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Used to be a Gypsy

Nikola Dokic is a guitarist for both Eyes Manouche and Ode.

Nikola Dokic (BA ’08), Robert Palos (BA ’08), and Adis Sirbubalo (BA ’07) each tried to leave their old worlds behind when they came to America. But after meeting, these three musicians found friendship and fulfillment by embracing—instead of running from—their roots

By Sean McEntee (’13) / Photography by Clayton Hauck (’05)

Robert Palos (BA ’08) wasn’t ready to go back home. Born and raised in Bosnia, Palos was one of millions affected by bloody 1990s civil wars that broke out in the former Yugoslavia, fighting that was characterized by bitter ethnic conflicts and divided the nation into seven new, separate states. After attending high school in Austria, Palos and his brother, Davor, moved as refugees to Chicago, where they had family friends. A guitarist, Palos enrolled at Columbia College Chicago in 2003 to study instrumental performance.

From left: Robert Palos, Davor Palos, Elliot Taggart, Nikola Dokic, and Daniel Crane (not pictured) make up Ode, which performs regularly at Chicago clubs and released its third album last year.

Over the next few months, Palos couldn’t help but notice two other music students from the Balkans—Adis Sirbubalo (BA ’07) and Nikola Dokic (BA ’08)—but they consciously didn’t seek each other out. “I kind of tried to stay away from my region,” says Sirbubalo, who was born and raised in Bosnia. “I wanted to experience American culture.”

Sirbubalo, an accordion and piano player, immigrated with his family as refugees to the United States in 2001, settling in Chicago. After auditioning for Scott Hall, the head of Columbia’s Jazz Studies program, he enrolled at Columbia to study instrumental jazz. Dokic, a classically trained guitarist and audio aficionado, grew up in Serbia and moved to Chicago in 2003 to start a new life. He enrolled at Columbia to study audio design and production.

Though the three students’ paths continued to cross in the music department, it took a chance meeting outside school to propel their relationship forward. Sirbubalo officially met Robert and Davor Palos in 2004 when his brother, Haris, was drumming in the Palos brothers’ indie rock band, Ode. Soon, as Ode went on hiatus, Sirbubalo, Palos, and Dokic began getting together to jam occasionally and continued to play together over the next few years, mixing their different styles and interests of jazz and rock music.

Adis Sirbubalo (top) and Robert Palos (above) formed Eyes Manouche with Nikola Dokic in 2008.

From Ode to Eyes Manouche

Dokic says the three never planned to start a band—largely because each had different musical leanings. But that changed in 2008 when the recent grads learned the Pink Monkey, a strip club in the South Loop, wanted to hire a group to play ethnic, burlesque-style music. Sensing a golden opportunity, the trio put together a full band, enlisting Lawrence University graduate Daniel Crane on drums and Jonathan Cole Blodgett (BM ’08) on bass. That gig led to numerous shows at nearby Brando’s Speakeasy, owned by the same people as the Pink Monkey.

“We played for, like, peanuts,” Dokic says. “We just needed work. We played there for the next, maybe, six months and built up a crowd, and people liked it.”

Thus, Eyes Manouche—“manouche” meaning gypsy—was born. The sound blends Yugoslavian folk, jazz, and rock into hypnotic, upbeat dance music. “The melodies and everything are completely from the region,” Palos says. “[It’s] a band that you go to see and you have a great time,” Dokic adds. “You get [drunk] and dance like a maniac.”

After gaining a cult following at Brando’s, Eyes Manouche began to play other venues regularly, including The Joynt, a downtown jazz lounge, where the group landed a two-year weekly residency. The band went on to play nearly every venue in the city—the House of Blues, Hard Rock Café, Lincoln Hall, Double Door, Cobra Lounge, and Morseland, to name a few—and did it all without making a single call. As Eyes Manouche’s popularity grew, the band was always in demand, somewhere, some time. And these best friends were able to make their living by embracing—instead of running from—their ethnic backgrounds.

To the outside world, the deep friendship forged between people from warring regions might seem unlikely—or unnatural, even.

Ode set list

From stage to screen

To the outside world, the deep friendship forged between people from warring regions might seem unlikely—or unnatural, even. Despite any tension existing in their respective countries, Dokic, Palos, and Sirbubalo say they saw only people, not ethnicities or nationalities. It wasn’t until Ratko Momcilovic (’04) approached the trio to make a short documentary about Eyes Manouche (see sidebar) that Dokic, Palos, and Sirbubalo opened up about the Yugoslav wars.

“We were kind of cautious because we didn’t want to look nationalistic,” Sirbubalo says. “We wanted to just be in a movie that would just show us as subjects that had nothing to do with nationalism. We [all had] the same conclusion of what happened during the war: No one had the right side, it’s sad that it happened, and a lot of people died because of that.” Completed in 2010, the award-winning film Eyes Manouche brought more attention to the band. But the group’s time in the spotlight would start to diminish as fame faded and members shifted their focus to other projects. “At one point [Eyes Manouche] became sort of this monster that we created that took away from [Ode], something we actually tried to do seriously,” Dokic says.

Palos and Dokic relax before a show at the Beat Kitchen.

From Eyes Manouche to Ode

By May 2011, Palos and Dokic turned their attention toward resurrecting Ode, the indie rock band that Palos had formed with his brother, Davor, in the early 2000s. Sirbubalo, wanting a break from the band, went back to Bosnia, intending to return after a few months. “But some spontaneous stuff happened that made me stay,” he says. “It was almost a new beginning for me.” He got married in late 2012 and is a full-time musician in Bosnia, playing in multiple bands, including a jazz combo called Sarajevo Jazz Guerrilla and a rock band called Zoster.

