Vlado Kreslin, musician, poet and former radio commentator, regarded by many in his native Slovenia as a national icon, will turn 70 on November 29.
Vlado Kreslin on the balcony of his home, looking out onto Ljubljana, during the period of Covid when he played a song each day on YouTube to cheer up the nation.
It was one of those times that only later do you realise some of life's great events hang by the thinnest thread of a decision.
It was a mid-April evening, in 2012 and I felt pretty whacked. But I had an invitation to some arty event at the Slovene embassy, and somewhat out of duty - the ambassador at the time had been very kind to me over the years - I hauled myself off to the embassy, three miles distant, up in the hills in Buda. The evening focused on a series of authors' book readings. It meant half a dozen Slovene authors read excerpts from their works, which were then read out in their Hungarian translations.
Standing at the back of a large, well-filled, room, I could barely hear, let alone understand much in either language, and given that it was an unusually warm spring evening, I was hot, and severely tempted to slink away and forget it all.
Fortunately, there was a Slovene singer-guitarist there, who played a tune between each reading. True, I barely understood any of his lyrics either, though I managed to decipher the title of one song, "This black guitar", which included a friendly reference to local gypsies. I can't say I was wowed - but the music enabled me to hang in there.
Vlado (back to the camera) with his trademark black guitar, on stage with Miro Tomassini, his faithful lead guitarist of three decades. Vlado once told me a story - he and Miro were on a bus in Prekmurje when a group of gypsy musicians boarded. Recognising Vlado, they eagerly gathered round to talk and sing. After they left the bus, Miro said: "Now I really understand the meaning of [the song] This Black Guitar."
The readings finally over, everyone – maybe 60 or 70 present - gathered for refreshments, and I happened to find myself next to the singer guy. Since, it seemed nobody was talking to him, I said "thanks for the music," and we immediately ambled into conversation, especially after it turned out I knew a bit about Prekmurje, the area of Slovenia abutting Hungary, where this fellow grew up.
Who was his musical hero? “Oh, Dylan, of course", and we began discussion of the age and phenomenon that was the Beatles, and others like Neil Young. We must have talked for 20 minutes or so, when Vlado – that was his name - suddenly stood up and began to give an impromptu concert for the remaining crowd of perhaps 25 - 30 people. The audience - now comprising almost entirely Slovenes – simply lit up, and were soon singing along with the refrains. This was especially true, from memory, with a song called Od višine*. At this point, I was sitting next to the ambassador (a great admirer of Vlado, as I later found out) and I mentioned something about the people being so obviously, so radiantly joyfull, especially one young lady across the room.
The ambassador replied: "You know, she's a Hungarian who's learned Slovenian. She works at the embassy - I've never seen her so happy."
Somewhere in the mix, Vlado turned to me and said, in English: “I suppose you're waiting for a Neil Young song, right?" at which he launched into a passable version of Young's Down by the River - to which we both forgot the words, to much audience amusement.
Attempting to make up, he then said: "this is a song in the mood of Neil Young," and played one of his own pieces, Tisoč Let (“A Thousand Years”).
When I got home, I looked this fellow up on the internet and realised that as far as Slovene artists go, he is as big as they get. (Little wonder the Slovenes were so happy at the impromptu concert – imagine Paul McCartney, Dylan or your personal musical hero just playing along in front of you in a small, intimate setting.)
What was unusual was that I liked his videos: I must admit I find most rock videos crass. But I watched his official video of Tisoč Let and simply adored the potter, and the way he brought in the textile factory workers into the film. (I guessed it was at Murska Sobota, which has since closed – and Vlado later confirmed this).
(Not that I really understood the role of the boys playing football, I confess.)
But I felt Vlado and I shared many similar values – as a journalist I love to get ordinary people from the streets of small towns or villages into my stories, to give them a voice – or in Vlado's case, a video picture - into the big world.
"Ordinary worker" - Mursks Sobota textile
factory. Screen shot from the video Tisoč Let.
It also didn't seem to matter that I mostly didn't understand the words (though I did search for translations) – his phrasing and tone somehow brought his songs vividly to life.
And, if I needed winning over any more, what really struck me was Vlado's willingness to go the extra mile - or five - to please folks who show any interest in his music.
For me, some of the most beautiful renditions of his songs are from the night he played with pupils and teachers at a concert at a high school in the small town of Slovenska Bistrica, just before Christmas in 2008. The choir's singing and harmonies – especially in Tisoč Let – well, I think the spririt of Mozart must have been flown in from Salzburg that night.
The choir at Slovenska Bistrica High School, ready to sing with their band and Vlado at the school concert, Christmas 2008 - Screen shot from the video Od višine se zvrti.
I assumed that Vlado had gone along that evening because he knew the teacher or somebody involved – but no, not at all. The teacher had just phoned him up out of the blue, and Vlado simply turned up for the show.
That knocked me out.
“You just get a feeling, people are ok, and you just do it,” Vlado told me later, recalling the event.
But I was not the only person to be surprised.
“If I’m honest, I had no idea what he would say about our collaboration or if he would be interested to perform with us. But he accepted our invitation, without even knowing who we were. It still amazes me how positively he reacted,” Nadja Stegne, the music teacher involved, told me.
It was, it seems, a night everyone remembers. As Nadja put it in an email to me: “I cannot forget the first time Vlado appeared in front of us at rehearsal. I remember some of the singers had tears in their eyes.”
A decade and a half later, this Slovene troubadour is still going strong, playing to sell-out crowds in major venues in Ljubljana as well as village halls across his native country with audiences of just 40 locals.
“It's hard to believe that Vlado will be 70 years old as he is so full of energy while his music is already eternal! Metka Šilar Šturm, a Slovene communications executive, told me in response to a request for comment.
Though tired after a tough day of training and work, Metka continued:
“If I had to say something, it would be along the lines that he is a part of my life and the lives of other generations, a valuable, reassuring constant in an ever-changing personal and/or business environment, providing an artistic source of reflection, inspiration, relaxation and motivation, and that we often feel nostalgic when listening to his music, as it characterises the best decades of the last century, the "analogue" years when the human touch was stronger than the touch screens and the Slovenian spoken and written language occupies a more important place in musical expression than English.”
Rojstni dan imaš - lepo se imej, Vlado!
* The full title, I learned later, is Od višine se zvrti, meaning something like 'You get dizzy from on high', a song that every Slovene knows, originally a hit from Vlado's days in the rock band Martin Krpan.
Vlado plays it here, at the Christmas Concert for the High School in Slovenska Bistrica
I wrote the original story of meeting Vlado for Ruth Dupre, an American author, as a comment for her book Vlado Kreslin, Slovenia and Me, published in 2018.
ISBN-10: 6137385329 & ISBN-13: 978-6137385326