By Anita Malhotra
One of Austria’s best-known jazz musicians, guitarist Harri Stojka began performing in 1970 and has since released more than 15 LPs and CDs. Playing in Viennese rock bands as a young teen, he formed his own jazz-rock band at 17, and at 24 was invited to play at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival. Equally at home playing rock, punk, funk and jazz guitar, Stojka, a Vienna-born Roma, now specializes in the music closest to his heart: gypsy jazz.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Stojka in his dressing room after a concert sponsored by the Austrian Cultural Forum on Feb. 18, 2011 at Ottawa’s Arts Court.
AM: Tell me about your first experiences with music when you were a child.
Stojka: My first experience was listening to the Beatles. I was born in 1957. Beatlemania was eight years old and my older sisters always listened to the Beatles. George Harrison was my first experience of hearing a solo guitar player. When I saw George Harrison, I said, “I want to be a solo guitar player.” I was eight years old.
AM: I read that you first started playing at age six when your father bought you a plastic guitar. Can you tell me that story?
Stojka: I know the story from my sisters. My Dad came home with a little plastic guitar and gave it to me. And instead of smashing the guitar in the corner, I sat there and started to practice. Nobody knows why. I practiced three weeks on this instrument. And my Dad said, “Wow, he has talent for guitar playing” and he bought me a bigger guitar.
AM: What about your first experience playing in a band?
Stojka: In 1970 I joined my cousin’s band as a bass player. His name is Karl Ratzer. I was 13 years old. He lived in the United States for eight years and played with several jazz musicians like Chet Baker. Before that I had a band with my other cousin – he was a drummer. In Vienna we were the youngest band at the time. I was 12 years old and he was 13. He played drums, I played guitar, and we blew the audience away. Everybody said, “Wow, you have to listen to these two kids.”
AM: What kind of music were you playing back then?
Stojka: Some kind of hard rock.
AM: So tell me about the first band you had – Harry Stojka Express. How did that come about?
Stojka: This was 1974. We played hard-core jazz rock in Vienna and also blew the audience away. Everybody said, “Wow, what’s this kind of guitar player?” People were really shocked by my playing at the time. I was 17 years old then. I was the best in Vienna.
AM: And you got invited to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival. How did that happen?
Stojka: I made my first solo LP and my record company sent it to the festival and they immediately said, “Yeah, he should come and play here.” It was 1980. This was my first solo performance and I was really nervous. It was solo playing, live, and the cameras were around me filming. But now when I hear this LP – we did a live LP from this concert – it is really great stuff.
AM: You grew up in a Roma family and I’ve heard there was always music around. Was it just the Beatles or was it also the Gypsy music?
Stojka: It was also the Gypsy music, of course. One day a week, my grandma did a big celebration. The whole family came together and made music – gypsy music. And we kids grew up with this music. But for a long time I didn’t play this music. In 2000 I came back to Roma music. Before that I was playing in a punk rock band. I was a hard-core punk rocker and then a hard rock heavy metal player in the ‘90s, and in 2000 I came back to my gypsy music. My wife said, “You are a gypsy, why don’t you play gypsy music?” And then I thought about it and said, “Yeah, she’s right. That’s my identity, you know.”
AM: Did you grow up with all your family around you or was it just you and your sister and your parents?
Stojka: No, with all my family around me. With my cousins, my aunts, my uncles. It’s a bad story because my whole family was in concentration camps. They all had the numbers – the tattoos, you know. My family was 200 people big, and only six people came back. My father was a Holocaust survivor. He was in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald and in Flossenbürg, and then he was on the death march. He was released by the American Ninth Army. So, this was the story when we were growing up. The music was really sad at the celebrations because my Dad was drinking wine, and when the people got sadder and sadder the music became a blues that you really can’t imagine.
AM: You have a CD, though, that honours that memory. Tell me a bit about that CD, Hidden Tears.
Stojka: It was because I said, “I have to do this music. I have to do something for my gypsy people. The only thing I can do for my people is music, you know. At the moment, in Europe, the gypsies have many problems. They were pushed out of every country where they went, and they were really oppressed. So, I said, “All I can do is music, and now I will make this CD, and I mean it’s a little sign, but that’s all I can do. I also do many benefit concerts, where we collect money and give it to the poor people.
AM: I guess the Roma people are a disadvantaged group in Austria and in Europe in general.
