In December 2016, The Calvert Journal ran a story about a revival of Partisan songs in the Balkans, driven by “activist choirs.”
Across the post-Yugoslav territory there are dozens of activist choirs performing. For each of them, performing goes hand in hand with civic engagement. Their common denominator, in addition to activism, is the use of revolutionary partisan songs to convey their message.
In the hearts and minds of many living in the territories of the former Yugoslavia, partisan songs are associated with the communist regime, as the musical accompaniment to official events, marches and state ceremonies. Some associate partisan songs with the pioneers…[who] would perform partisan songs about the glory of Tito and the Communist Party.
Quoted in the article was Ana Hofman, author of Novi život partizanskih pesama, a Serbian-language, updated version of her 2015 book published in Slovenia, Glasba, politika, afekt: novo življenje partizanskih pesmi v Sloveniji.
“After the breakup of Yugoslavia, partisan songs were disregarded as an ideological form of art, a form of music with little value, fabricated directly by the Party. (…) Partisan songs have been listened to and sung all this time in the last 25 years, maybe not in all the countries of the former Yugoslavia, maybe not publicly, but that tradition has never disappeared completely. Upon the breakup of Yugoslavia, performing these songs was specific to certain regions, subcultural events or commemorations.”
But, Calvert Journal continues,
The activist choirs…want to move away from the ideological dimension of the partisan songs.
As one of the key elements that have fostered this renewed interest in revolutionary songs, Hofman singles out the devastating consequences of introducing neoliberalism in post-Yugoslav societies—particularly in the sense of diminishing social rights—and the current global crisis of neoliberalism. “The political elites in these countries have been trying hard to get rid of their socialist past and get into ‘capitalist society’. But such capitalist utopia has failed them, the capitalist dream has crumbled. This led to a new perspective, a new way of seeing their socialist past.”
Thus, partisan and revolutionary songs have grown into a metaphor.
Indeed, the choirs avoid songs with lyrics praising Tito, communism/socialism, or Yugoslavia.
They all avow not wanting to play the card of Yugonostalgia…. Their activism focuses on the present, on current issues. And, in the context of rampant nationalism in almost all former Yugoslav states, the echoes or motives from the partisan songs constitute a powerful tool in political activism. For Ana Hofman, this collective mobilisation is particularly important when discussing the “re-actualisation” of partisan revolutionary songs within and beyond the post-Yugoslav space.
“The choirs are a form of acting together in a world that emphasises individualism. They are mini-laboratories of self-organisation. Joint bodies, joint voices… produce a stronger vibration that strongly mobilises the audience. It produces that specific feeling that sends shivers up your spine because you feel that you are a part of something that moves you. Both singers and the audience often evoke the energy of these songs, the same energy that gets people to cry or to feel a catharsis through a vibration, especially in the moments of joint singing between the choir and the audience.”
In other words, Partisan songs serve to stir up emotions and collective energy in service of action/activism as a commentary on and response to the current situation. Partisan songs are reinterpreted and repurposed to fit the circumstances of today.
Introduction to Novi život partizanskih pesama
Note: Select passages from the book’s introduction [pdf], translated by me with the help of Google Translate.
Ana Hofman, “Novi život partizanskih pesama,” Peščanik, 5/24/2016
The book calls for new reflections on the role of anti-fascism in political mobilization and participation through music and sound: it talks about collective music performance as a mode of political engagement as well as about the potential and challenges of self-organized musical collectives and, ultimately, of reactivating the experience and the legacy of anti-fascism in neoliberalism. The book consider whether and how a critical turn toward the musical past can be the source of emancipation and explores the scope and challenges of such an approach.
The crisis of neoliberalism has undoubtedly produced new fascism, but also reactivated anti-fascist and socialist ideas. At a time when the emergence of new forms of protest has become a part of political everyday life, these ideas have gained a new life. New struggles for “old” values are involved, for which there is a need to opt and fight for again – new partisan and other rebellious policies of the 21st century. The fact that the partisan, revolutionary, and labor songs are heard again in the streets is a testimony to the importance of raising a voice, loudly expressing resistance, and working toward social change.
