BALKAN AS A METAPHOR IN THE FILM COMPOSITION OF GORAN BREGOVIC
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CHAPTER II MUSIC AND POLITICS IN COMMUNIST AND WAR-TORN YUGOSLAVIA:
Provocative and successful Genres through the ethno-rock of “White Button” and the musical endem called the “Newly Composed Folk”
The first part of the chapter addresses the history of Bregovic’s band “White Button” taking into consideration their national and international success and the relationship between their creative work and the political situation in Yugoslavia. The second part introduces “Newly Composed Folk” (the most popular musical genre in the Communist Yugoslavia) in comparison to the folk-inspired rock of “White Button”.
“White Button” was one of the most influential rock bands both in the former Yugoslavia and on the Eastern and South Eastern European music scene during the 70s and 80s. The band’s influence within the former Yugoslav borders lies in the creative reinforcement of the “pluralist” concepts of both Yugoslav and Bosnian societies as expressed in the band’s eclectic musical opus. Outside of Yugoslavia, this band quickly became the Rock ambassador of the country’s multi-culturalism, portraying the unique Yugoslav nation as an ethnic, cultural and artistic Slav-Mediterranean hybrid.
The discussion is constructed in relation to the following subjects:
the formation of the band
their fast growing popularity in the country
“White Button” and their brief film history
“White Button” as a spring board for Bregovic’s growing musical career
“White Button” was named on New Year’s Day 1974. But what are the origins of this group and their name?
Introduction to the band and the evolution of its musical directions are the most important links to Bregovic’s more recent film-composition career because of the recycling techniques that he continues to apply in his soundtrack music.
Bregovic’s musical history began with several years of unenthusiastic violin studies at the children’s instrumental department of the local Conservatory, after which he commenced guitar lessons in the early 60s. His explanations about the sudden interest in guitar playing and rock music are honest, natural and somewhat comical.
You were entering the world of rock‘n’roll with a very simple reason – girls always preferred guitarists to car mechanics. This is exactly the same everywhere and it is no secret. Later on, those more talented players find a valid reason to stay in this business.
(Bregovic, October 2001)
Bregovic became the bass guitarist for the school-band Izohipse (Isohipses) in the first year of high school, but soon decided to transfer to a different department. Change of schools was followed by a change of bands, too. Bregovic moved to Bestije (Bitches).
Association with this band exposed Bregovic to Kodeksi (Codexes) one of the most prominent Sarajevan bands of that time. Zeljko Bebek, the lead singer of “Codexes” attended one of Bestije’s concerts together with members of Pro Arte, a Yugoslav soul music icon of the 60s, and noticed a young promising guitarist. Bregovic was not entirely attracted to Pro Arte’s visions of soul music and he quickly became much more interested in “Codexes”. His musical evolution in “Codexes” is very important for later developments in hybrid genres that include rock and folk music.
One of the crucial moments during Bregovic’s involvement with “Codexes” was the 1969 Neapolitan season during which he changed from bass to the solo guitar position in the band. This transition later took him to the lead guitarist/singer profile that continues to the present day.
Although “Codexes” arrived in Italy ready and rehearsed to play the contemporary standard cover band repertoire (ie. Cream repertoire) it was not long before their impresario Renato Pacifico instructed them to consider an entirely different programme of Balkan folk music, and asked them to prepare cocek, kolo and other similar traditional works despite their obviously rock-oriented band configuration. Although busy with playing and adapting the traditional repertoire for rock instruments, “Codexes” were still also rehearsing their standard cover band numbers during this time. In 1970, while still in Italy, Bregovic and Bebek decided to bring two other members into the band. Shortly after this decision, musicians Zoran Redzic (guitarist) and Milic Vukasinovic (drummer) arrived from Yugoslavia. Vukasinovic’s arrival immediately started changing the musical expression of the band, as he was more driven towards the artistic expressions similar to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. The band, having so far followed the commercial repertoire, took on this musical adventure with great enthusiasm, but this stylistic change soon proved to be a growing difficulty for the lead vocalist Bebek. This stylistic input is also significant for Bregovic’s development as a rock guitarist, as it improved his perception of the popular Western rock music of the time and helped him develop clearer frameworks for his already evolving ideas about the hybridity of rock and traditional music.
