The Bosnian A'tudes: An Interview with Adi Šehu

From: Sarajevo, Bosnia i Herzegovina

Age: 32

Instrument/Job Title: Flute/Piccolo in Sarajevska Filharmonija

Favorite Brews: Schonbuch Beer; Bosnian Kafa; Black Tea

Carrie Rexroat: How did you first get started with music?

Adi Sehu: It was back in the late 80s and my parents put a Christmas tree in our house. We call it a New Year's tree because we don’t celebrate Christmas, but my older brother and older sister and I got presents for New Years. I remember that year we were fighting over who got the biggest gift, but my brother wound up getting that gift and it was a guitar. He got a guitar for New Year and he started playing guitar and I was so jealous of him because I wanted to get the biggest present. Then when I got older one day on the TV I heard Candy Dulfer’s “Lily was Here” with the saxophone and guitar. Candy Dulfer was really hot and I fell in love with her as a 7 year old boy, so then I said I told my parents I wanted to play saxophone. They were happy to hear that of course, and my father played violin when he was young, and his father was self taught in violin and Tamborica, I don’t know how to translate into English. Tamborica is an old, traditional kind of guitar mandolin in Bosnia and Croatia and the Balkans in general. Anyway, my father was happy and at the elementary music school were looking for a saxophone teacher, but there wasn’t one. They told me I was too young and too small physically for saxophone and that I needed to start playing flute but could switch later. So I started playing flute, played for two years, and then the war started.

CR: So you started in 1990 then?

AS: Yeah, 1990, or 1991.

CR: How did that affect your schooling then?

AS: It affected it negatively *laughter*. War negatively affected everything, especially regarding education. During the entire war I was playing on a broken flute that couldn’t play all the notes, and I couldn’t produce half of the tones because the pads were not sealing. In the beginning of the war I didn’t go to music school, but the teachers were coming to my place. I am thankful to them for doing that. They were risking their lives coming under the grenades, under the sniper fire and every day they were visiting the kids and giving them lessons. That’s really something specific that should not be forgotten, ever. They managed to make me fall in love with the flute and I continued playing even after the war. But playing flute was kind of an escape from the horrors of war and seeing all the troubles in the streets. People got killed, wounded, I lost my teachers, my friends, members of the family. So many people were dying, and you cannot go out and play with friends. Most of the time we were in the shelters, so I had nothing else to do but to play and practice, just as long as it wasn’t during what we called attacks of grenading. Parts of the day were peaceful, but you never knew when was going to be that time. It was really special time when I got to play. I remember for a few months every day at 2:45 the aggressors would fire five grenades into the center of the town just to say ‘hi’ for lunch. Everyday at 2:45, five grenades. Then it would be peaceful for an hour or two, then more grenades. It depended how the aggressors felt, but they had some schedule. But we managed to live under those circumstances. We went to the shelter at 3pm, went to our place to have lunch, practiced a little bit, then because night is falling soon, we went back to the shelter to sleep there. That was the daily routine. But most importantly, again, the teachers, not just music teachers, but all the teachers in Sarajevo, all the pedagogues gave their part during the war to keep kids educated, to keep them off the streets, and trying to prevent them from dying on the way to school.

CR: Wow, that’s incredible. I also heard that when the library was destroyed that they found a lot of people who were killed in the basement because they were trying to save books. Is that true?

AS: Yes. People would risk their lives to save a book because it is a very valuable item, you know? It’s our history. If they kill your traditions, if they kill your culture, and then eventually they kill you then there’s no trace that you ever existed. If they kill your history, you don’t exist. That’s why it was very important to save not just books, especially historic books that reflect the country, the city, the people, but very important records and documents. The National Library was a keeper of our traditions, of everything that we are, so what those people did was very important. My mom worked for the National TV and they moved all the archives to safer places under heaving shelling, they risked all of their lives and many of her colleagues got killed that way. It was the same importance to keep the records of what was going on, to keep the tapes, the documents, everything that proves our existence from history from 500 years ago until what happened yesterday. Every single document was very valuable and needed to be saved.

CR: That’s really amazing that so many people would do that.

