From Austria to Serbia and Russia, alternative music has played a powerful role in challenging conservative societies.
“It is not easy to do good things because, in politics, nobody rewards good things,” says Andreas Goerg, an Austrian human rights activist. An organiser of protests against the participation of the late right wing politician, Joerg Haider, in the Austrian government in 2000, he believes the roots of becoming a “political person” are little decisions in one’s personal history.
Some of Andreas’s first memories are of his grandfather telling “interesting jokes’’ of his Nazi youth, when, as a doctor, he was present at executions of political prisoners. One of his grandfather’s favourite stories was about an execution. When he noticed that one of the victims was not dead, he proudly reported this fact to the soldier -who shot the man again.
As there was no discussion of Austria’s clouded past in his family or school, Andreas drew no difference between extreme right, extreme left, communism, neo-Nazism and so on. Today, as a passionate fighter against discrimination and extremism, he knows the difference very well. He also believes cultural expressions, such as music, have the power to generate a positive, transforming energy.
While his long hair and hippie appearance disguise the fact, it was Punk music that brought political content into Andreas’s life. Now he laughs while recalling how he once drew a picture of a Punk rocker with a swastika symbol on his ear.
A friend tore it up, telling him furiously that he ought to know the difference between the two movements. Andreas was surprised. Although he had enjoyed Punks’ fast, hard-edged music, he did not dwell on the rebellious and subversive message of the songs. It was only after the quarrel that he began to pay attention.
From the start of the movement in the mid-1970s, Punks intended to outrage rather than comfort. Conservative icons, such as the monarchy in Britain, became favourite targets. Seeking to distance themselves from the prevailing musical sentimentality of the start of the decade, Punk was a cultural revolt and a musical trend.
Rajko Bozic, from Serbia, another country with a disturbed and disturbing recent past, also describes music as a powerful weapon for change. “I can’t remember anything else having such an influence on my life as music did,” he says.
Boris Grebenshikov, a rock musician in the former Soviet Union, agrees.
Travelling from the UK, the European cradle of Punk, to Vienna, Novi Sad in Serbia and St Petersburg, I discovered that artistic movements have successfully mobilised and transformed the political landscape in a variety of contexts. They act as agents to open up space for liberal ideas in societies that had hitherto been unreceptive and static.
Equally, I discovered that these diverse movements followed a definite life cycle, beginning with birth, expansion and a highpoint. From this peak, the path leads downward towards degeneration into commercialism or to becoming absorbed into the system, prompting accusations of loss of political energy and betrayal.
Tracing this pattern in dissimilar environments across Europe led me to ponder whether these movements can ever be sustained, or whether they inevitably disintegrate or go mainstream.
Are they doomed to play no more than a temporary role and lose momentum? And is the main motive behind the people heading those movements a ‘higher’ one of political and social change, or simply money?
Hidden pages in Austria’s history
Austria and Serbia are connected in more than one way. Alongside the Turkish community, more than 200,000 Serbs form one of the biggest communities in Austria. At the same time, more significantly, both countries are grappling with the need to address shameful areas in their past that no one wants to mention.
In Austria, that shameful area centres on the period after the 1938 Anschluss with Germany till the end of the Second World War, when Austria presented itself as a victim of Nazi Germany rather than an accomplice.
“Austria has a strange attitude towards its history. Although we were an aggressor in the Second World War, many Austrians have never openly criticised our past,” Max Koch from the Austrian League for Human Rights, says.
Koch believes the legacy of this past has ramifications today, feeding hostility towards immigrants. ZARA, a Vienna-based anti-racist group, documented 831 racially-motivated incidents in 2007 alone.
For people like Koch and Andreas Goerg, the death on 1 May,1999, of a 25-year-old Nigerian asylum seeker named Markus Omafuma, came as a wake-up call. He suffocated on the flight from Vienna to Lagos while being deported. Austrian Interior Ministry officials had bound his hands and feet, and covered his mouth with tape.
A second wake-up call was the decision several months later to offer Haider’s Freedom Party a seat in a coalition government with Wolfgang Schuessel’s mainstream People’s Party.
Haider was well known for his attacks on immigrants and for referring favourably to Adolf Hitler’s employment policies. At first, only a few protesters took to the streets, ‘performing’ with metal objects and trying to make as much noise as possible. Soon, many joined their actions, shaking Vienna out of its complacency.
