Petar Janjatović, author of Ex-YU Rock Encyclopedia 1960-2015, discusses the endurance of Yugoslav rock and the political power of music.
Serbian zombies, three presidents, and some expletives also make an appearance.
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Episode Transcript (and More)
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your host Peter Korchnak.
Yugoslav popular music plays a major role in keeping the memory of Yugoslavia alive. Whether out of nostalgia or, as Chuck Klosterman might say, simply because of repetition over the years, Yugoslav rock in particular keeps on rocking.
The guest of an earlier episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, Martin Pogačar, wrote in a journal article, quote, “In socialist Yugoslavia, popular music played an important role as a socio-ideological mobiliser. After the dissolution of the country, Yugoslav popular music remained an important part of the cultural legacy and continued to act as a vehicle for the re-presencing of the past in an increasingly mediated present. In all its diversity, popular music can be seen as a cultural product not only for articulating and externalising memories, but also for performing identity in post-Yugoslav nationalised spaces.” End quote.
Here to amplify some of these themes is my guest Petar Janjatović, an absolute legend of the Yugoslav and Serbian music scene. A writer, critic, and journalist, he is best known for authoring the Illustrated YU Rock Encyclopedia, 1960-1997 (now in its fourth edition, expanded and renamed to Ex-YU Rock Encyclopedia 1960-2015). The various editions of the book have been described as “a milestone,” as “the biggest achievement in the field of Yugoslav rock literature,” and as “a book you must have.”
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: One guy who wrote [a] critique of my book and he says: “Internet cannot damage this book. Internet helps.”
PETER KORCHNAK: When it comes to the reasons for the continued popularity of Yugoslav rock music, the chart topper is clear.
JANJATOVIĆ: Well, first of all, most of those songs are really good and they survive all those years; so, this is really— we are talking about evergreen music.
PETER KORCHNAK: And the Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav experience underscore the political potential of music.
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: Music is a great weapon, but the problem is politicians know that and they are using musicians and then they forget about them when they come to power…
PETER KORCHNAK: Serbian zombies, three presidents, and some expletives also make an appearance.
Janjatović and I spoke over coffee and rakija at a cafe in central Belgrade. A walking music encyclopedia, throughout our conversation Janjatović references a lot of performers. I’ve embedded select songs by all the bands and singers he mentions in the episode show notes, which you can find linked at RememberingYugoslavia.com/podcast.
Petar Janjatović’s Ex-YU Rock Encyclopedia: A Book You Must Have
PETER KORCHNAK: Petar Janjatović, what would you say about Yugoslav rock to someone who doesn’t know anything about it? What should they know, why is it important, and why should they care?
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: When I was writing YU Rock Encyclopedia in the mid-90s and when I was close to finish[ing] the job, so I start to search for the photographs, old photographs— It was [a] time before internet, so I had to, you know, ask friends and got through, you know, that big work— And one of the idea when I have to choose, for example you have 15 photos of one band and you need one or two, and my idea was, “Okay, let’s find photos, and through those photos somebody who never heard about Yugoslav rock’n’roll can get the idea.” So, different kinds of genre, different kind of clothes, all kinds of images, and I think one of the very important thing about that Yugoslav rock’n’roll is [a] variety of bands, all kinds of— I mean, talking about acoustic music, heavy metal, punk, new wave, ballads… So, that was very good, because you had music for all ears.
And, of course, we can talk through the decades, because in some way [the] regime, or Tito’s regime, they supported rock’n’roll. We used to write for youth magazines who were actually supported through the government. Each republic has— in Belgrade was Omladinske novine; in Zagreb, Polet; in Slovenia, Mladina; Bosnia, Naši dani or something; Macedonia. Mlad borec, Young Fighter. So, the first half of those magazines were, you know, kinds of propaganda, working class, miners… And at the end they left us free space to— we played there. So, we started to write all kinds of stuff, I mean, cartoons, books, movies.
