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Hoochie Coochie Hoću Kući

Is Milan Manojlović Mance’s Man from Katanga the greatest Croatian album ever made?

Photo © Ratko Mavar

Man from Katanga was a record of humble beginnings, released on cassette by Kekere Aquarium – a label that consisted of a Zagreb student with lofty dreams of selling at least twenty copies. It’s nowadays one of the few albums released since Croatian independence which has earned near-unanimous acceptance as a classic.

Sometimes it’s useless even trying to explain a musical legend. Especially when you can tell people to look him up on Youtube instead. Milan Manojlović Mance only ever made one proper video, but the 4.31 minutes of Kišni grad (Rainy Town; directed by Velimir Rodić) are just about enough to tell you what you need to know about the greatest singer-songwriter Zagreb has ever produced. The resolutely low-fi recording contains all the characteristics that have made Mance a canonical figure in Croatian rock: a rough, first-take guitar sound, a warm but vulnerable, quivering voice, deceptively childish rhymes, and the melancholy suggestion that Mance’s rainy town might actually be a preferred state of being rather than an actual geographical place.

It is exactly twenty years since the appearance of Mance’s Čovjek iz Katange (Man from Katanga), arguably the greatest Croatian cult album of all time, and for some people quite simply the greatest Croatian album. (Unfortunately for the perfect symmetry of this article, Kišni grad isn’t actually on it; but virtually every other track on the album has since etched itself into the brains of every Mance devotee). It was a record of humble beginnings, released on cassette by Kekere Aquarium – a label that basically consisted of a Zagreb student with lofty dreams of selling at least twenty copies. It’s nowadays one of the few albums released in the two decades following Croatian independence which has earned near-unanimous acceptance as a classic.

An unpredictable performer whose relationship with the music scene was always ambiguous, Mance recorded three albums of beautifully enigmatic music before retiring due to ill health in the late 2000s. His half-sung, half-mumbled repertoire featured the kind of word-play and nonsense rhymes that are almost impossible to convey to a non-Croatian audience. It’s a unique body of work, regarded as more or less untouchable by today’s generation of performers, few of whom are courageous enough to cover any of Mance’s songs.

One of the best assessments of Man from Katanga comes from an unlikely source. “This is one of the key all-time records not only in Croatia but in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. It’s the kind of record that never ages, it still sounds extremely fresh and new, and is totally independent of trends or fashion“ says Emil Tedeschi, the successful entrepreneur (he’s the owner of food, drinks and domestic supplies conglomerate Atlantic Trade) who moonlights as a DJ for radio station Yammat FM. “Mance for me represents the ultimate pop, especially on first listening: it’s funny, it’s simple, it has plain chords, the lyrics catch you immediately; but it’s also honest and intelligent. Mance is completely in line with the giants”

Tedeschi makes these comments as we sit round a table in the company of Kornel Šeper, the man responsible for releasing Man from Katanga two decades ago and now a leading figure in the Močvara, one of Zagreb’s longest-running alternative clubs. This curious juxtaposition of business tycoon and alternative-culture impresario eloquently demonstrates just how broad-based Mance’s appeal actually is.

Tedeschi and Šeper tell me they are planning to rerelease all of Mance’s albums (plus some previously unreleased live material) on vinyl. “It completes the Mance circle” Tedeschi enthuses, “a classic vinyl release is something that Čovjek iz Katange has always deserved.”

Three bananas

Tedeschi made a documentary about Mance for one of his radio shows, interviewing a lot of people who were respected musicians in their own right. He was surprised by the extent to which they spoke of Mance with awe, as if he was on a higher level than they were. “Darko Rundek [leading contemporary songwriter and erstwhile member of post-punk giants Haustor] spoke about Mance as if he was Bob Dylan”.

“In some of the early reviews of his albums he was compared to Bob Dylan”, Šeper concurs. “Which surprised me because I always thought he sounded more like Syd Barrett”.

The reference to Barrett – the mercurial but troubled songwriter who was thrown out of Pink Floyd in 1968 and later became a total recluse, serves as a reminder that Mance himself has long-standing problems with depression and mental illness. This has sometimes led people to identify something freakish in his music, as if he is a holy fool rather than a songwriter of significance.

“Several times I played Man from Katanga to friends at home and their fist reaction was always to laugh” Tedeschi continues. “But that’s a superficial reaction. It’s actually a very deep album, it’s about life and truth, and the more you listen to it the more deeply you dig.“

I was one of the people who didn’t initially like Man from Katanga because on first hearing it sounded too much like a comedy record. But even faux-childish songs like the title track (in which a smuggler from the Congolese region of Katanga reflects on his homeland of ‘three bananas’) has a sub-text of exile, longing, and a life that didn’t turn out quite right. Audience favourites like Dva (which address the question of why two is Mance’s favourite number) or Rajka (a whimsical tale of a girl living at home with her mum which never arrives at the punchline) poke fun at pop music as a form while simultaneously conjuring an unfathomable, tugging sadness.