AS: Well, every war has only one specific thing in common, and that is total destruction. It doesn’t matter how valuable something appears to be. There are not only civil casualties in war, there are very important and significant cultural loses in all the wars, books being destroyed, architecture being destroyed. In all wars like this, you are not only murdering a person, you are murdering a member of a certain profession too. For example, if you kill a musician, let’s say a bassoon player, they were probably the one and only bassoon player. Not only do you kill them, but you also killed many next generations of potential bassoon players because you don’t have anyone to teach them. That’s not only musicians, that’s every profession. If you kill a good surgeon, who is going to teach the students how to operate? That’s why I’m saying you don’t kill just a person as a human being, as someone who’s a member of a family, you also kill a member a member of society, and potentially a very valuable member of society. It’s much more than just a person, it reflects in many more ways. It’s much more than just a number on paper; the reflections of war are horrifying when you analyze them. Not only that, even if you wounded a musician, you kill the musician because he or she cannot perform anymore. Maybe they can teach, maybe. But never perform again if they’re physically stopped or prevented from performing.

CR: Wow. You’re right, Adi. We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to, I don’t want to bring up any bad things for you.

AS: I’m OK with bad. I learned to live with it a long time ago. So cheers!

CR: OK. So music was an escape for you from war and all the horrible things that come with it, but do you remember a specific time during the war where music really helped with that?

AS: There were many days like that. I was just a beginner with flute, but I was trying to play the songs from the radio with my brother who would play it on guitar. We were trying to write down the scores but we didn’t have any paper to write on. I remember we found a bunch of old postcards that were blank on one side, so we made glue and glued together the postcards to make paper and drew the music staves with a ruler and pens. Then we’d write the notes and scores and we were trying to play on that. That was some of the first sheet music I played off of, and in 1993 we gave our first public performance during the war. We played two patriotic songs for an audience, and they liked it very much because we were just small kids. I looked almost like a toddler because I was physically pretty small, so I looked like I was playing the bass flute or something, you know? But things like that really boosted our morale. We felt good doing that, but now I understand that when we were seeing other people smiling and cheering for us we were boosting their morales. That’s probably why we all survived the war because people never gave up here. The whole spirit of the city, the people here, we want to have fun, to play, to live on. In 1993 we held a Miss Sarajevo and it was crazy, you can find those videos on YouTube. U2 even made a song dedicated to that event, it’s called “Miss Sarajevo” and it’s U2 and Luciano Pavarotti. He used to be my friend when was alive, I met him. We were good friends

CR: Wow, seriously? What was he like?

AS: I am pulling your leg, haha. But no, I did meet him once, we shook hands in Mostar after the war, around 1997 or 1998. He gave a lot of money to restore one of the music centers. But that was really, really cool because I met Bono from U2, Brian Eno, Zucchero (Fornaciari), Luciano Pavarotti, they were all there. It was part of the project called “War Child” I think, and that was something I will remember until I die. I felt so proud, meeting Pavarotti. My first CD I ever bought was one of his CDs.

CR: Which one?

AS: I’m not sure, it was part of a collection, it was Volume 3 and it was a mix of some arias.

CR: How old were you when you bought that?

AS: It was immediately after the war. I really don’t know. But, anyway, that was the spirit we tried to keep, you know? We tried to keep on our lives as normal as possible. Even the orchestra held something around 200 concerts during the war in secret locations and things like that.

CR: Wow, that’s amazing! How did that work though?

AS: It was never announced publicly, it was always going from ear to ear where the next concert was going to happen. If you announced publicly the aggressor they would shoot the venue because they knew that it would be a good target to kill a lot of people.  

CR: Right, that’s what I’m curious about because that seems really dangerous

AS: Of course it was dangerous to gather like that. A few musicians got killed on the way to the concerts. Some got wounded, I know that one of our former percussionists, he lost his fingers on the way to a concert. He did not die as a person, but he was killed as a musician.

CR: Is there anyone currently in the orchestra who played during that time?

AS: Probably Dzevad and maybe Zvjezdana Patak during some part. I think she was the first orchestra employee of the orchestra when it was officially restructured after the war. She’s been in the orchestra from the very beginning. Anyway, yeah, that’s my point. People tried to live on, regardless of everything else. They knew the importance of music and the power of music to heal and to make you relax and to forget about the troubles that are going on. The rehearsals were happening in candlelight and in shelters and things like that, if they had candles.

CR: What kind of music was played?