Student culture centers were also supported by the government; and that was the main place for making [the] scene. New wave started in [the] Student Culture Center here in Belgrade. Those young bands, they had this chance to practice. They had their, you know, room, for free. The only thing is that once or twice a year they have to play for, I don’t know, Youth Day, or Tito’s birthday or something like that, you know. So that was really strange. I mean, in 1982, a friend of mine, a writer who was editor in something which was called Istraživačko-izdavački centar Saveza socijalističke omladine Beograda—
PETER KORCHNAK: —the Research and Publishing Center of the Socialist Youth Alliance of Belgrade—
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: —so he asked me and a friend of mine, colleague, Dragan Kremer, he says: “Would you write YU Rock Encyclopedia? We’re about to publish that.” And we were like— I mean, this is big, I mean, [a] lot of work, so we told him, “We are now in the movement of new wave. Every week you have a new big song or a new big record, when we finish [the] book and [the] book went out, it would be passé, because of those lot of happenings,” and made a book called Drugom stranom— this is the name of the song, Azra band song— Almanah novog talasa u SFRJ—
PETER KORCHNAK: —The Other Way: An Almanac of New Wave in SFRY—
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: —so, [a] lot of photos, and we choose lyrics, songs, those who made change, you know. Because with new wave we have for the first time politics in popular music. Before that it was, you know, love and nothing else, approximately. So, we made that, we asked a few people to write some kind of essays: so, [a] theater critic, she wrote about how new wave and punk changed the theater situation in Yugoslavia; the other guy was writing about the cartoons; one famous writer, he wrote an essay about how punk influenced literature… So, it was so easy to do something like that, because you have, you know, big publishing company behind you and [a] government one—
Okay, so let’s živeli!
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s shots of rakija arriving at our table. Cheers to you, too!
New wave emerged in Zagreb and Belgrade in the late 1970s and flourished thru the first half of the 1980s. In his 2013 book Shake, Rattle and Roll: Yugoslav Rock Music and the Poetics of Social Critique, Dalibor Mišina, labels new wave as a strand of “music of commitment,” which was, I quote, a “cultural reaction to the imperfections of new socialist culture,” and the “most consequential popular-cultural catalyst of socio-cultural and socio-political critique in Yugoslav society.” New wave, Mišina says, “was an expression of youth’s urban consciousness and a critique of the urban experience. [It] put (…) rock music on the cultural map.” End quote.
New wave bands included Azra, Šarlo Akrobata, Prljavo Kazalište, Električni orgazam, Haustor, the list goes on. They’re all featured in Ex-YU Rock Encyclopedia, which, according to Janjatović, has sold some 16 to 17 thousand copies, a massive number for the local market. What’s behind the book’s continued popularity, cult status even?
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: Okay, [the] internet is huge, you can find everything on [the] internet, but you can easily get lost. So I think [the] book is some kind of guide with a lot of information. So, if you are 20 years old and you know for, you know, main bands, but you would like to find out something else and you go through the book and things are linked. One guy who wrote [a] critique of my book and he says: “Internet cannot damage this book. Internet helps.”
Lots of people told me: “Why you didn’t [include], with the book, you know, some CD, best of, or something like that?” I said: “There is no need, I mean, everything is on the internet, I just have to point to the people.” So probably, I think, it’s because of that.
Let’s come back—nostalgia. Nostalgia. I think a lot of books, copies of the book, people bought for [a] present. You know, when you give to someone a book like that and he is into Yugoslav rock’n’roll music, that means, “Okay, I was thinking of you to give you a little something, not a bottle of wine or something like that.” This is, you know, a gift with [an] address.
Petar Janjatović on Yugoslav and Serbian Rock
PETER KORCHNAK: Were it not for lyrics in different languages, you might mistake Yugoslav rock with that of any other country. Except for pastirski rok, or shepherd rock, which injects elements of regional folk music into songs. The Slovene author Aleš Debeljak has said, “Yugo-rock never wanted to conceal its flirtation with shepherds’ songs or the Macedonian panpipes that our rock musicians’ mothers had listened to as they worked the fields. Of course, Yugo-rock was based on the universal configuration of bass, guitar, drums, and voice, but it also drew on the living wellsprings of southern Slavic folk melodies.” An early promulgator of the subgenre was YU Grupa, and the best known one, Bijelo Dugme, the Yugoslav equivalent of Led Zeppelin or U2.
