Across former Yugoslavia and beyond, songs of the Partisan struggle, resistance, and revolution reverberate anew in the public square. Why is that? And who’s that singing over there? Four activist choirs tell their origin stories, explain how they re-purpose the legacy of past antifascist struggles, and, yes, sing.
Featuring (excerpts of) the songs
- “Pesem upora,” “El Pueblo Unido,” “Bread and Roses,” and “Bella Ciao” performed by Kombinat Women’s Choir (Ljubljana, Slovenia)
- “Sebben che siamo donne,” “Konjuh planinom,” “Pjesma slobodi,” “Bella Ciao,” and “All You Fascists Bound to Lose” performed by Zbor Praksa (Pula, Croatia)
- “Bella Ciao” performed by KIC Pop Hor (Podgorica, Montenegro)
- “Bela caw / Ez keca Kurdim,” “Maljčiki,” “Resolution der Kommunarden,” and “Geljan dade” peformed by Hor 29. Novembar (Vienna, Austria)
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Episode Transcript (and More)
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your host Peter Korchnak.
[SOUNDBITE – DEMONSTRATION]
PETER KORCHNAK: On a freezing December day in 2012, a primary-school teacher from Kranj, Slovenia named Suzana took a 30-minute drive to the country’s capital to join one the demonstrations—
SUZANA: —against the corrupt government. They were held every week all over Slovenia. We would gather in a square and then we would be walking around Ljubljana.
And suddenly I heard someone singing.
[SOUNDBITE – WOMEN SINGING]
SUZANA: And there was this group of women who are singing the songs that I know because I used to sing them in school choirs in primary and secondary school. They were the Partisan songs and there was also this rebellion song, which became an unofficial anthem of those protests.
[SOUNDBITE – WOMEN SINGING]
SUZANA: So I thought to myself, I need to join this choir, I know these songs, it would be fun to sing them again.
PETER KORCHNAK: The choir was Kombinat, a women’s choir based in Ljubljana. When Suzana became a member 8 years ago, she joined the ranks of hundreds of women and some men, singing Partisan and other songs of resistance in the public square across former Yugoslavia and beyond.
Who are these singers? And why do they sing these songs?
In today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: activist choirs and the songs they sing.
Before we get to it: as always, this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia is brought to you by…you. Thank you to everyone who has signed up to support me and Remembering Yugoslavia on Patreon or donated on the website via PayPal.
Today I welcome new patron Jorik and extend my gratitude to Ana who recently doubled her pledge.
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – SONG]
“Pesem upora” (Part 1) by Kombinat
PETER KORCHNAK: That was “Pesem upora,” or “Song of the Rebellion,” Kombinat choir’s original protest anthem. Choir member Ksenija Jus grafted her lyrics on a tune by the contemporary Slovene composer Drago Ivanuša.
I first learned of the existence of activist choirs in a Calvert Journal article. The 2016 piece opened with these words: “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.”
Musicologist Ana Hofman, whom you may remember from way back, from Episode 2, “The New-New Life of Partisan Songs,” and who was widely quoted in the Calvert Journal article, has deconstructed the phenomenon of activist choirs. She says Kombinat and their counterparts use and repurpose the legacy of the Partisan struggle in the People’s Liberation War. They—
ANA HOFMAN: —recall [the] particular legacy of Partisan songs as born during antifascist struggles and movement which was its own self-organized movement.
PETER KORCHNAK: On another level, they’re also—
ANA HOFMAN: —laboratories of some new ways of musical organizing or self-organizing, some kind of laboratories or experiments for reimagining or practicing new forms of political agency based on amateur music making.
It’s interesting with singing activism that somehow in a certain sense singing follows different types of activism or different protests. So, it can just cover new movements, new protests and just adjust repertoire, so in that way it’s [a] very specific form of activism.
PETER KORCHNAK: As Ana wrote in the introduction to her book on activist choirs, which I’m using as a foundation for this story, “the fact that the partisan, revolutionary, and labor songs are heard again in the streets is testimony to the importance of raising a voice, loudly expressing resistance, and working toward social change.” End quote.
Though, as we’ll hear later, members of activist choirs range in age, the fact is that singers—
ANA HOFMAN: —are more or less younger people, I mean, people who basically do not remember socialist Yugoslavia.
And some of them would say, and they said to me like. “We are children of capitalism, so what we remember is just this transition and basically neoliberal capitalism,” which was introduced in the most radical way in the region.
In that sense, they see Yugoslav socialism and in particular antifascism as a way of struggle not just against racism, against, you know, misogyny, against patriarchy, against right wing parties, but also for some structural change, so some alternative, more a way to reclaim some structural transformation. Of course that they cannot say, “We want Yugoslav socialism back,” and they don’t say that, they definitely do not say that, but definitely what they say is that they don’t want what is now as the only possible way.
PETER KORCHNAK: Ana dates the emergence of activist choirs to 2008.
ANA HOFMAN: There is no coincidence that this year is the year of [a] global economic crisis, which definitely somehow also shown [sic] in this area that capitalism is not the only possible future or is not the best possible future, not just for this region but globally.
