The snows of Sarajevo - February 09

Having just participated in the Organic Art Life Festival with Djabe, my Hungarian pals, I'm trying to get a feel for what life must have been like during the siege of 1992 - 1995 by reading Stephen Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo, a fictional snapshot of the Bosnian war based on the true account of a cellist's insistence on playing outdoors for twenty two consecutive days despite the carnage raging all around him... solo concerts with a difference...

During the siege, the longest in modern European history, 11,000 people were killed, including 1,500 children, despite being under UN protection. Bullet holes are immediately visible on many small homes lining the route from the airport and on buildings throughout the city.

The annual Sarajevo Winter Arts Festival organised by Ibrahim Spahic began in 1984 and continued throughout the conflict as both an act of defiance and a refusal to accept war as the norm. Ibrahim's dream acted as an extraordinary beacon of light during the time of troubles. Meeting Ibrahim is like coming face to face with the soul of the place... a man who combines the drive of a hundred other mere mortals. Just this year alone the festival includes music, visual arts, drama and dance with contributions from Greece, Argentina, India, Egypt, Sweden, Korea and Japan, amongst many others.

It was fascinating experiencing Mani Mosaffa’s read organ recital beneath the cupola of what was once a Turkish bath. He admitted that this was his first public concert... Music itself is banned unless approved by the religious authorities from the country of his birth. So far he has not been granted permission to perform his hypnotic sustained modal improvisational style in public. I must confess my heart went out to him. It’s hard to imagine what life must be like for a modern Iranian musician facing the brick wall of the present regime in his home country.

To give you a picture of the post-war Sarajevo that Jo and I visited a few days ago with the Djabe team, we realised that so much had been rebuilt in this exquisite city of 200 minarets, where East meets West. By night ornate mosques loomed tall beside imposing ancient synagogues and church turrets, floodlit under the snowfall. By day you realise the city is surrounded by forested hills and mountains. Persian exotica lines the alleyways of the marketplace, filled with Aladdin’s lamp-styled copperware. Through a courtyard where the strains of Turkish music cast its magic spell, we marvelled at hanging carpets that seemed to fly with the ascending notes... On our first evening Ibrahim took us to a Moroccan restaurant replete with Eastern decor, glowing lanterns, lush cushions and coloured waterfall completing the Arabian Nights theme.

The following day on the way to the concert hall we took in the Princip Bridge, where Archduke Ferdinand and his pregnant wife Sophia were both shot, heralding the start of the First World War.

But on to the gig... Djabe had rehearsed up a great version of The Steppes from Defector days, which on the spot we decided to include in the set. Djabe's material is built around strong themes, periodically jettisoned to allow the many extraordinary soloists free reign on their improvs. I've always thought that the real atmosphere of any show comes directly from the audience, and on the 13 Feb they were with the team from the opening note.

Sarajevo is an extraordinary place that you know has to be experienced in all the seasons. This first encounter in seemingly limitless snowfall was painted in picture book white. After the show even the dead seemed to gain a kind of sparkle all their own, as our bus skirted a snow-bound cemetery under the phosphorescent glow of amber streetlights. Possibly the most beautiful cemetery I'd ever seen... Then we sped passed the Olympic flame warming a couple of vagrants on a street corner, or were they pyromaniacs having a ciggie over a brazier that had gotten out of control?

We hurtled onwards towards the rest of our lives. From 200 minarets to 200 pubs and a thousand years of Bingo in Blighty hovering just around the bend...

Steve Hackett a

Steve and Jo in Sarajevo. Photo by Attila Égerházi ©