Music and sound follow: silenced voices joined in a collective participate in the creation of new political subjectivity but also warn against the challenges of taking clear ideological positions. In hard time and crisis situations, silenced, suppressed and forgotten melodies come back to warn us of the rational limitations in political struggle and of the radical potentials of the sensual and affective.
Partisan songs have long been silenced as a ideologized music that party elites used for social engagement. After the collapse of Yugoslavia, anti-fascist inheritance became a symbolic burden on the backs of “new citizens” and as such was expelled from official policies of remembrance in post-Yugoslav states. Their revolutionary, socially engaged, and emancipatory meaning was, after 1991, minimized and neutralized. Revisionist processes in the former Yugoslav republics equated the terms anti-fascism, socialism, communism, and totalitarianism, and Partisan songs as “the sound propaganda of the totalitarian regime” had to be removed from our earshot. Now these songs, dressed in new clothes, get a new life. But did we not underestimate the historical significance of anti-fascism and its vitality and potential? Is this not really about the after-life and revival of dusty myths as a result of the fascination of young generations by “re-revealing of the heroic past” about which they could not read in history textbooks?
In Serbia, the recent rehabilitation of Draža Mihajlović, the ongoing rehabilitation process of Milan Nedić, the introduction of new holidays (Day of Remembrance of WWII Serbian Victims) and the modified scripts of official commemorations unambiguously show that anti-fascism is under the growing shadow of anti-communism. In the “national reconciliation” strategy, which equates collaborants and Partisans, relativizes collaboration, and performs religious rituals at Partisan graves remove from the Yugoslav anti-fascist movement the struggle for social, class, racial, gender, and other equality and social rights. What remains is national liberation from the occupier, neutralized and liberated from “problematic” ideological connotations.
“Old Partisan Songs Have ‘New Revolutionary Potential’,” Balkan Insight, 5/27/2016 [pdf]
- “Since the breakup of Yugoslavia and the rise of militant nationalism, and the later introduction of radical neo-Liberal policies, the National Liberation War has been ‘labeled’ as a problematic Socialist past and has become the subject of denial and revisionism.”
- “[In the 1990s] Partisan songs were sidelined to the margins of public space, as an ‘ideologically contaminated’ musical genre–a construct of the Communist regime without ‘real’ social significance and potential. Performing and listening to these songs was pushed into the private sphere as controversial, if not prohibited, activities.”
- “In a broader sense, the book deals with the potential of political mobilization and participation through music and sound, and the question of whether and how critical reflections on the music of the past can be a source of emancipation.”
- “In reviving Partisan songs, [activist choirs] confirm that choral singing is not a conservative and outdated musical form but an important form of aesthetic experience for collective mobilization in political struggle.”
- “The collective experience of playing or listening to music… allow us the creation of a new political subjectivity. I’m thinking about the political potential of revolutionary songs today, especially in the context of creating a new social formation, new forms of social networking… [and] as a resistance to passive, consumerist and professionalized forms of cultural activities.”
Notes from the Rest of the Book
[The following is translated by yours truly with a gentle help of Google Translate, from Ana Hofman. Novi život partizanskih pesama. Beograd: XX Vek, 2016.]
Post-Yugoslav societies are experiencing a revival of WWII music heritage. The concept of nostalgia is in the forefront, whether it’s the more visible and better analyzed passive / escapist / commercialized / melancholic / sentimental kind without a political potential or the nearly-ignored emancipatory / active / politically engaged kind.
The understanding of the political aspect of music requires understanding its auditory and experiential aspect.
In post-Yugoslav countries, the politics of heritage plays a major role in legitimization of national identity. The heritage of Yugoslav socialism is viewed strictly through ideological lenses. Yugoslav cultural practices are viewed as the heritage of the country not of the time or historical period. Yugoslav heritage is limited to the socialist cultural practices.
Music heritage discourse tends to focus on high culture and has a national (identity) focus.
Yugoslav past/history is not considered authentic and has little room in national heritage. It is problematic because it has recognized authors (rather than having emerged through a collective process), questionable values (resulted from socialist government propaganda), broken continuity (represents a break from tradition), and bad quality (inauthentic, no values).