The stylistic change led Bebek to leave “Codexes” in the autumn of 1970 while Bregovic, Redzic and Vukasinovic remained together, returning to Yugoslavia the same winter. The trip to Italy was very significant for Bregovic’s future work as it gave him a clearer perspective about the interests that the neighbouring countries (Italy in particular) always had in the traditional Balkan music. Such trips and international gigs were also the best external contact points for artists from the inwardly oriented Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Bregovic met guitarist Ismet Arnautlic in 1971 and they formed a new band Jutro (Morning). This band consisted of the three old members of ex-”Codexes” and Arnautlic. In “Morning” Bregovic began experimenting with composition for the first time in his musical career.Despite the bad dynamics from the 1970-71 Italian season, the members of “Morning” started recording with the former singer of “Codexes”, Bebek, again in 1972. Bebek made his return to ex-”Codexes” now “Morning” and recorded five songs including the famous big hit single Kad bi’ bio bijelo dugme (If I Was a White Button) that also determined the final band name.
Guitarist Arnautlic left the band in 1972 and took with him the authorisation rights to use the group name “Morning”. Bregovic and the other members tried to fight the case and most of 1973 went by in endless debates about that authorisation. During this time the ex-”Morning” members found two new players, Vlado Pravdic (keyboardist) and Goran “Ipe” Ivandic (drummer) and perfected some of the recordings of the previously existing materials. They still needed a band name.
Arnautlic’s “Morning” was functioning from Ljubljana, and the audiences were already familiar with the hit single Kad bi’ bio bijelo dugme (If I Was a White Button) so the ex-”Codexes”, ex-”Morning” members opted this catchy visual symbol as their new name.
The band was baptised Bijelo dugme (White Button) on 1st January 1974.
Rejected by a Sarajevan-based recording house Diskoton in 1974, “White Button” members signed a five-year contract with Jugoton, the most prestigious Yugoslav recording company. Shortly after signing the contract, the band embarked on their first collaboration with a famous Yugoslav poet Dusko Trifunovic. His poems Glavni junak jedne knjige (The Main Character From One Book) and Bila mama Kukunka, bio tata Taranta (There was Once Mamma Kukunka, There Was Once Daddy Taranta) quickly became the band’s new hit singles. These collaborative choices exemplify Bregovic’s strongly text-based musical tendencies and his interest in work with the intricacies of poetic language.
During the recording of these singles, contrary to the standard rules and regulations, Bregovic signed a double deal with both Jugoton and Diskoton. This scandalous move made the band into an absolute headline and actually helped them sell the records from both sources.
In May of 1974, they appeared at the Slovenian-based rock spectacle BOOM Festival and won the hearts of Yugoslav audiences across the entire country. “White Button” was becoming the best Yugoslav band faster than the members were even realising it. The first album Kad bi’ bio bijelo dugme (If I Was a White Button) was officially released in October 1974.
The 1974 Festival of Skopje performance in Macedonia was one of the band’s early attempts to declare their absolutely multi-culturally Yugoslav and non-political orientation, and they chose to perform a work by Grigor Koprov, a prominent Macedonian text-writer of the time. The band’s musical attempt to declare their all -nation- loving Yugoslav identity also remains one of their more embarrassing career- moves. Although Serbo-Croatian and Macedonian languages are very similar, Zeljko Bebek’s performance of the song was always described as very awkward.
Croatian journalist Drazen Vrdoljak describes “White Button” as pastirski rock (shepherdic rock) during this time. This expression has two possible meanings. “Shepherdic” in its derogatory form in Serbo-Croatian language alludes to tastelessness and lack of sophistication, sensitivity and precision. From this angle, Vrdoljak may have been addressing the awkwardness of Bebek’s vocal performance in Macedonian language. More positively, “Shepherdic Rock” might have simply been a clear allusion to the band’s growing musical orientation towards traditional Yugoslav materials. This expression remains a somewhat mysterious yet highly accurate description that combines both the 1974 festival performance and the continuing stylistic musical tendencies of the band.
Bregovic made it to the top four in the 1975 Kongres Rock majstora (Congress of Rock Masters). “Congress of rock masters” is a yearly presentation of prominent rock guitarists in the country for both solo artists and band members. The aim of the event is to uncover four of the country’s best guitarists. Bregovic’s achievement propelled the profile of the band even more, but also put him even higher in the rock music hierarchy.