There’s a lot here that is reminiscent of the first two Pixies albums – unorthodox song structures, narratives that unexpectedly change direction, sudden excursions into falsetto singing, tracks which sound as if they were deliberately left unfinished – it’s just that with Mance these techniques are taken to minimalist, almost unmusical extremes.

Hoochie Coochie hoću kući

Milan Manojlović Mance was born in 1958 and studied at Zagreb’s Academy of Fine Arts. A talented graphic artist and a member of avant-garde comic-strip collective ZZOT, he was a regular fixture on the music scene from the early Eighties onwards, most notably playing in almost-famous post-punk band Korowa Bar.

Kornel Šeper first came across Mance at Zagreb’s Student Centre Gallery (Galerija ESCE) in mid-1990, a short but culturally fertile period in which the gallery served as the venue for all manner of exhibitions, concerts and art happenings. “I used to hang out there almost every day because of the inspiring mixture of people who went there. One afternoon I found Mance and a friend playing an impromptu concert for nobody. I remember the song: it was Hoochie Coochie hoću kući. It’s a play on words on Hoochie Coochie Man, the blues standard written by Willie Dixon for Muddy Waters. [hoću kući means “I want to go home” in Croatian]. So I liked him immediately because it was absurd, surreal, and full of energy.”

Mance outside the Močvara, 1999. Photo by the much-missed Marko Čaklović (1977-2006)

Another person hanging around the Student Centre Gallery in 1990 was the artist Ivan Marušić Klif, now one of Croatia’s leading exponents of sound and light installations. “Mance and I started hanging out at the Gallery and doing performances together, even though I was a lot younger than him. It was during those legendary five months when the Student Centre Gallery seemed to be at the centre of everything, an important period when I came into contact with a lot of older colleagues who gave us younger ones room in which to develop our ideas.”

The list of people Klif met at the gallery is like a who’s-who of the Croatian alt-culture scene of that time – members of experimental theatre group Kugla Glumište, art-rock band Sexa, and masters of intelligent post-punk pop Haustor. Many of the characteristics now associated with Mance’s songs: the word games, the weird narratives, make sense when placed against this arty avant-garde background.

One other band to come out of the Student Centre scene was Šumski, formed by regular gallery visitors Kornel Šeper on bass and Marin Juraga Jura on guitar and vocals. Once Šumski started gigging, Mance became a kind of unofficial support act. “We would often meet Mance by chance in the centre of town and ask him if he felt like playing a gig in a few hours’ time” Šeper remembers. “He would always say ‘yeah OK but only if you can lend me a guitar’.”

Šeper already had a reputation for being something of an obsessive archivist, standing in the front row at concerts with a microphone in order to ensure that every show was recorded for posterity. “I had a mission to prevent things from being forgotten”, he says. He founded Kekere Aquarium in 1992 in order to release an album (originally recorded in 1985 but never released) by his then favourite band, Trobecove Krušne Peći, an abrasive post-punk band who took their name from a notorious serial killer. Re-released on vinyl in 2013, it’s a compelling document of the times.

The name Kekere Aquarium was invented by Kornel’s friend Javor Jeić, who had encountered an old man in a café in Omiš who periodically looked up, shouted “kekere!”, then went back to his drink.

Low-fi, no-fi.

Šeper would sell his cassette albums at gigs or by placing advertisements in fanzines. Once he sold enough cassettes to recoup his costs, he would set about releasing another. “Some time in early 1996, I was working as a newspaper seller on the streets. I spent hours walking and walking without talking to anybody, so I had plenty of time to think. And at a certain moment I thought to myself, well, I have to make a Mance album. Next day I called him and he said OK.”

Ivan Marušić Klif had just completed a course in sound engineering in Amsterdam. Back in Zagreb, he was busy recording local bands. “So when Kornel asked whether I wanted to record Mance, I said fine, let’s do it.”

The songs were recorded at Klif’s flat in central Zagreb, thereby removing a lot of the pressure that usually comes with studio recording. They borrowed a tape recorder from Coco Mosquito and Berko Muratović of the band Jinx (pioneers of retro soul-pop who went on to become something of a Croatian institution). It was an eight-track recorder but for most of the songs they only needed one, putting Mance’s guitar and vocals through the same microphone.