AS: I’m not sure, but something very modest. That’s a question only people who participated can answer. I know only what I’ve heard, but I really cannot say for sure what they played. I know many of them went out of Sarajevo for a concert tour in Italy during the war. They were transported by a UN military plane and they were on tour for two months across Italy playing concerts and collecting money for some aid. Actually, you should ask someone from the office, but in 1993 they went out and held humanitarian concerts to collect money for Rwanda.

CR: Really? How come?

AS: We were pointing out that war shouldn’t be happening anywhere, including Rwanda. But I know during that tour many of the musicians didn’t return to Sarajevo under the siege. Many of them did return after it was over though

CR: So your family stayed during the war, obviously. Why did you stay in Sarajevo? Did you have a choice?

AS: I think it was my parents choice. My dad couldn’t leave for sure, because he was a man and he couldn’t leave the city. My mom, my siblings and I might have had a chance to leave Sarajevo with the Red Cross with some convoys, but if we left my father would have stayed and that would have separated my family. So my parents decided if we go, we all go, or no one goes. My mom got wounded from a sniper in our home, and two grenades hit our apartment during the war, but we all survived. We were just random targets, several times.

CR: Wow. You also said that you got sick and had to have surgery during the war, correct?

AS: Yes. I had kidney surgery because I was born with three kidneys and I had to remove two of them. There was some complication and I had to do the surgery during the war. It was scary. I don’t remember so much. We didn’t have electricity at the hospital the whole time, I remember that. I woke up during the surgery, probably because they were sparing the anesthesia and giving the minimal dosage. I couldn’t interact with the doctor or anything because I was totally paralyzed. I couldn’t move or speak or anything, but I think I just passed out after 10 or 15 seconds because of the pain. Then I woke up later on and I was fine, I had survived. I was just very happy that I woke up, I forgot about all the pain. Actually pain is your friend. You know that you are alive, and if nothing hurts, you should be worried.

CR: Yikes, Adi. I appreciate you talking about this, a lot.

AS: Not a problem.

CR: Going back to music, what about the flute do you love the most?

AS: When I was 10 or 11 when I dismembered the flute for the first time entirely because it wasn’t working. Things were not sealing, and I was amazed how precise the flute is technically. I was watching the mechanics and how it works, the rods, the springs, and everything, what is supposed to do what. I remember I found a wristwatch, the wristband was made of leather and was exact thickness that I needed to put under the keys instead of the felt. So, basically I dismembered the flute, I destroyed the watch to cut out the piece of the leather to glue it on the flute. I’m just amazed how mechanically complicated the flute is and I like that very much. Also during the war I started playing more complicated stuff, more interesting parts, and when I learned the full range of the flute I wanted to continue to play it. It’s a very rare instrument to be played in Sarajevo, especially for a guy to play the flute, not many men play flute here. But I got used to it and also I’m discovering new things every day.

CR: So what did you discover today?

AS: Well, I discovered today that I can play it with a beard, I’m not used to that. I’ve never really grown facial hair before, so today I learned I can do that *laughter*.

CR: So you’re talking about what kept you motivated to play music, how it was related to the war, but how do you define what ‘motivation’ is? What is that to you?

AS: My motivation is always making other people happy. I am happy when people around me are happy. It’s as simple as that. At some point it was motivating to me to be good, to be impressive for my parents. When I saw them smiling and proud, I felt good. Later on I was competitive and I was trying to impress the girls in school, and of course that was also motivating. But wherever you look you can find motivation. If you are a professional musician, it’s a good first step to start to do something greater, something better, not only for yourself but for other people. When you have a good crew around you it keeps you motivated. Sometimes you are lucky to have a great group, sometimes you are not lucky and not that great of group, but in your free time you can choose to hang out with and what to do. What matters is how you choose to be that day, motivated or not. I choose to be motivated.

CR: Do you have a definition for what inspiration is?

AS: Inspiration is having fun, letting your kid inside of you to play around, that’s inspiration. You just need to imagine and enjoy and have fun and smile.

CR: What are you inspired by?

AS: Many things. It can be a sunny day, and you just feel good. I think it doesn’t matter what drives you as long as it drives you. What matters is just to keep on that track, to keep on doing what you are doing the best way you can.

CR: What do you like most about playing in an orchestra?

