Q&A with Croatian multitalented artist Boris Hrepić Hrepa, the blues and music was always part of his life

"I am working with kids whole my life, or through my TV show for kids, or as an art teacher, or as a father of three kids, and also through Blues At School that I am doing from Memphis to Croatia. Kids are pure essence of human being, so open, so natural and direct. Someone said that if you look into kids eyes you can see God. I am always learning from kids."

Boris Hrepić Hrepa:

The Sunny Side of The Blues

Boris Hrepić Hrepa is known to Croatian audiences as a member of the well-known Split band Daleka Obala. The blues was always part of him, the band Sunnysiders, with singer and guitarist Antonija Vrgoč Rola, represents a return to his musical roots. Boris Hrepić Hrepa started his music career back in 1981, when he was a member of the L.B. Blues Band. He was an accompanist to numerous Croatian musicians, and at this point he released many records. He plays bass, guitar, harp and ukulele, and also sings. Hrepa, finished University of philosophy in Split, as an art teacher. He is also active in art painting. He is an author and host of children TV shows „Dica Sritnih Lica“, president of a society for promoting children’s creativity „Dica Sritnih Lica“, and also author and actor in several puppet-acting-video shows for kids.

(Boris Hrepić Hrepa & Antonija Vrgoč Rola / Photo by Adam Kennedy)

Boris is also a president of Croatian Blues Forces, a Croatian blues society that received a Keeping The Blues Alive award, a member of Blues Foundation and European Blues Union and an art director of Thrill Blues Festival, one of youngest festivals in Croatia, has become one of the most visited and media exposed festivals in the region. He is a blues mentor in Poprock school from Sisak. Poprock School pupils were three times in Memphis as a part of Youth Showcase, performing and recording in Memphis. At 2019 they wrote a song Keep The Blues Alive, dedicated to Croatian Blues Forces KBA award, and recorded it at Ardent Studios as a part of Croatian Blues All Stars Band The Memphis Expedition, along with kids from Poprock School. Sunnysiders’ new album “27 Stitches” will be released on autumn of 2023, much of the 12 original songs are written during in the pandemic time. The 6th Thrill Blues Festival will take place in Trilj city park (Dalmatia, Croatia) from 30th June to 2nd July, 2023, the full line up will be announced soon.

Interview by Michael Limnios 

Special Thanks: Antonija Rola, Adriana Ivcovic, Boris Hrepa and Thrill Blues Festival

How has the Blues, Philosophy and Visual Art influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Since I was a young teenager around 17, my whole feelings, thoughts and senses have been focused on art and art philosophy. Music, especially blues, or visual art like painting, drawing or sculpturing, and reading and writing songs, stories and poetry, or watching movies and things like these was everything for me. All physical activities and needs like eating, drinking, taking care about body, sexual activities, sport were no irrelevant, for me it was nothing but animal instincts. That state of mind didn’t last too long but it concreted my essential importance for my future life.

How do you describe Boris Hrepić Hrepa and Sunnysiders sound and songbook? What does the blues mean to you?

Our sound and songbook style was built in only two months, in September and October of 2010, when Antonija Vrgoč Ro La, then my girlfriend and now my wife, and me made decision to join the 2nd Croatian Blues Challenge in solo-duo category. I just came back on blues tracks again, after 20 years playing in one of most popular Croatian pop rock band Daleka Obala. So, I started to write blues songs for the duet. That style of blues, with rhythmic and melodic sound structure, which is distinctive for our two-part singing and the playfulness of the arrangement, become our unique version of blues. Now we have a 5-piece band, but core of our sound is still the same. Going back to blues was for me a sort of being reborn, that changed whole my life, not just music-wise, but in every way, so blues is very, very important to me.