The initial intention was to get Jura from Šumski to bolster the sound by adding some additional guitar parts, but he found it difficult to rehearse with Mance. “It was impossible to follow him, he played whatever came into his head.”

The result was a spontaneous low-fi masterpiece, mostly recorded in first takes.

“We never had any agreed recording schedule ” says Klif, “Mance came round when he felt like it, and just sat down and played. None of us were under any kind of pressure, we worked in total peace, and we recorded a heap of material. Mance was very relaxed about it. It was only an album for Kornel’s cassette label, we thought; it wasn’t a big deal!”

“We used to hang out at Klif’s and Mance would play the songs as if we were at an informal party”, Šeper remembers. “The window was open so you could hear birds in the background on some of the recordings. After a few weeks we said OK, we have enough songs, and I chose 13 of them for the album.“

The Hole

A promotional concert marking the release of the cassette took place in the KSET student club on November 29 1996. Featuring other Kekere Aquarium acts, it was also the first club concert organized by URK, the cultural association that subsequently gave birth to long-running alternative institution the Močvara club.

“I never thought I would sell more than about twenty copies” Šeper says now, “but Man from Katanga turned out to be my bestselling album. My previous bestseller had been by Osijek hardcore band Why Stakla, an album with a specific audience and not something that could appeal to people outside of the frame. But for Mance the audience was completely different; students started listening to him, people who weren’t usually interested in my label and the noise bands that I was releasing.”

One of the first signs of Mance’s growing popularity came in May 1997, when he was the support act for folk singer Dunja Knebl’s autobiographical words-and-music performance Why did I Become a Singer? (Zašto sam postala javna pjevačica?) It took place at Rupa (The Hole), a tiny club located in the basement of Zagreb University’s Faculty of Humanities.

“I didn’t know anything about Mance until that Rupa concert” Dunja Knebl remembers. “I certainly had no idea that the concert would turn out to be such an extraordinary event. So many people came that people inside the room literally couldn’t move. There was a crowd of people outside on the stairs who just couldn’t get in.

“Obviously he made a big impression. He was a very strange fellow; tall, thin, dark. He was like some kind of apparition. He had a vague look in his eyes as if he wasn’t even there. Until he started singing, when he suddenly commanded everybody’s attention. His songs were as strange as he was. But they had humour, and a sense of the absurd. It was completely different to anything you would hear anywhere else.“

Did Kornel Šeper ever ask Mance what his songs were about? “I was never interested in posing that question directly, and I am sure that Mance himself would in any case have given a different answer every time.”

Marin Juraga Jura spent a long time hanging out with Mance in the 1990s, and was a keen observer of the way his imagination worked. “I think he picked up fragments of conversations and put them into some kind of narrative. You could even spot phrases picked up from Darko Rundek or Johnny Štulić [leader of massively popular Eighties band Azra], then placed in an absurd framework.”

Here is Kornel again: “Looking back on the 1990s from today’s perspective, none of the bands of that era were funny. Only Mance was funny. And people needed to laugh. It was a kind of therapy. But you also have to say that he was a great lyricist and that he had a fantastic feeling for pop melody.”

Kings of the Swamp

Mance with artist Igor Hofbauer outside the Močvara, 1999. Photo Marko Čaklović.

The opening of the Močvara (Swamp) club in spring 1999 gave the Zagreb alternative scene a new sense of focus. Mance almost lived there in the early days, and although he retained an ad-hoc attitude to playing concerts, the Močvara at least provided him with a home stage on which he felt comfortable.

Indeed it was at Močvara that I first saw Mance perform live in mid-1999. The place was packed to the rafters; people were shouting requests for their favourite songs, and singing along to the ones they knew by heart. Mance was teasing them by starting one song and then segueing into something completely different. His command of the audience was total.

Film maker Ivan Ramljak, then in charge of Močvara’s alternative cinema programme, was at the same gig. “Mance’s concerts were insane; he never played any song the same way twice, and he would invent new lyrics on the spot.”

“Mance’s concerts were always different” says Dunja Knebl, another of the Močvara’s regular performers. “If you expected anything concrete from him you would be disappointed; he was far too unpredictable. There were times when he commanded the stage like a real star, holding everyone in rapt attention for an hour, even two. At other times he would play for ten minutes and lose interest.”

Kornel Šeper set about recording a second Mance album, Plavi Bar (The Blue Bar), only to find that Čovjek iz Katange was a difficult act to follow. Despite being recorded in a professional studio, “Mance wasn’t inspired enough and I didn’t feel I had enough material for an album. So about 50% of Mance’s second album actually consists of out-takes left over from the first. But it’s still a very good album.”

