Ethnomusicologist Ana Hofman discusses the history of Partisan songs, performed today by activist choirs, in World War II, during the socialist Yugoslav period, and immediately after Yugoslavia’s disintegration.
Red flag-waving punk rockers, Lepa Brena, and assorted revisionists also make an appearance.
Part 1 of 2 (see Part 2 here).
Episode Transcript (and More)
“Padaj silo i nepravdo,” performed by Zbor Praksa
PETER: In December 2016, the Calvert Journal ran a story about a revival of Partisan songs in the Balkans, driven by “activist choirs.” I quote:
The revolutionary partisan songs that provided the soundtrack to Tito’s communist regime all but disappeared from public life when Yugoslavia disintegrated in the 1990s. But now they’re being heard again, sung loud and proud 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.
End quote. One of these choirs is Zbor Praksa in Pula, Croatia, whose rendition of “Padaj silo i nepravdo,” or, “Fall oh force and injustice”, you heard at the open.
This episode of Remembering Yugoslavia is all about Partisan songs and the choirs that sing them.
My guest is Ana Hofman, an ethnomusicologist at the Institute of Culture and Memory Studies in Ljubljana, Slovenia. She was interviewed extensively in the Calvert Journal piece. She is the author of the 2015 book, in Slovenian, Music, Politics, Affect: The New Life of Partisan Songs in Slovenia, updated and translated into Serbian in 2016 under the simplified title The New Life of Partisan Songs.
In the introduction to the book, she—and I quote—
“calls for new reflections on the role of anti-fascism in political mobilization and participation through music and sound: [the book] 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 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.”
I reached out to Ana while I was visiting the countries of the former Yugoslavia last winter and missed her on my visit in Ljubljana when I interviewed her colleagues at the Institute.
We finally connected last month and spoke over Skype.
Yugoslav Partisan Songs in WWII
PETER: Your book is called The New Life of Partisan Songs. Before we get to that, what was their old life like? What was their purpose in the Yugoslav period?
ANA: If we speak about Partisan songs in a sense of genre, it would be very difficult actually to categorize; how we can frame what our Partisan songs. Basically, this is a very heterogeneous assemblage of different, let’s say, sounds, different lyrics, pieces from different historical periods, so, even scholars who were active, let’s say, immediately after the Second World War had problems how to identify, what are, basically, Partisan songs; is this some genre which is just political category, so everything and all songs sung by Partisan fighters, are all these songs Partisan songs, or there is something very specific about these, how we can define them, either to particular, I don’t know, musical features you know, rhythmics; how we can basically think about this category.
So, I would say that this struggles continued and it’s also very interesting how when activists I’m working with today also try to somehow reclaim this genre. It’s very important that there’s some characteristics that we can say that we can say that Partisan songs are basically songs which are definitely performed during the Second World War, but that they revived the previous historical sensorium of historical repertoire associated with many previous rapture or revolutionary or radical changing events, such as October Revolution, such as Spanish Civil War, such as French Revolution, also some regional and local histories of rebel resistance, like peasant uprisings; so in that sense at the very beginning we can say that Partisan songs are really an assemblage of, let’s say, different historical layers of songs from different geographical arias and also different historical periods.
In that sense, what connects this genre musically can definitely be adjustment of these songs to certain rhythm of march; how they were adapted to the life in combat, to life within a resistance movement. But of course, these songs were performed by people in the villages, by people in the cities so it was— this cannot simply be reduced just to the very context of fighting.
What is also important, I think, is that these songs combine these, as I already mentioned, some local, national, international traditions in singing. So they really combine old worker songs, revolutionary songs, so in that sense, you can also track these different layers of how local experience was adjusted or vice versa, how some international lyrics were basically used and adapted for folk melodies. Even composers and Partisan fighters during the time of Yugoslav Partisan resistance in their testimonies they said that they even composed some of these songs during the course of the war. They were trying somehow to adjust some local melodies to some musical features of mass combat songs, of some revolutionary songs in order that these will be more accepted by people singing in the units, Partisan units. But what was definitely important and what was important for me in my research is that very strong kind of emotion and affective aspect of these songs.