PETER KORCHNAK: And in that context, the—
ANA HOFMAN: —singing of Partisan songs is also part of the broader kind of revitalization or return of these socialist-era discourse or language or class-struggle language here in the region, but definitely in dialog with the global return and rise of antifascism and socialism.
[MUSICAL INTERLUDE – SONG]
“Pesem upora” (Part 2) by Kombinat
PETER KORCHNAK: Ana Hofman based her conclusions on interviews and observations of several choirs across the ex-Yugoslav region. But because she is based in Ljubljana, Kombinat centered her study.
The Kombinat women’s choir was founded on April 27, 2008. This was Resistance Day in Slovenia, marking the establishment of the anti-Nazi occupation front in 1941. A group of friends at a bachelorette party discussed activities they could do together. So yes, they did start the choir.
When Suzana decided to join four years later, incidentally the same year Kombinat released a hit CD album, she—
SUZANA: —wrote an email, I want to join your choir. And I found out that when you come to the audition, they also ask you, “Why do you want to join this choir?”
Because I found out that there’s a lot more to it than just a choir. It’s not just about singing. It’s about standing for all that is important to me and obviously to the choir members, it’s about the right values. It’s about supporting all the right things.
So I also told them that I think I share the same determination to make things better, to stand up for what is not okay in the society.
PETER KORCHNAK: Born in 1961 to a Slovene mother and Bosnian father, Suzana grew up singing.
SUZANA: Okay, it was Yugoslavia so we were all Yugoslav, but anyway… It was a country of brotherhood of all. You didn’t ask people about their nationality, it was not important at all. I can say for myself that I am nostalgic, because it was a beautiful time to grow up: good music to listen to, lots of friends to make everywhere…
Singing was actually in my family, all the family members would sing. We would be singing in a car, we would be singing at home. So it was a big part of my life.
I’ve been singing in various choirs, I can say, for all my life.
PETER KORCHNAK: Since primary school in fact, when—
SUZANA: —songs that were praising the president Tito or songs that were praising the Partisans were on the repertoire all the time.
PETER KORCHNAK: In secondary school—
SUZANA: —sometimes we could skip classes because we were asked to come to a celebration of something, I don’t know, the opening of [a] new factory wing or something like that. So it was fun to sing because you could skip school and have fun with your friends.
PETER KORCHNAK: Suzana had been so surprised to hear those familiar songs at the Ljubljana protests because—
SUZANA: —for some time, the Partisan songs really disappeared. You couldn’t hear them anywhere. They completely disappeared from the radios, from all sorts of gatherings, from all sorts of performances, from all the choirs’ repertoires, actually.
PETER KORCHNAK: This happened all over former Yugoslavia. Ana Hofman again: “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 [Communist] Party. Anti-fascist heritage was expelled from official policies of remembrance in post-Yugoslav states. [These songs’] revolutionary, socially engaged, and emancipatory meaning was minimized and neutralized. Performing and listening to these songs was pushed into the private sphere as controversial, if not prohibited, activities. That tradition never disappeared completely.”
SUZANA: And Kombinat was the one who brought them back.
PETER KORCHNAK: Into the public ear, in Slovenia, anyway. According to Ana Hofman, in ethnically homogeneous Slovenia, World War Two history was absorbed into the national narrative and presented as an inalienable part of Slovenian national history. This made Partisan songs less controversial here than other post-Yugoslav societies.
So what is Kombinat?
SUZANA: Kombinat is an activist choir. And when we need to, we stand up against racism, homophobia, sexism, fascism, we support the rainbow people so gays, lesbians, we support workers on strike, workers who are about to get fired, the miners, the refugees, the migrants…
And whenever we see or hear about any kind of violation of human rights or sometimes even animal rights, or when we have to stand up for the nature, for the environment, we try to react, whether by singing some in some place, if they call us we go and sing, or we join the protest, or we sign the petition…
PETER KORCHNAK: The Kombinat Women’s Choir holds performances at halls, events, and commemorations at People’s Liberation War sites and monuments; sings at socially-engaged events like charity concerts; and performs guerrilla-style on streets and in parks during demonstrations.
Ana Hofman points out that the choirs’ role at protests mirrors the role their counterparts played during the Partisan struggle, including elevating morale, cultivating solidarity, and inspiring action.
SUZANA: The credo of Kombinat choir goes like this: To write the heritage of rebellion in red chalk, not on walls, but on eardrums. To preserve in our voices, the loud musical tradition of an upright posture, not succumbing to the social scoliosis. We are united in song and believe that rebellion is one of the fundamental human rights. We believe that critical thought can arise only from a stance of resistance.
Our times swallow human soul, instead placing on the pedestal success, competitiveness, and appearance. They do not care for human rights, although they often borrow them as an alibi. We are of all ages, and although we know that the world cannot be changed, we deeply believe that the almost forgotten values such as solidarity, fortitude, social justice, comradeship, and courage can make it more bearable and beautiful.
We did not fight in a war, we were never hungry, we never had to consider the thought of placing our lives on the altar of ideologies, and we can speak in our own language, since we were born. Out of respect for all who raise their voices and sacrifice their lives, we revive the songs which have emboldened spirit in the revolutions and uprisings all over the world, and sing them in original languages. To us, these songs are not only words put into music, but pressures and poignant testimonies of the human fate in a better world for everybody.