The other congress advantage is the recording opportunity that it provides for these four players. Each of the four chosen guitarists records a side on a double album. Bregovic chose to work with his band in collaboration with the string quartet from Zagreb. This was one of the first collaborations with classical music ensembles – such collaboration later becomes Bregovic’s artistic signature in film composition.
The retrospective compilation album from 1976 included works by “White Button” as existing since 1974, and some materials by “Morning” during their various musical stages and ensemble configurations. This album also exemplifies the stylistic evolution with regards to the band’s growing folkloric tendencies in rock writing. The new album Eto bas hocu (So, I Really Want To) released in December 1976 includes one of the most famous Yugoslav rock ballads Lose vino (Bad Wine) performed by Zdravko Colic who even today remains one of the leading solo pop-rock artists in Yugoslavia and Bregovic’s favourite film collaborator.
Bregovic wrote the soundtrack for Patrice Chereau’s film adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ play Queen Margot almost twenty years after the release of “Bad Wine” and made Colic the most memorable performer on the soundtrack compilation through compositions such as Rondinella and Ruda Neruda (see Chapter V.)
Despite the success of the 1977 Polish tour, the band was going through an enormous internal turmoil and this year marked their first weak point in the four-year period since their formation. This led the members to play a free concert that was also described as Bregovic’s farewell to the fans before going to compulsory army service. The concert, which was the band’s attempt to calm down the raging internal group dynamics, was held on 28th August 1977 near Hajducka cesma (literally translates to the Rebel’s Tap – a small fountain at one of the central squares in Belgrade, Yugoslavia). Koncert kod Hajducke cesme (The Concert at the Rebel’s Tap) was recorded on the day and soon became an album with the similar name. This was an absolute success with over 27,000 audience members. One part of this incredible atmosphere was documented in Mica Milosevic’s film Nije nego (Nevertheless).
The 1979 album Bitanga i princeza (A Thug and a Princess) featured the hit-single Na zadnjem sjedistu moga auta (On the Backseat of My Car). This song is heard in its American appropriation In the Deathcar as a part of the Arizona Dream soundtrack (see Chapter IV.) Bregovic wrote his first soundtrack for Aleksandar Mandic’s film Licne stvari (Personal Affairs, 1979).
The 1980 album Dozivjeti stotu (To Live for a Hundred Years) marks a slight change of the band style: instead of their usual group view as expressed through the music, this recording is a collection of more personal individual colourings and opinions. Bregovic’s interests in traditional music are particularly accentuated in this compilation.
In 1982, “White Button” played 41 concerts in Bulgaria. This tour exposed Bregovic to the traditional music of the neighbouring Bulgaria and its strong vocal traditions that have inspired so much of his later film music.
The self-titled album Bijelo dugme (White Button, 1984) wrapped in a controversial album cover featuring the painting of Kosovka devojka (The Maiden from Kosovo) is the band’s most explicit return to the roots of traditional music. The accentuated folk tendencies are exemplified in collaborations with the Jugoslovenski orkestar tradicionalnih instrumenata (Yugoslav Orchestra of Traditional Instruments) and the traditional female vocal ensemble, Ladarice. The hit single, Da te Bogdo ne volim (I Wish to God I Didn’t Love You), was later recycled in the making of the Arizona Dream soundtrack into Iggy Pop’s In the Deathcar (see Chapters IV and VI.) The album also includes the band’s most famous ethno-rock number Lipe cvatu (Blossoms Bloom), embodying both their familiar rock sound and the musical expression of the Macedonian zurnas and Serbian bass drums. “White Button‘s” “Shepherdic Rock” has reached a mature and sophisticated level by this stage.
Bregovic continues his experimental hybrids of rock and folk music on the 1986 album Pljuni i zapjevaj moja Jugoslavijo (Spit and Sing My Yugoslavia). This album also includes two important songs that appeared later in his soundtrack opus. Haj’mo u planine (Let’s Go to the Mountains) became Get the Money in the Arizona Dream soundtrack (see Chapter IV). Nocas je k’o lubenica pun mjesec iznad Bosne (The Moon Over Bosnia is as Big and Round as a Watermelon Tonight) was arranged into an instrumental titled La chasse (The Hunt) in the Queen Margot soundtrack (see Chapter V.)