So what you can read from testimonies is that these songs were really, really perceived in one sense like songs of… sustaining life in this really, really radical kind of— radical situation. I mean when people were dying with songs on their mouth or when, you know, they used in order to suppress hunger or while being tortured, so we really think about how music and song and singing, we cannot—also, this is a second topic, maybe we will continue with this— but how we cannot even think about song without singing, so they should be always put in some— you know, coming from ethnomusicology I cannot just think about lyrics and it was always bothered me that even recent research on Partisan songs where mainly focused on poetry, so we have wonderful two books about that, but just focused on poetry, no sound. And I think sound is exactly what moves the body, but even in some cases remind these bodies to be alive, to…
So, on the other hand, these songs were immediately songs of a new life, new political future, because we talk about Yugoslav people’s revolution as Yugoslav antifascist Partisan resistance was not just national resistance but was basically socialist revolution. So we talk about the songs which were vehicles of imaginations of new future, new political horizon, so in this sense in testimonies—and there is one very, very wonderful book published after the war in 1985 how basically these songs were even called “songs of a new life.”
So in that sense I think— and this is the aspect what interested me the most—that how singing of Partisan songs—because as I said, they are very, very diverse in a sense that you have very simple folk songs like “Druže Tito, ljubičice bela“ or very complex Soviet revolutionary songs or so, for singing in units, they were mostly performed by choirs founded in the units, but definitely I think what connects that is that strong affective potential to sustain and to imagine new life.
PETER: After the break, musical afterlives and red flag-waving punk rockers.
[INTERLUDE INTRO JINGLE]
PETER: This episode of the Remembering Yugoslavia Podcast is brought to you by…you. Support the production of the Remembering Yugoslavia podcast on Patreon, at Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia. Thank you.
[INTERLUDE OUTRO JINGLE]
Yugoslav Partisan Songs During Socialism
PETER: So during the Yugoslav period Partisan songs were used to motivate the populace and inspire the masses to look to the bright future?
ANA: Yeah. This is also one of the most contested points about the potential of these songs I also talked about and the very genre. So, of course, these songs started to be canonized for the official memory politics in socialist Yugoslavia, so let’s say also during the war there were some official commemorations, from ’43 already, so there was already some stage and some kind of more stage representation of this repertoire because we very often we quite simplistic, try to divide some kind of authentic expression of resistance in the wood and then some stage socialist resistance were basically drained from this original authenticity, original power from [these] first war years.
So in that sense I think we have to be careful how we discuss this cooptation or canonization of the Partisan songs after [the] Second World War. Yes, on one hand they definitely were used in official stage and official commemoration practice; they were definitely also used by Party and by official politics to build Yugoslav identity, to somehow provide that continuous believe in socialist system as a good one and fueling this believe in a brighter future, as you said, but that does not mean that people basically didn’t experience that power of these songs and we cannot definitely say there is typical post-socialist blame on socialism, like “a-ha, this everything was kind of drained of real potential already after, I don’t know, 1965, Yugoslavia was even not socialism, that was capitalism,” it depends from which political specter now you get these responses, but somehow they quite— they join in certain points, which is very interesting, left and right, in a sense that they try to dispute this socialist state experience.
So I think song and singing are also very interesting example of this, that we cannot simply say “yes, songs were used during the war, for revolutionary struggle and then after they were— yeah, official elite basically exploited them and then Yugoslavia collapsed and now we have a new life,” I wouldn’t say that it is so simple, but definitely what is interesting for the genre – that genre entered popular culture, so, lots of popular music, bands, individuals, musicians use the songs and try to revert in different genres, pop, rock, so called entertainment music or zabavna muzika or pop music here.
Unfortunately folk music was not a genre which really thematized some kind of political topics, but from [the] 80s we can also follow Lepa Brena and some kind of usage of these, not really in a sense of Partisan songs, but in a sense of Yugoslav political themes. So, definitely songs had already their afterlives during socialism in being mediated in different genres, being, you know, listened to and performed by different— in different context[s]; simply they were recontextualized.
PETER: Absolutely. When I first heard “Bandiera Rossa” or “Red Flag” by Pankrti, it just blew my mind. I mean, this is a Slovenian punk band in 1984 Yugoslavia and they’re singing a propaganda song praising communism.
ANA: Yeah, this is also typical view that actually in some points in [the] 70s and 80s there were some people actually asking for more socialism, not for, you know, less.