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: For example, you have YU Grupa. They started in 1970 and at the beginning of their career, they had those songs influenced by folk music, mostly folk music from Kosovo and, let’s say, south of Serbia, and they were very popular. They influenced the other, younger musicians.
Then you have Leb i Sol, a band from Skoplje, Macedonia, with their brilliant covers of traditional Macedonian songs. And I can name 10 or 15 bands, so that was really, let’s say, original. So, YU Grupa in 1973 they went to London and somebody connected them to people from EMI, and those people were interested to listen to the songs. And they organized them [a] concert in Marquee Club—and Marquee Club was a really, really, cult place at the time—so they played there. And a friend of mine was with them, and he says that audience really reacted on those songs influenced by folk. The other rock’n’roll songs were okay, [no] big deal, you know.
So, similar thing we can say about Bregović, Bijelo Dugme. He’s excellent in arrangements, yes. Few times I wrote about him that he is like the king Midas, you know, everything he touches turns into the gold. So he covers those folk songs, then he records that songs with Bijelo Dugme or by himself and those songs became huge. I mean they went to kafana on the very next day, and they [had] existed for 30-40 years, but nobody noticed them. This is something which— I mean, you can see what he has done around the world. I mean, he is playing 15 same songs, you know, and he has a record for the Polish singer with those songs, huge, very successful, Greece, Turkey, so there is something which goes under [your] skin. Goes under [your] skin.
PETER KORCHNAK: Years ago I heard a joke about Goran Bregović, the founder and leader of Bijelo Dugme and a composer. What do you call a person who steals one song? A gypsy. And what do you call the person who steals all the songs? Goran Bregović.
At any rate, despite the decades since Yugoslavia’s collapse, Yugoslav rock is still very popular, with frequent radio plays, sold-out concerts of ex-Yugoslav bands across the former republics… Why is that?
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: First of all, most of those songs are really good and they survive all those years, so, this is really, you know, we are talking about evergreen music. People love to listen to the songs on their language.
There is also, you know, really lot of nostalgia, especially for us, older people, because it reminds us when we were young, living was easy and those were the best years of our lives, especially the beginning of [the] 80s. So, probably radio people recognize there is [an] audience for that.
And on the other hand, you can see, for example, this month Zdravko Čolić playing six Arenas, sold out. Bajaga played four Sava Centar[s], sold out. His manager told me, “We can probably sell six, but okay, let’s stop.”
So, there is [an] audience and it happens that young people discover that music. This is probably much easier with [the] internet and if they are, you know, curious, they can find everything.
PETER KORCHNAK: The continued popularity of Yugoslav music today may not be just an expression of nostalgia but also a resistance strategy, a reaction to the imperfections of the current reality. A lot of the critique musicians in Yugoslavia put forward in their work translates to today.
Martin Pogačar has argued, I quote, “Yugoslav rock—and primarily Yugoslav new wave—has lost little cultural value and subversive charge, and (…) it has retained much of its potency and appeal. If during the 1980s Yugoslav rock was the prime outlet for system critique, during the 1990s it became the prime outlet for post-socialist new-state system critique. Today New Wave presents an outlet for the recomposition of musical preferences, as well as a vehicle of ‘nostalgia as opposition’ to the post-1991 socio-political orientations of post-Yugoslav societies.”
In fact, musicians in Serbia today adopt existing musical styles to address their current problems. What’s the music scene like in Serbia today?
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: Lot of newcomers. This is quite good, I mean. New kids with their, you know, their problems, they are singing about their problems. So again, there’s [a] tradition of punk and new wave, especially because of the— all kinds of problems.
