The Dissolution of Yugoslav Rock

by Kim Simpson

Throughout the 1970's and the 1980's, Yugoslavia boasted some of the most diverse and progressive rock music in Eastern Europe. During this period, state-run record labels like Jugoton and PGP RBT generated healthy amounts of rock recordings which were distributed and promoted throughout the republics. With the 1991 breakup of the pan-Yugoslav market, however, large-scale record production and distribution have been stifled

considerably. As a result, only a small influx of independent labels throughout the region currently keep any hope alive for an eventual revival of Yugoslav rock and its audience (Janjatovic "Yugoslav" 1).

The music, drawing from a variety of ethnic influences, well reflected the country's make-up: a federation comprised of six independent republics, each having a culture and historical background different from the others. Another contributing factor was the way in which Tito's independent brand of Socialism helped Yugoslavia maintain a (perhaps psychological) sense of being the most "westernized" of the Eastern bloc countries (Doder xiii).

Before 1991, both Zagreb-based Jugoton and PGP RBT in Belgrade actually specialized in carrying various acts from all six republics. And while the labels, being state-run, weren't completely free from government control, they were granted generous amounts of leeway in relation to other Eastern European countries like Hungary, where specific rock groups were officially banned by the government on a regular basis (Pareles 13). But after the breakup of Yugoslavia, the record industries of each republic have been affected in different ways with only one common denominator-- an isolation from their neighboring republics (Janjatovic "Yugo slav" 1).

In the case of Croatia, musical isolationism appears to be the national motive. Shortly after Croatia declared its independence in 1991, the Jugoton label transformed itself into Croatia records, cutting all non-Croatian acts from its roster. Oddly enough, the newly "democratic" government has taken tighter control over its company than was ever taken by

the communist regime, approving primarily music with nationalistic, war-conscious themes. The result, naturally, has been a steady stream of musical output with little to offer in the way of surprise (Meares).

Recently, one of the most popular releases by Croatia records was a song called "My Homeland," recorded by "Croatian Band Aid," a group of well-known Croatian musicians. The song featured hymn- like music accompanied by lyrics that not only assert that "the stars are shining just for you/ the sky is always blue, mother country" but that "Europe is with us." The song more or less served in opening the floodgates for releases by Croatia records with strictly nationalistic overtones. After "My Homeland," for example, the label followed suit with the equally popular "Rock for Croatia," a 26-song CD including many of the most well-known rock musicians in Croatia (Janjatovic "Yugoslav" 1).

According to Sinisa Skarica, director of the Croatia Records company, the releases are intended to boost people's morale. Not surprisingly, the music is popular with the Croatian troops, as the company has also made it a point to release material--songs like "Croatia Must Win" and "Go Guards, Smash the Bandits"--geared specifically for them. Musically, many of the songs contain elements of military marches or old traditional folk melodies identified with wars of the past (McKinsey 7).

In spite of such obstacles as heavy government control and a limited market, however, an active rock music scene still does exist within Croatia, encouraging the emergence of privately-owned record labels. For example, the second annual Porin music awards show, the Croatian equivalent to the Grammies, was held last April (Janjatovic "Global"). Considered the "most authoritative measure of recognition in the Croatian record business," the winners are chosen among the nominees by a "distinguished panel" of more than 400 music business professionals (musicians, publishers, record executives, and journalists). While this year's event, which was shown on national network TV, was dominated by established rock group Parni Valjak, the potential for recognition of more multi- cultural acts on independent labels is still a possibility within the show's framework.

One of the most appealing trademarks of independent labels throughout the entire Yugoslav region is their willingness to carry acts from different republics. Blind Dog records in Zagreb, for example, recently signed Lola V. Stain, a Macedonian band special izing in the Byzantine-tinged folk music characteristic of their homeland. Their CD, entitled "The Loft" after a novel by Croatian novelist Danilo Kis, is a testament to the continued association of many Southern Slavs with their neighboring republics (Janjatovic "Global").

Interestingly enough, the Communist-run country called Yugoslavia, comprised of Serbia and Montenegro, has the most promising independent record scene of all the former republics. An explanation for this may be a slightly lower sense of war hysteria since most of the fighting has taken place in either Bosnia or Croatia. Whatever the reason, several new and energetic labels have made considerable strides in balancing the nationalistic tendency of popular music in Serbia (Janjatovic "Labels"). One of the more notable releases to come out of Serbia recently is an eight CD compilation from Komuna, the first privately-owned record company in Serbia. The compilation, selected by Belgrade rock critics Bogica Mijatovic and Petar Popovic, contains the best of 25 years of Yugoslav Rock. The CD's serve not only as a comprehensive retrospective of a distinct musical era, but a sampler of the various ethnic influences that ran throughout the music (Janjatovic "Global").