Stojka: Sure. Also discriminated against and beaten, and there are many neo-Nazis in several countries in Europe, you know. They go and beat my people and want to get them out of the country. It’s a very complicated situation for the gypsies at the moment in Europe.
AM: You’ve said that Gypsy Swing is Europe’s answer to American jazz. Can you explain that a bit more?
Stojka: Before Django Reinhardt there was the swing from Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller and all those great musicians, but this kind of music didn’t exist. Django Reinhardt in France invented this music and gave an answer to American jazz. He found his own language in jazz. Real pure, European jazz music, which has nothing to do with American jazz music.
AM: And what is that language?
Stojka: You have to hear it and feel it. All I can talk about is the instrumentation – no drums, just acoustic guitars and the double-bass and in many groups a violin player. And the purest form of this is one microphone, no amplification, just playing acoustic. This is different sound that you don’t find in American jazz.
AM: You played a song to your father at tonight’s concert. Can you tell me about your relationship with your father?
Stojka: I lost my Dad to Alzheimer’s. The worst thing was when he didn’t know me anymore. He looked at me and didn’t know who I was.
My Dad was my greatest mentor. Without him I would be nothing. I would not be a musician. He always pushed me to play guitar. He said, “Come on, and practice till the smoke comes from your fingers.” And he was always there for his family. He was a carpet seller. He’d go on tour in Austria and always send money home for his kids. And well, I love him, and as I said before, the time when he didn’t know me anymore was very sad for me. And then I sat down and wrote the song.
AM: You play many different styles of music. Why?
Stojka: Because I’m open to every kind of good music. I’m not in a box, you know. With jazz, I’m not in a box. If I hear good pop music, I love it. Christina Aguilera is to me the greatest singer in the world. I was a punk rock player and I’m very proud of it. It was a great time, it was a violent time, it was a naughty time. 1978. Then I was a heavy metal player. The acoustic guitar is the only way to express myself. It really comes from my heart and it sounds like how I hear it in my mind. When I play electric guitar, I hear the sound but another sound comes out from the guitar. There’s no direct connection. With the acoustic guitar here is the sound and here it comes out from my fingers. And that’s why I play this music.
AM: I’ve heard that Pat Martino was one of your great influences. Can you tell me about your experience of hearing him?
Stojka: We were on tour and we were driving on the highway and our manager put a CD in the player. I was sitting in the back and I was very bored and tired, and suddenly this man began to play “Sunny.” And then I was, “Wow.” It was like a flash. I wanted to play this jazz music. I wanted to be a jazz player. So I sat down at home and learned 100 solos by Pat Martino. I could play them with the record, in sync.
AM: Do you read music?
Stojka: No, it’s all by ear. When I read music it’s very, very slow. I don’t need to because I’m my own boss. I don’t play for other people. I live in my own world, you know. People play with me. I don’t play with people, so I don’t need to read music.
AM: So if someone asked you to just be in their band, you wouldn’t do that?
Stojka: Not really, no. What for? People want to hear me play my kind of music and I don’t have to play with any other musicians. I wouldn’t go to New York to play with some jazz star, I would go to New York to build my own band and get a public for it. That’s my idea of being a musician.
AM: You have toured India. Do you have a particular connection with the country?
Stojka: A film producer came to me and said, “Harri, let’s go to India and take a look at the roots to see if we can find similarities with the Roma language and in the music. So we made this movie. It’s a very funny movie. We found many similarities in language and the music. We had Indian musicians who played, and I played my guitar, and all was filmed and it was a great experience.
AM: And you’ve also been to Indonesia. How did that happen?
Stojka: It was a different tour. We played 11 concerts in Bali and four concerts in Jakarta. It’s like paradise, Bali. The thing was that the people had never heard gypsy swing before. So after the first song they didn’t know what to do. But by the second song, they started to get in the rhythm, and then we had standing ovations at the end of the concert. So you see, this music goes to every heart.
AM: What are your upcoming projects?
Stojka: Well, many things. When I go home I have to do another movie as an actor, as a Roma guitar player. So I play Harry Stojka in this film. Then we will do a CD with Roma music from Europe. It’s my wife’s idea. And many concerts are coming up. We have a band and it’s called “Gypsy Orchestra.” It’s a collaboration between me and Indian musicians and Romanian Roma musicians. It’s a big, big band. It’s great.
For more information about Harri Stojka or to listen to excerpts from his CDs, visit his website at www.harristojka.com.