AS: Well, the best thing about it is that you have a second family. When you spend so many hours every day with the same people, they are not your colleagues, they are your family, you know? After a few years of being together, you know how they are going to breathe, you know how their mood is just from their body language, you know if you need to ask them things or not ask them questions at all. So that’s a good thing about orchestras because you really can have some great friends there and you can support each other. We all have ups and downs, but when you have good companions in the orchestra you are always motivated to do good and that’s what I like. Something else, and this only started to happen to me maybe a year ago, but people have started to recognize me on the street from the orchestra. I went to the pharmacy to buy medicine, and the pharmacist was like “you are in the orchestra, you play flute, right? I went to the concert and it was really cool.” I was able to talk with someone who I didn’t have anything else in common with, and because in this way I was able to I felt really warm in my heart. Sometimes I get them free tickets for our next concert and it spreads the word, the good vibes. You just continue spreading that.

CR: Yes, that’s great. It’s great that you can talk to people and have that connection with them

AS: Yes, of course. They see in that instance that we are people, and we are just people who are meant to be at the service for other people. Music as an art is supposed to serve people, to be useful to people, to bond people, to make them feel something, to educate, to tell them some story. Not all music is art, not all art is beautiful, but still tells you something and makes the impact that it needs to make. We cannot be selfish. Selfish musicians are the worst musicians.

CR: Definitely. So what sort of advice can you give to people in general, other musicians, based on both your musical and life experience?

AS: It’s a quote by Mark Twain: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog”. What’s important in life is how you fight. Never give up, never, ever give up. Work hard, and it will pay off eventually, one way or another. What really matters is not how many times you go down, but how many times you get back up after a fall. I never gave up during the war, I had a broken flute, no electricity, no food, no water, no heating, no scores, I was writing my own, and re-writing my etudes and scales, and all the things I had to draw, therefore there is no excuse to give up. For those kids and musicians who really love doing this, the only thing you need to do is to just enjoy what you’re doing. What you give will eventually come back to you. Sometimes it takes a long time, but the ultimate result is in most of the cases is positive, and if you feel good about it, you will be fine.

CR: Great, Adi. Do you have a life mantra?

AS: Be humble, be good. Do good to people. This life is too short, so have fun, but don’t do harm to other people. If you can help, help every time. If you cannot help them, don’t stand in their way.

CR: Awesome. Do you have any hobbies?

AS: Oh I have many hobbies.

CR: Like drinking beer? *laughter*

AS: That’s not a hobby, that is a necessity after rehearsal *laughter* no I’m kidding. I collect beer mugs, and watch European football and American Football. I don’t know which one I prefer more, probably European because of my favorite club here in Sarajevo, FK Sarajevo, but New England Patriots are my love, I’m watching every game all season long. Some games start at 2:30 in the morning and I stay up all night just to watch the game. My huge goal was to run a half marathon in under two hours last Spring and I felt really really good that I achieved that, and I hope to do something similar this year if my knee is OK, if my injury is not too bad.

CR: So really quickly before I forget, this word ‘success’ causes a lot of anxiety, so how do you define it and what to you makes a successful musician.

AS: Every musician has to be humble, first of all, but for me success is every day getting out of bed and playing your instrument. I am just happy to be alive, and I am grateful for every day that I have, that is a success. But, we cannot forget some other aspect of success. We need to learn to appreciate the successes of other people, not just our own. We are missing that in today’s world, we are too jealous, we shouldn’t be so jealous. We should be happy for each other and be supporting each other, that’s what we are meant to do.

CR: I agree completely.

AS: I saw in your draft about questions something mentioning fear and public interpretation, perception. I don’t have fear.

CR: I figured.

AS: When I get cold feet from public performance, the war helped me with that because in those moments I tell myself I survived like 2 million grenades on my city that exploded, and I am going to be afraid of playing a few notes? That really doesn’t make sense to me, to be frightened of that. I always tell myself, I survived this. Don’t be afraid.

CR: I’m glad you brought it up. I wasn’t sure if I should because how can you be afraid of something when you’ve already gone through the worst you could ever go through?

AS: Well, I was lucky.

CR: Well, do you have anything else you want to add?

AS: I don’t know, do you have a final question? I thought your last question was going to be “do you want another beer” or something like that.

CR: *laughter* well do you want another one?

AS: No no, I’m just kidding. I have nothing to add. Adi over and out. Ciao Ciao.