Ethnomusicologist Ana Hofman discusses the history and revival of Yugoslav Partisan songs, performed today by activist choirs around former Yugoslavia. Featuring Partisan songs by Zbor Praksa and KIC Pop Hor.
Bicycle-riding feminists and Lepa Brena 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.
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.”
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 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.”
We spoke over Skype.
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?
Yugoslav Partisan Songs in Socialist Yugoslavia
ANA HOFMAN: If we speak about Partisan songs in a sense of genre, it would be very difficult actually to categorize. Basically, this is a very heterogeneous assemblage of different, let’s say, sounds, different lyrics, pieces from different historical periods.
Partisan songs are basically songs which are definitely performed during [the] Second World War. They revived the previous historical sensorium of historical repertoires associated with many previous rapture or revolutionary or radical change events, such as [the] October Revolution, such as [the] Spanish Civil War, such as [the] 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 different historical layers of songs from different geographical areas 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 in a resistance movement. But of course, these songs were also performed by people in the villages, by people in the cities, so this cannot 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… Composers and Partisan fighters, they were trying somehow to adjust some local melodies to some musical features of mass combat songs or some revolutionary songs in order that these will be more accepted by people singing in the Partisan units. But what was definitely important and what was important for me in my research is that very strong kind of emotional 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 situation. I mean when people were dying with songs on their mouth or when they use in order to suppress hunger or while being tortured. So we really think about how music and song and singing, we cannot even think about song without singing. And I think sound is exactly what moves the body, but even in some cases remind these bodies to be alive.
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 imagination of new future, new political horizon. 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.
“Padaj silo i nepravdo” by Zbor Praksa
PETER KORCHNAK: So during the Yugoslav period Partisan songs were used to motivate the populace and inspire the masses to look to the bright future?
ANA HOFMAN: Yeah. These songs started to be canonized for the official memory politics in socialist Yugoslavia. We have to be careful how we discuss this cooptation or canonization of the Partisan songs after [the] Second World War. 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 belief in socialist system as a good one and fueling this belief in a brighter future, as you said.
But that does not mean that people basically didn’t experience that power of these songs. We cannot simply say, “Yes, songs were used during the war, for revolutionary struggle and then after, official elites basically exploited them, and then Yugoslavia collapsed and now we have a new life.”
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 rebirth 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.
“Pod Šumama i Gorama” by KIC Pop Hor
PETER KORCHNAK: What happened to Partisan songs in the immediate post-Yugoslav period?
Yugoslav Partisan Songs After Yugoslavia’s Disintegration
ANA HOFMAN: 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. 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 new national parties, new national elites basically seen [sic] 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, 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.
These songs were even seen as a production of the former regime, so without any potential. 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 this potential of these songs and the message and especially these affective part was simply, you know, dismissed, and something which is fake.
PETER KORCHNAK: After the dust from the wars of dissolution settled and peace broke out, people started organizing into choirs singing Partisan songs. What triggered this development? Why and how did it come about? And what does it all mean?
New Life of Yugoslav Partisan Songs in Activist Choirs
ANA HOFMAN: What was interesting for me were activist choirs, of course, because how they use and repurpose this legacy, but also the way how choirs are in general currently, I think globally, laboratories of some new ways of musical organizing or self-organizing, so it’s definitely about songs, but also I try to put in dialog choirs that perform this particular repertoire and try to recall this past or revive this past, revitalize this past. On the other hand, I also follow the global rise of activist singing and choirs and try to see how these global tendencies are actually merged or intertwined with specificity of this area.
So I think activist choirs in that sense are interesting because [they] brought back collective singing also on the stage. So it’s not just Partisan songs as such and then professional musicians perform these songs, but they also try to recall some other, let’s say, very important concepts in the current moment, of collective singing of singing or making music available to everyone. And this is how I also try to discuss Partisan songs and legacy of antifascism and socialism with some other concepts like amateurism, like radical amateurism and try to use choirs as, as I say, some kind of laboratories or experiments for reimagining or practicing new forms of political agency based on amateur music making.
And, when doing that, choirs also recall [the] particular legacy of Partisan songs as born during antifascist struggles and movement which was its own self-organized movement. So, and even later the context of self-management and the self-organization, which is, of course, merged with new cooperative movements and new kind of experiments in self-organization. So we definitely can track this kind of global, local, regional connections and how certain practices are put together or how they are floating through this area.
The real rise of these choirs is from 2008. There is no coincidence that this year is the year of [a] global economic crisis, which definitely somehow also shown 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. And Katherine Verdery and many other scholars talk about that, how basically certain events coincided: so the global economic crisis and rise of [the] new left in the South and eastern or former socialist East also, but let’s say also in the Balkans.
Let’s say [the] singing of Partisan songs is also part of the broader kind of revitalization or return of these, what Larisa Kurtović will say, socialist-era discourse language or class-struggle language here in the region, but definitely in dialog with the global kind of return and rise of antifascism and socialism we can definitely follow and we can also discuss how antifascists discovered they’re an organization, and they didn’t know, but Trump explained to them.
