THE GUARDIAN (London)
Friday December 1, 2000
In Serbia, western pop is bitterly known
as 'Nato music' and folk songs have been a vital tool in the struggle against
Milosevic. Robin Denselow reports on a land where pop and politics do
It is early evening on Saturday
October 7, two days after the storming of the federal parliament in Belgrade. In
the coal mining town of Lazarevac, 30 miles south of the Serbian capital, the
entire population seems to be making its way to a triumphant free concert that
marks Slobodan Milosevic's departure. A small wooden stage has been erected
between the traffic lights across the main road, next to the small hotel and
cluster of bars that mark the centre of town. An incongruous blend of old Queen
anthems, local folk music and Irish dance tunes blare from the speakers as the
crowd wait for their new heroes to arrive.
First comes the strike committee of miners
who have defied the Milosevic police and paramilitaries by closing down the vast
open-cast pits that scar the countryside. Arms held aloft in triumph, they are
greeted by a middle-aged man in a black sweatshirt.
This is Djordje Balasevic, Serbia's
most celebrated singer. During the Milosevic era, he was censored, exiled, and
under constant fear of arrest, but his songs became a rallying cry for students,
miners and all Serb voters who clamoured for change.
This, he says, is his first concert in
"free Serbia", and he congratulates the miners and townspeople for
making it possible. Then he eases into a solo ballad before bringing on his band
of guitars, bass, keyboards and saxophone, for a gloriously emotional show. They
start with a protest song, Ne Lomite Mi Bagrenje ("Don't Harm My Acacia
Trees"), an allegorical tale which has been interpreted as an attack on
Milosevic and has, says Balasevic, become a song of "good versus evil, of
youth and suffering, and all those people who have had to leave Serbia".
Then they sing Slobodane, written eight years ago but not recorded until 1998,
in time to become an anthem for the student protest movement. The title
indicates that the first part of Milosevic's first name means "free"
and the second part "no". Hence "no freedom".
Balasevic's songs have the sturdy melodies
of good country ballads, mixed with a dash of blues. The crowd know all the
words, and sing them back at him across the square. He's a fine raconteur,
mixing the music with long, rambling stories. One ridicules Milosevic's TV
appearance the previous evening, and his claim that he was stepping down to
"spend more time with my grandson".
Milosevic's downfall was partly a cultural
revolution, fought out in songs from both sides of the political spectrum. In
Britain, the idea that political pop can be hazardous seems far-fetched, but
there is a depressing history of political singers being persecuted because of
their work. Balasevic follows in the footsteps of Pete Seeger, banned by the US
in the 1950s during the HUAC anti-communist witch-hunts; Victor Heredia, banned
by the military junta in Argentina; Fela Kuti, whose club was attacked by the
Nigerian army; and Victor Jara, killed in the Santiago massacres during the
Milosevic also used terror against his
opponents, and Balasevic says he felt threatened by the militias and secret
police. A "rock'n'roll child", influenced by "Pink Floyd, the
Beatles and electric guitars", he had already established a popular
following across the Balkans by the time Milosevic came to power. Then his
livelihood was taken away from him. For a decade, his songs were never played on
state television - a situation only rectified after the storming of the Federal
parliament. When Balasevic's wife rushed in to tell him that he was back on the
air, he was astonished. "I could hardly recognise myself," he says,
"because all the recordings they had of me were so old."
During the Milosevic years he retreated to
the house where he was born, up in the northern town of Novi Sad (a target for
the Nato bombs that destroyed the bridges across the Danube). "I didn't
dare leave the house for two months," he says. "I'd been threatened
with arrest as a deserter because I refused to fight in Croatia - I have fans
and friends there."
He spent his time writing four books,
which were printed privately and sold from the house, along with cassettes of
his songs, and in the later years he was able to give a few low-key concerts,
but was never allowed to promote himself or book any large-scale venues. For
much of the time he lived as a refugee, across the border in Slovenia, but then
began touring, as "I could go anywhere except my home in Serbia". He
travelled across the Balkans, and sang to the Serb communities in Australia and
Britain. He kept writing songs, and even managed to keep recording. His last
album, Deveste (The 1990s), was the story of a lost decade. The title track
dealt, he said, "with just how great the 1960s were, and how things have
been getting worse in Serbia ever since". Recorded secretly in Belgrade and
in Slovenia, the CDs were smuggled back across the border. Smuggling became
something of a national pastime in Serbia; criminal gangs and border police were
all involved. There were, said Balasevic, "so many corrupt police officers,
there was no real problem getting my CDs back here".
