Europe, Headlines

CULTURE: Potency of Balkan Pop Music

Teofil Pancic (*)

BELGRADE, Jan 6 1998 (IPS) - On Terazije Street, in the heart of the Serbian capital, street vendors selling ‘cevap’ rolls shroud passers-by in smoke and the stench of grilled meat, deafening them with rock music.

The ‘cevap’ meat rolls – still the most popular fast food in the Balkans – are at home everywhere in the different states carved out of the former Yugoslavia by secession and war. But if the food is local, the music is downright out of place.

The vendors are blasting the street with the refrains of the mega- hit ‘To My Mother’, recorded by the Zagreb rock band, Prljavo Kazaliste (Filthy Theatre), eight years ago.

But why is this song, also known as ‘The Last Croatian Rose’, played so loudly on the streets of Belgrade, Zagreb’s arch-rival for years before the end of the old Yugoslav federation in 1991, and in the years since then?

The story goes back to 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall when the master plumbers of Yugoslavia were getting ready to separate the people into different pipes.

Serbia had succumbed to the hysteria of the anti-bureaucratic demonstrations orchestrated by then president Slobodan Milosevic. The 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo – which Serbia lost – was commemorated at Gazimestan, and the first cracks in the federal Yugoslav state started to appear.

However, in the quiet streets of Zagreb, the anger and the noise of history were still only a distant echo, barely noted by the media. Then came Prljavo Kazaliste’s song, and the world as we knew it in the Balkans, never would be the same.

I remember the day it became clear to me. Prljavo Kazaliste, a band whose songs mothers used to ban from their teenage daughters’ bedrooms, was about to give a free concert in the main square in Zagreb, which was itself well on its way to changing from Communist Republic Square to Governor Jelacic Square, named after a 19th century Austro-Hungarian governor of Croatia.

I was on my way to the railway station but it soon became clear I was never going to get there: I was trying to go against the flood of people heading for the main square. Entire families – grandmothers clothed in 1930s fashions to their grandchildren in their modern Sunday best – filled roadways and pavements, all on their way to the concert.

How come they all wanted to see Prljavo Kazaliste, once a decent rock ‘n roll band that now produced kitsch rubbish which made money? Most of the crowd could not have even heard of the Filthy Theatre up to then, but they all wanted to hear one song – To My Mother.

It gave them a sense of participating in an almost conspiratorial event. The song, originally apolitical and benign, had became an instant patriotic anthem of the day, an expression of woken national sentiment that could no longer be stifled.

I was watching the grannies. In any other circumstances they would have screamed had they met punky lead singer Jasenko Houra on the street. Now they were sobbing, reverently listening to Houra and his holy refrain and, soon after, it became impossible to avoid the song anywhere in Croatia. It was in the air, in the taxi, in the baker’s, at the hairdresser’s, in the station waiting room, on a neighbour’s tape-recorder.

While Serbs worked out their nationalist sentiments on church-run pilgrimages to the graves of long dead ancestors, stirred by the paeans of Serbian Orthodox priests, Croats mourned their enslaved country by listening to Houra’s pathetic refrain.

Within two years these sentiments had unleashed destruction that turned parts of the Balkans into a moonscape; an anthropological zoo for NATO soldiers and attendant journalisats, bankrupt philosophers and humanitarian general practitioners of all sorts.

Years have passed since that Zagreb concert, and infinitely more abhorrent refrains have been sung in that time.

Yet the time had to come when the sometime-nationalist Croat song would be heard on a street in Serbia’s capital. The survivors of the latest Balkan Wars now have the privilege of being able to enjoy their former enemy’s popular trash.

Serbia is fighting to stay afloat in the sea of CDs and tapes from Croatian and Bosnian bands and singers, from Oliver Dragojevic, Dino Dvornik, Gibonni and Index to Hari Mata Hari.

They are in heavy competition with local artists, although the non-Serb musicians are loathe to perform live in Serbia, in spite of the big money they could make there with just three or four concerts. At the same time, the Croatian petit bourgeoisie make pilgrimages over the border to Slovenia to hear popular Serbian singers like Djordje Balasevic perform.

This is not to suggest that all Serbs now love Croats or that Croats deem Serbs to be human beings again. Their sentiments are still inextricably entwined in a bloody and morbid cycle by weepy Slavic warmth and intermittent waves of pathological hatred. Serbs and Croats are only throough with war for the time being. It’s just the future of Bosnia-Hercegovina that is pending.

Divided by new borders and nationalities, the Balkan Slavic peoples have been freed to display their similarities, their traditional morbidity and readiness to slit their palms with tumblers smashed in drunken pathos at the bar. Meanwhile the waiters are dead drunk themselves, and the manager has just gambled the premises away.

Awful music unites this Balkan peninsula of wonders; see you in the next war!

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