PETER KORCHNAK: The choir distances itself from both (Yugo)nostalgia and the commercialization of the socialist past. “Nostalgia is a very dangerous drug,” one member told Ana Hofman. They avoid songs composed during the socialist Yugoslav era, focusing rather on the heritage of antifascism and resistance.
SUZANA: Kombinat doesn’t only sing the Partisan songs, we sing the songs of rebellion from all over the world, and we try to sing them in the original languages.
[SOUNDBITE – SONG FRAGMENT]
“El Peblo Unido” performed by Kombinat
SUZANA: Some of the songs are really still relevant. Some of the songs are about, you know, giving power back to the workers, so they’re still relevant so many years later.
[SOUNDBITE – SONG FRAGMENT]
“Bread and Roses,” performed by Kombinat
SUZANA: You know, I used to sing in choirs that had really, songs that were hard to study. These songs here might not be this hard to study, but they have the power. The songs give strength to people.
Whenever we have a concert, we sing a song and one of us goes in front and tells about the song because we also want the people to know what the songs are about and what is their history, where do they originate…
PETER KORCHNAK: The choir has some 40 or 50 active members. Who are they? From videos I’ve seen it looks like a multigenerational group, albeit leaning toward age groups Ana Hofman observed, and it sounds like members aren’t only from the capital.
SUZANA: In this choir, age really isn’t important. It really isn’t. When I remember when I was telling people that I’m joining this choir, there were some people who said, “Aren’t you too old for them? They are young girls.” So I remember asking, “Am I may be too old for this choir?” Because I am one of the oldest members. The age really isn’t important.
What is important, okay, that you have a voice to sing but also all the other things that I was telling you about are more important. So I’m one of the oldest. My good friend, she’s also from Kranj, she’s the same age as my daughter, and she is the youngest one, and we get along really well.
Kombinat is from all over Slovenia. So we have singers really from all the parts. There are lots of members who drive for an hour or two to practice once a week.
PETER KORCHNAK: Kombinat is one of several activist choirs in the countries of former Yugoslavia. Do you maintain any connections with other choirs around the region? Collaborate even?
SUZANA: There’s a feminist choir in Ljubljana. And sometimes we held concerts together. Then there’s the Pula choir, of course, Praksa. We held concerts together as well.
“Padaj silo i nepravdo” by Zbor Praksa
PETER KORCHNAK: “Padaj silo i nepravdo,” or “Fall O Force and Injustice,” was one of the songs Zbor Praksa sang at the practice they generously invited me to sit in on in January last year. The choir’s headquarters and practice space is at the architectural cooperative from which the choir borrows its name, located on the ground level of an apartment tower near the center of Pula, Croatia.
The firm’s co-founder and choir’s founder, Edna Jurcan, was born in 1982 and is a lifelong city resident—and singer.
EDNA JURCAN: I was singing in the school choir, Partisan songs. I went into [sic] Italian elementary school here in Pula, so we were singing this kind of songs but in Italian.
I was like, Pioneer in ‘88. And we had to sing some of these songs. The day we had this promise, you know? I remember the song. I can sing it to you if you want.
[SONG FRAGMENT – EDNA JURCAN SINGING]
PETER KORCHNAK: It was all about the red kerchiefs for the Young Pioneers back then.
The seeds of Zbor Praksa date back to Edna’s studies of architecture in Venice. She sang in a choir there and, when she returned to Pula, missed the singing experience. So, as one does, she came up with the idea of a concept choir that would sing only a certain repertoire.
In 2014, a series of protests took place in Pula, mostly against privatization at a number of companies: the local newspaper, the defunct military zone—and, fatefully, the local textile factory.
EDNA JURCAN: And people asked me if I wanted to sing on this protest. They wanted me to sing a song that is now really popular, because of these kind of choirs.
[SONG FRAGMENT – EDNA JURCAN SINGING] Even if we are women, we are not afraid. And this is a song from the beginning of last century that were sung by rice collectors, women, and they worked in really bad conditions and to ease the pain they would sing, you know. So they wanted to me to sing this song because this was the strike of Arena Tekstil fabrik [sic]. Most of the workers were women. So it was very emotional, and people were crying and it was sad.
[SOUNDBITE – SONG FRAGMENT]
“Sebben che siamo donne” performed by Edna Jurcan
EDNA JURCAN: And I was alone. And while I was singing, I was thinking it would really be nice if I had the choir, you know, if because of the number of the voices because of the strength, you know, the message of the song.
[SOUNDBITE – SONG FRAGMENT]
“Sebben che siamo donne” performed by Zbor Praksa
PETER KORCHNAK: Ana Hofman says, “The singing of Partisan songs…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. This also shows that the alternative is possible.”
Edna asked her friends on Facebook if anyone would like to join a cooperative choir. And some did!
For most of its history, the choir had seven or eight members, but—
EDNA JURCAN: —now we are ten. People told me that they heard that we don’t want men to sing in the choir and that’s not true. We would like to have also guys, but we cannot find them.
The girls—I like to call them girls even if they’re 70 some of them, yeah—they have really nice voices and, and the most important thing they are really, you know, activist in their heart. The youngest one is 13 and the oldest one is 75.