I wrote an article [a] few weeks ago for Deutsche Welle about a lot of young bands are singing about young people leaving their countries. So, you can find— A band from Zagreb told me they have much more [of an] audience in Dublin than in Zagreb. “We play in Dublin very often.”
So, I mean, [the] scene is, I think it’s good, but they have [the] problem, of course, it’s not so easy to be original after 60 years of rock’n’roll. So many things were played and sung, and so probably most of them, you know, will give up after, I don’t know, [the] first existential problem, but still, new kids are coming and we have good music.
I really love how they communicate with bands in the region, you know. Like, punk was [a] fanzine scene, and at that time small punk bands were very good connected to that fanzine scene. Now they have all kinds of possibilities and they connect. And it’s always like, “Come to Belgrade, I’ll organize some gig for you,” and then they come, you know, to the city, of those people and play and everything is now budget, do it yourself system.
We have [a] band, Repetitor. For me they are like, I don’t know, Šarlo Akrobata for [the] 21st century. and they, actually, they won on some festival in Pula, and Croatia first recognized them. And they start to play clubs, clubs, clubs, then somebody was making documentary called Do It Yourself about, you know, people from those alternative scenes and how they help each other. And they covered American bands, Dutch, and Repetitor. And when the movie went out, [a] lot of people found out for Repetitor. And Repetitor played [a] festival in China, Moscow, just thanks to that movie, so, you know, things happened.
The Political Potential of Music…According to Petar Janjatović
PETER KORCHNAK: One of the recurrent themes in Janjatović’s writing and media interviews is that Yugoslav rock music unites people in a certain way because it reminds them of the time when they were all together, when they all lived in peace. I ask him to elaborate on music’s political potential.
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: In 1993, with my friends from Germany I organized a concert in Prague and Berlin, [an] antiwar concert. That was, I mean, in the middle of the war. And through that we tried, you know, to show to the people that not everybody are for the war. And in Berlin in one club where the gig was, during the day, [a] woman came to me and she says: “I am from TV Zagreb, we would like to do [an] interview with you if you dare to.” I know I was thinking like: “Fuck, if Šešelj sees me on TV it won’t be good.” So I said: “Yes, of course, why not”, so… Her question was: “A lot of people in Croatia don’t approve this gig and they say this is Yugonostalgia.” I said: “Please, I hate [the] word Yugonostalgia,” and she laughed, and I said: “You know, I’m a Yugofuturist,” and they stopped the interview and went off.
And at that moment it really looked [like] in my lifetime I will never see, for example, Croatian and Bosnian bands in Belgrade and vice versa. So, [the] future is here. Look, I work for Dallas Records, this is [a] Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian publishing company. That explains everything.
Okay, in [the] city Šabac there is a post-punk band, Goblini, and their singer, frontman, he wrote [an] autobiography. They start[ed] in ’92. Guitar player and the bass player, they were from Croatia, fathers in [the] Army, so they were refugees. They went to Šabac, they start to play to save their lives. They found that guy, the singer, who was doing nothing, you know, dealing marijuana or something like that, and studying ha-ha-ha, so they made a band. They play their own music, but they play a lot of ex-YU punk and new wave songs. So, he wrote a book about that. They were very against Milošević. This book, we sold something like 2,000 copies. I mean, excellent.
And [a] few months later we published [a] book written by bass player of Pula punk band KUD Idijoti. And KUD Idijoti are huge. They were very much against [the] regime in Croatia.
So through those two books, I think, I showed to the kids, to the newcomers, how was that. In one hand, you have a small punk band from the small town in Serbia fighting against Milošević. And on the other hand, or in the other book, you have a small punk band from [a] small city in Croatia fighting against Tuđman. And when you read them—great. I mean in those two books you a have a proper situation of [the] alternative rock scene in Yugoslavia in [the] 90s. That makes me feeling good, you know, doing stuff like that.