The last album Ciribiribela (1988) was released during the period when the situation in SFRY became undoubtedly politically tense with no quick or simple resolutions forthcoming. “White Button” offered an another amazing album wrapped, this time, in an almost prophetically controversial cover with an image of “Noah’s Boat”, as if to clearly suggest the Biblical floods which will soon sweep the country in the form of a civil war.
The hit from this album is an old Gypsy theme, Djurdjevdan (St. George’s Day), the future theme song for Kusturica’s film, Time of the Gypsies (see Chapter III). “St. George’s Day” remains one of those unbeatable hits of Yugoslav music that can still today make those who know it laugh, cry, table-dance and smash plates and glasses immediately upon hearing this tune.
The number of ingredients in Bregovic’s ever-growing hybrid art increases through collaborative work with the Hor Srpske Pravoslavne Crkve (Choir of Serbian Orthodox Church), members of Prvo beogradsko pevacko drustvo (Belgrade’s First Singing Society) and a singing group called Klapa Trogir (The Trogir Ensemble). Some of his musical gestures from this album begin the creative formulae displayed in his later film composition.
After the last album Ciribiribela, Bregovic continues developing his career as a film composer re-starting with projects such as Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies.
With the war breaking out, Bregovic leaves the country, together with his compatriot director Kusturica shortly after their collaboration on the film Arizona Dream in 1992.
“The war in the former-Yugoslavia just exploded.” Bregovic remembers. “Emir and I escaped to America to take the film. Then we met again in Paris, with many friends from Sarajevo. Yes, friends: intellectuals and artists of the pacific and cultured Bosnia, blown away by the grenades. The old comrades of the clubs where Kusturica showed his early films and played the bass in a punk band.”
(Bregovic in Fabretti, 2003)
Bregovic has said that singing in the rock band was the only way to express his opposition to the government without risking jail time in then – communist Yugoslavia.
Although the focus of the discussion is the album and the title song Pljuni i zapjevaj moja Jugoslavijo (Spit and Sing My Yugoslavia, 1986), “White Button’s” work has been the subject of Socialist censorship on several occasions since the 70s. The 1979 album, Bitanga i princeza (A Thug and a Princess), is one of the best known examples.
Firstly, the album cover where a young woman is kicking a guy between the legs was rejected. The most beautiful ballad Sve ce to mila moja pokriti snijegovi, ruzmarin i sas (Snow, Rosemary and Grass Will Cover Everything My Darling) included a controversial line A Hrist je bio kopile i jad (And Christ was a bastard child and misery). The line was altered by changing the noun into a personal pronoun to A On je bio kopile i jad (And He was a bastard child and misery). The non-political “White Button” provoked constant political attention from the Yugoslav government.
The album “Spit and Sing My Yugoslavia”, wrapped in yet another provocative cover featuring a painting of a Chinese Modern Revolutionary Dance, was Bregovic’s musical attempt to gather all Yugoslav public enemies in one place. This album can also be viewed as the band’s musical reawakening to the idea of brotherhood and unity during the increase of political instability in their home country. Perhaps the idea of so many “apparently” public enemies was either meant to urge the people to stay together or to realise that the concept of brotherhood and unity was in some instances a pure farce, an idea imposed on the people by the law.
The album opens with a World War II revolutionary number of the oppressed Yugoslav people Padaj silo i nepravdo (Fall You Force and Injustice) that is sung by an exiled war hero Svetozar Vukmanovic-Tempo and a choir of children from the orphanage “Ljubica Ivezic” in Sarajevo.
The very album title together with the theme song of the same name carried certain provocation. Bregovic frequently comments that this phrase had all the Communist committees discussing whether the phrase alluded to the positive Socialist thought of spitting on your hands or it meant “the other bad thing?”
The Serbo-Croatian expression “spit on your hands and get to work” is the equivalent of the English saying “roll up your sleeves and get to work.” “Spit And Sing My Yugoslavia”, with its optional negative translation alludes to shame and degrading qualities of its apparently peaceful call for “brotherhood and unity” which is actually imposed by the law. Southern Slavs from the Balkans spit only when utterly outraged or disgusted. “The other bad thing” suggests the disgrace of spitting on hands – the most intimate symbol of human labour.