We are all equal, but I’m the boss. Yes, that’s right. So, I am the boss because I organize everything, you know, I choose the songs I make arrangements. I organize travelings [sic], concerts…
PETER KORCHNAK: Zbor Praksa performs at concerts, protests and demonstrations, and at what they call self-organized events.
EDNA JURCAN: We usually don’t sing when some political party calls us even if they are left wing.
“Pjesma slobode” performed by Zbor Praksa
PETER KORCHNAK: What songs do you sing? And what is it about these songs?
EDNA JURCAN: Yes, we started with Partisan songs. Because they are the most, let’s say controversial, you know. People usually say, “Oh, you are the Partisan choir,” and it’s, it’s not the truth. I mean, we sing these songs. But we, when I choose the songs, I always, always choose songs in which they don’t sing about communism, about Tito, about the Communist Party, and stuff like that, because I love to choose the songs that are, the lyrics are universal. You can sing it today and the lyrics are like they were written yesterday.
I don’t have anything against Yugoslavia. And I think it was a great country and the base of it was the antifascism and it was great because of that. And a lot of different nations lived together. And I think that it was really a great country.
But it’s not only about that. It’s to keep the whole story more contemporary, more universal.
I like what Ana Hofman said. These songs, now are like a metaphor, you know. We do not take them like we are singing about Partisans, no, we are singing about antifascism and this is the most important thing to say I think, because why I don’t want to sing about communism, because I can see that communism also had bad part[s], you know, the ideology. And this is what I always say, communism was ideology and antifascism is way of life. Here in Yugoslavia, the most common error is to align communism and antifascism like they are the same thing. And they are not.
[SOUNDBITE – SONG FRAGMENT]
“All You Fascists Bound to Lose” performed by Zbor Praksa
EDNA JURCAN: And then we have all from all over the world, you know, other songs that are about women rights, workers rights, human rights, revolutionary songs. We usually have this Italian workers songs and Spanish songs from the Civil War. They have a really nice lyrics and the melodies. We have one Spanish song, El quinto regimiento. And the song is like buleria, you know, flamenco.
[SONG FRAGMENT – EDNA JURCAN SINGING]
And it’s a little bit sad, because you see that in all the years that passed nothing changed, you know, people are still oppressed. But because of that, the songs have a lot of meaning today.
With a song, you can gather more people. In all these protests when we started to sing, people really showed how they are angry and showed the emotions they were feeling.
“Konjuh planinom” (Part 1) performed by Zbor Praksa
PETER KORCHNAK: People who can’t go to a Zbor Praksa performance can hear the choir on a recording they made a couple of years ago.
EDNA JURCAN: The CD was the next step. I decided that after five years, we should like make something to leave a trace. So I asked the girls and they said, yeah, of course we want to record.
We recorded the 16 songs of the album in one evening. Yes, it was like a marathon.
“Konjuh planinom” (Part 2) performed by Zbor Praksa
EDNA JURCAN: And people can buy it on our page, they can write to me on Zbor Praksa Facebook page and we can ship it.
“Konjuh planinom” (Part 3) performed by Zbor Praksa
PETER KORCHNAK: Zbor Praksa is hoping to release another album soon. They also have pretty cool T-shirts for sale, also through the Facebook page.
The other avenue Zbor Praksa generates revenue for their activities is workshops where people can learn some of the songs the choir sings.
EDNA JURCAN: For me, it’s one of the most interesting, let’s say parts of it, because I like to teach, you know, this songs not only to my choir to the members of my choir, but to everyone who is interested to learn something about the song, something about the history of the songs.
So I divided them in, you know, Partisan songs, Italian working songs, French revolutionary songs, Spanish songs from [the] Civil War…
I prepare the songs. Usually, it’s three or four songs, I make the translation in Croatian. or in English, of course, and something about the song.
PETER KORCHNAK: The pandemic has affected the choir to some degree. Since last May, they’ve held a few socially-distanced practices and performances. And, today, on the date of this episode’s release, March 8, the International Women’s Day, they are holding a—
EDNA JURCAN: —mini concert of 15 minutes outside of the cooperative.
PETER KORCHNAK: Zbor Praksa’s “Bella Ciao” story, because every choir has at least one, goes like this. One day, Edna got a call from the producer of an upcoming film Run to the Sea, directed by Veljko Buljajić, the director of the famous Yugoslav epic Battle on the River Neretva, whose foreign stars included Sergei Bondarchuk, Yul Brynner, Franco Nero, and Orson Welles. Apparently the crew couldn’t find a choir in all of Croatia that could sing “Bella Ciao” until Zbor Praksa came along and stepped in, both as extras and as instructors.
EDNA JURCAN: it was really tough because we had to be at the place of filming at three in the morning. It was March, it was really, really cold and we drank a lot of rakija. We taught people to sing the song because a lot of people k new more or less the melody but the lyrics they didn’t know.
PETER KORCHNAK: All was well until it was time to settle up.
EDNA JURCAN: They didn’t pay any one of the extras. I heard that he said, “We are not going to pay them because they have to consider themselves lucky because they’re going to be in my film.
PETER KORCHNAK: And so Zbor Praksa got burned by capitalism. If the movie ever comes out, they plan to respond in the best way they can.
