From labour camp to guitar hero: the abstract beauty of Branko Mataja

The Yugoslavian was forced to Germany, then moved to the US and brought psychedelic wonder to his native music. After a rediscovery in a Hollywood record store, he can finally be heard.

War, slave labour, concentration camps and life as a refugee: having survived such hardships, it is no wonder Yugoslavian musician Branko Mataja was happy to live quietly in a Los Angeles suburb and build custom guitars for the likes of Johnny Cash and Geddy Lee. His death in 2000 attracted no obituaries and his 1973 LP Traditional and Folk Songs of Yugoslavia remained unsung. Mataja had lived under the radar, a musician seemingly playing only for himself. Now, almost half a century later, his music is finally being reissued and it is causing quite a stir.

“What Branko did was unlike what anyone else was doing at the time,” says David Jerkovich, a 43-year-old American musician who is the force getting Mataja’s music heard. “His playing has this kind of outsider, intense quality and it’s just so unique to him. And his studio technique is incredible – he bounced and overdubbed sound in a manner no one else even approached.”

Jerkovich was cratedigging in a Hollywood used record store in 2005 when he came across a copy of Traditional and Folk Songs of Yugoslavia, priced at $7. “He just looked so badass on the cover that I had to buy it,” Jerkovich says. “I was buying Yugoslav-era music as my parents are from Croatia – I’m a first-generation American – and I was wanting to gain a greater understanding of their musical roots. I got home and put it on the stereo and …” He pauses, then says: “It’s unlike anything I’d ever heard before. What Branko has done is take these ancient melodies and built something very abstract, very beautiful, out of them.”