World music: From a globetrotter’s Queens apartment to your ears

Why We Wrote This

Can the efforts of one person bring about more interest in global culture? With perseverance and an upbeat attitude, record label owner Leonardo Pavkovic is trying to get more of the world’s music heard.  

Sinisha Holik/Courtesy of MoonJune Records
Leonardo Pavkovic (second from right) visits with musicians Kamal Musallam, Dwiki Dharmawan, Asaf Sirkis, and Boris Savoldelli in Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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Three decades ago, Leonardo Pavkovic arrived in New York City with $500 in his pocket, drawn to the city’s influence on the music world. 

Today, he runs MoonJune Records out of the apartment in Queens he shares with his wife. The label’s business model is as unorthodox as its global roster of experimental rock and jazz. In February, it passed the milestone of releasing its 100th album. But fewer than a dozen of them have turned a profit. Mr. Pavkovic is OK with that. He believes the music enriches those who get to hear it. The impresario embodies the spirit of globalization by finding niche musical acts and pollinating their music across the world. 

“Music is important as the intellectual and spiritual and artistic expression of humankind,” says Mr. Pavkovic, who speaks five languages, has traveled to 75 countries, and is fond of using the adjective “cosmopolitan.” “I’m promoting my friends from distant territories, because I think they deserve to be heard. Everybody knows about Western artists, but who knows about Indonesian artists or Brazilian artists or people from India or Spain or Serbia or Macedonia?” 

Long before Leonardo Pavkovic founded a one-man record label, he dreamed of freedom. As a child, he gazed at the hills behind his remote village in Yugoslavia and asked his grandpa, “What is on the other side of the mountain?”

His grandfather’s answer was simple: “The world.”

Talking from his home office in New York City more than 50 years later, Mr. Pavkovic recalls an epiphanic moment. “I said to myself, ‘I need to see that world.’”

That wanderlust is at the heart of MoonJune Records, which Mr. Pavkovic established in 2001. Its business model is as unorthodox as its global roster of experimental rock and jazz. In February, the label passed the milestone of releasing its 100th album. But fewer than a dozen of them have turned a profit. Mr. Pavkovic is OK with that. He believes the music enriches those who get to hear it. The impresario embodies the spirit of globalization by finding niche musical acts – to cite one example, the Serbian jazz fusion pianist Vasil Hadžimanov – and pollinating their music across the world. 

“Music is important as the intellectual and spiritual and artistic expression of humankind,” says Mr. Pavkovic, who speaks five languages, has traveled to 75 countries, and is fond of using the adjective “cosmopolitan.” “I’m promoting my friends from distant territories, because I think they deserve to be heard. Everybody knows about Western artists, but who knows about Indonesian artists or Brazilian artists or people from India or Spain or Serbia or Macedonia?”

“There is always a solution”

Mr. Pavkovic subsidizes MoonJune’s losses with money he makes as a tour promoter for his acts. Since the spread of COVID-19, he has been making phone calls across the globe to cancel and reschedule show dates, hotel bookings, and airline flights. The shutdown derailed a tour by Stick Men, a trio whose music centers around an obscure 8- to 12-stringed musical instrument called the Chapman Stick. It’s a blow, given that Stick Men is one of the acts that helps float all the rest. 

“I figured out in my life that there is always a solution,” says the irrepressibly upbeat Mr. Pavkovic. It’s a quality that’s helped him deal with many mercurial musicians. 

Mr. Pavkovic’s musical imagination took flight when he attended college in Belgrade, Serbia. An older friend introduced him to artists such as Magma, Frank Zappa, Keith Jarrett, King Crimson, and Van der Graaf Generator who blurred the boundaries between jazz, rock, classical, and folk. Their intrepid exploration resonated with him.

“Somehow my positive, optimistic [outlook on] life – to know the world, to conquer the world, to know things, to find them – inspired me,” he says. 

A knack for improvising

Mr. Pavkovic’s attraction to the center of the music world and his ability to improvise under less than ideal circumstances led him to New York City. He arrived with $500 in his pocket. Three decades later, he runs MoonJune out of the apartment in Queens he shares with his wife. 

The label emanates “a sense of exploration and joyous adventure,” says Prog magazine music journalist Sid Smith. “[Its] records possess energy and focus, a quality that’s present in what appears to be quite diverse and different releases but which gives them all a kind of continuity. ”

Mr. Pavkovic has grown MoonJune’s mailing list to 22,000 people and handles everything from marketing to designing artwork. He relishes introducing his small but fervently devoted audience to new sounds. The label includes seven artists from Indonesia, for example. 

For MoonJune, success is measured by a matter of degrees. Mr. Pavkovic is delighted if he can boost an act’s sales from 200 to 400 albums. More importantly, MoonJune’s marketing efforts include mailing as many as 400 promos to media outlets worldwide. It generates invaluable exposure. For example, Seattle-based guitarist Dennis Rea – the sort of musician who relishes collaborating with a Tuvan throat singer – has been invited to play festivals in Mexico and Russia as a result of Mr. Pavkovic’s promotion. 

“Albums of minor artists can even generate 70 to 80 or even more reviews all around the world – online and in the printed press – and a lot of college and online airplay on various radio stations,” says Mr. Pavkovic. “If not for me, probably no one would ever know about them outside of their circles in their countries or even in their cities.”

The label owner also takes time to correspond with individual fans. He enthusiastically explains how a British expatriate in Vietnam discovered MoonJune by purchasing an archival reissue by British psychedelic jazz-rock group Soft Machine. The listener became so enamored with the label’s sensibility that he’s since bought every single MoonJune release. For the label owner, that offers more satisfaction than turning a profit. His joy lies in discovering more of the world and its beauty.

“I’m always looking for something,” reflects Mr. Pavkovic, who sometimes convenes musicians on his label to record in a mansion named La Casa Murada in Catalonia, Spain, so that they can improvise and stretch musical boundaries. “We don’t care about if this music will sell. We want to be free. Because that’s the point of the art.”

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