Chicago artists forge a student-teacher bond, strengthened by a jazzlike musical genre that can be as elusive as the culture it sprang from
By MARK GUARINO | Special to the Chicago Tribune
April 22, 2009
Ruth Margraff traveled the world to learn gypsy music, only to discover that a master player lived just blocks away from her Albany Park home.
Juliano Milo, 56, a virtuoso gypsy accordionist and former soloist in the world-famous Orchestra Romalen, has been in exile from his Serbian home since 1990.
How the two met reflects the romantic intuition associated with the music—which has risen in popularity in recent years—and their ensuing mentor-student relationship continues the music’s tradition of oral instruction. They will share a Chicago stage for a concert later this month.
Margraff, an associate professor of writing at the School of the Art Institute, first encountered gypsy music in 1999 in Sarajevo while visiting her mother, who at the time worked as a UN peacekeeper following the Bosnian War. She and her husband, musician Nikos Brisco, met a seamstress and were invited to her home to hear her family play music and sing. Margraff could not understand what the woman was singing, but “felt she was calling” to me, she said.
“The romantic qualities of it … also the passion and the virtuosity — it’s just gorgeous music,” she said. “It’s sad and happy at the same time. It can be the most tragic song, but if you hear it, you want to dance.”
Margraff, who also teaches playwriting, spent the 10 years after her trip incorporating a love of Eastern European folk music and experimental theater into what has been described as “new wave opera” or “gypsy cabaret.” Traveling the world with her band has allowed her to learn and absorb more of the gypsy music style.
Two years ago, after working in Austin, Texas, and New York City, Margraff moved to Chicago and decided she needed a proper accordion teacher. She heard about Milo last fall. When she contacted him, he invited her to his apartment above a cafe on Irving Park Road near her Northwest Side neighborhood.
“I couldn’t believe it; there he was in Chicago,” she said. “I’ve written to people like that before but never had that strong connection. I was so excited he was still teaching. A lot of people who are virtuoso like he is don’t even teach anymore.”
Milo was taken aback by how much Margraff knew about his culture.
“When she came, she act like a gypsy, I was surprised, but she was not gypsy! She speak a couple of words gypsy. It was interesting to me to have a student like that,” he said.
Each two-hour lesson starts the same way: Milo and his wife, Sery, greet her at the door. Sery brings her tea and Margraff runs through some notes on her accordion to get warmed up. Milo enters and they get to work.
Gypsy music, like the people with whom it is most associated, can’t be pinned to a geographical home. Describing it depends on who is playing. It is a meshing of folk music instrumentation—often using accordion, violin and guitar—that can be traced throughout Eastern Europe, Turkey and India. The playing style is often highly ornamental, despite themes of nomadic yearning and hardship.
Zvonimir Tot, who teaches jazz at the University of Illinois at Chicago, compares the music to jazz . He says the subtle manipulations in tempo and phrasing inherent to gypsy music are “generally impossible to notate.”
“I think the comparison with jazz is fair,” said Tot, who is Serbian. “You can notate a jazz line, but if you never heard anyone do it, it’s impossible to play with any degree of authenticity. That is the main reason why [gypsy music] survives as an oral tradition. Within the gypsy culture it’s also another reason why the relationship between mentor and student is perhaps more pronounced than [in the] non-gypsy world.”
Milo was the up-and-coming orchestral leader of Serbia’s Orchestra Romalen, a well-known ensemble that toured extensively throughout Europe, Australia and the U.S., when he was invited by a local Serbian cultural organization to perform in Chicago on New Year’s Eve 1990. While he was here in December, fighting broke out in Serbia and tensions mounted in what would become the Bosnian War, a conflict lasting almost four years.
Milo’s mother, who lived in Belgrade, persuaded her son and his wife to stay in the United States, fearing he would be enlisted to fight in the army if he returned. Their visas were extended a couple of times, then the petitions of local cultural arts groups helped them secure green cards and, eventually, U.S. citizenship.
Milo, whose full name is Milosavljevic, never returned. His mother sold his studio and all his possessions and sent him the earnings so he could set up a new life in the U.S. His parents have since died and he says he has no reason to return.
“I lost everything,” he said. “My life was there and now it has changed completely.”
His story, including the rebuilding of his musical life, has echoes of a traditional gypsy song—the story of loss and rebirth. He’s organized new groups and has regular gigs playing several times a month—every Wednesday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, plus regular dates at Katerina’s, Pops for Champagne, Uncommon Ground as well as the Old Town School of Folk Music, where he occasionally teaches.
Mateo Mulcahy, who booked Milo for the school’s world music series, said the accordionist is “not very modest about his abilities and skills and reputation.”
“He has exclaimed to me on a number of occasions that he’s the best,” Mulcahy said. “I don’t know enough to contradict him, but he appears to be correct.”
Mulcahy said that despite a snowstorm, the school’s performance hall was filled when Milo played there last January.
“He gave us quite a show. He had the crowd on their feet. About 175 people showed and I was very pleased because we had horrible weather that night—I thought I was going to get 50 people,” Mulcahy said.
Milo says he doesn’t know why the music is so popular here.
“American people love the gypsy music,” he said. “If you are born a gypsy, you have tradition in the genes, in the blood, in the spirit. My teaching is open for everybody and everybody have a chance.”
Margraff and her band, the Cafe Antarsia Ensemble, will open for Milo at 10 p.m. Saturday at the Viaduct Theatre , 3111 N. Western Ave.