Over the past two years, his songs have
found a new audience in the student supporters of the Serbian resistance. As the
elections approached, they organised rock concerts to encourage the
anti-Milosevic vote, and plastered Belgrade with their slogan Gotob Je! (He's
Finished!). Pirate CDs helped to inspire the students, much to the fury of the
One of the best of those CDs, Gotob Je!,
features a ripped election poster of Milosevic on the front cover. Four of the
16 songs on the compilation are by Balasevic, including Slobodane and Zveti
Slobodno ("To Live Freely"), a song from the Deveste album which had
become a firm favourite with student activists and others opposed to Milosevic.
"I'd been waiting to sing it live for over a year," says Balasevic,
"and when I did eventually get to sing it for the first time, it was
alongside Kostunica at a rally in Belgrade, in front of an audience of half a
million people. The students had been using the song, it had been played on B92
[the independent radio station closed last year by the authorities but now back
in business] and everyone knew the words."
Young Serbs want to tell visitors that
their country is not full of Slobodan-supporting murderers and monsters, and
that the image built up in the west during the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts is
one-sided. Belgrade is keen to present the image of a modern European city, and
English visitors are likely to be quizzed about the Nato bombing campaign
("how could you do that to us when so many were against Milosevic?"),
then asked about English football and western pop. This is now referred to,
somewhat bitterly, as "Nato music", but B92 seemed to be playing a
solid diet of Pulp last month. The bootleg CDs of the anti-Milosevic campaign
have proved that home-made Serbian pop is a force to be reckoned with, and can
be witty, original and brave.
But that was just one side of the
political pop equation. Balasevic complains that, "far too many of my
colleagues simply went along with Milosevic, so they could appear on TV and
travel as they wished. If more of us had come together during Croatia and Bosnia
we could have done something."
Then there were the musicians seen as
advocates of the Serb nationalism that led Milosevic to his bloody military
adventures. Throughout the late 1990s, the musical pin-up in Serbia was Ceca
Raznatovic, known as Ceca. Unlike Balasevic, she was constantly on Serbian TV.
It was Ceca, says Balasevic, who "provided the soundtrack for the Milosevic
Ceca's powerful voice and declamatory,
theatrical style mixes the Middle Eastern/ Turkish-sounding influences of
southern Serbia with wailing fuzzed guitars and heavy synthesised riffs. Her
image is equally brash. For her latest CD, Ceca 2000, she poses in skimpy purple
plastic, and blue bondage bra and pants. Nothing dangerously political in that,
one might think, but what makes the ruling queen of Serbian
"turbo-folk" so special is that she's the widow of Zelko Raznatovic,
better known as Arkan. And Arkan was the most notorious and feared of all the
gang-leaders and warlords who emerged during the Milosevic era. In January this
year Arkan was gunned down in Belgrade, discovered by his wife in a pool of
blood. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. A group of men accused
of Arkan's murder, including an off-duty policeman, are now on trial in
Balasevic is scathing about her musical
standing: "She's a folk singer from the south of Serbia, and folk music was
used to boost Serb nationalism. When people get drunk they sing about knives and
war. It's primitive music and it was always on TV. Turbo-folk was a kind of
terror music, but if it's on TV all the time you get used to it. Now I hope we
can forget it."
The overthrow of Milosevic has transformed
the country's cultural scene. While the one-time queen of Serbian pop attends a
murder trial, the singer who suffered the most under Milosevic finds that his
life has changed for the better. He can give concerts in his homeland, and is
being feted as an international celebrity. In his years in exile in Slovenia he
accepted an offer from the United Nations to become UN "goodwill
ambassador" for south-east Europe. Last month he flew to New York to take
part in a celebrity bash. Recovering from the failure of the Middle East peace
talks, Kofi Annan surrounded himself with a motley crew of 40 goodwill
superstars, ranging from Mohammed Ali to Geri Halliwell, Susan Sarandon, Michael
Douglas, Mia Farrow, Youssou N'Dour and Seamus Heaney. "I was treated like
a hero," says a delighted Balasevic.
Back in Serbia, he is preparing a victory
concert in the capital. "For years I had managed to give an annual show in
Belgrade, but I had no media support, so two years ago I said I wouldn't play
another major concert in the city until Milosevic had gone. At that point I had
played 99 concerts in Belgrade, and I wanted the 100th show to be really
special." The Belgrade victory concert will take place on Monday in the
National Theatre in Belgrade.
But are the dangerous times really
over? Before leaving Belgrade, I browse through booths of smuggled CDs along the
main pedestrian walkway, Knez Mihajlova. Copies of Ceca 2000 are selling well
alongside Balasevic and the anti-Milosevic compilations. I'm not sure they're
home and dry.