Another interlude of tension between “White Button” and the Socialist Yugoslav government took place in 1976. After the release of Retrospektivna kompilacija (Retrospective Compilation), the band members were planning a trip to the United States and some possible performances for the Yugoslav migrants in America, but the government was very suspicious of this decision. Aware of the possible accusation of a “pro-Western orientation”, Bregovic made a wise diplomatic move and went on work experience with the entire band. This work experience was common in the Socialist regime countries after World War II, and it was designed to assist the post-war rebuilding of the destroyed regions, involving different types of construction work and even physical labour. Such an exceptionally patriotic move by the entire band served as a powerful shield against any “pro-Western orientation accusations”, and although they gave up on the idea of playing concerts, all members still travelled to the United States later that year.
I remember that we went on work experience to bring some discipline into the whole thing. I don’t know why but I do believe in structure, in a frame for things. Especially in a frame for human freedom. So I don’t know what exactly we were doing during that time, but I had an unexplainable need to return somewhere where there was that frame constructed for us, a smaller frame than the one we would have enjoyed. I thought we needed it for something. We went for work experience and worked, not played during this time. Still today I think that this was somehow useful. Regardless of how we look at those Socialist Actions today, from the current perceptive, we used those instances for private reasons and you could even say for recreation.
(Bregovic, November 2001)
Bregovic always referred to a duality between the Yugoslav political situation and the conditions under which the artists were creating during the 70s and 80s. From his interviews we find out that, despite his totally pro-Yugoslav attitude, he found the Yugoslav idea of “brotherhood and unity”, as pushed to the people by the government, completely artificial and over-the-top.
But since we are talking about that kitsch I must say it was always so cute I could not have been nasty about it. I loved his leather coat that turns a man directly into a statue. Things have gone in and out of cupboards, but that leather coat in which you immediately become a human statue stayed, I kept that one maybe even for ten years. I got a watch from Zdravko Colic –a holographic portrait of Tito appears and disappears on the watch-face. My mum loved dressing like Jovanka (Tito’s wife) wearing her hair in a bun.
(Bregovic, November, 2001)
“His leather coat that immediately turns a man into a statue” refers to President Tito's coat, which gave him a rather austere look. Such coats, very much like the Nazi coats during World War II, were suddenly highly fashionable in Yugoslavia. It is interesting to observe how Bregovic relates to these items, as if they are theatre props intentionally generating a particular pro-Communist appeal.
Like in many other communist countries, the Yugoslav presidential couple was more than politically influential: they were immediately two cultural icons setting examples for the nation. Jovanka, Tito’s wife, was a tall dark woman, with thick black hair, always up in a high bun and, as Bregovic suggests, all women tried to hold themselves like she did.
The most interesting of all is the mention of the watch with Tito’s holographic face on it. This watch appears in Kusturica’s film Underground (see Chapter III, Kusturica’s film featuring another Bregovic soundtrack). Both the title and the filmsetting are powerful metaphors for the Yugoslav leader Tito’s attempt to freeze the apparent ethnic tensions.
Fashion was, together with the arts, formed through a politically influenced framework that suggested a particular life-style with specific behavioural codes. Communal consciousness was framed by the political orientation of the dominant ideology. Bregovic’s description of the particular Socialist-style fashion and Kusturica’s metaphoric application of these items as theatrical devices portray the restrictions and the human/art/fashion-laboratory that was created to support the politically endorsed communal thinking.
Bregovic’s descriptions suggest a similar kind of “love-hate” relationship like that of the “inward-outward” Yugoslav nation. Every state was influenced by the neighbouring foreign countries, but also continuously aimed towards artistic and cultural reunion with its other Yugoslav compatriots. Bregovic described the events of the past as “Socialist kitsch” but used the work experience as recreation together with political reasons. He ridiculed the President’s military attire, but kept a similar coat in his wardrobe.
According to the Bosnian writer and critic, Tarik Jusic there are five categories that define aspects and roles of rock music in the Communist countries:
A rehearsal for the future revolution
Self-organisation of the repressed society
A specific medium of articulation of disenfranchised population and an alternative public sphere outside of state control
A form of identification of disoriented youth in conditions of the collapsing Communist societies
A specific form of national identification in multinational Communist societies such as the former Yugoslavia and USSR
Jusic’s first point suggests rock music as a rehearsal for the potential revolution. The ideology of “White Button” exposes the constrictive nature of both Jusic’s analytical framework and the political situation in Yugoslavia. Their non-political approach to music led them to creatively explore highly politically ticklish subjects that, regardless of their actual artistic symbolism, could never avoid the attention of the Yugoslav secret police.