"Blues music and culture did a huge impact. Centuries before blues came music culture was privilege of rich white environment, and poor environment for that time standards had no culture at all." (Sunnysiders’ new album “27 Stitches” will be released on autumn of 2023 / Photo Robert Pongrac)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

The day when I first time heard Ro La singing was very important experience. That was a moment when I fell deeply in love with her, and moment when I knew that I found my blues companion. That was a moment when my life was changed completely. One of the best advice I got was when Ro La and me, after we won the Croatian Blues Challenge, came to Memphis for the 26th International Blues Challenge. We were walking along the Beale Street, and we visited Tater Red’s Lucky Mojos Gift Shop, and Red, owner of the shop and also judge at the Challenge, asked us how we would start our show that night at Pig On Beale Blues Club. We said that we will start with a slow C minor blues, just as a warm-up. He said that it is better to start with the best fast song we have, because we will never have a second chance for the first impression. That night we changed that first song with the other one, and we passed to semi-finals.

How started the thought of Thrill Blues Festival? What is the hardest part of make a blues festival in Europe?

At November of 2017 I got a call from Darko, a guy from Trilj who is popular Croatian musician and also in music business. He had just read my book "I found a very good band", a book about my passion for music, and there was so much about the blues in it. He came up to idea of organizing a music festival in his hometown and he asked me about a blues festival. My grandmother was from Trilj, so I know the place, the park, the river and the bridge, and I said this was a great idea, and I was sure it would work. It is not easy to make a blues festival anywhere in Europe, but here in Croatia is especially hard. It is easier in Norway, the Nederlands, France, they have a lot of blues clubs and strong blues scene, and Croatia is also at crossroads of western and eastern culture. The blues is here, but on the margins. The Thrill Blues Festival has a strong team of fighters, so we made a surprisingly good festival.

Are there any memories from the Thrill Blues Festival which you’d like to share with us?

There is a one from last year's festival that I often retell. It was around 3 A.M., the afterparty at backstage just finished and I was sitting with Harrison Kennedy from Canada and James Perri from Chicago. We were tired but satisfied. Then, at the other bench across us, I saw a huge local hillbilly guy. He had a scary look, but he was just sitting and staring at us with a big missing tooth smile. He called me and asked me if he could take a picture with Harrison and James. I said no problem (who will say no to that kind of guy). After the picture taken, he told me: „Thank you for organizing this! I never ever heard this kind of music, the blues, but this is the best music in the whole world!“ ... And this is the best compliment I've ever got.      (Photo: Boris Hrepić Hrepa, Trilj Croatia)

"You must do it with a deep love for blues. I am a blues musician and songwriter for almost whole my life, with deepest respect for a history of that magnificent music, so I think I know what blues musician need to be relaxed and happy. At other side we need a strong background from local authorities, my main companion is Andriana (Ivkovic) from tourist agency, and new mayor is open for any new suggestion. Trilj is small town, and organizing a big festival is big bone to easy bite, but we are not afraid."

How do you describe Thrill Blues Festival's philosophy? How do you want it to affect people?

I did my best to color Thrill Blues Festival with the vibe of blues that I felt when I fell in love for blues when I was around 17. For me blues is pure deep essence of Mother Earth, like playful little child, simple, opened, sincere, direct. And it worked, every year during festival days a thousands people come to Trilj and we all together are a big happy family.

Which meetings in Thrill Blues Festival have been the most important experiences for you?

Every year is bundle of new experience, with lot of new friendships with blues brothers and sisters from all over the world, and all that makes my heart fuller. Last year special and precious new friendship was with British famous blues producer Mike Vernon, such a good, humble and dear man. One memory I always telling around, after 3rd Thrill Blues Festival finished, sometime around 3am, a huge guy approach me, a local one, looks like hillbilly, without few teeth. First, I get little scared, he looks to dangerously, he must be a troublemaker, but then he made a big smile, he shook my hand and told me: Thank you, I never heard in my life about that music called blues, but this is a best music in the world. Blues woke up child in him, and he was so cool and happy.

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better blues festival promoter?

