In 2010, while I was living with my long-term girlfriend, her family made the decision to move back to Sweden, where her dad was from. Her mother was Serbian and had a heap of vinyl records from the old country in the house, but considering the high costs for shipping them over 5,000 miles, she kindly decided to give them to us instead.
Despite being a music nut, I didn’t really listen to vinyl at the time; I don’t have a great urge to learn new things- hence my low-level of French speaking abilities even though I lived in Montreal for a number of years. That said, the weird names and exotic artwork on the old LPs piqued my curiosity and I decided to have a look at some of their videos on YouTube. The first track that popped up was called “Bejbi, Bejbi”, by "Vis Idoli" which apparently featured in a movie about a murderer, according to a hostel owner I recently encountered in Belgrade. Before pressing play, I thought I was going to hear some synth pop or some weird Balkans folk, but instead it was a short blast of really catchy, creative New Wave. I had long been a fan of that particular genre, but I just had my first experience of the Yugoslavian version and I liked it.
Back in the early 1980's, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (comprising modern day Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia) was considered by many to be a liberal or “soft” socialist state, in that it was reasonably open to Western cultural influences. Indeed, as early as 1948 it had been gradually distancing itself from the controlling socialism inherent to the governments of the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc nations. With this cultural openness and official state policies that emphasized the importance of developing its youth, Yugoslavians had easy access to jazz in the 1950s, followed by the onset of rock n’ roll and pop music in the 60's. These genres became hugely popular throughout Yugoslavia and it was from those movements that the Yugoslavian rock scene emerged, combining the rhythm and blues from the States with its own traditional folk sound.
The most popular bands in Yugoslavia during the 1960's and 70's were Bjelo dugme, Riblja čorba and Smak, as well as singers such as Miki Jevremović, Mišo Kovač and Zdravko Čolić. In spite of the perceived cultural openness, these acts were still in throe to the communist government at the time, which was the one thing that they all had in common – an absolute commitment to the ideals of self-governing socialism and its head, Josip Broz, aka Tito. Throughout the 60's and 70's, an album could not be recorded or broadcast unless it had at least one song about "comrade Tito"; no more evident than with the partisan song by Djorde Balašević, "Računajte na nas" ("You can count on us"). With the explosion of punk in 1977, the Queen of England celebrated her jubilee and the Sex Pistols taunted her and the establishment by proclaiming "she ain't no human being", while in Yugoslavia, Tito celebrated 40 years in charge; but nobody would have dared write a similar line about him.
After 43 years, the 'Age of Titoism' came to an end on 4th of May 1980, when Yugoslavia’s leader passed away. With his passing, the country started to turn to the West even more and accept its social and cultural influences. In spite of a collapsed economy and an unemployment rate of 17% (60% being under 25), the young Yugoslav generation of the late 70's/early 80's would become a hub of creativity and originality; a Golden Age that would have a crucial effect on the cultural state of the nation, as well as its positive image abroad, until it was smashed apart by nationalistic hatred in the early 90's.
Emerging from the short-lived punk explosion, New Wave was an alternative ideology and musical genre, with an emphasis on originality and pushing creative and social boundaries. Whereas in the West, punk and its successor, post-punk, or New Wave, were viewed as opponents of capitalism, in Yugoslavia these movements were seen as invaluable critics of socialism and a voice for the working classes.
Sonically, it took the energy of punk and melded it with such disparate music styles as reggae, ska, dub, krautrock, funk and electronic. Calling out from the urban landscapes of Ljubljana, Rijeka, Novi Sad, Zagreb and Belgrade, the mixture of lyrics, live performances, graphical art and music videos were the means by which Yugoslavian bands applied their own unique sense of irony, satire and metaphor on social idealism.
The sarcastic narration of the social reality facing the ordinary citizens of the Yugoslav republics in the 80's was exemplified by the aforementioned band, Idoli, and their brilliantly biting two-tone/ska song Maljčiki. Analyzing the song's lyrics, Natalja Kyaw says, "The text is one continuous exaggerated affirmation of the socio-realistic discourse. The lyrical subject describes his world as if he were speaking from a propaganda placard: the singing worker works hard and rejoices at his own achievements as well as the good harvest and future victories of socialism. The stanza in Russian only emphasizes the connection with Stalinism and is something that was deliberately chosen as a wise strategic move to avoid any problems with censorship. The deconstruction of the socialist working ethics is not just an attack on Stalinism, but, through the Russian example, on socialism in general and thus the ideological basis of socialist Yugoslavia".
Although Yugoslavian New Wave was subversive in a sociological sense, its prime focus was music, not politics. Regardless of ethnicity, religion, class or even mother tongue, musicians worked together in a spirit of unity and brotherhood, participating in festivals throughout the multinational federation, creating a platform where ideas and ideologies could be exchanged. This communal atmosphere served as an inspiration and a motivation for the artists and indeed, the audience, to express themselves in an exciting and engaging way. It also drew fans from other Eastern Bloc countries: a 1984 Radio Free Europe report entitled “Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Stay in Communist Europe” noted that “hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovaks are ﬂocking to musically wide-open Yugoslavia for their vacations”.
Bands such as Prljavo Kazaliste (The Dirty Theatre) also had a strong regional and ultimately, nationalistic following. Formed in 1977, they have long been viewed as the icons of Croatia's contribution to the Yugoslavian New Wave scene. Although the band went through many stylistic and personnel changes down through the years, they continued performing and their fans devotion never waned. Their peak came in 1989, when they performed to 300,000 people at Zagreb’s Ban Jelacic Square. Their most popular song is “Mojoj Majci (Ruza Hrvatska)” (To My Mother), a lament to a dying mother who was "the last Rose of Croatia". It is pretty much viewed as the alternative Croatian national anthem nowadays.
By 1981, the international media, impressed with the quality music emanating from the scene, took a considerable interest in Yugoslav New Wave. Publications such as Melody Maker, the NME and the Dutch magazine Koekrand wrote up glowing reviews of bands such as Serbia's Električni orgazam (Electric Orgasm) and Šarlo Akrobata (Charlot the Acrobat), as well as Slovenia's Pankrti (The Bastards), opening them up to the Western market. Of the three, Šarlo Akrobata would now be considered the most influential on an international level, playing skeletal, energetic ska-core with a post-punk sound akin to Gang of Four, XTC, The Stranglers and Public Image Limited. The 1981 LP, Paket Aranžman is a compilation of the three Yugoslavian groups and is considered one of the most important records to come out of Yugoslavia, so is well worth a listen.
Mirroring the decline of New Wave in the West, the genre had all but died out by 1984, with its main acts having either split up or progressed to the newer sounds of Synth Pop, New Romantics and Art Pop. Similarly, the political landscape in Yugoslavia during the late 80's and early 90's saw a transition from socialism to a parliamentary democracy, bringing with it a rise in extreme nationalism, previously kept under control by the communist regime. By 1991, civil war had broken out in Yugoslavia and for its people, nothing would ever be the same again.