LOUDER THAN GUNS – Music in the Yugo sphere

Louder than guns? The power of music.

LOUDER THAN GUNS the well-made documentary of the young Croatian director Miroslav Sikavica, premiered at the latest Trieste Film Festival, is rich in music and images. Fascinating and full of curiosities through interviews with music stars, the documentary captures (with music!) the parabola of the disintegration ex-Yugoslavia ranging from the triumph of secessionist nationalism to the present day crises of the new states.

Music has never been deaf to the calls of politics nor immune to its charmes. Always serving as a sounding board, music has always amplified ideologies and ideas, reflecting social moods as well as discontent, mystifying as well as disguising them. Music of war, music for war, music for going off to war.

For the time it existed nor did Yugoslavia escape this ritual. More liberal or less oppressive compared to its other “Communist brothers”, Tito’s regime somehow tolerated the cultural influences coming from west of the Iron Curtain, especially after its divorce from the USSR and the consequent Yugoslav road to socialism. Determined by its geographical position and geopolitical choices (non-alignement policy), the Yugoslav case was quite particular within the two blocks. Yugoslav musicians, thanks to border holes, were able to travel abroad (via Trieste and Vienna) becoming exposed to Western-influenced music of that time.

LOUDER THAN GUNS is set in Yugoslavia, in Croatia, between the ‘80s and the beginning of the war. Croatia had been the most politically modern state among the other ex-Yugoslav states, where music before war had been rock and punk (already in 1977) and then New Wave, in the early ‘80s.

A unique phenomenon in the Communist world, music in Yugoslavia aligned itself with the standards of the great European capitals of those years. More afraid of underground subversive movements than the young eager to vent their frustrations and demands for freedom in music, Marshal Tito, not unreasonably, tolerated this avant-garde music. From the long-haired youth Tito demanded only one thing – their music had to remain within the so-called Yugo sphere. No songs and ballads with the faintest hint of patriotism.

Vera Sviboda, a famous Croatian popular leader recounts that during the ‘70s, and still in the early ‘80s, it was forbidden to sing nationalist songs. «[..] in 1971 I was recording my LP of patriotic songs but they prevented me, they didn’t like the idea. It was dangerous to sing nationalist songs,  you never knew how the police could react.»

Vice Vukov, one of the most famous stars in the ‘60s, was blacklisted from the artistic scene, from television and from record companies for his support of Croatian nationalism. Between the late ‘80s and the beginning of the ‘90s, music in Croatia played “another tune!” – folk, traditional, violent, the voice of an emerging ethno-nationalism. Many artists offered their talents to support the ‘Homeland War’, the secessionist war of Franjo Tujman for independence and the emergence of a new Croatian identity fighting off Slobodan Milošević’s advance, in order to fill the vacuum of power on the terrain of ethnic divisions left by Tito’s passing away.

In 1988, the popular rock band, Bijelo Dugme (set up by Goran Bregović), released their last album with a song combining the Croatian anthem, “Our Beautiful Homeland”, with a traditional Serbian song, “There Far Away“. Towards the late ‘80s, a lot of Serbian music was produced purposely dedicated to the Kosovo issue. They were ultra-nationalistic texts merged with popular music. It was about a clear proclamation of where the bomb was going to explode, a musical prelude to Milosevic’s ominous and inflamed speech to the Kosovar Serbs in Pristina in April 1987.

In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic became the President of the Yugoslavia Federation. Music was there to send messages to the masses of voters, and later to the soldiers who would go to war.

’My dear Serbia… they split you in three, you will be one again […]‘ 

In the Croatian Democratic Union, the right-wing party of Tujman won the first multi-party elections in the Yugoslav history, pulverizing the Communist party. Croatian Serbs declared the secession of the Serbian region of Krajina where they made up the ethnic majority.

The  Croatian public TV, HRT (the main financial sponsor of patriotic music), broadcasted songs such as “Farewell Yugoslavia, paper dragon, your tyranny is near its end, your time is up …”, and for soldiers on the front, “My Belgrade friend”.