Other young and agile independent labels, like Sorabia and Carlo, have gotten a jump on the major state-run company, PGP RBT, by signing much of the newest talent emerging throughout the country--most of them winners at the "Fast Bands of Serbia" festival. The festival, held for the first time this year at Belgrade's Youth Centre, was a four-day event full of rock videos and live performances, providing exposure for new bands like Dza Ili Bu and Bad Musicians' Kids. For the past two years, these acts have been taken under the wing of a Television Serbia program called "Afirmator," allowing them to make their own videos. The festival offered a chronological presentation of film and video clips from the mid-60's to the present, then turned the stage over to up and coming local bands (Janjatovic "Labels").

The emergence of private record companies in Serbia has been a godsend to consumers who previously relied on the state-run record companies which have been "all but silenced," according to Belgrade rock critic Petar Janjatovic, by international trade sanctions (56). Labels like PGP RTB have been reduced to leasing out their plants, rather than letting them sit unused, since the availabillty of repertoire from Western labels has been altogether halted by the embargoes against Serbia and, with few exceptions, the company is producing no Yugoslav records.

As Stanko Terzic, director of the company for the past fifteen years puts it, "I thought music knew no frontiers, but it is simply being prevented from reaching us." According to Terzic, the sanctions are "banning cooperation" and "making it impossible for PGP RTB to pay for licenses" and keep Serbian music fans up-to-date with what's going on in the world. "Young audiences are thebiggest losers," he adds, "and I hope the sanctions will be alleviated in the field of culture." Terzic also believes the sanctions have prevented the label from saving the integrated rock scene that used to thrive in Yugoslavia (qtd. in Janjatovic "Labels" 56).

When foreign capital can again flow into the region, Terzic hopes that PGP RTB can step up CD production. "I'm also optimistic about reviving the market through what used to be Yugoslavia. Aside from the fact that it is in our common interest, obviously the music, emotions, and affinities of young people throughout the former Yugoslavian republics are the same (qtd. in Janjatovic "Labels" 56)."

Another result of Serbia's isolation from the rest of the world that must be mentioned is the immense popularity of "Turbo Folk," a homegrown musical hybrid of Turkish and Slavic folk melodies, "disco beats, and Arabic yowling," according to Belgrade critic Petar Lukovic (qtd. in "Balkan"). Turbo Folk singers are generally leggy women dressed in short sequined minskirts, pushup bras and heavy makeup who socialize in the public spotlight with political figures and military thugs (Block 16).

Originally, in a period of particularly high Serbian chauvinism and xenophobia, the form was endorsed and even promoted by the official media as an all-Serb alternative to outer influences. So popular has the genre become, in fact, that most discotheques have been replaced by "folkotheques," where Turbo Folk is played exclusively (Chazan, Christian Science Monitor, 4).

If Turbo Folk has any one message in particular, according to Lukovic, it's "We're okay, sanctions cannot hurt us" (qtd. in "Balkan Blast" 88). The lyrics vacillate between "dismal love songs," nationalistic boasting, or just plain boasting ("Coca-Cola, Marlboro and Suzuki/ Discotheques, Guitars and Bouzouki/ Nobody has it as good as me," is the chorus of one of the most well-known hits) (Block 16). And while political boasting of the more hard- headed sort is actually part of Serbian tradition, as in songs such as "Ko to Kaze Ko to Laze Serbija je Mala (Whoever says that Serbia is small is a liar)," never before have political themes been incorporated to such an extent into the songs of the country's pop stars (Waters 7).

Naturally, Turbo Folk, funded largely by mafia money, is the most thriving record industry in Serbia. And inspite of recent campaigns led by President Slobodan Milosevic and Cultural Minister Nada Popovic-Persic to stamp it out and reintroduce Western culture into the Serbian mainstream, public appetite for the form doesn't appear to be fading (Nelson). As record executives like Nesa Jovanovic, business manager of ZAM, Serbia's largest folk recording label see it, the "music is big business because it makes people happy" (qtd. in "Balkan Blast" 88). Even unfavorable critics like Lukovic see the eventual stamping out of Turbo Folk unlikely, as "the music was promoted as a sedative for the Serb population" in the first place (qtd. in "Balkan Blast" 88).

Along with the launching of a "Year of Culture" campaign, Cultural Minister Popovic-Perisic intends to attack what she refers to as "pseudo folk music" by taxing not only the actual recording of Turbo Folk, but store cassettes as well. She also plans on introducing a bill that will aim towards destroying for good the music's monopoly over radio and television. Popovic-Perisic even hopes to persuade the "noveau riche" who have funded Turbo Folk to donate some of their earnings to the "Year of Culture" cause, offering tax incentives to all contributers (Block 16).

Needless to say, the Beograd intelligentsia supports Popovic-Perisic and her campaign. But another faction that appears to be standing behind the Cultural Minister are the fans of Yugoslav rock who still remain in Serbia. These people believe that the stamping out of Turbo Folk just might give way, once again, to a rock scene that was put on hold so suddenly ("Balkan Blast"). Many rock fans still bemoan the breakup of groups like Riblja Corba, Crvena Jabuka, and Plavi Orkestar--groups who once sold up to 500,000 copies of their albums and toured the entire country two months at a time (Janjatovic "Yugoslav").