Heldenplatz, the historic square, where Hitler held a triumphant rally in 1938 to celebrate Austria’s union with Nazi Germany, was chosen for these events, one of which drew 200,000 people. Eight years on, Max Koch feels bitter that so many Austrians still support the extreme right, however. Indeed, they performed better than ever in the latest elections, winning almost 30 per cent of the vote.
Exiting Serbia’s troubled past
In Serbia, support for the extreme right also remains strong, feeding on a perception that the international community has unjustly blamed Serbs for the dissolution of Yugoslavia and is now setting humiliating conditions for its integration into the European Union, EU.
One example cited by many Serbs is the obligation to fully cooperate with the International Crimes Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, which means the arrest and extradition of men indicted for war crimes.
This July, following the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader in the early 1990s, supporters of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party organised protests, which revealed the extent to which moderate parties in Serbia had failed to challenge the country’s nationalistic past.
Earlier, nationalist feeling showed its strength in Belgrade when Serbia’s southern province of Kosovo proclaimed its independence, triggering violence. Significantly, the rioters on the streets of Belgrade in February, 2008, who set the US embassy on fire and attacked several other diplomatic missions, were young.
The violent atmosphere threatened to cancel, or at least postpone, the EXIT Music Festival, held every July in the northern city of Novi Sad, which has become a beacon for opponents of Serbian nationalism. Starting in 2000 as a “Go Out To Vote”, GOTV, campaign, EXIT has not only become a major European music festival but a window into Serbia for tens of thousands of foreign visitors. This year, for example, about 25,000 of the 160,000 visitors were foreign.
Rajko Bozic, EXIT’s PR manager, says that as the festival grows in size, its effect on the country’s image abroad increases. Their research shows large numbers of foreign visitors who come to the festival arrive without any knowledge of the country, and leave pleasantly surprised.
The idea behind EXIT was born on 16 October, 1999, when the nationalist regime of Slobodan Milosevic was still in power and a concert entitled Fist in the Head was held. When around 20,000 people showed up, the managers realised that free musical events could be a powerful tool to mobilise public opinion in a way that conventional politics had not succeeded in doing.
Many youngsters were frustrated that after a devastating decade in power, the Milosevic regime seemed unshakeable with Serbia’s quarrelling opposition parties having failed to unite. As a result, students in Novi Sad resolved to use music to create an alternative platform from which to oppose the official politics of isolation, nationalism and intolerance.
The first Exit Noise Summer Fest, which opened on 29 June, 2000, and lasted 100 days, drew an astonishing 200,000 young people. They came to have fun but left with a message about why it was important to change society.
EXIT fans say that contrary to the conventional political practice of spreading messages through political slogans, EXIT subverted the system by using music to alter and raise consciousness. Their GOTV campaigns caused much annoyance to the nationalist authorities that dominated Novi Sad city hall until recent local elections.
“Their main problem with EXIT were those campaigns,” Bozic recalled. “It is interesting that they were afraid of young people using their right to vote.”
Borka Pavicevic, theatre director and head of the Belgrade-based Center for Cultural Decontamination, CZKd, agrees that artistic movements have been important in changing Serbia’s political landscape, though she insists more remains to be done. Pavicevic says Serbia should learn from the post-war German experience, particularly from the changes in the watershed year of 1968.
The changes that ‘sixty eight’ (1968) brought to Germany and the world were wide-ranging, radically reshaping popular conceptions of the body, sex, fashion and communication.
Professor John Davis of Oxford notes that the collapse of the traditional left had given rise to new forms of utopianism, involving drugs and pop culture, all of which sharpened generational divisions. Significantly, in 2000, when Austrian Chancellor Schuessel attacked the protests against Haider’s inclusion in government, he dubbed the protesters “the ’68 generation.”
While many sociologists say most of the ideas then raised have since been eaten away by consumerism, they agree that ’68 opened a window that will never again be entirely closed, particularly concerning religion, race, sexuality and gender.
