A Child of Another War Who Makes Music for Ukrainians

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When the owner of an underground club in Kyiv reached out to Western musicians to play in Ukraine, long before the war, there were not so many takers.

But an American from Boston, Mirza Ramic, accepted the invitation, spawning a lasting friendship with the club’s owner, Taras Khimchak.

“I kept coming back,” Mr. Ramic, 40, said in an interview at the club, Mezzanine, where he was preparing for a performance during a recent tour of Ukraine.

The country, he said “is one of the places that has welcomed me most and been the most supportive of my music.” And so especially after the Russian invasion two years ago, he added, “I wanted to come now, to show my support in these hard times.”

Mr. Ramic, born in Bosnia, is a child of war himself. At 11, he lost his father in the shelling of his hometown, Mostar, and spent years as a refugee, moving from country to country with his mother as she struggled to find a way to survive.

They lived in Zagreb, Croatia; Tunis; and Prague, before moving to the United States, first to Arizona, and eventually Boston. There, he finished his education and began a career as a musician, forming an electronic band, Arms and Sleepers, with a college friend, Max Lewis.

Now a solo musician, he was back playing in Kyiv and two other cities in the fall, undeterred by the threat of missile strikes, giving free concerts in a personal commitment to stand alongside his Ukrainian fans.

“Arts and culture during war are one of the most important things that keeps people going because it gives them a sense of human dignity,” Mr. Ramic said. “They are also entitled to this in difficult times.”

Mr. Ramic has many Russian fans too — as well as Russian friends, including his promoter in Moscow, who left their home country in protest at the war in Ukraine. He said he has tried to imagine the dilemma in his own context, how he as a Bosnian would have felt toward a Serb who was against the war. But since the invasion, he said, he had decided not to play in Russia out of respect for Ukrainians.

“To go there, symbolically, at this moment, would not be right,” he said.

The one constant in his life has been music, and it has become his main tool in navigating his traumatic life experiences. In the interview, he spoke eloquently of his life as a refugee and an immigrant, of the loss of his father, and of his sense of alienation and not belonging anywhere.

“For me music is a way to deal with these difficult core memories,” he said. “At the root, it is that.”

His mother, Selma, a piano teacher, taught him classical piano throughout their odyssey as refugees, and hoped Mr. Ramic would become a concert pianist. But in his teens, he gave up the daily four hours of piano practice to focus on his studies, and turned to playing piano and keyboards in bands through high school and college instead.

He studied Eastern European history and politics at Bowdoin College, in Maine, and international relations in a masters’ program at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, driven by a desire to understand the geopolitics that is the backdrop to his life.

Yet he came to confront his own pain in the process. In “To Tell a Ghost,” a short documentary film he made several years ago, he described the shock he felt when the class discussion turned to the wars of the former Yugoslavia.

“I remember sitting in class, drinking my coffee — like everyone else — and suddenly freezing on the inside,” he related in the film. He couldn’t participate in the discussion, he said.

In between courses, he played in a rock band, and in 2006 he formed Arms and Sleepers with Mr. Lewis. It was a special partnership, he said, between Mr. Ramic, born a Muslim, and Mr. Lewis who is Jewish, and now teaching ethics at Yale University. The band’s name reflects Mr. Ramic’s view of the war in Bosnia, referring to the many who wielded weapons, and others, who did little to stop it. “The world was sleeping,” he said.

He was 9 when war broke out in Mostar as Serbian forces fought Croatian and Bosnian fighters for control of the city. His memories are visceral.

“Skies filled with rockets,” he said in the interview. “We had a tank that rolled into our street, by our house.” He remembers watching the tank from the kitchen window. “That was terror.”

As the fighting intensified, his father, Ibrica, a dentist, sent his wife and son out in a refugee convoy for women and children. He stayed in Mostar to look after their property and was killed the next year, in September 1993, when a mortar shell landed in the street outside their house.

Losing his father, with whom he was very close, remains a defining trauma for Mr. Ramic. It wrenched him away from his homeland, and he is still wrestling with a deep sadness and sometimes depression, he said.

It led him recently to advise a couple of Ukrainian friends against enlisting in the army. “You are going to be more useful to your country alive,” he told them. “And for the next generation of people, like your child, they are going to be in a much healthier and stronger state to make a difference, if you stay alive.”

If his father had survived, he would probably have gone back to Bosnia, Mr. Ramic said. His best friend from childhood survived the war in Bosnia and still lives in Mostar, working and raising a family, but Mr. Ramic, an American citizen, said he doubted he would return to live there.

“It’s too difficult emotionally,” he said. “I am sort of in between. I don’t really feel American, I don’t feel Bosnian.”

He and his mother have returned to Mostar for visits, including in September for the 30th anniversary of his father’s death. Much of the city still stands in ruins, he said, and they have never restored their family home. The roof was fixed with European assistance, but his father’s dentistry equipment and other possessions lie untouched, coated in dust, as it was the day he died.

Mr. Ramic moved to Berlin in 2020, and spends time in other European countries — composing in Latvia during the pandemic, and in Spain organizing help for Ukraine in February 2022 at the start of the invasion. Europe feels closer to his roots than America, he said.

“A lot of the music that I create — and perhaps that’s why it does resonate with people in places like Ukraine — is that it is kind of in-between,” he said. “It’s about belonging, or not belonging and figuring out who you are, and maybe coming to the realization that it’s just you and that’s it.”

His music is electronic, accompanied by cinematic videos that mix documentary film footage with kaleidoscopic, computer-generated electronic visuals, often with a strong political message. He frequently confronts the violence and tragedy around him — from his time working with at-risk youth on the South Side of Chicago, to the Black Lives Matter protests, to the war in Ukraine since its first beginnings in 2014 when separatists seized power in parts of the eastern region of the country.

With 13 albums produced, he has a dedicated following and has found a way to live off his music. He performed, dancing intensely over his keyboards, before a crowd of 200 people at the Mezzanine, a club set in an old Soviet textile factory in Kyiv. Some of the audience were followers of his on Facebook and knew his music, but others came along to see a rare American willing to play in wartime Ukraine.

His music is urgent and intense, but there are also calm, ambient-influenced tracks. One fan at the Kyiv concert, an I.T. engineer who only gave her first name, Yana, said she listened to his music when out walking to forget the stress of the war.

“It takes you to some moment where you are neither sad nor happy but just in balance,” she said.

Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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