Sound of Music Heals Wounds in Former Yugoslavia

Davor Konjikušić Zagreb, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Strasbourg, Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Helsinki

Pragmatic interests are replacing the old ideology of “brotherhood and unity” as a motor for renewed artistic cooperation.

“Once a friend, always a friend, and I made friends first and foremost through music,” says Kebra, otherwise known as Branislav Babić, lead singer of the Serbian rockband, Obojeni Program. “Nationality is not important when it comes to that.”

Back in 1991, Kebra found himself in a situation in which nationality, unfortunately, was everything; a Serb, he was doing military service in Vinkovci, in northern Croatia, as hostility engulfed Yugoslavia.

His musical links saved him. Peering out across the barracks fence one day at a crowd of angry Croatian civilians and police, he spotted a friendly face: Goran Bare, fellow rocker from the Croatian band, Majke. Somehow they communicated and the following night, with Bare’s aid, Kebra got hold of civilian clothes, jumped over the fence and escaped on foot to Hungary.

Kebra and his band are now again performing in Croatia. That fact, and the friendly reactions of the audiences, shows that despite the difficulties still plaguing relations between the countries of the former Yugoslavia, its cultural bonds have proven hard to break.

“If matters were left to ordinary people, I think this would function without any problems,” Kebra says, of the renewed exchanges between Serbia and Croatia. “But if ‘culture’ is left to politicians, then it depends on them and they will always find reasons to obstruct things.”

Shortly after Kebra fled Vinkovci, the Yugoslav Army bombed the town, unleashing the war that was to rip through the former Yugoslavia from Croatia to Bosnia and later Serbia, leaving in its wake death, displacement and destruction.

As new state frontiers sprung up within Yugoslavia, so too the cultural scene shattered. But an alternative, pacifist, crowd kept the flame alive, and with time, and since peace has returned, cooperation and exchange have flowered, and not only in the field of so-called “high culture”.

Today, cultural exchange is more and more mainstream, as a common language and interests create opportunities for artists and business alike, whether it’s avant-garde theatre, award-winning film, or turbofolk music.

While increased cultural mobility still faces opposition from those who want to maintain the isolation of the war years, some hope for the recreation of a wider, Balkan culture. For others, the Scandinavian model is more appealing, the separate but closely related states showing how a larger, regional, cultural space can operate.

Free of ideology, they hope a similar kind of community can emerge in the Balkans, increasing artists’ opportunities and profits while at the same time helping to bring about the gradual reconciliation of peoples still traumatised by war.

A “cultural common market” went up in smoke

“It was impossible to stay here and not be a member of the team,” recalls Rajko Grlić, a leading Croatian film maker and one of many of the former Yugoslavia’s artists to suffer the fallout of the cultural collapse brought about by war. Declared persona non grata in Zagreb, having continued to work in the early 1990s with Serbian colleagues on several films – Virdžina, as a producer, and Čaruga, which he directed – Grlić eventually left to study and later teach in the US.

And it wasn’t only because Croatia’s artistic atmosphere changed. “At the same time, many people, mostly in Belgrade, switched overnight from opposing socialism to taking up nationalist positions. My disappointment was immense,” he explains.

The popular Croatian singer and songwriter, Arsen Dedić, a star in Yugoslavia since the early 1960s, felt the same. As wars raged in Croatia and Bosnia, Dedić strove to maintain contacts with colleagues and singers from other former Yugoslav republics. “How could I hate a friend from Belgrade, or Kemal Monteno from Sarajevo or Slavo Dimitrov from Macedonia?” he asks.

When peace came in 1995, these pioneers made the first steps towards re-establishing closer cultural contacts. Matters progressed only slowly, however. Feelings of hatred between the peoples – a legacy of the huge numbers of war victims - constituted a serious obstacle. The process did not gather speed until after 2000, when a new, more tolerant political climate started to replace the nationalist hysteria of the previous decade.

Today, the biggest music stars of the old Yugoslavia, such as Arsen Dedić from Zagreb, Momčilo “Bajaga” Bajagić from Belgrade, Zabranjeno Pušenje from Sarajevo, and Goran Bregović, frontman of Bijelo Dugme, the 1970s rock band from Bosnia, once again perform to packed concert halls throughout the former state. And it’s not just nostalgia for evergreens. Contemporary bands are doing the same, suggesting that apart from a common memory, there exist also common, contemporary interests and tastes.

We do have something in common, after all

Croatia’s popular rock band, Hladno Pivo, has no Yugoslav pedigree; it emerged only after the republic became independent. After first gaining popularity in Slovenia, it became a hit in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and, finally, in Serbia, where the band first held a concert in 2001. “As soon as we could go there to play our music, we did so. Just like the bands from Serbia which came to play here,” Zoki, Hladno Pivo’s lead guitarist, recalls.

