Hailing from Smederevo and raised in Kovin, Neda Nikolic, a gifted frula artist, was fortunate to experience the joys of growing up in a small Serbian town before the digital age took hold. “Comparing it to children today, I would say my childhood was natural,” she reminisced. “We spent our days playing outside, without computers, just enjoying activities like ball games, jumping rope, toys, and games. We had a spacious house with a big backyard, where I cherished moments with my older sister. We always had a dog, which fostered my love for animals as a young child,” Neda fondly recalled. “The only worry was how long I could stay outside before my mom called me back into the house. It was a wholesome and carefree childhood, and I sometimes miss those times.”

When Neda Nikolic was 13 years old, she discovered a profound connection with the frula, a traditional Serbian instrument. When she started playing the frula, Bora Dugic, one of the most esteemed frula players, influenced her exceptional technique and the tonal quality. In terms of stage performance and improvisation, her inspiration came from Slobodan Trkulja.

“I had the opportunity to meet him during the early years of my career and perform with him. I was impressed by his free spirit and his approach to music, a sentiment that still resonates with me today,” Neda shared. Reflecting on her early influences, she expressed, “It’s wonderful to have someone who motivates you to strive for more”

Frula artist Neda Nikolic
Frula artist Neda Nikolic

Neda Nikolic developed an interest in the recorder while attending elementary school. Her father, a lover of folk and traditional music, then purchased a frula for her. “Since the moment I got my first frula, I never stopped playing. It was kind of like a perfect match,” she said. “ I began taking private lessons and performing pretty soon, and now I find myself here today. Throughout the start of my career, my father had a prominent role. He was supporting me and pushing towards higher achievements. As I started college, I became quite independent, and I started organizing and managing everything on my own.”

Amidst the tapestry of Neda’s illustrious journey, music schools emerged as veritable catalysts, propelling her career to unforeseen heights. Neda recorded an album called “Flute and Piano Play” which introduced her to the genre of ethno-jazz and opened doors for further development.

“During my academic studies, I met plenty of musicians and worked on many projects and recordings. After that, I pursued a master’s degree and currently I am pursuing a PhD at the Academy in Ireland, which has indescribably changed my life. I started playing Irish traditional music, which positioned me in a completely new stage. Currently, I am researching the connection between Serbia, the Balkans, and Ireland through music and whistle/frula as a common instrument.”

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Neda Nikolic derives immense joy from her collaborations with her colleagues in Trio Neda Nikolic, comprising Nemanja Nikolic on piano and Aleksandar Petrovic on double bass.  

“We create new arrangements based on traditional pieces from throughout the Balkans,” she said. “This genre of music offers ample opportunities for improvisation, which is something I really enjoy,” she said.

“Playing freely and creating something new every time you perform, even with the same composition, is just amazing. As I got involved in Irish trad music as well, I discovered how much I enjoy it. Their music exudes a liberated musical spirit that resonates with Serbian traditional music in a profound way,” she said. 

Neda Nikolic firmly believes that Serbian and Irish traditions share many similarities. “Our cultures exhibit striking resemblances, which manifests in our music. The mentality is quite alike, positive attitude, similar instruments, having the pub/kafana as the traditional place for performing, ornaments and phrases in the tunes, slow airs and ballads. I have already established connections between these elements in my performances on multiple occasions, and I tend to continue doing this, as it is extremely interesting and worth exploring.

While her biggest passion and love remains Serbian traditional music, Neda acknowledged that she is still in the process of exloring “It’s fun and interesting to know that the process of developing is a process of finding yourself and performing and working at the same time, and everything is done with love.”

Living life to the fullest

For Neda, the intrinsic motivation and guiding principle in her musical journey is the music itself. “From the moment I immersed myself in music, I felt an immediate connection and discovered my true self. It felt like finding a calling in life. I can’t fully describe it, but I hope my music can. It’s a unique bond where I don’t need anything to lead me except the music itself,” she said. 

 “I can truly express myself when performing this music and feel connected to my roots. I would also say the same applies to life—music leads me. However, in life, there are moments that can be unbearably hard, and in those moments, besides music, you need something more positive to guide you. So I believe that being surrounded by the right people can help you with everything.”

Frula artist Neda Nikolic
Frula artist Neda Nikolic

According to Neda Nikolic, preserving Serbian heritage and culture is essential because it explains who we are. “What are we without our heritage? These things make us who we are; they define us and position us in society. They describe us in the most detailed way and categorize us in some way. We can’t forget who we are and the hard work that was done for us to be here. If we know that our heritage was preserved for years, when people worked so hard to save and cherish it, the least we can do is to do the same, if not more. It would be really nice if the younger generations could understand a bit more about our culture and make an effort to preserve it and even promote it outside. In that way, we can remain a healthy society that is aware of its roots and ready to cherish them.”

Neda is currently making preparations for a tour across the United States. “We will be visiting Serbian cultural and church centers, organizing concerts and workshops, and spreading our music on both coasts. This will take place in the second half of September and the first half of October. We are very much looking forward to it, and we are sure we are going to enjoy it,” she said. The American audience eagerly anticipates every opportunity to experience Neda Nikolic performance firsthand.

“To foreigners, the frula is often perceived as a simple whistle, unfamiliar to their ears,” she remarked. “It may be a small piece of wood, but it produces a beautiful and expansive range of tones. The feedback we receive is consistently positive, and I believe they particularly enjoy the interplay between the frula and piano. The distinct sound of the large furl “duduk” is also well-received, and the fact that I change frulas during the concert adds an intriguing element. In most cases, our audience is unfamiliar with the instrument’s name and origin. There are numerous similar types of whistles worldwide, which heightens their curiosity in identifying this particular one. However, for me, the frula holds a distinct character. Overall, the frula’s uniqueness successfully captivates fans, and I take great pleasure in presenting it to them.”

In an interview with The Balkans Voice, Serbian frula artist Neda Nikolic talks about her upcoming US tour and her dedication to preserving Serbian culture through the power of music.

“I am continuing my PhD studies in Ireland for three more years, and hopefully, this will result in new collaborations and performances. Meeting new musicians is truly an amazing thing, especially when they are foreign musicians who can provide a completely new insight into music and performance. I hope to start working on my new album this year and release it next year. Also, there are a few singles on my mind and in progress, as well as collaborations with a few big names in the music scene. I am looking forward to all of it.

Neda Nikolic’s message for the Serbian diaspora, especially for young people, is to embrace their origins. “Don’t forget who you are, what your name and last name are, where your parents and grandparents are from, and what and where your country is,” said Neda.

“Preserving means loving and caring. It doesn’t require a lot from us, but it means a lot for the culture. Tradition can teach us so much, and it can be fun and interesting. We can compare it to our lives today and even implement some things. Serbian culture and tradition are very specific and unique, and everywhere I travel, people are stunned by it. It is our responsibility to take good care of it, use it as a connecting element between people, and carry it for the generations to come.”

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Milos Rastovic is the Cultural Editor at the Balkan Voice.

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