INTERVIEW: MIROSLAV SIKAVICA

Miroslav, you made a vibrant and compelling documentary on music and the role of patriotic musicians and singers in Croatia during the Homeland war. Thanks to LOUDER THAN GUNS we discover astonishing things about music in the so-called “Yugo sphere” at the time of Tito. It was but not only patriotic music, it was also about revolutionary music coming from the West that spread all over the country through the city of Trieste or to Vienna and despite censorship. You have not experienced that time, but surely you know a lot about rock punk and new age in the former Yugoslavia during the ‘80s, a unique phenomenon in the Communist world.

 

How did all this connect and tie together in your documentary?

In order to understand the revival of nationalism in Croatian popular music at the end of the 1980s and in early 1990s, it is necessary to understand the role of popular music in socialist Yugoslavia and how music was instrumentalised in that period for the construction of cultural and political identities.

After the World War II, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia attempted to create a supranational Yugoslav identity and culture that would unify different Yugoslavia’s constituent nations. This Yugoslavist cultural policy was based on the idea of «brotherhood and unity» among the nations. If it wasn’t associated with Yugoslavism, patriotism was suppressed and national themes in music were ignored in all of Yugoslavia’s constituent republics. Postwar focus was on the wartime struggle of the antifascist Partisan movement, socialist development and Yugoslavism. The songs that were politically problematic were those of the defeated wartime forces, such as the Nazis, the Croatian Ustashe and the Serbian Chetniks.

After the break-up with Stalin in 1948 Yugoslavia turned to the West for economic and political support and opened itself up to Western cultural influences more than any other country in Southeast Europe. For example, Yugoslavia entered the Eurovision Song Contest just five years after the contest was established in 1956 and participated in the contest until the 1991 as the only Southeastern European country. But, although Yugoslavia was the most liberal of all socialist states in Southeast Europe, it’s popular music was still under some ideological and political influence. So, Jugoton record company, the leading producer of pop music in Yugoslavia, based in Zagreb, continuously, across the periods, released music LPs that glorified Yugoslavia and its leader, Josip Broz Tito.

In the late 1960s began political movement in Croatia, known as the Croatian Spring, that demanded economic, cultural and political reforms in Yugoslavia and therefore more rights for Croatia within Yugoslavia. The most popular patriotic song of the time was “Your Country”, released in 1971 and made by popular singer Vice Vukov. The song called on Croatian emigrants to return to their fatherland. Tito believed that this demands of the Croats were threatening the unity of Yugoslavia and in December of 1971 he crushed the Croatian Spring and imprisoned its leaders. Vice Vukov was considered a “nationalist” and “politically inappropriate”, and was banned from performing in Yugoslavia. Until the late 1980s national themes did not appear in Croatian popular music. Because of this Croatia was sometimes dubbed «the silent republic». Historian Dean Vuletic writes thoroughly about that.

After the death of Tito in 1980, the regime’s control began to loose so New Wave rock bands in 1980s began to criticise aspects of the Yugoslav system. In 1988 Croatian band Prljavo kazalište (who started as a punk band) released a politically innocent song titled «To My Mother», which was dedicated to the recently deceased mother of the band’s guitarist, Jasenko Houra. The song referred to Houra’s mother Ruža (Rose) as «the Croatian rose». Just because it used the word «Croatian», the song was interpreted as a patriotic song and it became enormously popular in Croatia. On the other side, for the same reason, the band was criticised in other parts of the Yugoslavia for propagating Croatian nationalism, and it lost its popularity in Serbia, where reigned nationalist Slobodan Milošević.

By the end of the 1980s political climate has changed in whole Yugoslavia. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia loosened its control firstly over Slovenian and Croatian politics and society. In the first multi-party election in Croatia after the Second World War, in the spring od 1990, Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), conservative and right-wing political party under the leadership of Franjo Tuđman, beat the reformed communists with a great help from patriotic musicians, who in 1990 took an active part in boosting the national spirit. In 1990 the economic and political system in Croatia changed – from a unitary, socialist Yugoslavia to an independent, democratic and capitalist Croatia – but the structure of music serving political goals remained the same.

 

How did you come across the idea of Louder than Guns?

The patriotic 1990s were my coming-of-age time. Like the rest of my generation, I grew up under the physical and mental burden of war. While my peers in the West were growing up listening rebellious grunge bands like Nirvana, we were listening national lyrics and themes in Croatia. These patriotic songs are not only my first response to these turbulent times, but also an important aspect of everyday life of the era. At the same time these songs can precisely represent romantic patriotism, innocent unity and naive idealism of the time – things that will fade away in post-war period. Not less important, this topic was cinematically unexplored in Croatia before our documentary. “Louder than Guns” is first serious insight into this complex musical/propaganda aspect of the Croatian fight for independence, when musicians used their most powerful weapon – song – to fight against.