Black cats, barking dogs

In 2000 both Čovjek iz Katange and Plavi Bar were re-released as a double CD album by Kekere Aquarium in collaboration with Arkzin. It was the CD re-release that cemented Mance’s status, garnering mainstream press reviews, and encouraging Croatian rock journalists to place Mance in the kind of ‘best of’ lists that gave him a canonical presence – a presence that as endured to this day.

Mance even played at the Crni Mačak (Black Cat) rock awards in 2001, an annual ceremony shown on national television. He was nominated, bizarrely, in the Best Newcomer category - won, as is so often the case, by a band that no one has heard of since.

The CD release also resulted in another intake of devoted followers, one of whom was Emil Tedeschi. He was given the CD as a gift by Dubravko Ivaniš Ripper of the band Pips, Chips & Videoclips. “Ripper wrote a very nice dedication on the cover, something to the effect that this was the essence of music, the rudiment. And everything else comes after. Listing to it for the first time I immediately saw reflections of Haustor and chansonnier Arsen Dedić, and I understood immediately that Mance was some kind of lost troubadour, someone who is alone with his guitar, completely free, with a clear concept that there is no concept.“

The delayed success of the Man from Katanga served as something of a long-awaited affirmation for all those people who had been part of Zagreb’s alternative scene in the late eighties, only to see their careers shrivel or go underground during the war years of 1991-95 and the leaden, culturally conservative period that followed. According to Ivan Marušić Klif “it was the kind of success that could be shared by a certain community, a certain group of people, a certain generation.”

Mance performing at Rupa, late 1990s. Photo © Nataša Družijanić

Mance’s third album, Melodije sobe i predsoblja (Melodies of Living Room and Hallway) was released on Močvara’s own label in 2003. Much of it was recorded at Dunja Knebl’s house: Knebl had successfully recorded an album of her own at home, and Kornel Šeper decided that the domestic ambience would be good for Mance too. Mance was in one room, producer Sven Pavlović was in another. “At that time I didn’t have these windows” Knebl remembers, pointing to the double glazing, “so we had to record between the trams running outside. As soon as one went past, Mance would start a song and try and finish it before the next one arrived.” Barking courtesy of Dunja’s dog, Koza, was also left in the mix.

Despite releasing his most commercial, radio-friendly album to date, Mance was still unsure of his career in music, and the desire to carry on playing gigs was always in conflict with a competing urge to hang up the guitar and stay at home.

Mance did at one stage in the early 2000s go on tour with Šumski, playing dates in Slovenia and western Croatia. But, as Marin Juraga Jura remembers, he “didn’t like touring very much. He lay in the van until stage time, then immediately after the concert went back to lie in the van again.” When the Šumski tour hit Rijeka’s Palach club however “it was as if everybody had come because of him, not us. The whole place was full and everybody seemed to know all the words to his songs.”

“The more well known he got the more nervous he was” says Klif. “He was used to performing spontaneously, in places like the Student Centre Gallery and Rupa; the idea of a bigger concert was always a problem.”

The outsider

Mance played his last gig at the Močvara in 2008, after which he retreated from the scene entirely. Rather like Syd Barrett, Mance will always be identified as the great lost troubadour of his epoch.

“Mance is still so underground he is below all the radars” says Emil Tedeschi, reflecting on why a re-release of Mance’s albums is long overdue. ”A few thousand people know his work, but he is not a public figure. People who are not easily Google-able and do not appear on TV exist in niches, but for the general public remain largely unknown. It would be a pity for an artist like Mance to exist only for the avant-garde, for the below-the-radar niches of society. And Mance is, after all, still alive.

“It’s people like Mance who make the difference between Zagreb being a city and not some provincial hole. And we do not have many of those. Generally, Zagreb is getting worse. But Mance’s body of work helps generate the hope that everything is not lost.”

Maybe the final word on Mance should go to Kornel Šeper, without whom the Man from Katanga may never have got much further than the odd impromptu support gig. “Mance was a complete outsider and that was my interest. I often wanted to work with outsiders. It was a kind of mission.

“The other reason why I wanted to work with him is because he did things naturally, which is extremely rare. It’s a bit like discovering an old bluesman who plays guitar instinctively, without thinking too much about what he’s doing. Which is exactly what Mance does, he’s a virtuoso who doesn’t show it. And behind it all are some really great songs.

"At the time of Man from Katanga the Croatian singer-songwriter scene didn't exist. Nobody was brave enough to come out and play with nothing but a guitar. Maybe it wasn't even considered cool enough. Dance was the first person in a long time to take that approach and Katanga is the first genuine Croatian singer-songwriter album. Today we have a whole scene of performers like this, and some of them, Lovely Quinces for example, are getting really famous."

© Jonathan Bousfield