Film also has growing cross-border appeal, which Belgrade actor and producer Zoran Cvijanović puts down to similar aesthetics as well as a virtually common language. “The truth of the matter is that we understand one another in these parts, and that’s essential,” he says.

Only a few years ago, the circulation of actors between Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia would have been inconceivable. Now they play parts in one another’s soap operas and films. In Croatia, one of the most popular characters in the hit television novella, “Ljubav u Zaledju” [Love in the Background], is Ogi, played by the Serbian actor, Nenad Stojimenović.

Extensive exchange in theatre, especially among the smaller and more alternative companies, is also taking place. It is the same in modern art, where various organisations are joining forces on the basis of common interests. Three organisations, the Novi Sad-based KUDA.ORG, the Centre for Modern Art from Sarajevo and the WHW (What, How & for Whom) Collective from Zagreb, have been cooperating for years, whilst their project, Deconstruction of Monuments, has recently captured public attention thanks to a work named Monument to a Tin, an ironic reference to the food-aid sent to the besieged residents of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1995.

Despite the isolation and prejudice of the past 17 years, something special appears to bind the peoples of these neighbouring countries together. “Someone said at one point that Croatia now finds Serbian culture no more interesting than Bulgarian culture,” notes Croatian rock critic and journalist Aleksandar Dragaš. “I don’t believe this is so.”

This is perhaps most visible at the annual EXIT music festival in Novi Sad. Since its beginnings in 2000, it has become a place where the new post-war generation has been able to meet and rapidly dispel their prejudices. It has become a common sight in Novi Sad’s station to see the Zagreb bus held up by its passengers, as they kiss their newfound Serbian boy- or girlfriends goodbye.

“At first I did not tell my parents that I was even going to Serbia,” says Mirta, a student from Zagreb, recalling her first EXIT outing. “Today it is OK. Now they know that for the last three years I have been going to Novi Sad for the festival. They calmed down when I explained that I have met many young, decent people there.”

Mirta’s interest in things Serbian has been ignited by her time spent in the country during EXIT. “Next year I will also go to the brass bands festival in Guča,” she adds, referring to the traditional brass band meet in western Serbia, a very different affair. “Everything here is new and exotic for us,” she explains.

Money also talks

EXIT provides a good example of how pragmatic business opportunities have been built on cultural similarities and linguistic understanding. In other words, broken links have been restored in the quest for greater markets and economies of scale.

Among the first to realise this were film makers from the former Yugoslav republics. They say it is easier to work together than with colleagues from other countries, but that the proliferation of co-productions comes down, moreover, to the chance for better quality castings gained by targeting a larger pool of actors and actresses, the similarity of languages, which renders subtitling or dubbing unnecessary, and the possibility of pooling resources to obtain bigger budgets.

“Everybody immediately got involved in Slovenian-Croatian, Macedonian-Slovenian and Croatian-Serbian co-productions, and funds were raised all over the place for these projects,” award-winning Croatian film director Vinko Brešan recalls.

One high-profile example is the 2006 film by Rajko Grlić, Karaula [Border Watchtower], a comic co-production involving five of the six former Yugoslav republics, set on a pre-war Yugoslav Army base on the border with Albania. To obtain funds from EUROIMAGE, the European Cinema Support Fund, set up by the Council of Europe to fund the co-production, distribution and exhibition of European films, Karaula had to be a project of at least three states. As a result, Croatians, Slovenians and Macedonians joined forces. But it did not end there, for Serbia and Bosnia soon got in on the act as well.

“Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia all have one big advantage; we don’t need subtitles to distribute one another’s films on our markets,” Brešan says. “In a way, this is a common market for the film industry, and what was logical eventually happened.”

The public reaction bears this out. Local productions like Karaula and Brešan’s film Svjedoci [Witnesses], a wartime film that won the Berlin Festival Peace Film Award in 2004, have proved extremely popular among Balkan audiences.

The market potential of this mutual interest is also present on the music scene. In 2005, the global media giant MTV launched MTV Adria, covering all the former Yugoslav republics with a market of about 20 million people. Locally owned music television has also taken off regionally, including the MTS channel [Music Television Station] which is broadcast from Serbia and the Serbian commercial station, TV Pink.

The latter is best known for its Grand Show, a musical extravaganza featuring liberal dollops of turbofolk, a style involving simple, emotive texts, sung erotically by often surgically-enhanced beauties.

