When Sevdah and Chanson Kiss...
The life of the singer-songwriter was a fusion of two worlds. An interesting story that gave rise to his unique style began even before his birth.
The unusual life story of Sarajlia with a strange name began during the Second World War. The young Italian soldier Osvald Monteno, tried to escape from Italy by bicycle. The deserter was soon arrested and, as a punishment, was sent to Sarajevo as a soldier of the army that would soon occupy the town.
However, fate wanted the young soldier to love more than to fight. Osvald met Sarajevian girl Bahria and decided to leave his old life, and his family in Italy to stay in the town on the coast of Miljacka. The autumn of 1948 just unfolded, as their first child was born. A son, whose father wanted him to have a Bosnian name and an Italian surname.
As years passed, Kemal Monteno spent his childhood on the hill above the Koševo stadium. Osvald and Bahria worked at the stadium - the father sold football boots and balls, while the mother washed the jerseys. Their home was very modest. The Monteno family settled on the veranda, and a Roma family lived right below them. Kemo always told stories about how he spent more time in the Roma's family apartment than in his own house. - I loved their way of life, the joy that was always present in their home and the songs they sang. They taught me what music and great song are, but also what love is - he once recalled.
For a little boy, growing up in the stadium was a dream come true. Of course, Kemal loved football from an early age. - If I didn't shoot for six hours a day, I considered that day to be a waste. - he used to say. Thus, the famous Sarajlija had his first performance in Koševo. In jersey number 8, he dreamed that one day he would replace the greatest players of the era. Unfortunatelly, it happened that Kemo neglected school because of football.
One day, after the parents' meeting in the school, Osvald Monteno didn't come home. He stormed off directly to the football coach, angry as hell, and told him that Kemal hadn't been to class for more than half a year. At the next training session, the coach sent a crying Kemal straight home.
And so, willy-nilly, his football career failed. But Kemal soon realized that his hobby number 2 - singing - is also a great fit. Of course it was, as Kamal was surrounded by music since childhood. His father spoke only Italian, so he sang chansons to him when he was a baby. On the other side, his mother, who was a Bosnian, when she cleaned the apartment or washed the windows, often sang sevdalinkas, the traditional Bosnian folk songs.
Thus, a boy with excellent hearing was already registered in the eighth grade for a competition of young amateur singers. The jury included Kornelije Kovač, who at the time came to Sarajevo to study. The young composer recognized Kemal's talent and invited him to record a song for a festival in Subotica.
Kemal won the festival. Soon, people all around Bosnia started talking about the young man from Sarajevo with a beautiful voice. But the real success came in 1967, when Kemal joined the festival "Your Hit of The Season". Handsome young singer made his debut with the song "Lidija". Although he was just a high school student, he won the hearts of the audience and won two awards - for the best composition and for the best singer. As Kemal's career took off, the young man also got lucky in love.
Walking through the busiest Sarajevo's street, Korzo, he saw Branka. Kemal later described Branka as beautiful and simple, like Twiggy, but blonde! Love at first sight was born. Branka has no idea that Kemal was a young singer on the rise. Her friend only explained that little fact to her through a letter. Two lovers started having fun, but soon Kemo had to join the army.
The couple continued to correspond, and during Kemal's lonely military days, he wrote a beautiful song "One Night in December". He later unveiled that he had no money back then, so he had to write a song as a gift for Branka's birthday! He came up with it while on guard duty, wrote it down on a cigarette pack and sent it straight to Sarajevo.
After returning from the army, Branka and Kemal spent all their days together. Still unwed. Until one day, when Branka's mother got very mad and said: - Children, it can't be like this anymore! - Kemo swiftly told her they will get married in June. Afterwards, he went to Jugoton, the biggest Yugoslavian record producer, and took the advance for his contract. As said, as done. The wedding was indeed celebrated in June. In the beginning, the young couple lived with Kemal's parents. When their daughter Adriana was born, they bought an apartment.
Soon, Kemo began to come up with hits, song after song, and his records marked the Yugoslavian music in the '70s.
Kemal and Branka remained together during the difficult '90s when Kemal had to watch his beloved Sarajevo being destroyed. Still, he refused several invitations to leave the occupied city. In the war times, he released a famous anti-war song "Letter to a friend". The music video for the song is very simple, but emotional. It was recorded on the staircase of the Sarajevo FIS – famous gathering place of musicians, a sports centre and a concert hall, that soon got destroyed in the war. The song "Letter to a friend" soon became the unofficial anthem of the city wounded by armed conflict. Many residents of Sarajevo still remember the feeling of hearing this song on the radio, in the rare moments when they had electricity in the city...
Kemal spent the last fifteen years of his life in Zagreb, where he created albums, recorded many duets and filled halls. In his forty-year career, he wrote more than 250 songs, many of which became parts of musical anthologies. During all these years, Kamal maintained a distinctive musical style that many describe as a combination of Italian chanson and a traditional Bosnian sevdalinka. It was as if two worlds had merged in him.
Everyone remembers Kemal as a family-oriented, down-to-earth and funny man who was always there for his friends. In his words: "What is life but happiness and sadness, an empty suitcase, a winding track. You find love, you find a friend, and the winds keep blowing from the north and the south, that's also how they brought me."
Kemal left with the wind, suddenly, in January of 2015. As his legacy, he left us his timeless songs in which he wove his life, the youth of pre-war Sarajevo and his lifelong love for art, which, for him, always united and never divided.