In dominant/elite nationalist discourse, Yugoslav music heritage is viewed as a creation of the socialist regime ideology, thus negating its complexity and supranational character.
Partisan songs played a central role in creating Yugoslavia’s cultural identity.
In Yugoslavia, Partisan songs were located between artistic and folkloric production due to their revolutionary / political / propagandistic, mass (in number), non-spontaneous, and recently-created-over-a-short-period character(istics). They were, therefore, not systematically collected, recorded, or classified, so archival collections or systematic studies thereof do not exist today.
Partisan songs straddle the art-politics boundary.
Partisan songs built on the tradition of military songs from previous conflicts, earlier history. But rather than being a part of the past (National Liberation War, NOB), they were constantly reframed as a contribution to the building of socialism; not artifacts but an ongoing practice, hence they were already back then problematic in terms of music heritage.
When in post-Yugoslavia NOB became in the nationalist-liberalist discourse problematic and subject to negation and revisionism as part of the socialist history, Partisan songs became an “ideologically contaminated” genre produced by the communist regime and with no current social significance or potential.
In Croatia, Ustaša songs from WWII and songs banned during Yugoslavia became part of the official repertoire.
NOB in Slovenia differed from other republics, in that it was more national sovereignty-oriented (multiethnic/multinational/Yugoslavian elsewhere) and better organized.
Post-Yugoslavia, the WWII / NOB discourse in Slovenia underwent different kind of revisionism than seen elsewhere, i.e. it was absorbed into the nation-building discourse, “nationalized,” and placed in the larger context of European anti-fascism movement.
Among other things, Partisan / NOB songs also expressed resistance against Germanization and Italianization.
Similarly, Partisan songs were reframed (beginning in mid-1980s) from class-based revolutionary to national liberation character. They have, therefore, been less problematic than elsewhere and continued to be sung/performed, incl. by mainstream choirs, and are considered part of the national / patriotic music heritage.
Increasingly in the post-Yugoslav space music and other art (film, literature) “reactualize” anti-fascism and Partisan struggle as an authentic expression of resistance to the growing militant nationalist and fascist rhetoric. They promote values like solidarity, self-organization, or courage. The main protagonists is the generation of Yugoslavia’s last pioneers, i.e. people who were elementary school children when Yugoslavia disintegrated.
Anti-fascist art is also part of the new progressive left movement.
Partisan songs, as an auditory representation of Yugoslavian socialism, are an artistic method of criticizing the post-Yugoslavian reality.
Most prominent projects are self-organized / activist / alternative / punk choirs, forming a movement of sorts.
Choirs revive Partisan and other activist songs as well as the tradition of choir singing.
- usually active in their communities,
- perceive themselves as voices of the marginalized,
- often artists or intellectuals, making the choir movement “activism of the middle class”
- situate Partisan songs in the context of politically and socially engaged music;
- highlight the ideas of NOB and their potential to address the current situation;
- bring the past into the commentary on the present and as a factor in creating the politics of the future;
- create space for post-Yugoslavian solidarity.
73-103 & 125-149
[Notes on the choir Kombinat are here.]
Partisan songs were described as “the voice of the nation” in WWII and socialism, an expression of the national spirit.
Partisan songs when performed have an affect, an energy of collective experience, eliciting a bodily, emotional response, particularly in the interaction with the audience.
The affective power also depends on the context or circumstance of the performance and on the audience.
The interpersonal character of performances enables the legitimization of audience’s emotional relationship to the historical past, i.e. NOB and Yugoslavia.
It’s impossible to separate the affective, emotional reaction to songs from the memory of or the reflection on the historical period they represent.
The choir’s “new sincerity” manifests a global trend, in the past decade or so, of eschewing or moving beyond (postmodern) cynicism as a reaction to politics. It rejects cynicism as a way of evading responsibility and the facing of reality and promotes speaking one’s mind.
“New sincerity” adopts socialism’s values and ideas without sentimentality, and represents / manifests a return to authenticity.
2008+ recession triggered a re-evaluation of leftist ideas globally, and Yugoslavian socialism in post-Yugoslav territories. Most people in the younger generations, who comprise activist choir membership, view Yugoslavia’s positives in terms of social benefits, free healthcare and education, security, and positive societal orientation toward the future. It is not an expression of wanting Yugoslavia as a country to return but rather a view of the positive universal values of socialism. Yugoslavian socialism is viewed as a failed experiment / revolution / project that had positive social and emancipatory aspects.