Despite the fact that turbofolk is a Serbian genre, widely associated with Serbian nationalism, Croatian rock critic Aleksander Dragaš says it is increasingly popular in Croatia. His newspaper, the Zagreb daily Jutarnji List, conducted a survey on the issue: “It turned out that 43 per cent of about 1,000 respondents…were listening to turbofolk,” he says.

The irony is that this blend of Serbian folk music, popular hits and oriental rhythms, came into vogue during the rule of Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s, while its best known diva is Svetlana “Ceca” Raznatović, widow of infamous wartime paramilitary fighter Željko “Arkan” Raznatović. In spite of that pedigree, and without any real media support, the musical genre has continued to spread throughout the region, encompassing Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and even Kosovo.

The manager of one turbofolk club in Zagreb says it all came down to hard cash. “Today, money is all that matters, and there’s plenty of it in turbofolk,” he notes. “It doesn’t really matter who or what they are [ie the singers] because Croats fall for it.”

Not everyone likes turbofolk

Turbofolk’s popularity outside Serbia, especially in Croatia, still carries uneasy connotations from the past, however. While Ceca’s songs boom from many Croatian nightclubs and cafés, it would be virtually impossible for the singer to stage a concert in the country.

Journalist Natasa Bodrožić believes this reveals how far cultural rapprochement between the former warring nations still has to go. “There are some sporadic examples of cultural cooperation but there is no real bridge,” she asserts.

She says the media have not changed in line with the public. So while Croatian hits crowd the Serbian and Bosnian airways, “no Croatian radio station has played any of the Serbian songs that competed in the Eurovision song contest, such as this year’s winning song, Molitva or 2005’s runner up, Lane Moje,” Bodrožić points out.

Resistance to cultural cooperation comes from many quarters, including political parties, war victims and veterans’ groups, but also from artists themselves.

Hladno Pivo’s Zoki does not deny their existence, or impugn all their motives. “People were left destitute in the war and lost their loved ones, so I can understand those people who feel strongly against Serbian bands playing in Croatia,” he admits.

One of those is the Croatian actress Vitomira Lončar, who has not visited Belgrade since the war, although once she was very popular there. “I know for sure that during and after the war none of my colleagues from Belgrade tried to get in touch with me,” she recalls. “They never asked how we managed in the shelters and whether we needed anything.”

Snježana Banović Dolezil, former director of drama at the Croatian National Theatre, was even forced to step down in 2002 after a group of actors refused to give a performance in Belgrade that she had tried to arrange. Some of them said they would not bow to an audience in Belgrade that might include men who had killed their fellow Croats.

Others blame political elites who today voice support for cultural cooperation but rarely put their money where their mouth is. The WHW collective, noted for its art that questions national myths, sees the softer rhetoric of contemporary officialdom as driven primarily by a desire to get into the European Union.

“It is a consequence of this great obsession with the EU, seen as a path to a brighter future, that officially we have finished with the past,” Sabina Sabolović, a WHW curator, says. “The process of normalisation has created this outwardly amiable face but these issues have not been worked out properly and we still have multiple layers of opposition and intolerance.”

Some critics of the Croatian culture ministry complain that too much of its budget is spent on preservation of archeological and national heritage, while only small amounts are earmarked for cultural products that do not include a strong, overt, “national” content.

But Irena Guidikova, of the Directorate for Culture in the Council of Europe, said such quandaries are common to all transitional countries. “[They], and especially post-communist societies, have a hard time … striking the balance between investments in heritage preservation projects and investments into creative processes and modern art,” she observes.

Bosnia has specific dilemmas in this regard, as its post-war settlement effectively endorsed the republic’s wartime division into two zones – one Serbian and the other mainly Bosniak and Croat. The icy relations between these entities, the Federation and Republika Srpska, have meant that state culture remains dominated by “national” questions and labels.

Dunja Blažević, director of the Bosnian Centre for Contemporary Art, says it also leaves little room for less overtly national art forms. “Except for film, our federal ministry has no interest in contemporary arts,” she complains. Meanwhile, national museums and galleries are neglected, “because they were established by the former state, and no institution in the Federation is willing to take care of them,” she adds.

The ethnic divisions in Bosnia – and the experience of the war - also affects the way Bosnia’s artists interact with neighbouring Serbia and Croatia. Faruk Šehić, a representative of the new wave of Bosnian literature and member of the so-called “war generation”, says Zagreb audiences remain more open to Bosnian culture than those in Belgrade.

The reaction to the film Grbavica, an award-winning 2005 film by Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić, was, perhaps, illustrative. The story of one of the many Bosnian women raped by Serbian soldiers during the war was acclaimed internationally, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, but has still not been distributed in Serbia, even though the lead actress, Mirjana Karanović, is Serbian.