PETER KORCHNAK: In my homeland, Czechoslovakia, the Communist Party-led regime was much more restrictive and repressive. We had to sing these songs, the Song of Labor, the International, even the Soviet anthem, and I still remember them and entertain my American wife with them over beer. So when I first started hearing these Yugoslav Partisan songs, I had a negative reaction. Thanks to your work, I recognized the different dimensions and meanings and purposes of these. And yet, the criticism is easy to find, starting with promoting a totalitarian regime, as not-so-restrictive as it may have been. What do you say to all the criticism of this phenomenon?
ANA HOFMAN: Yeah, there are several lines of critique. One is definitely Yugonostalgia; so these people are simply nostalgic, they are not adjust[ed] to this current change and they want to return to this; so it’s very escapistic; it’s really nothing that you can really use for the current moment, but this is kind of a therapy also; or, of course, as you said – they are just some people, definitely some old commies and they want to, I don’t know, sustain this tradition. The other thing is that majority of people singing in these choirs are younger people.
And we can also discuss absolutely – they are middle class or upper middle class backgrounds; we can definitely discuss their intellectual backgrounds and so on, and this is again, another point of criticism for these, how these activists are basically some hipsters and some armchair activists.
The fact that these people are more or less younger people, I mean, people who, basically do not remember socialist Yugoslavia; for them, 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, some alternative, more a way to reclaim some structural transformation. Of course that they cannot say: “We want Yugoslav socialism back,” and 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. So, when socialism collapsed, they also felt that one utopia collapsed, then [the] second utopia collapsed, so absolutely they think that this historical experience can be used as a valid point to challenge this current inability of thinking the future.
PETER KORCHNAK: The new life of Partisan songs reflects some of the principles Yugoslavia was built on, highlighting the positive values the current regimes lack, many of which are hard to argue with, what’s wrong with antifascism, what’s wrong with socialism, I mean not socialism, lots wrong with socialism, I mean solidarity, a communal spirit.
I visited with two choirs, KIC POP Hor in Podgorica and Zbor Praksa in Pula, at their practices and the sense of “we’re in this together” was palpable, the energy in the room physically present. I felt like they’re doing something that has been lost, that they’re rediscovering or promoting something that may have been lost in the past.
ANA HOFMAN: I think what is relevant and you mentioned that: nothing’s wrong with antifascism, but so many things are wrong with socialism. It’s interesting how, if these two things can be separated, at least in [the] Yugoslav case, if antifascism is really liberated from [the] burden of socialism, then it’s already used by not just liberalist, but even in Serbia some right wing groups, or some people who also claim that Ustašas were also antifascist fighters. So I think we are coming to a very slippery terrain and if we claim antifascism to be completely kind of divorced from [its] concrete historical legacy in Yugoslavia, we can enter into the very slippery terrain also of either imposing some kind of an almost colonial approach to [the] local historical experience.
It’s then free from any ideology and it is not just neoliberal mantra, everything is without ideology. If antifascism is without ideology, then it’s so easy and we can all somehow agree that this is not problematic and what is wrong with antifascism, of course we are all antifascists.
At the point antifascism is somehow released from this burden of ideology only then it can be used as a political tool, because everyone actually can identify with this and especially in the very fragmented left, even people [who] do not agree about certain things, or they are not socialists, anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, antifascists—about antifascism they all agree and they can seam together and they can have some collective action. So it’s very interesting how at the moment real ideological potential of this term and practice is basically lost, then they can use it now for some new political actions. So it’s kind of a paradox.
PETER KORCHNAK: You first wrote about these choirs in 2015 and ‘16. It’s been a few years, what has changed since then, if anything?
The New Life of Partisan Songs Five Years Later
ANA HOFMAN: 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.
Some things definitely also remain the same from 2015 and ’16. So choirs continued with their own lives, their own life circles also, but definitely the intensity of their activities is always bigger when some ruptures, you know, are…in general. So more and more activities are taking place especially after 2015, regarding the refugee Balkan route. So lots of singing in front of the wire in Slovenia, in Croatia, in Serbia, also in refugee centers. And what would be very interesting, and I am also following now, is the situation, the corona lockdown basically somehow really, really strongly affected any collective activities. Although choirs here just started singing again, globally I got reports and information of some other scholars and friends and they said that choirs would probably be the last cultural activities that would be allowed [both laugh] because of, you know, bodily… Yeah.
But I think that collective singing on the street will definitely continue, like it continued here in Slovenia with current protests here. So Kombinat members and Z’borke members— last time they sang “Bella Ciao” while riding bicycles with [the] accompanying sound of, you know, bicycle ringing. So if we think about choirs in a more broader sense, that we all can be choir, so in that sense I think there is always a future, especially in protest marches and rallies which are happening outside.
“Bella Ciao” by Zbor Praksa
PETER KORCHNAK: Speaking of Yugoslavia, what is your personal experience with that country?
ANA HOFMAN: It’s really layered, but, my experience in Yugoslavia was that it was definitely my country. Very personal: Tito was [the] godfather of my father. And then another experience is singing in festivals, children festivals. I was very, very active as a singer as a child in different festivals across former Yugoslavia, when I performed, you know, children music, nothing, let’s say ideological, just simply children songs, but I traveled all across Yugoslavia. So I experienced that Yugoslavia in temporal and spatial sense really.