Don’t mess with the Soviet Union
In St Petersburg, Boris Grebenshikov faced very different challenges when he embraced music as an instrument of change. The worst that Punk rockers faced in Britain was a BBC ban on their then notorious song “God Save the Queen,” because of the lyric, “It’s a fascist regime.” But when Grebenshikov founded his rock band, Aquarium, in 1972, he ran up against a far more monolithic and intolerant political system.
“The Soviet system was faulty because it was based on a lie,” he recalls, explaining why he turned to rock and roll music. “However primitive, rock and roll presented people with something real, allowing them to express themselves.”
At the time, the communist USSR allowed only official, state-approved, art. Musical lyrics had to be submitted to censorship before they could be played in public. As rock was deemed a decadent Western product, which might misguide Soviet youth, rock concerts were banned and those flouting the law faced severe punishments. Musicians had few means of staging concerts.
There were no amplifiers or places to rehearse. Grebenshikov recalls 17 requests being submitted to the authorities for rock concerts to be held in St Petersburg in the 1980s. All were rejected.
In spite of this, a big underground music scene developed in Russia’s second city, with bands performing in private apartments. Fans briefly treated the performers as if they were the Beatles. Once the shows were over, they had to become ordinary citizens again. Under those tough conditions, rock musicians, and their audience became used to an enforced minimalism in their music, re-directing their energy towards lyrics and the message they conveyed.
Grebenshikov’s first public breakthrough was, at Spring Rhythms Tbilisi, in 1980, an event held in the Georgian capital. The first official rock festival in the USSR is considered a landmark in Soviet and Russian rock history and dubbed the “Soviet Woodstock.”
But, unlike the original, the Tbilisi festival was an official musical competition whose declared aim was “to promote the development of original Soviet (people) through music”. Organisers enjoyed the support of Eduard Shevardnadze, then First Secretary of Georgia’s Communist Party, who thought popular music a good way to divert youth from nationalist and dissident activities.
However, many fans viewed the festival as an establishment attempt to channel Soviet rock into an ideologically controllable form. Grebenshikov was accused of anti-Soviet behaviour, evicted from the Party and thus left jobless, after he and his fellow musicians drank port wine on stage and made provocative body movements. The jury walked out in fury.
The state’s heavy-handed tactics against rock groups, coupled with the fact that only one official label, Melodiya, was authorised to release records and cassettes, meanwhile stimulated another phenomenon – magnitizdat, a network of making and distributing do-it-yourself recordings among fans.
The mainstream wins in the end
Today, the former star of the Soviet underground rock scene says that once something is being bought and sold, the soul departs, and this was the fate of Russian music. It was the fate of his own band.
Aquarium sold only a handful of cassettes in the underground days, but in 1986, the days of underground were over as the communist system collapsed and rock’n’roll became legal. Aquarium filled eight stadiums in as little as six days.
Grebenshikov complains that modern Russian rock stars are not trying to say anything; they just want to be rich and popular. “Money is a liquid form of energy, albeit an energy hidden in paper,” he complains. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the morality that some other forms of energy have.”
Complaints about the commercialisation of EXIT are equally loud. Those who say it has sold out quote claims that EXIT 2008 earned as much as 20 million euros. Bozic dismisses those figures, jokily advising those who believe them to start organising their own festivals.
But, he admits, “sooner or later, all alternative movements become the issue of commercial exploitation.” The main point, he continues, is that “some of them get to make a difference before that.”
Looking at a picture of John Lennon on the office wall, Borka Pavicevic agrees; no art movement can remain on the margins forever. She notes the 1968 idea that activists needed to “walk into institutions” and so change the system from the inside.
Just how much musicians can change the system is questionable. The continuing strength of nationalism in Serbia, the strong showing of the far right in the recent elections in Austria and Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy in Russia, all suggest that while alternative musical movements can empower people, the effect is limited to a minority.
The conclusion I drew from the musicians I encountered is that the fate of the alternative is always to become part of the mainstream. Otherwise, it dies an even less glorious death, having made no impact at all.
Reluctantly accepting this fate, veterans of alternative movements told me that faith in the validity of the original message is what counts – and justifies everything. “The idea of music is to tune the soul of a person into something higher,” says Grebenshikov, describing his own musical philosophy. “As long as music serves this function, it is OK.”
Zvezdana Crnogorac was born in 1973 in Belgrade, Serbia. She is a freelance journalist and producer, currently working at the British Embassy in Belgrade
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