Karanović has been reluctant to politicise this fact. “There is a political background to it, but I am not sure if that is the main reason,” she says. “All I know is that there were no reports in Serbia of the success I have had with this film... And what is not in the papers does not exist”.

Milena Dragičević Šešić, rector of the Belgrade Art School and one of the region’s foremost cultural experts, is less coy. She puts this and other examples of cultural exclusivity down to “people with personal inferiority complexes who need a megalomanic scenario – the myth of Serbian culture. Those who see in everything a threat.”

Lessons from Scandinavia

Zoki of Hladno Pivo says the nations of the former Yugoslavia need to abandon the concept of inherited guilt to embrace reconciliation. “You can’t blame a whole nation for the crimes of its government of 10 or 15 years ago,” he says.

He believes artists from the former Yugoslavia can also learn from precedents elsewhere in Europe, where similar problems were once experienced and overcome.

Some former Yugoslav artists are interested in the concept that underpins ARTE, a cultural TV channel launched in 1992 to bridge divides between France and Germany, two countries that have been at war three times since 1870 but which today form the bedrock of the EU.

Michael Strier, its communications officer, says the station aims eventually to provide a Europe-wide service. “We are trying to help people understand and respect the other culture. If you have no respect for your neighbour, you cannot live together.”

However, Rajko Grlić prefers to look to the model presented by the Scandinavian countries as a potential guide for the former Yugoslav republics. Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway have had a difficult history, marked by wars and animosities. However, in recent decades they have developed many mechanisms to facilitate joint operations, actions and cultural policies.

As Per Svenson of the Swedish Arts Council puts it, “Nordic cultural cooperation is important because we have so much in common. We represent small languages on the fringes of Europe, we share history and traditions – and of course it is important to have good relations with your neighbours.”

His colleague from the Finnish Arts Council, Saha Hannu, agrees. “Modern cultural cooperation between Nordic countries is very tight, with regular meetings of ministers of education and culture, many foundations for cultural activities and nowadays very active direct collaboration between artists and cultural institutions themselves.” According to Hannu, “[T]his cooperation is not only important, it is natural.”

Cvijanović believes this offers hope to his region, as Scandinavian states “have a history quite similar to that of the Balkan countries”, adding: “I see this as a big opportunity for ourselves, as we also have plenty of countries in a small space.”

Rajko Grlić agrees: “There is a great similarity with the Scandinavian countries. It is very difficult to find a Danish film made without the participation of Sweden and Norway. Regardless of their wealth, small countries are trying to unite and use the so-called space of similar sensibility as their primary market”.

Not ready for the Nordic model - yet

Former Yugoslav states still have some way to go before even the basic conditions for such a level of cooperation can be met. Intellectual property rights have yet to be dealt with on a regional level, for example, so that piracy remains rife.

Scandinavian countries, on the other hand, share special joint regulations backed up necessarily by the state, civil society, professional associations and private foundations. Decentralisation is another issue. Many Nordic local authorities and city administrations have almost the same-sized budgets for cultural projects as the state. Balkan countries are nowhere near this position.

But Tomas Bokstad from the Ministry of Culture of Sweden says there is nothing unique about the models of cultural cooperation the Nordic states have established. “If you examine the new system of cultural support in Scandinavian countries, you will see that it can be applied in Europe and beyond,” he says.

As Per Svenson points out, an important key for Sweden’s success in pursuing cultural collaboration has been a cultural policy that does not emphasise “Swedish culture” per se. “The national cultural policy underlines the importance of internationalism and diversity,” he says. This is why, despite their conflicting past, “Sweden and Denmark work perfectly well together both inside the Nordic culture cooperation systems and otherwise.”

While cultural co-production and cooperation is already emerging between Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia on its own efforts, there is no doubt that governments and professional organisations must also come out and support the dynamics of natural interest, linguistic similarity and market forces.

Without this, according to Milena Dragičević Šešić, examples of cooperation are left up to “personal initiatives”, and while “this could continue long-term, it can’t change the general picture”.

She remains, neverthless, optimistic that the process will gather strength and help lead to a healing of the war wounds that have distanced the region from the rest of Europe. Even sceptics agree that culture may hold the key to improved mobility overall, as former foes and mutual victims get the chance to temper their fears and prejudices through exposure to one another’s cultural products.

“Objectively speaking, I believe that culture can play a positive role in reconciliation and it is possible that this might be one of the key roles of culture,” Lončar says. “Maybe our children, who are not burdened with what we have been through, will be able to develop a different perspective.”

Fellow Bio


Davor Konjikusic

Davor Konjikusic is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Zagreb, Croatia, working for a range of media in Croatia and Serbia