“Po šumama in gorama,” performed by KIC POP Hor
Yugoslav Partisan Songs after 1991
PETER: What happened to Partisan songs in the immediate post-Yugoslav period?
ANA: So I think it’s important not to somehow essentialize [the] Yugoslav experience because we have different parts of Yugoslavia, different former Yugoslav republics so, definitely [the] situation was always different in different Yugoslav regions and republics which was particularly visible after the end of Yugoslavia. So the way how the former Yugoslav republics actually broke up with Yugoslavia, also influenced the way how Partisan songs were, you know, what was the life of the songs after the dissolution. So, in Slovenia, which, you know, somehow entered independence more peacefully, with a very short war, and I don’t know, experience of Bosnia definitely is not the same.
But in general these songs were not present in public discourses, at least not in radio broadcasting, in TV shows, I mean in TV, so in that sense is important that in public discourses they were seen as they have already been so much imposed for new national parties, new national elites basically seen them as part of the previous regime but somehow in a certain areas and for certain people, especially diaspora, but also certain parts of former Yugoslavia I can also say about Primorska area or some other parts, these songs continued in some informal settings, so people still continued to listen to these songs, not with such big performances or concerts, but definitely they were present in some, let’s say, outlets.
But public discourses about this legacy and about socialist past in general changed so everything collapsed in this totalitarian paradigm, so more or less everything was— these songs were even seen as a production of the former regime, so without any potential and basically all what was promised in these songs and all these affective and emotional kind of a boost I was talking about was basically part of propaganda and that people were even forced somehow to feel.
So for me that was also interesting in theoretical and other senses-how this potential of these songs and the message and especially these affective part was simply, you know, dismissed, and something which is fake; so how from that primary authenticity we came to fakeness of these; how people were basically faking their attachment to these songs, these sounds was basically rehearsed and they were just perpetuating that without having any meaning, without having any real attachment to these, which is interesting to talk about these from the point of current neoliberal situation when we basically feel that we just perform everything [laughs] around us and that you cannot really— how can you attach to anything.
PETER: I’ll continue my conversation with Ana Hofman in the next episode. Until then, you can find links to all the sources and resources mentioned today, including my translation of the introduction and notes from the rest of Ana’s book, songs played, and more, at RememberingYugoslavia.com/.
Music in this episode was courtesy of Edna Jurcan and Zbor Praksa in Pula and KIC POP Hor in Podgorica.
Transcript by Zorica Popović. Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.
I am Peter Korchňak.
These are the two songs heard in the episode.
Padaj, silo i nepravdo / Fall, o Force and Injustice
Padaj silo i nepravdo / Fall o force and injustice,
Narod ti je sudit zvan / The people are called to judge you
Bjež’te od nas noćne tmine / Flee from us, shadows of the night
Svanuo je i naš dan / Our day has come at last
Gradove smo vam podigli / Cities we have erected for you
Turne, kule gradili / Towers, keeps we have built
Oduvijek smo roblje bili / We’ve alwaus been slaves
I za vas smo radili / Working for you
Pravo naše ugrabljeno / Our stolen law
Amo natrag dajte nam / Restore it back to us
Ne date li ne molimo / Should you refuse, we won’t beg
Uzet će ga narod sam / The people will take it themselves
Learn more about the song on Wikipedia
Po šumama i gorama / Through the Woods and the Hills
Po šumama i gorama / Through the woods and the hills
Naše zemlje ponosne / Of our proud country
Idu čete partizana / March the Partisan platoons
Slavu borbe pronose / Spreading the glory of the struggle
Neka znade dušman kleti / May the cursed enemy know
Krvavi se vodi rat / That a bloody war is waged
Prije ćemo mi umrijeti / We would rather die
Nego svoje zemlje dat / Than give up our country
Kaznićemo izdajice / We will punish the traitors
Oslobodit narod svoj / Free all our people
Kazaćemo cijelom svjetu / We will tell the entire world
Da se bije ljuti boj / That a bitter fight is fought
Crne horde nas ne plaše / The black hordes don’t scare us
Krv herojska u nas vri / Heroic blood boils in our veins
Mi ne damo zemlje naše / We won’t allow our lands
Da je gaze fašisti / To be tread by fascists
Learn more about the song on Wikipedia