PETER KORCHNAK: Parallel to the continued popularity of Yugoslav rock, the phenomenon of so called narodna muzika, national folk music, occupies a large swath on the post-Yugoslav, and particularly Serbian, musical landscape. One Saturday night in Kragujevac, a city two hours southeast of Belgrade, I went to Kafana Jugoslavija, a socialist Yugoslavia-themed restaurant, with a red-starred flag painted on the wall, photos of Tito, and Yugoslav knicknacks on display, and a live folk band performed for hours to a packed, smoke-and-song-filled room of twentysomethings. What’s your take on that?
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: In [the] late 70s, early 80s, we thought that rock’n’roll is really popular in Yugoslavia. Bijelo Dugme and Riblja Čorba, for example, they sold thousands of records. Then I went in the army and I realized that in that sleeping room was 50 of us, from all parts of Yugoslavia, mostly rural. Forty of them listen to the narodna muzika, seven of the others were listening to the rock’n’roll, but Bijelo Dugme and Riblja Čorba. It was me, the guy from Ljubljana, and the guy from Zagreb, we listened to the, you know, let’s say alternative rock music or new wave or something like that. So I realized: “Okay, this is Yugoslavia.”
[A] few weeks before [the] war started in Sarajevo, musicians from Belgrade, they made this band Rimtutituki, and they recorded a song called “Slušaj ‘vamo”, with lyrics “Nećemo da pobedi narodna muzika…ispod šlema mozga nema…”—
PETER KORCHNAK: —“we don’t want national folk music to win…there’s no brain underneath a helmet”—
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: —i tako dalje; so antiwar song.
During the wars, music was also very important for the people. It helped them, you know, to survive those bad situations. But I wrote an article for [the] American magazine Billboard in ’92, and I said that now we have a situation which I think never happened that the people who have [the] same records at home shooting at each other… Really. And that was, you know— everything was tragic, but that was also, you know, so disappointing, you know. Those people, they have Riblja Čorba records at home, one is from Sarajevo, the other one is from Kragujevac, and they are shooting at each other. You know when the war was finished, people start to come back to those memories they have, you know, after everything, comedown. But it was easy to manipulate with the people, but it is nothing new.
And when I went to Sarajevo for the first time after the war, which was in ’98, I met a lot of people who told me, “When we realized that Partibrejkers, Električni orgazam, [and] Ekaterina Velika made a band to send us [a] message that they are not for the war, that mean[t] a lot to us.” You know, can you imagine you sitting in Sarajevo, and somebody who is your hero sends you a message that, “This is not good, we are against that.” So I think that those things were and still are very important.
I went with Rambo Amadeus in February 2000— So Tuđman died at the end of ’99, and [a] new government was in Croatia, and [the] atmosphere was great, absolutely great. So we went there and Rambo played Zagreb, Pula, and Rijeka, and Zagreb twice, and that was, I don’t know, brilliant, I mean, with the people and everything.
And I went with my cameraman— I worked at Radio Televizija Pančevo at that time, so I made a lot of interviews with musicians and everybody said, “Yes, of course I will come, I will give you interview.” Milošević was still in power, so that, you know, people were “fuck off, it’s time to live again.” And I remember in one club I did interviews with musicians, and I asked that guy, the musician: “Would you like to drink something?” and he said: “Yeah, a beer would be fine,” so I went at the bar, šank, and a guy was working there, was, you know, looking tough, and I said: “Ovaj, dva piva, molim te”—
PETER KORCHNAK: —two beers, please—
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: —and he said: “What? Where do you come from?” I said: “From Serbia.” And he says: “I was in [the] war, I fight. Welcome!” I was like, “Fuck!”
So music is a really good glue. And, I mean, as you can see now people, everybody goes to play in any other place and this is only the matter of economics. Okay, not everybody, Riblja Čorba is not in Zagreb, but…
PETER KORCHNAK: One of the most influential Yugoslav rock acts, Belgrade-based Riblja Čorba is also known for its overt Serbian patriotism, which spilled over to the support of Serbian nationalism in the 1990s, leading to the decline of the band’s popularity in other ex-Yugoslav countries.
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: As I’ve told you, Saturday evening, Dom omladine, and Parafi sing, “Živjela Jugoslavija.”