 

Was patriotic music something typical limited in Croatia or it was also elsewhere, in other republics?

Patriotic music played an important role in the political changes occurring in all the former Yugoslavian countries, but musicians reacted to the conflicts in many different ways. For example, in Croatia pop music was instrumentalised for nationalist politics, while in Serbia it was folk music. Politicians needed folk music because it reaches the masses. On the other hand, folk music needed politics to get in the media. In Croatia folk music was excluded from public cultural space and national radio stations broadcasted only foreign and domestic pop rock music as well as the new patriotic songs and the non-traditional Slavonian tamburitza music, which becomes particularly patriotic in these years.

The majority of Croatian musicians reacted to the atrocites as the victims of aggression, or in solidarity withe their co-citizens, while Serbian musicians found themselves in a much more difficult positions: some rejected the violence and organised antiwar events, other responded individually to the atrocities, some remained silent and waited, other supported their country’s regime, some emigrated before or during conflicts, other defended «Yugoslavism».

Due to aggressor role of their country, the Serbian mass media were not able to mobilize all their musicians, but only those nationalist ones. It was written dozens of militant songs that functioned as a stimulus and an integral part of a military campaigns. I read somewhere that the leader of the Serbian paramilitary organization “White Eagles” responsible for a number of atrocities during the Croatian and Bosnian wars, once stated that without their folk music the moral and war efficiency of his soldiers would be 30% weaker.

 

Can you tell us something about the Croatian Band Aid and the song “MyHomeland”. I did not know about that, and I have to say I have found it rather funny if I only remember the British-American Live Aid.

Croatian Band Aid, a charity super group founded in autumn of 1991, when the war was the most intense and when Croatia fought for international recognition, was probably the most iconic patriotic music project made in Croatian War of independence. Lyrics of the song emphasized Croatia’s natural beauty and the righteousness of the Croatian cause. The idea was to assembly musicians and singers of different generations and representatives of different genres of popular music (from Tamburitza players to punk rock singers) and show how all musicians were united in their love for Croatia. Zrinko Tutić, well-known show business producer, who was composer and lyricist, described it as “a musical symbol of the unification of Croatia”. Even 138 musicians (most of them were singers) participated in recording music video that was set in a studio like the classic international Band Aid of the 1980s and it was produced and recorded by Croatian Radio Television. Singing that song was the centrepiece of January 1992 concert celebrating Croatia’s international recognition.

In our documentary Tutić admitted that there was pressure on him as a composer of “My Homeland” because Arsen Dedić, one of the greatest poets and singer-songwriters in Croatia, sang even two lines and his father was ethnic Serb, an Orthodox Christian. It was definitely a harsh time for mixed national biographies. Even worse ended those who refused to participate in national mobilization. They were condemned to institutional silence or politically proscribed, such as Branimir “Johnny” Štulić, a frontman of popular and influential rock band Azra. Because he stated in 1991 that he personally and politically feel as a man from Balkan Peninsula and that he has no “national consciousness”, his band’s discography has ceased to exist for music editors on state/national radio and television. What’s worse, this ignorance of one of the most important opus of Croatian rock music continued until today.

Furthermore, it’s interesting that Band Aid remained a state propaganda instrument even after the initial war effort. An “Istria Band Aid”, also organized by Zrinko Tutić, appeared in 1993 HDZ campaign. Band Aid song “Thank You, Saint Father” marked the first papal (Pope Saint John Paul II) visit to Croatia in 1994. Another Band Aid was formed in 1996 for the children’s charity operated by President Tuđman’s wife.

“My Homeland” is just one of the few patriotic songs recorded in early 1990s that “survived” the war. National broadcaster played the instrumental version of that song as its programme closedown, from 1991 to 2000. But after the political changes in 2000, when a left-wing coalition achieved a victory in parliamentary elections, “My Homeland” lost the support of the state. Unsatisfied with media treatment, Tutić sold the song at the end of 2000 to a telecommunications company for its TV ad. In just 20 years the song has gone through an interesting “arc”: from an unofficial national hymn to bizarre advertising which sell products and services for private, foreign company.

 

In that time also anti-war songs were composed. For instance song ‘Stop the War in Croatia’ pleading with the international community to stop the fighting. Music ran on a double track, warmongering inside the country and pacifist outside, before the international community.

I would say that music shows many faces in the war times. Patriotic music served a variety of functions in political changes in the 1990s and in the Croatan War of Independence. According to the musicologist Svanibor Pettan, war affirmed the three basic functions of patriotic music: encouragement of those fighting on the front lines and those hiding in the shelters; provocation and sometimes humiliation of the enemy; and call for the involvement of the Croatian diaspora and the international community.