While a considerable amount of independent recording activity is taking place in Croatia and Serbia/Montenegro despite countless troubles, the recording industries of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Macedonia don't appear to be as resilient. Needless to say, the violent situation in Bosnia is highly unfavorable to most indus tries of any sort. And it's a shame--the concentrated ethnic mix in Bosnia lent a rich, exotic air to much of Bosnian rock. Bands like Bijelo Dugme and Plavi Orkestar, two of the most well-known Yugoslav bands ever, have since broken up or moved out of the country. Bijelo Dugme bandleader Goran Bregovic, for example, one of the most creative of Bosnian rock musicians, moved to Paris and has been writing music for film director Emir Kusturica as well as others (Janjatovic "Yugoslav").

In the case of Macedonia, a sickly recording industry has been balanced out by a legacy, similar to Bosnia's, of colorful rock laced with traditional folk melodies and instruments. Established Macedonian bands like Leb i Sol remain popular throughout the Yugoslav region, having recently defied ethnic assumptions by playing three sold out shows at Belgrade's Sava Centre in celebra tion of their "Live in New York" CD. Another group, Anastasia, has also found wide recognition by writing and performing the music for the Macedonian film "Before the Rain," the soundtrack of which has been released by Poly Gram records (Janjatovic "Global").

Slovenia, the most western of all the former republics both geographically and culturally, has always been, as noted by journalist Robert Kaplan, a bit of a sideshow to the larger Yugoslav picture (13). In musical terms, a good illustration of this is Laibach, not only the prototypical Slovenian band, but also the most well-known Yugoslav band ever. Laibach has developed its worldwide industrial rock audience largely through its adherance to "New Slovenian Art," a self-titled movement that smacks heavily of Western artistic traditions along the lines of "art for art's sake" (Thompson 42-43). The band is famous for dressing up in Nazi uniforms and re-working classic rock and pop songs, for example, into dark, "poker-faced," militaristic marches (Suselj). While Slovenian musicians do have much to gain through an integrated Yugoslav audience, the example of Laibach shows that Western acceptance may be found for them without the support of any of their Slavic neighbors.

Although independent labels continue to emerge throughout the former Yugoslavia, the extent to which the Yugoslav record market may revive itself in a short period of time remains a tough question. According to Slovenian concert promoter Igor Vidmar, the country's emerging hard-currency music market is only temporarily suspended. Vidmar, during a discussion on the opportunities in Eastern Europe, said that Yugoslavia has a population of 24 million with a strong interest in contemporary music--and convertible dinars to buy it with. Pointing to the fact that two regions have already seceded from Yugoslavia, Vidmar said he believed that when the situation stabilized, the nation would still be one market (Clark-Meads 76).

He further stated that there was already an "emerging network of privately owned record stores selling local indie product and imports." In addition, domestic record companies were well organized and "there are no record pirates in Yugoslava," he declared. Vidmar outlined the geopgraphic effects of the civil war by saying it was highly localized and taking place entirely in Croatia. Vidmar appealed for the music industry and the world in general to take an approach to Yugoslavia that was as normal as possible as a way of calming militaristic attitudes. "Music can have a very positive role in this respect" (qtd. in Clark-Meads 76).

Indeed, it appears as though the only forces actively at work at reuniting the republics within Yugoslavia are rock musicians: Recently, concerts in Berlin and Prague featured Serbian bands Catherine the Great, Electric Orgasm and the Party-Breakers teamed up with other Croatian and Slovenian bands. The audience consisted primarily of refugees from all six republics. Serbian band Bad Musicians' Kids makes it a point to sing songs in Slovenian and Croatian as well as in Serbian. Another Serbian band, Dza Ili Bu, has a popular song called "Soon You'll Be Sweeping the Streets," in reference to Communist government. Veteran Serbian band Galija recently released a single covering a song by Croatian band Film as well as a song by Indexi, a Sarajevo band, and the tenth release of the Serbian band Electric Orgasm is dedicated to "all our friends in Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Sarajevo, with whom we seem to have lost touch" (Janjatovic "Labels"). While such gestures may seem minute, their very existence in such hostile times are significant enough.

Also interesting is the development of gathering spots at dance clubs throughout Europe for Yugoslavs of all "nationalities." The Nest in London, for example, holds gatherings for "Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats--gypsies, students and refugees" every Saturday night. Politics are never discussed, and popular Yugoslav records, many of them reissues released by independent labels, from the 70's and 80's are played. It gives Yugoslavs an opportunity to talk about old times, sing folk songs they all know, and dance traditional dances from each others' republics (Ditmars 22). Such activity, not surprisingly, is branded by Croatian and Serbian nationalists as "Yugonostalgic," indicating a sense of betrayal to one's true homeland (Moseley 21).

If there is to be a positive side at all to the conflict in Yugoslavia, it just might be this active emergence of private record labels, many of them run by "Yugonostalgists" who hold fast to the musical values that initially drove them into business, and provide those who remember a retrospective look at some of the richness and variety they used to have. As more and more stress is put by each independent record company on carrying an ethnically diverse roster, more of this music may be availabe and play some minor role, perhaps, in reopening the perceptions of Yugoslav rock's original audiences, wherever they may be.

Works Cited

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