After Sirbubalo’s departure, Columbia student Elliot Taggart joined the band as bassist, filling the shoes of previous bassists Andrew Vogtand Skender Makota. Crane, on drums, completes the quintet.

Because playing in Ode doesn’t pay the bills, Dokic and Palos use their skills in day jobs. Dokic ran his own production company for five years and now works as a music producer and sound engineer at Pumpkinland 2, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Northbrook recording studio (see sidebar).

Palos is a guitar instructor at a private music school in Skokie, the Odeion School of Music (“the school of Ode,” Palos jokes). He teaches styles ranging from jazz to rock and electric to acoustic.

In October 2012, Ode released its third album, Man in a Glass, and first music video for the single of the same name, which was directed by Momcilovic. The band plays regularly in Chicago and has toured across the US. The members hope to break into European music festivals and perhaps even play in their home countries one day.

“I’m happy with what we’re doing, but if we could do this and make a really nice living, that’s definitely something I would love to do,” Dokic says. Palos adds: “We just love playing together.”

View Ode's first music video for their single "Man in a Glass," which was directed by fellow alumnus Ratko Momcilovic ('04).

Smashing Sounds

Nikola Dokic (BA ’08) works with Billy Corgan at Pumpkinland 2

While studying audio arts and acoustics at Columbia, Eyes Manouche/Ode guitarist Nikola Dokic (BA ’08) had the chance to work with alternative rock icon and Smashing Pumpkins mastermind Billy Corgan on two of his solo efforts. Today, Dokic works for Corgan full time as a recording engineer at Smashing Pumpkins’ studio Pumpkinland 2 in Northbrook.

“I was pumped to work with Billy,” Dokic says, though he admits he wasn’t much of a Pumpkins enthusiast when he first started. “After I started working for them, I started to get to know them, and I’m a big fan now.”

Dokic served as assistant engineer on Corgan’s 2005 solo debut, TheFutureEmbrace, and on the unreleased Chicago Kid. Today, he’s helping with reissues of classic Pumpkins material and the reformed band’s follow up to 2012’s Oceania, which could be released as early as December 2013.

—Sean McEntee (’13)

A Winning Combination

Ratko Momcilovic with his girlfriend, Dovil Parsons
Director Ratko Momcilovic (’04) and band Eyes Manouche make beautiful music and movies together

When filmmaker Ratko Momcilovic (’04) met musician Nikola Dokic in 2009 and learned the story of Dokic’s band, Eyes Manouche, he couldn’t believe his ears. He was shocked that young men from Serbia and Bosnia could come to America in the wake of the 1990s Yugoslav civil wars and forge a deep friendship and musical bond.

“I remember the first time he was telling me about the band,” Momcilovic says. “I couldn’t believe that they were together and they were friends. I was used to [former Yugoslavians] fighting.” As a Serbian living in Croatia during the conflicts, Momcilovic saw the troubles firsthand. In 1999, he immigrated to the US, settling in Chicago. Harboring a lifelong dream to study filmmaking, he enrolled at Columbia College Chicago in 2003 and soon found work filming and directing commercials at Mega Force Productions.

After meeting Dokic and seeing Eyes Manouche in concert, Momcilovic “fell in love” and set out to direct his first documentary, about the band.

The five-minute Eyes Manouche, completed in 2010 with the help of cinematographers Jule Fontana (BA ’08) and Charlie Anderson (BA ’09), documents the horrors of war as recounted in separate interviews with Dokic (BA ’08) from Serbia, and Robert Palos (BA ’08) and Adis Sirbubalo (BA ’07) from Bosnia. Viewers don’t know the subjects’ names or why they specifically are being filmed until the end, when the men come together to rock out on stage, shattering any belief that presumed enemies can’t become friends.

To pull the most genuine emotion and feeling from the subjects, who were initially reluctant to be featured, Momcilovic interviewed each band member for about an hour and a half. “I wanted to show them individually showing their reactions of the war; I was trying to pull out exactly how they felt,” Momcilovic says. He adds that he especially likes when Palos says, “In order to love or hate somebody, you have to know them. You can’t hate a whole nation.”

Eyes Manouche won Best Documentary in the 2010 One Chicago, One Nation film contest and Best Short Film in the 2012 Columbia College Chicago Alumni Film Contest. The film’s success put Momcilovic on the map and helped him advance in his already-promising career. Worldwide Impact Now, a nonprofit organization, approached Momcilovic to direct a short documentary about retired US Army Colonel Tim Heinemann, who now spends his time doing humanitarian work. The 2011 film, Karen: On the Edge of Existence, shows the colonel helping ethnic groups in Burma battle years of oppression by Burmese military forces. Momcilovic plans to work with the producers of Karen to make a feature-length documentary about the situation in Burma.

Of course, he continues his relationship with his friends from Eyes Manouche. He enlisted Dokic and Palos to score the music for Karen, and, in 2012, he directed the music video for “Man in a Glass” by Eyes Manouche’s alter-ego band, Ode.

—Sean McEntee (’13)

View Ratko Momcilovic's ('04) award-winning documentary on band Eyes Manouche and their formation despite tensions after the Yugoslav Wars.