EDNA JURCAN: We decided to if the film will comes out, like to boycott, the promotion of the film [and] also go there and sing, and say, okay, they didn’t pay the workers of the film.
“Bella Ciao” performed by Zbor Praksa
SNEŽANA BURZAN: I am Snežana Burzan and I am manager of this choir. And I make this choir.
PETER KORCHNAK: This choir being KIC Pop Hor. Since 2017 the choir has worked under the auspices of the Cultural Information Center Budo Tomović in Podgorica, Montenegro. The “pop” in the choir’s name reflects the original concept.
SNEŽANA BURZAN: [The] first idea was to sing pop and rock repertoire. And we are singing that. But with cooperation with SUBNOR, that’s the society of people who fight [sic] in the Second World War and antifascists of Montenegro, you understand me, we make this program.
PETER KORCHNAK: The choir’s most successful project is, “Bez dileme – antifašizam,” or “No Dilemma Antifascism,” consisting of some 20 Partisan and antifascist songs from the WWII and Yugoslavia periods which they perform wearing Young Pioneer kerchiefs.
Snežana spoke with me in the hallway outside their classroom-like practice space at the Cultural Information Center.
Choir members who are in their 40s and 50s—
SNEŽANA BURZAN: —our childhood were in Yugoslavia, and we have great childhood. And we love to sing about that period in Yugoslavia, about our Partisans. And we like a lot of that propagand [sic] melody, you understand me?
All of the region of Balkan, I think, these years when they see bad life and bad social situation and bad economic situation, they start to thinking about history and thinking about Tito’s time, Yugoslav time, and antifascistic [sic] time.
We like to be proleter [sic], to be socially equal, to be brotherhood, to be liberty, you understand me. I don’t know English very well, but you understand me? Yes.
If you call us we come all of us we like that and we do that for love, you understand me?
“Bella Ciao” performed by KIC Pop Hor
PETER KORCHNAK: Hor 29. Novembar, or November 29th Choir, has been singing the songs of resistance in Vienna, Austria since 2009.
As you’d expect from a choir named after the date of socialist Yugoslavia’s founding, the choir has a very specific Yugoslavia-related origin story.
JANA DOLEČKI: Actually, it was initiated as a part of artistic intervention in front of an ex-Yugoslav workers club that existed throughout like 40 years, but then due to the wars of Yugoslavia etcetera after the 90s this like Yugoslav club became like openly nationalistic Serbian club.
PETER KORCHNAK Jana Dolečki is the choir’s conductor. Born in 1979, she has sang in choirs since her childhood in Zagreb, Croatia. She has lived in Vienna since 2014; she is a theater scholar about to defend her doctoral thesis. She spoke with me from Berlin.
JANA DOLEČKI: And this intervention was, in a way, subversion to bring back the Yugoslav heritage to this working club.
MARKO MARKOVIĆ: As far as I heard from Sasha Miletić and Alex Nikolić, the two founders that organized the first action, they wanted to signify the 40-year history of workers migration in Vienna and the origins of that migration.
PETER KORCHNAK: Marko Marković, who plays the guitar with the choir, was born in Belgrade in the 1980s and moved to Vienna with his parents when he was two. He spoke with me from Salzburg.
MARKO MARKOVIĆ: I’m pretty sure there was no 30-year anniversary of this workers club because in 1999 it was too soon to the war and and if you would have stood and made a Yugoslav statement in the 90s, I think you would have had physical backlash to that idea even in Vienna.
JANA DOLEČKI: This group consisted mostly of people coming from ex-Yugoslavia, being born in Austria or being born in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, somewhere in the region, but moved to Austria. So we had this like conglomerate of different destinies connected with the ex-Yugoslavia and they felt empowered in a way like to be able to, first to be together in some kind of form where there is no importance whether you’re Serb or Croatian or Bosnian. And second of all, that they stood for something and they were actively, openly showing the political statement as well.
MARKO MARKOVIĆ: In that moment of activism, they found out that they really enjoyed it.
PETER KORCHNAK: Both Marko and Jana emphasize that theirs are the only delineated, somewhat formal positions in the choir. Their personal stories aren’t representative of the choir, which has some 80 members from a multitude of countries and of very diverse backgrounds. The choir is the message, so to speak. As is its name.
JANA DOLEČKI: On the one side it’s very concrete, it’s numbers, but on the other side, it’s becoming something very surreal. I mean, it doesn’t exist anymore as a celebration day. So that’s also like some kind of a utopia, a nostalgic utopia. It’s shifting its significance, which I find very interesting so that you were commemorating a date, which doesn’t exist anymore, but you are promoting it in the future, so yeah.
PETER KORCHNAK: Both the choir’s membership and repertoire have evolved since its founding.
JANA DOLEČKI: It became bigger and bigger, it changed its repertoire because as we grew the the people coming in were Austrians but also Germans, we have people from France, from all over Europe, I would say. So with the people, the repertoire grew. So now we have like songs in 13 languages, maybe even more, that deal with mostly like the working class struggle, the feminist struggle a lot, as well as the specific part of our repertoire are the antifascist Yugoslav songs. We are like a huge conglomerate of 40 people when we sing in concerts, there are more people so it’s very dynamic and very loud.