This view underscores Partisan songs’ internationalism and NOB as a struggle for human and social rights, democracy and freedom. That’s why choirs sing both Partisan songs and those of resistance in other countries, e.g. “Bella Ciao” or “Bandera Rossa.”
Even though the values of socialism and Yugoslavia are the same as elsewhere in Europe, e.g. solidarity, anti-fascism, labor rights, dominant official discourses interpret them as products of a totalitarian regime.
Choir performances are an example of affective politics, creating new performative political ecology. Partisan ideals for them are something that can be brought from the past to the present in order to think about the future. Partisans here are agents of social-political transformation.
As they experiment with social memory, choirs mobilize the interpersonal potential of auditory affect to create new collective political subjectivities in the neoliberal present.
Interviews with Ana Hofman About the Book
“Ana Hofman: Partizanske pesme uče nas kako da dignemo glas,” (Partisan songs teach us how to raise our voice) Novosti, 5/28/2018 [pdf]
- “The fact that Partisan, revolutionary, and working songs are heard again in the streets is not about the past, but about our present, and actually mostly about the impossibility of imagining the future and a new, better society. The revival of these songs also tells us that politics has pushed beyond what we normally understand as its place of politics – assembly, political parties, elections. People feel excluded from decision-making and left to the mercy of political classes as spokespersons of large capital. The existing forms of political participation and mobilization have lost their potential. That is why people are increasingly experimenting with new ways of political action, and activist choirs represent an important part of efforts to open up new areas of politics. The political potential of Partisan songs cannot be sought solely in their messages, but in the fact that they are performed collectively and that they allow for new forms of association. The “singing activism” is political engagement enabled through the collective experience of sound as a form of politics of art and experimentation with new forms of social interaction.”
- “The engagement aspect of choir performances is not only in mobilizing people for social and political activism, but above all an example of an association [getting together in a group] practice. Post-Yugoslav activist choirs operate on the principles of horizontal organization and collective decision-making. Through the exchange of songs, affective states, but also clothing, members search for new ways of social connection and creation of collective solidarity. Their goal is to establish a new “sound-social order” in resistance to passive, consumer music. They also act as a space for new practices of association and thus develop a vision of an organization that represents an alternative to the classical concept of civil society based on defined internal structures and hierarchical mode of governance and decision-making. All of this does not mean, of course, the absence of a hierarchy, but choirs represent a complex network of groups, individuals, and individuals.”
- “The problem is that the politics of music genres associated with the socialist past is necessarily seen in the very simplified dichotomy of nostalgia – politics, escapism – engagement. I claim that looking at the past is not necessarily passive, but can be a step further in emancipation. When it comes to music and sound, sentimentalism is an important channel for establishing different forms of public intimacy and creating new solidarity. Insight into the intensity of musical experiences, as a spectrum of emotion and affect, confirms that sentimentalism, just like idealism, is an important part of politics of the future.”
- “When it comes to the continuity of performing Partisan songs after the fall of Yugoslavia, it is necessary to look at a number of ideological formations that characterize the specificities of the Slovenian context, including Partisan resistance in Slovenia, the position of Slovenia within Yugoslavia, and the fact that it is the first former Yugoslav republic that became an EU member . However, the specificities of anti-fascist movement in Slovenia have been emphasized since the mid-1980s, and especially after gaining independence. This is further emphasized by the national significance of the national liberation war, whereas in Serbia, Croatia or Bosnia this past has undergone a more radical revisionism in the 1990s. In Slovenia, WWII history was “nationalized” and presented as an inalienable part of the Slovene national being. That is why Partisan songs proved to be less controversial in Slovenia than other post-Yugoslav societies. In other parts of former Yugoslavia, ethnic, class, gender, and generational plurality are important characteristics of the Partisan movement. The emphasis not only on the ethnic aspect of the national liberation war but on it as a civil war was used to relativize the role of collaborators, their representation as national liberators and the celebration of fascism, especially during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. In Slovenia, the absence of multi-ethnic self-identification has made it easier to position the national liberation war’s art heritage in the dominant national frameworks. Thus the Partisan chapters that were established during and after the Second World War continued to exist, and Slovenian partisan songs did not disappear from the repertoire of classic choirs. Nevertheless, in the 1990s, their performance was largely reduced to the celebrations of the associations of Partisans and the anniversary of WWII.”