My life and music companion Rola and me started this Sunnysiders blues journey 13 years ago, when we wrote first songs and passed as duo to semifinals of 2011 IBC in Memphis. We fell in love with that special Beale Street vibe, so many people with same smile on face, and we want to bring it home. Few years we thought that nobody understand us, I tried to put that feeling in few festivals, but the real thing came when I got offer for a festival in Trilj. My grandmother is from Trilj, in my mind I had a picture of Cetina River, bridges and great green park on riverside, and we said, it will works.

"There is a lot of things in musical world that can be better, but I am doing my best to share a good vibe with my music and everything, and that is all I can do. I would like to bring back many great people and musicians who passed away, but this is beyond my abilities." (Photo: Boris & Antonija Rola, Zagrep Croatia)

What do you think is key to a BEST BLUES FESTIVAL? Do you have a dream project you'd most like to accomplish?

You must do it with a deep love for blues. I am a blues musician and songwriter for almost whole my life, with deepest respect for a history of that magnificent music, so I think I know what blues musician need to be relaxed and happy. At other side we need a strong background from local authorities, my main companion is Andriana (Ivkovic) from tourist agency, and new mayor is open for any new suggestion. Trilj is small town, and organizing a big festival is big bone to easy bite, but we are not afraid.

Why do you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following in Croatia?

Croatia is in the middle between West and East, and there is mixture of lot different kind of music, sometimes far from blues, but blues always finds a way, easy and slowly, to people hearts.

Make an account of the case of the blues in Croatia. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

Last ten years we have the blues boom in Croatia. Dražen Buhin Buha was a great blues innovator and promotor pioneer. He started so many things with the blues in Croatia, like Croatian Blues Challenge, but he died in 2012 and his last wish was that we must keep on fighting to keep the Croatian blues story alive.  I am doing my best to fulfil his wish.

Are there any similarities between the blues and the genres of (Croatian) folk music and traditional forms?

There are some similarities between the blues and some of Croatian folk music, but from this ex-Yugoslavia region the closest music to blues is sevdah, a traditional folk music from Bosnia.

"I miss the never recorded albums of my late blues legends. For example, I miss a whole that music Duane Allman never had a chance to record because his died at 27. I hope that my health will let me record, play and promote blues as long as I am able. I am optimist so I don’t have many fears, but as a father of three children all my fears are about them." ((Photo: Boris Hrepić Hrepa, "Blues Highway" 61, USA)

What moment changed the Croatian Blues Scene the most? What´s been the highlights in Croatian Blues Scene so far?

There was a guy, Dražen Buhin Buha, who had a vision and who found a way to make this vision real, he opened a portal to Memphis, 14 years ago, and he started blues society and organized lot of concerts, festivals, blues exhibitions and other things. He died 10 years ago, a great man. Before he left he wanted me to take a flag, he recognized my commitment to blues. I did it for 10 years, and Keeping The Blues Alive award from 2019 is definitely a highlight of Croatian Blues Scene. Now I am more concentrated on Thrill Blues Festival, and to Sunnysiders.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

During the 29th International Blues Challenge I was, as a leader of the Croatian crew, in Sam Phillips Recording Studio with Croatian Youth band 4Town Blues Band to record couple of songs. At the end of the recording session, I had one hour left so I decided to record one of my songs, Commitment To Blues, which was dedicated to the late Father of Croatian blues boom Dražen Buhin Buha. A sound engineer in studio, a very old and fat man, told me that he likes my song and that he would like to record it with an electric guitar on it. He had been making a lot of small jokes about us, Croatian blues musicians, during that day so I thought that was just another joke and I didn’t pay attention. When I came back to the hotel, I googled a bit about him. His name was Roland Janes, and during 50s he was a Sun Studio guitar session player and a pioneer of the rockabilly guitar, a member of Jerry Lee Lewis Band, and he recorded a guitar on, for example, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. Next morning, I came back to studio to pick up CD with finished songs. The studio was opened, and I walked into it and I found Roland with his eyes closed listening to my song. I was devastated, because I missed opportunity to have a legend on my song, and honored at the same time. Few months later he died of a heart attack.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the never recorded albums of my late blues legends. For example, I miss a whole that music Duane Allman never had a chance to record because his died at 27. I hope that my health will let me record, play and promote blues as long as I am able. I am optimist so I don’t have many fears, but as a father of three children all my fears are about them.