And maybe one of the most important specifics of our choir is that no one needs to know how to sing. So in this way we imitate the original founding fathers and mothers of singing collectives during the antifascist struggle because I think that they were not so focused on who sings best or something like that.
MARKO MARKOVIĆ: I would say that the choir right now is something like a second generation of the choir. Because I mean, there are still some members there that were there in the beginning, but it’s become so big now that that you really have to kind of it’s kind of a very different dynamic than it was 10 years ago.
JANA DOLEČKI: We are very, very revolving kind of choir, with a lot of people going through, and we sometimes call it like a train station.
MARKO MARKOVIĆ: From a musical perspective, it now sounds better than it did in the beginning. Some of that punk atmosphere has definitely smoothed a bit. And there are now really complex arrangements and multiple voices. And a lot of that is due to Jana trying really new stuff with the people, which is really amazing.
JANA DOLEČKI: We are really at least trying but I think we are succeeding in, with whatever risks this might bring to be a democratic group. We decide on our repertoire, on our concerts, on our demonstrations that we follow, on everything through plenums and discussions. Although with 40 plus people, it can sometimes be really challenging, but this is the only way we can imagine it to be.
PETER KORCHNAK: When I asked Jana and Marko to pick a song to play on the show, the first one they picked was “Bella Ciao.” You’ve already heard KIC Pop Hor’s rendition I had recorded at their practice.
To hear Suzana, the Kombinat choir member in neighboring Slovenia, explain it—
SUZANA: Bella Ciao is one of the very popular songs nowadays, right, especially with the Money Heist serials. Not a lot of people know that “Bella Ciao” originates in 1920s in Italy, where the women who were picking the rice were singing it. It was in Lombardia and Piedmont, in two Italian provinces. The work was hard and the masters would beat them. So they were, you know, encouraging themselves with a song. The Partisan movement took it later for their song, and it even later became the antifascist sort of anthem.
PETER KORCHNAK: Hor 29. Novembar’s rendition, recorded at their practice, is—
JANA DOLEČKI: —a medley of two songs actually. So the first one is Bella Ciao, the original, just sang in Kurdish, and the other song is one of the songs that celebrates the Kurdish female combatants movement. We wanted to have like, both female and the male gaze on the combat and in Kurdish, it’s even more powerful.
“Bela caw / Ez keca Kurdim” performed by Hor 29. Novembar
PETER KORCHNAK: The choir is officially a nonprofit organization in order to raise funds for their activities and projects. You can donate to Hor 29. Novembar at Hor29N.wordpress.com.
Members also co-founded an event that brings activist choirs from all over Europe together.
MARKO MARKOVIĆ: After a few years, I think after three or four years, the idea started already to substantiate itself that the choir needs to connect with other similar choirs. And from that idea on there was formed the concept of organizing a festival here in Vienna, and that festival became the Festival of Alternative Choirs. And it had it I think fourth installment 2019. So that was the last time we did it.
PETER KORCHNAK: Founded by ex-Yugoslavs, how is that demographic represented in the choir today?
JANA DOLEČKI: I think it reflects the current numbers in Austria: we are a minority.
What was really important for me when coming to Vienna, is this choir was this kind of you know like ideal integrational structure where you come, somebody asks you where you’re from, but it doesn’t matter, you’re speaking the same language, you’re like living the utopian version of Yugoslavia you once knew in a completely different setting, and something like that, which is incredibly, incredibly powerful. I’m really proud of this, that everybody can come here and not be questioned on their nationality.
The thing is, if you manage to bring in others to your struggle or to invite them to come and recognize your struggle or your songs or the main thing behind the songs that that’s like this solidarity issue, it’s also like the common denominator of people.
To give you an example, one of our singers was from Syria and he totally got like one very famous “Maljčiki” song about workers original thing by Idoli. He loved this song and he said like I want to sing it every time, I totally get what it means and what I like the melody and everything.
[SOUNDBITE – SONG]
“Maljčiki” performed by Hor 29. Novembar
PETER KORCHNAK: Let that sink in for a little bit. A Syrian refugee elatedly singing an 80s Yugoslav new wave band’s proletarian song with a Russian title in a choir in Austria.
JANA DOLEČKI: You realize okay that there is so much we can share and it’s not like this you know, hippie sharing thing, there is something behind it, there is a power. People really connect through that although they are not perfect singers or something like that.
PETER KORCHNAK: Like Kombinat and Zbor Praksa, the November 29th Choir performs at a range of places and events.
MARKO MARKOVIĆ: We do try to perform on as many public spaces as possible without being confined to this classical concert setting. I mean, we do have concerts, in on the stage and with microphones and everything, but it is very important for the choir to also be very mobile and to go out in the streets and sing where the social conflicts of our city and our lives is happening and be a politically activist choir in the truest sense.
So we do have a great variety of locations where we sing. We sometimes do flashmob tours where we go from one public space in Vienna to the next via the subway and sing at multiple places during one day. And all kinds of demonstrations and vigils and stuff that is happening on the public sphere.