PETER KORCHNAK: “Živjela Jugoslavija,” or “Long Live Yugoslavia,” is a 1985 Yugoslav patriotic song, performed by Miroslav Ilić and Lepa Brena (more on her in a bit). Its lyrics include lines like, “When I see all the beauty where I was born, I noted in my heart, long live Yugoslavia,” and “The land of peace, the land of Tito, we love you our mother, long live Yugoslavia.”
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: A friend of mine who is a movie director from Zagreb, who always makes a lot jokes in Serbia-Croatia relationships, and he actually this year he did a movie called “Poslednji Srbin u Hrvatskoj”—
PETER KORCHNAK: —The Last Serb in Croatia—
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: —zombie comedy, brilliant, and so he wrote on his Facebook, “I was in [a] packed Dom omladine Beograda and the audience was singing with the band, “Živjela Jugoslavija.” I have to left this brutal reality and went home and went on [the] internet realizing that at the same moment in [a] packed Arena u Zagrebu Lepa Brena is singing “Ja sam Jugoslovenka” together with the audience.” Then he says: “I didn’t fight for that.” But this is our joke.
PETER KORCHNAK: Lepa Brena was the most famous Yugoslav singer of the 1980s, the Yugoslav Madonna if you will. Her popularity during the decade eclipsed that of Tito, to the point where fans would replace his name with hers in the old slogan and chant, “We are Brena’s, Brena is ours.”
Today Lepa Brena continues to personify Yugoslavia to many. Days before I sat down with Janjatović, she had played a sold-out show at the Zagreb Arena and sang “Jugoslovenka,” “A Yugoslav,” while waving socialist Yugoslavia’s flag and the crowd singing along. The clip made huge rounds on social media, and some Croatian generals protested the performance, calling for banning Lepa Brena from the country.
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: Joj, I cannot tell you much about her singing and everything, but… Yeah, I enjoyed, I went on internet to see that and this is— you know what is inat?
PETER KORCHNAK: Inat is an untranslatable Serbo-Croatian word that means roughly spite, but with an element of hard-headedness, defiance, even prickliness.
PETAR JANJATOVIĆ: This is inat. And she was really— She had the heart to sing that in the center of Zagreb, because you really never know what might happen. One idiot is enough to make chaos. So, great, great moment.
Music is a great weapon, but the problem is politicians know that, and they are using musicians, and then they forget about them when they come to power and that happens all the time. And because of that, because people feel like, used, okay, they feel used, today it’s not so easy to mobilize people for protest.
During the 90s when we had those protests against Milošević, rock’n’roll was really important. [A] few rock’n’roll songs—from, let’s say Disciplina Kičme or some other bands—they were anthems of protest. And it’s so bad that today rock’n’roll we cannot put in front of us against Vučić…and we need that.
PETER KORCHNAK: In his 1995 essay, “Twilight of the Idols: Recollections of a Lost Yugoslavia,” Aleš Debeljak writes about his devotion to Yugo-rock. He, quote, “sought an authentic way of being that would bring me close to people who could understand joy and sadness without a lot of unnecessary words. (…) [It] afforded me the rare chance to live in a multicultural society long before that term was co-opted as the official protective coloring of the politically correct.” End quote. Though the childhood in a common state is lost forever, he and millions of other ex-Yugoslavs continue to listen to Yugoslav rock because that music is, quote, “a magic formula that secures our passage to that refuge among the eternally young landscapes of the spirit in which we will always be at home.” End quote.
Me, I’ve been using Yugoslav songs, the lyrics, as an alternative method for learning the language. And so in order to delve deeper in the future into the memory of a disappeared country, I learn one particular language, Serbo-Croatian, on the backdrop of listening to the universal language of music. That’s Yugofuturist enough for me.
PETER KORCHNAK: Find select songs by performers referenced in this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia and other resources about Yugoslav rock music in the show notes, linked at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
I am Peter Korchňak.
- Petar Janjatović photo credit: Wikimedia Commons