"Since I was a young teenager around 17, my whole feelings, thoughts and senses have been focused on art and art philosophy. Music, especially blues, or visual art like painting, drawing or sculpturing, and reading and writing songs, stories and poetry, or watching movies and things like these was everything for me." (Photo: Boris Hrepić Hrepa)

What is the impact of Blues music and culture on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Blues music and culture did a huge impact. Centuries before blues came music culture was privilege of rich white environment, and poor environment for that time standards had no culture at all. But look now, all that culture of rich white environment disappeared, but that no culture as a blues music spread around world and become a root of all modern popular music and culture.

What touched (emotionally) you from the kids? What are the lines that connect children’s creativity & art/music?

I am working with kids whole my life, or through my TV show for kids, or as an art teacher, or as a father of three kids, and also through Blues At School that I am doing from Memphis to Croatia. Kids are pure essence of human being, so open, so natural and direct. Someone said that if you look into kids eyes you can see God. I am always learning from kids.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Which day to choose… there are so many great days in the history of music. But, I will think instinctively, and the first day on my mind is 22th November 1981, Buddy Guy Blues Club, Chicago, when Rolling Stones came to club and jammed with Muddy Waters and his Band. That was amazing blues night. I see myself leaning on the bar, having a beer and enjoying.

How do you describe Sunnysiders’ album "The Bridges" sound and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I recorded 18 albums in my rock and blues career, but this one was the fastest and easiest one I ever did. We, along with our friend and producer Leo, made a decision to mark our Sunnysiders 10th anniversary with recording an album The Bridges with lot of our friends as guests. We made a list of guest and then selected or wrote a songs for them. Almost every song was tailor written with our guests in mind, and with that kind of thoughts it is easy to write a song. We began recording the album in the beginning of November 2019 and finished it mid-January 2020. The basic structure of songs was recorded at Sound Station Studio in Zagreb, while our guests did their parts in various homes or professional studios, located from Manchester to Shanghai. The music was, is, and it will always be one of the strongest, easiest, deepest and fastest connections between people no matter where they come from, how different they are, how old they are, what languages they speak and what skin colour they are. These connections are The Bridges.

"The day when I first time heard Ro La singing was very important experience. That was a moment when I fell deeply in love with her, and moment when I knew that I found my blues companion. That was a moment when my life was changed completely." (Boris Hrepa & Antonija Rola / Photo by Milka Grozdanic)

Are there any memories from “The Bridges” studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

The whole idea of album came after the last Thrill Blues Festival. The day after we took a trip to Split (capital of Dalmatia) with Manu Lanvin, a French bluesman and a headliner of the festival. We also visited our best man Miki who has a studio in Split where we showed Manu a song that was written with him in mind. He was thrilled, and he grabbed one of the guitars from the studio and recorded a crunchy riff and a solo. He said 'Yeah' and asked for more, but we had just this song in our new basket.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Mmm, a hard question. There is a lot of things in musical world that can be better, but I am doing my best to share a good vibe with my music and everything, and that is all I can do. I would like to bring back many great people and musicians who passed away, but this is beyond my abilities.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

When we were first time in Memphis, at the 2011 IBC, I joined one big jam at the Tin Roof Blues Club. It was a dream coming true, playing on Beale Street with Afro-American blues musicians. I'd waited my whole life for that moment, to grab a guitar and play. When my turn came, I immediately started to play licks throughout the whole song. One guy from brass section, a trumpet player, leaned forward to me and told me quietly to slow down, not to rush, and that I have to wait for a signal from singer who was always the master of ceremony. I stopped, and I follow the singer. It doesn't seem like a big lesson, but for me it was.

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(Sunnysiders/ Photo Robert Pongrac)

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