[SOUNDBITE – SONG FRAGMENT]
“Resolution der Kommunarden” performed by Hor 29. Novembar
PETER KORCHNAK: And as with their counterparts, the goal is to promote and protest. In their activities, November 29th demonstrates what Ana Hofman calls “‘new sincerity,’ a global trend of eschewing or moving beyond (postmodern) cynicism as a reaction to politics. It rejects cynicism as a way of evading responsibility and promotes speaking one’s mind. ‘New sincerity’ adopts socialism’s values and ideas without sentimentality, and represents and manifests a return to authenticity.” End quote.
MARKO MARKOVIĆ: On the one hand, there is definitely an aspect of activism. The forefront of the goals of many people in the choir is to actively participate in the political struggles, in the political life and to be a voice that cannot be ignored. And so I think that in that sense, it also gives people a lot of ways to think about solidarity. The choir is the place where you can connect a lot of different struggles together. And I think that’s one of the goals as well, is to make possible to think how different struggles are, in some way, the same.
One other aim for a lot of people is a communal aim, I think, being together in this kind of group is definitely a feeling that a lot of people in the choir need and cherish. In a world where all leftist politics is also very much splintered up and very much divided into a lot of different ideological subcategories, I think the choir is a possibility for a lot of people to have a space with all those dividing moments are also in some way lifted, and in some way, enables them to share the still a common thread amongst all of those policies, which is antifascism.
PETER KORCHNAK: The choir maintains a clear position along those lines even as they engage in a variety of causes and struggles.
MARKO MARKOVIĆ: As diverse as that might be, there is still a very clear thread that we are trying to follow through. And so there is this antifascist element that is simply not negotiable, there is the antisexist element, the antiracist element.
We have discussions and collaborations where we get asked to participate in some project and where we also have to say no, even though the project may be really close to what we are doing, but if it doesn’t feel right, for the choir for the collective as a whole we will we will also distance ourselves from stuff where we don’t see the fit or see the need.
PETER KORCHNAK: Unlike Kombinat and Praksa, November 29th has no plans to record their work.
JANA DOLEČKI: I have no idea how this would work for that with us because 90% of the thing is being live, being spontaneous, reacting to the atmosphere, reacting to the beer we have or the alcohol I don’t know. We won’t be able to do this in studio.
MARKO MARKOVIĆ: It’s really an open collective still. You don’t have to be there for every rehearsal. And so we have, at every rehearsal, we have 30 to 40 people, but it’s always 30 to 40 different people. It’s not always the same group. I think the whole choir is probably 80 people like all together.
And that makes it challenging in terms of rehearsing and how you practice the stuff but it also gives it this lively feel that would never be possible to capture in a studio setting.
PETER KORCHNAK: Ana Hofman says, “The choirs are a form of acting together in a world that emphasises individualism. Joint bodies, joint voices…produce a strong 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.” End quote.
It is for this reason, Ana says, choir singing will probably be among the last cultural activities to be allowed again.
Covid hit the November 29th Choir particularly hard.
JANA DOLEČKI: We cannot be together and it’s a choir that functions— like the energy of singing together it’s like the most precious thing that we have. And it was really like a point of your day where you can release your problems and think about something else just drink a beer with friends and sing and be loud and analyze all the shit are going through and express anger or something like that. And then it stopped.
PETER KORCHNAK: Like all the other choirs, November 29th did a few socially distanced rehearsals and performances outdoors for a while.
JANA DOLEČKI: We tested our limits with the cold resistance and everything. We were really like freezing outside and stuff. And then at one point we said, Okay, that’s enough.
PETER KORCHNAK: And so they moved online, but, of course, it’s not the same. This is when the affective aspect of activist choir singing, the bodily impact the activity has, becomes the most pronounced.
JANA DOLEČKI: Suddenly you feel the most one vulnerable group activity, like of all times. Choir singing—no way. And it hit us really hard because you’re in this so intensively, in this like group feeling like we’ve never separated, we are standing so close to each other.
MARKO MARKOVIĆ: Right now, I think we’re pretty much waiting for the possibility to meet in person again, which would simply be the true feeling which we all miss.
“Geljan dade” performed by Hor 29. Novembar
PETER KORCHNAK: Okay, that’s the choirs, the stories, the personalities, the songs. Now what about the audiences? How do listeners or spectators react to this music? What’s the feedback the choirs are getting?
JANA DOLEČKI: We have reactions from utter enthusiasm to like utter ignorance.
The most radical problem we had until today was when we sing in one private shopping mall during Christmas shopping and stuff like that where we sang for 15 minutes [a] critic [sic] critical consumerism or something like that in different languages. And then we came out and we were warned that this was a private space, although we were standing outside on the pavement, and police came with, I think it was like 10 police vans, with arms up to their teeth. And this was like the most drastic reaction that we have. So there is a huge span of reactions.
Of course, when we sang in Zagreb, in Belgrade, the songs from [the] Partisan struggle and songs in Serbo-Croatian, the audience just went mad because they have like 40 people, that’s like very, I mean, emotional to people. I mean, in a way they realize, okay, somebody else is getting our heritage, and they’re disseminating it and singing it further. On the other hand, they cannot understand, like our German songs, which are also very, for us very important.