PETER KORCHNAK: How did you go from Niš to Ljubljana and from singing in children’s choirs to studying activist choirs of today?
ANA HOFMAN: I am coming from, what we call here [a] musical family. So my mom also finished [the] Music Academy; my dad was also [a] musician; my dad was [a] musician in popular music, my mom was also a conductor and she herself also prepare[d] and conduct[ed] some of these songs [these] choir[s] perform now. So can you imagine her surprise, she was like “What? These songs they perform again?” and I remember from my childhood how she was always saying like, “When my choir starts singing, all first row is crying and all second row in the audience, they cannot stop crying.”
I think from my early childhood, probably these first childhood memories somehow influenced my work and also obviously my theoretical approach to affect theory.
And then I finished music school, I enrolled [in the] Music Academy in Belgrade, Ethnomusicology— there is a Department for Ethnomusicology there— and my interest for Partisan songs started already from my master’s degree. I made PhD on emancipation of women through singing and through amateur music making in southern Serbia, also in relation to socialist gender politics. They couldn’t really understand why I’m interested in this. For my professors this was, as you said, this was something totally canonize irrelevant. We have lots of scholarly production and now you want again to do something in 2000. And I think they probably changed their minds.
PETER KORCHNAK: Good.
“Uz Maršala Tita” by KIC Pop Hor
ANA HOFMAN: I would just like to add that I think singing is very important. If you want to do some activist work or you’re exhausted from some activist work, definitely I think that collective singing is something that you can channelize and you can really also do something you cannot do alone or you cannot do in some other activist groups. I think singing, activist singing is [a] really, really good model for [the] current moment, because it’s simultaneously self-care and it can be also very effective. Although I would say people would say, “Ah they just sing.” But I think it’s important.
PETER KORCHNAK: Find links to all the references, songs played, excerpts from The New Life of Partisan Songs, and more at RememberingYugoslavia.com.
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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.
Smrt fašizmu, sloboda narodu!
Lyrics of Yugoslav Partisan Songs
These are the Yugoslav Partisan 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 this and other Yugoslav Partisan songs 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
Bella Ciao / Bye Beautiful
Una mattina mi son svegliato / One morning I awakened Oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao / Bye beautiful Una mattina mi son svegliato / One morning I awakened E ho trovato l’invasor / And I found the invader
O partigiano portami via / Oh partisan carry me away Oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao / Bye beautiful O partigiano portami via / Oh partisan carry me away Che mi sento di morir / Because I feel death approaching
E se io muoio da partigiano / And if I die as a partisan, Oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao / Bye beautiful e se io muoio da partigiano / And if I die as a partisan tu mi devi seppellir / Then you must bury me
Seppellire lassù in montagna / Bury me up in the mountain Oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao / Bye beautiful seppellire lassù in montagna / Bury me up in the mountain sotto l’ombra di un bel fior / Under the shade of a beautiful flower
I tutti quelli che passeranno / And all those who shall pass Oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao / Bye beautiful i tutti quelli che passeranno / And all those who shall pass mi diranno “che bel fior” / will tell me, “what a beautiful flower.”
Questo è il fiore del partigiano / This is the flower of the Partisan Oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao / Bye beautiful questo è il fiore del partigiano / This is the flower of the Partisan morto per la libertà / Who died for freedom
Learn more about the song on Wikipedia.
Uz Maršala Tita / With Marshall Tito
Uz maršala Tita, junačkoga sina / With Marshal Tito, the heroic son Nas neće ni pakao smest’ / Not even Hell shall stop us. Mi dižemo čelo, mi kročimo smjelo / We raise our foreheads, we walk boldly I čvrsto stiskamo pest / And clench our fists hard.
Rod prastari svi smo, a Goti mi nismo / We are an ancient breed, but Goths we are not Slavenstva smo drevnoga čest / We are part of ancient Slavdom Ko drukčije kaže, kleveće i laže / Whoever says otherwise slanders and lies Našu će osjetit’ pest / [And] will feel our fist
Sve prste na ruci u jadu i muci / All our fingers, through misery and suffering Partizanska stvorila je svijest / Were created by Partisans awareness Pa sad kad i treba, do sunca do neba / And now when we should, to the sun, to the sky Visoko mi dižemo pest / We raise our fists high
Learn more about this and other Yugoslav Partisan songs on Wikipedia.
Ana Hofman’s Work on Yugoslav Partisan Songs and Activist Choirs
- Media coverage and introduction of The New Life of Partisan Songs
- “Music, Affect and Memory Politics in Post-Yugoslav Space, an introduction to the special issue,” Southeastern Europe 39 (2015), 145-164
- “Lepa Brena: Repolitization of musical memories on Yugoslavia,” Glasnik Etnografskog Instituta SANU 11 (2012), 21-32
- “Disobedient: Activist Choirs, Radical Amateurism, and the Politics of the Past after Yugoslavia,” Ethnomusicology 64:1 (2020), 89-109
- …and more