Mister General“, Vladmir Kous Zec sang, “I’ll tell you one more thing, remember Vukovar”. In September 1991, Vukovar was the Hapsburg Sarajevo of  the former Yugoslavia. In the hands of the Serbs until 1995, when, four years later, Operation Storm under the Croatian military liberated most of the occupied territories (except Eastern Slavonia falling under the control of the international peace-keeping forces). There was also a soundtrack for the recapturing of Krajina- Krin.

“Hi Cetnik look up into the sky, there is a storm coming, it  feels like a hurricane – It’s time for Vukovar.”

«Serbia started a media war against Croatia, the only reaction for us was to produce patriotic music to awaken our spirits», a music producer of the time recounts.

Franjo Tujman owes a lot to music. Hundreds of patriotic songs were released to support the Croatian cause, with no distinction between patriotic music, rock, punk, or violin and lute players. Music served to raise the morale of Croatian soldiers on the battle field and civilians in the shelters. Songs like God Watch Over Croatia or Great Croats, as well as anti-war songs, or those for abroad to stop the fighting such as Stop the War in Croatia, an appeal to the international community. Even some actresses sang  the very popular Lili Marleen.

«We were attacked for that because people said it was Fascist at a time when some politicians were trying to reestablish the independent State of Croatia of the time of  WW1 and when the Ustascia solution had been tolerated», a main character recounts. «We recorded a cassette and then began spreading it about».

And then, confirming the overpowering appeal of the American-English soft power, a Croatian version of Live Aid was set up by the broadcasting network HRT. The country’s biggest stars gathered, not to fight world poverty, but to encourage people for the final war effort with My Homeland.

The atmosphere of patriotic war also spilled over to dancing. «[…] we were making propaganda, there is no doubt about it” […]», remembers choreographer and lyricist, Borut Separovic,  acclaimed author of the video clip, Croatia in Flames, the first Croatian music video broadcasted on MTV. Nobody knows how many patriotic songs were recorded during the war, many of them, however, have not survived the end of the hostilities, nor their authors  –  Zrinko Tutić, Vera Svoboda, Josip Ivanković, Mladen Kvesić, Mario MihaljevicDavor Gobac, Sandra Kulier, Mario Pešo, Borut Šeparović, Miroslav Lilić, Ante Perković.

«I think popular music in this region was always political», the historian Dean Vuletic says, «we were with Tito.» Jugoton, the largest record company in the former Yugoslavia released many long play partisan music dedicated to the Marshal.

«Nobody had to think how to incorporate music into politics, that was happening automaticall.» (Ksenija Umlicie, Editor in Chief of Croatian television entertainment).

There was, however, some who were against all of this. The band Kud Idijoti playing the remake of ‘Red Flag’. «[..] the worst thing that could happen to the regime were four guys playing music against the nationalism of the day [..] rock and roll should have been the resistance”. (Davor Zgrabljić, Kud drummer-bass player)

Croatia’s state television won the war before the army on the battlefield did. Lord Carrington, EU representative, was then not so wrong in declaring that Croatia had won because its television was better.

«My Homeland? I would not write one single note of that song today.» Nikša Bratoš, composer of the famous song, states in no uncertain terms, «We have wasted a lot of time, a lot of our life, not to mention the people who died. What for?» 

Television broadcasts images of the anti-government protests that in the Spring of 2011 (‘Today Tunisia, Tomorrow Croatia’, the graffiti found all over Zagreb) were staged in all the big cities across the country. A very diverse mobilization of young people, former Communists, radical right, clerics, coming together as one in the fight against inaction and pervasive corruption of the political élite.

«Thieves, go home, we want free elections.»

The flags of the Croatian Democratic Union, just as those for the SDP, the Socialist Party, burn. Nor is the starred flag saved. Those days were not transformed into Politics, and Croatia is still not in the healthiest shape.

“Sleep well, sweet Homeland”

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