And on the other hand, in Austria, I mean, for me, the most cherished reactions are people who are coming from former Yugoslavia and hear us sing somewhere in Austria or Germany. In their view, it’s kind of like this heritage, they don’t see it that much in their normal space in normal lives.
SNEŽANA BURSAN: Wherever we sing, audiences is more emotional with the tears in the eyes. I like to see in public all family, children with parents with grandmother, grandfather, with some people, old people with medals, with the red marama, you understand me? We enjoy that really much and in Montenegro especially we are antifascistic [sic] country sto posto but our experience in Belgrade same, in Prijepolje in Serbia same, in Sarajevo same.
I think that we do [a] great thing, great and big thing. Yes. Look at our Facebook page and you will see a lot of likes and commentars [sic] from all ex-Yugoslavia.
EDNA JURCAN: People come after the concert in tears, you know and and they want to hug us and they said, “Wow, you are great. We love you. You made us cry. You sing so powerful…” One of the one of the cutest, you know, it was a little girl in Vienna. She came. And she was crying. And she said that she couldn’t believe that these songs are so beautiful.
And you see the people really need this, need to be together, to fight against something that it’s making us really poor.
SUZANA: I’m used to singing in a choir. But the response that we get in Kombinat choir, I’ve never got it anywhere else. People would cry, people would stand up, people would sing with us. Because we think that songs of rebellion are the ones that has to be sung by everyone. So standing on the stage, we want to erase this border between us standing on the stage and the people listening to us. We want them to sing along. they can do that.
And, of course, in each of our concerts, we had to give the encore, we had to sing another few songs, and our conductor would turn around and start conducting to the people. So they must sing along with us. Okay, we tell them okay, we will sing another song, but you must sing along.
Once there was an eight year old girl, her mother came to tell us that she was having a birthday that day and she wanted to have a birthday party at our concert. That was the present for her to come to our concert. And yeah, sometimes we see the small children who know all the lyrics and sing along with us. And sometimes what is the most touching is seeing the elderly people. They sometimes cry, they come at the end of the concert and tell us, “Thank you so much for singing these songs.”
And plenty of times, a lot of us during the singing, well, we weep a bit.
[SOUNDBITE – SONG]
“Bella Ciao” performed by Kombinat
PETER KORCHNAK: When I first heard one of these choirs sing Partisan songs in a YouTube video, I had a visceral negative reaction. Though I didn’t yet know the songs I was hearing, a memory from my childhood in 1980s Czechoslovakia hit me: tone deaf or not, I and all the other kids had to sing the Internationale, the Soviet anthem, the Song of Labor at music class, at assemblies, at marches.
But as soon as I looked into it, into what I was actually seeing and hearing, the whole thing became intriguing. Songs of resistance do have a place in today’s world: they do bring people together for common causes and against common foes, peacefully and communally, and well, in tune.
There are a number of other choirs in the ex-Yugoslav activist space, including: Zborke in Slovenia; Le Zbor in Croatia; Horkestar, Naša pjesma, and Svetonazori in Serbia; Raspeani Skopjani in North Macedonia; Pinko Tomažić in Trieste, Italy…
I can’t wait to see a live performance someday. I got goosebumps at the two practices I witnessed, the shivers down my spine, so the quote unquote real deal must be, well, something else. Until then, I’ll watch and listen online, as will we all. Smrt fašizmu!
PETER KORCHNAK: Next time on Remembering Yugoslavia:
ERIC UŠIĆ: We have the Partisan graffiti, graffiti that were written during the liberation phase, and the post-war.
PETER KORCHNAK: All across Istria and the Slovenian littoral, World War II-era slogans painted on walls stubbornly persist. What are these graffiti? How did they survive since the 1940s?
On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, World War II-era graffiti and their meaning.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, song embeds and lyrics with translations, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
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Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Nosens and Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons. Songs by Ženski pevski zbor Kombinat, Zbor Praksa, KIC Pop Hor, and Hor 29. Novembar played with permission and eternal gratitude.
I am Peter Korchňak.
“Pesem upora” / “Song of Rebellion”
Med tihim šepetom človeških laži / During the silent whisper of human lies
kot steber svobode ki v tem žari / Like a pillar of freedom glowing
sledimo korakom upora duha / We follow the footsteps of rebellion’s spirit
kljubujemo času sodobnega sveta. / We defy the time of the modern world.
Bitke pogumnih in srčnih ljudi / Battles of brave and hearty people
za nas niso zgodbe pozabljenih dni / Are not stories of forgotten days for us
za njih naj naša pesem živi / For them may our song live
za njih zdaj k soncu mi dvigamo pesti. / For them we raise our fists to the sun
Dvignimo glave za vse ki trpe / Let us raise our heads for all who suffer
podajmo roke vsem ki hrepene / Let us extend our hand to all who strive
misli premnogih ki sejejo strah / The thoughts of those who sow fear
spreminjamo v barve vseh človeških ras. / We change into the colors of all human races.
Pesem upora naj širi svoj glas / Let the song of rebellion spread its voice
sanje milijonov naj vzklijejo v klas / May the dreams of millions sprout into spikes
svoboda je misel posebna kot Kras / Freedom is a thought as special as the Karst
svoboda je ogenj ki greje naš obraz. / Freedom is the fire that warms our faces.