Furthermore, it’s interesting that two music markets coexisted all over the war. The «official» repertoire was available in regular stores and broadcasted by the state-sponsored media. That were politically correct songs, usually songs calling for peace and encouraging songs. But at the same time there was black music market with the «alternative» repertoire. At market stalls and by street sellers you could bought provocative songs with politically problematic lyrics and visual motives. Very often these were tapes of unknown origins, with no indication of producers, authors and performers on the cassette covers.

The most controversial part of the Croatian patriotic music of the 1990s was the celebration of the Independent State of Croatia, a World War II fascist puppet state of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, as the expression of Croatian statehood and considering Herzegovina, a region in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, as an integral part of Croatia. Such songs «lived» on the black music market and local radio stations, which used to serve as a means of raising morals rather than as a means of informing. Such cassettes could be normally bought at market stalls and they were hit among Croatian soldiers. However, such songs did not only record amateurs and anonymous musicans, but also some of the established performers.

It’s irony of the history that some nationalist songs made in 1990s use the same melody as the partisans songs from World War II that were used by antifascist soldiers and Communists. For example, «Cavoglave Batallion», song by Marko Perković Thompson, has got a Macedonian rhythm that is often used in folk songs in Serbia, but this song – because of its lyrics – still was considered as distinctly Croatian song and people in Croatia identificated with it.

 

Lord Carrington, the EU representative, said that Croatia had won the war because its television was better. Do you agree?

I didn’t study thoroughly patriotic music in Serbia in 1990s but the Yugoslav Wars were, among other things, media wars. Different position of Croatia and Serbia, the country who was attacked and the aggressor, had an effect on ways how those two countries used music as a mean of political propaganda. 

Open aggression in Croatia in the autumn of 1991 sparked an impulse response from musicians like never before – from fiddlers and tambura players to pop singers, dance musicians, rockers and punkers. The national broadcaster became their most agile producer. It commissioned new patriotic songs, broadcasted the existing ones, organised and funded countless patriotic music festivals and charity concerts, enabled many patriotic music videos to be recorded. According to the historian Catherine Baker, the Croatian state used production of patriotic music as form of useful political communication and homogenization. On the contrary, in Serbia, because of the position of the aggressor, there was a possibility for political and music opposition (for example «Rimtu ti tuki» supergroup in 1992). But, unfortunately, the music opposition in Serbia was marginalized by mass media, almost invisible and therefore not loud enuogh. The only Serbian rock band that had full media attention at that time was «Riblja čorba» (Fish Soup), due to group’s frontman open support for Serbian nationalism.

The day before the international recognition of Croatia on 15 January 1992, Croatian television broadcasted the pop song “Danke Deutschland” (“Thank you, Germany”), performed by Sanja Trumbić, which thanked Germany for diplomatic efforts in recognising Croatian independence. Serbian state television propaganda inserted in original music video scenes of crowds greeting armed forces of Nazi Germany in the middle of Zagreb at the beginning of World War II. TV Belgrade broadcasted reedited music video in order to create fake image in the public of the rehabilitation of fascism in Croatia.

 

What about Croatia today? Artistically I mean.

As far as music is concerned, throughout the 1990s it was almost impossible for Serbian bands and performers to perform in Croatia, as much as it was for Croatian groups and singers to play in Serbia. After the NATO bombing of Serbia in October, 1999, as well as fall of Slobodan Milošević in 2000, the situation changed, though not as fast as expected. There are still some Serbian musicians who are not welcome in Croatia, like Bora Đorđević, “Riblja čorba” frontman, because his anti-Croat verses and statements during the war. On the other side, there are still some Croatian singers who still claim that they will never again perform in Serbia.

The only one who has continued to force patriotic/national lyrics and topics is folk-rock singer Marko Perković, nicknamed Thompson after the American submachine gun. He is a war veteran and the most controversial Croatian patriotic musician. The right wing calls him a patriot, while for the left wing he’s a fascist. His concert in the Istrian town of Umag in 2008 was the first ever banned in Croatia.

In its recent history, Croatia’s liberal democracy has experienced most of the problems which are common in post-socialist states, including transition economy, privatization of state-owned companies, political corruption, threats against journalists, pressure by advertisers and political actors, historical revisionsm, public service broadcaster crisis, etc. Croatian Audiovisual Centre was created in 2008 in order to separate film from the Ministry of Culture and to achieve cinematographic autonomy. A recent expansion of Croatian film was the result of this program freedom. 2015 and 2016 were the most successful years by the number of significant international festival awards for Croatian films from short ones to animated ones. But since right-wing coalition government went again to power in January 2016, Croatia went to nationalism again. The situation is not pink since then, especially regarding political pressure on the media, film and national broadcaster. In February 2017 Croatian Film Center Head resigned under political pressure. Recently some war veterans’ associations attempted to ban one harmless Croatian comedy from the public service broadcaster because associations of war widows deemed it suddenly «offensive». Film funds has been reduced over the last two years. In addition to political pressure and conservatism, there is a real danger of self-censorship.

Share your thoughts