane… really folky. Branko modified this guitar a whole bunch over its life. F holes were moved, guitar was repainted. Eerything was modified for total control of any pickup combination. He was unafraid to totally rip into this guitar to get what he needed out of it. The action of this guitar is as low as humanly possible, to incorporate a sort of one handed playing of hammering on the string, delivering a more percussive and short note, calling to mind heavy metal and the Van Halen school of tapping and soloing. Basically the setup indicates that Branko had the heart of a shredder. The guitar has seen a lot of changes. As Branko's eyesight went so did the details of craftsmanship of the paint and inlay. Almost like the guitar is a representation of all his phases in life, with the last one being a little disheveled."

Branko's guitar 

 

Branko's total DIY approach resembles that of Les Paul, or homespun experimenters like Danny Gugliemi. It's unclear how much of Branko's techniques derived from researching his musical peers, and it seems likely most of his tricks were developed in the isolation of the garage. His experiments with tape, which resemble various delay techniques later mastered by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, must have been self-taught. He utilized sliding pickups to change the tenor of recordings. He tuned his guitars to be playable with just his left hand on the neck. Branko's speed was a result of his left hand dexterity, not right hand strumming.

"Everything was recorded in 4-track," Jerkovich says. "Two main melody tracks, two octave tracks, then those were blended and bounced to another 4-track as stereo. That would leave him two more open tracks to add his signature octave bass with delay and harmony track. Everything is motion. I mean even the bass has delay." He utilized a spinning Leslie speaker as well. 

"There was no metronome, but rather a simple guitar count in," Jerkovich says, "leaving the songs free to wiggle and move to his natural sense of rhythm. All the notes firing at different times gives the music this natural feel with a sense of discovery and tension. It feels constantly alive for an album following such a strict melody. The addition of reverbs and subtle delay and sometimes tremolo add to this feeling of motion."

"He would get lost in that delay," his young neighbor and guitarist Sal Sebergandio, said recently.

The year of release is unclear, but "Traditional And Folk Songs Of Yugoslavia" probably appeared sometime around 1973. The label was local vanity press Essar Records. An undated newspaper clipping shows the album offered for the then high price — postage included — of $6.50. "After 30 years of performing thru-out England, Canada & USA," the ad claims, "Branko has released his First Album of Folk Songs and Kolos for all to enjoy." The ad features Branko's home address in North Hollywood, and a picture of a debonaire Branko and his guitar. 

Newspaper clipping advertising 'Traditional Folk Songs of Yugoslavia'

The album got played on a few local Serbian radio stations. "There was a small community of Serbs in Los Angeles, but my dad was never really a joiner," Bata says. "He would get called to play, but it was not about 'I'm a Serb.'" Folksongs of Serbja followed maybe 10-15 years later, probably in the mid 80s. It didn't have a formal release. Branko just handed out copies here and there to visitors.

Sal Sebergandio met Branko in 1988, and became a sort of would-be apprentice during the last decade of Branko's life, hanging out with the old man when there was nothing else to do. Sebergandio recalls the bull (as in bronco) figurine hand carved by Branko, the smell of glue in the workshop, and the fresh lemonade Roksanda made from a lemon tree in the yard. He remembers the way "you knew when you went there that you weren't getting out for hours" because of Branko's interest in sitting and talking guitars. "He knew the answers and wanted to get the answers out of you. He was one of those types of teachers," Sebergandio recalls. He was a joker. And charismatic. "Look at (fellow Yugoslavian Nikola) Tesla," he says, pointing out the two men's appearance (disregarding that Tesla was almost an entire foot taller than the 5' 3" Branko). "He knew everything." 

Branko documented his studio in photographs over the years. "He would pour everything into his studio," said Bata. It seems notable that Branko "loved Hawaii," and painted a well-rendered, idealized scene of rolling waves, palm trees and beautiful maidens on a beach in Hawaii — of paradise — to hang above the stretch of recording equipment, headphones, turntables and mixers.

Branko in the studio

Branko claimed again and again that his mother was born in America, but never could prove it. In 1985 Bata researched the matter, and found the evidence that his grandmother was in fact born in Marceline, Missouri. She married Anton Mataja, a woodworker from Bakar, who took her back to Yugoslavia. "So technically my dad was American" all along, says Bata today.  

"My father never went back to Yugoslavia. He never looked back." He had a sister, Tonka, who remained in Reika. "I think they talked on the phone once or twice, but they never met. He never went to visit her and I think that they (Tonka's family) came to the United States one time and visited, (and spoke on the phone) and of course my dad and she got in a fight." 

Bata had lunch with Branko the day before Branko died. The year was 2000. Branko was "really depressed." He couldn't work any longer due to glaucoma. Bata asked why he didn't play the guitar — something he could do without seeing, but Branko's playing had deteriorated by then, and he didn't want to be dependent on anyone. Branko told Bata bluntly he didn't want to live anymore. Around 8:30 that night, Branko had a heart attack. At four the following morning Roksanda finally called Bata, who rushed back to North Hollywood from Malibu and put Branko into his car and rushed him to St Joseph's Hospital in Burbank, but by then too much time had passed — Branko's heart had begun to gelatinize. "He checked out," said Bata. "It was a bit of a surprise. He had had a physical the week before, including an EKG," with no apparent signs of imminent trouble.

~

David Jerkovich built and opened his own recording studio in 2018, and remixed and remastered Branko's music from the multitracks in 2021. By then the original master mixdowns were degraded to the point of unsuitability. By returning to the stems, Jerkovich realized the extent of Branko's innovation. "It's unbelievable," he said, playing the track providing the undercurrent of the record's opener, "Da smo se ranije" — a murky rumbling as if recorded underwater, a sound Jerkovich calls "madness." He cites the extent of reverb on the album as something that just "wasn't happening" at the time. 

At times the music could almost be described as unintentional psychedelia. "It transcends — the songs were just a vehicle for him to make his art. The interpretation is what's important here. When I listen to other versions these songs it's almost shocking, the difference is like night and day." 

~

Branko was less than totally supportive of his son's endeavors. "He never said anything to me about it (Bata's career and successes). He always kept saying 'why do you want to live in Malibu?'" But Bata's mother saw Branko before he passed, and reported to Bata that Branko told her to "tell my son I'm proud of him. Which was a very nice thing; he never told it to me, but that's what she said."

It goes without saying that Bata got his work ethic from Branko. But at the age of 19, Bata says, "I couldn't wait to get out of the house… My dad was very strict. He was a tough guy — very tough guy. One of the things that he always loved was when someone told him he couldn't do something. When he built the studio that he built, he took a home course in electronics. Everything was self-taught. That was his passion. He built his own speakers."

"I watched him very closely. I loved my dad. He was a very special person for me, but he was very strict. So for me, my independence was getting away. And then when I would see him it was great to see him. The best way I can describe it is "The Godfather." The Don is sitting on the back patio with Michael, and he's drinking and says I never used to like wine much, but I drink it a little more and I like it. Just remember whoever comes to you with the meeting place is the traitor. I don't mean to repeat myself." Well my father repeated himself ALL THE TIME. The same thing, every time I saw him. He would just say the same thing over and over and over and over again, and it stuck." 

A humble man, Branko nevertheless instilled in Bata a sense of pride in work and accomplishment. "If you can do it, you're not bragging," Bata says, describing his father's attitude, and his. "Muhammed Ali said that." 

- Douglas Mcgowan, Los Angeles, 2021

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