- “Attempts to nationalize anti-fascism are in the forefront of other post-Yugoslav societies. The recent judicial rehabilitation of Draža Mihailović and the current rehabilitation process of Milan Nedić in Serbia unambiguously show that official policy increasingly represents anti-fascism as a legitimate heritage, but by ‘deideologizing’ and integrating it into the ethno-national discourse. The activist choirs performing Partisan songs do exactly the opposite: they emphasize that anti-fascism was not just a struggle for liberation against an occupier, but an emancipatory movement and social revolution directed at the radical transformation of social relations.”
“Ponovo pevamo partizanske pesme,” Politika, 12/26/2016 [pdf]
- “The fact that Partisan songs are sung again speaks much more about our present than about the past. Anti-fascism after the fall of Yugoslavia became the object of denial and revisionism. Partisan songs, which had been an integral part of the lives of millions of people, were pushed out of public space as an “ideologically contaminated” musical genre and product of the communist regime. The main idea behind the revival of these songs is not the idealization of the past, but a demonstrations that there were once socio-political solutions, ideals, values, and orientations, which today are easily dismissed.”
Hofman says that, what the political elites try to represent as remnants of the totalitarian system, are actually the effects of a social state that grew out of the anti-fascist struggle, which was not only a national liberation movement, but also a struggle for social, class, gender, and other equality and social rights. This is also evident from the repertoire that is being performed today: apart from describing the struggle against fascism, these are mostly songs with a strong social theme dealing with issues of labor rights, social justice and equality.
- “For the choirs, singing is a means of warning about social problems. They appear at abandoned monuments, in front of fired workers, or in front of barbed wires, as when the female choir Kombinat concert held on the border between Slovenia and Croatia to warn about the relationship between the current authorities and the refugees. In societies that have survived the wars of the 1990s they are fighting against national elites that continue to use ethnic hatred as a cornerstone of their policies.”
- “Slovenia inherited anti-fascism after the fall of Yugoslavia as a common European virtue. Nevertheless, it did not manage to go without erasing certain parts of the past, e.g. promoting, since the 1980s the idea of national reconciliation through the rehabilitation of the domobran or asserting that the communists were guilty of the ideological colonization of the Partisan resistance. All this contributed to the “nationalization” of the legacy of WWII, where the Partisans were presented solely as the fighters for the freedom of the Slovene people from occupation.”
- “In Serbia recently a postmark was issued marking the 75th anniversary of the establishment of a military batallion where the fighters were depicted without the five-pointed star on the cap. The problem is not whether they were communists, but that today the Yugoslav Partisan movement and the national liberation war [NOB in Serbian acronym, from Narodnooslobodilačka borba] can only be discussed as resistance against fascism, while its other aspects, like the idea of Yugoslavia and socialism, are overlooked.”
- “The singing of Partisan songs testifies to the importance of countering the new “fascisms” of today: privatization, public and private debt, and greater social inequality. It points to the importance of association. The voice of the individual is hard to hear, but the joined voices are much louder and the message is stronger and stronger. This also shows that the alternative is possible.”
“Razgovor: Ana Hofman – Novi život partizanskih pjesama u Sloveniji,” Kultur Istra, 5/19/2015
- “The relationship to the past is very complex and marked by various divisions, especially when it comes to the Partisan songs and the Second World War. In Slovenia, you are asked to determine who were the “good guys” and who were “bad guys”, whether they are domobranci or Partisans, and what happened to that history later. Looking into the past is not passivization, it can be very emancipatory, and these songs are about ideas and values, as well as concrete developments that were part of that time. For example, free schooling, free health care – that is, a social state that disappears from the perspective of today’s Europe. These choirs are trying to reinvigorate these values and ideas for today.” but without references to Yugoslavia or Tito.