Bregovic has always proclaimed the band’s lack of interest in politics, although it is virtually impossible to separate politics from any aspect of life in South- Eastern Europe.
So how can we perceive Bregovic’s musical views through Jusic’s analytical framework?
The best things staying in the culture at the end of the millennium are those that came from the subculture. Culture comes from something with which it is terribly connected, and that is politic and less and less people want to be involved in it. However, when you enter a subculture anything is possible. At least that is how I feel about things and where I see them going.
All arts were observed primarily through their relationship to and portrayal of the political regime during the time of Socialism. According to the hard line division that suggests the pro and anti or streams, it is possible to say that Bregovic explored the third option which would be senza or “without”. Such an option is either completely impossible or is perceived as an implicit version of anti under the political circumstances of the time. Bregovic’s “subcultural” implications point to the peaceful basis of a future revolution that due to the circumstances appeared as highly unlikely.
“Spit And Sing My Yugoslavia”, is a song with interesting lyrics that could be translated in many different ways.
“Jugoslavijo, na noge, “Yugoslavia, get up,
Pjevaj nek te cuju, Sing let them hear you,
Ko ne slusa pjesmu, Those who won’t listen to the song
Slusace oluju.” Will listen to the storms.”
Closer to the present day, this chorus line was frequently described as a prophetic rock statement during the Yugoslav civil war, but what was its meaning during the period when it was written?
Although it is possible to look at this music politically, the majority of the Yugoslav youth actually addressed music like this (and music in general) as an alternative to being politically involved.
“Those who don’t listen to the song will listen to the storms” suggested the disempowered state of the Yugoslav youth trying to find a politics-free sphere.
“The third option” concept also exemplifies Jusic’s second and third analytical points according to which rock music is seen as a form of organisation of the repressed societies and as an alternative sphere outside of state control. The two points actually support each other – initial organisation of the repressed society starts in the alternative sphere, even if the sphere is of a projected or imaginative order. Bregovic’s work with “White Button” shows many such examples prior to the album “Spit And Sing My Yugoslavia”.
The success of the song Kosovska (From Kosovo) stopped Bregovic from leaving the band in 1983. The entire text for the song Kosovska was written and performed in Albanian language. According to the Socialist outlook, the song can be perceived as a musical commentary about the growing political and ethnic tensions that were already apparent in the autonomous province of Kosovo, but Bregovic has always denied this explanation. He talks about meeting Albanians while serving in the Army and how they always sung in the Albanian language in the dormitory. Because of this one song in Albanian, Bregovic claims to still today get free burek (traditional Turkish pastry with meat or vegetables) in an Albanian buregdzinica (pastry shop) in Zagreb.
In his final two points about rock and politics, Jusic discusses the tools of identification for both the young generation in the collapsing Communist societies and of national identification in the multi-cultural societies such as USSR and ex-Yugoslavia. Both types of identification as expressed through the music of “White Button” show that the band was creatively celebrating the “pluralism” of the Yugoslav and particularly Bosnian societies. Bregovic discusses “White Button” as the musical parallel of the multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. The disintegration of the band and the country are historically and politically synchronised.
From this distance a person could look at some parallel events. Back then, who could imagine that the things in Yugoslavia would go like that! The problems were probably visible. Now I can’t imagine “White Button” even if it didn’t have any connections with me. Not a band like that under these circumstances. That is something that simply went naturally in the given time.
(Bregovic in Popovic, 1996)
Bregovic always openly discussed his artistic intention and interest in the multiplicity of the Balkan nation as well as the more functional aspects behind some of the production choices that he made during the period with “White Button”:
I grew up among Serbs, Croats and Muslims. The rest of my life continues under similar circumstances. I was listed in Slovenia because of the most favourable tax amounts. I loved Sarajevo more than anything else on the face of the Earth, longed for that city whenever I was away for an extended period of time, but it was stupid to pay so much tax there.
(Bregovic, November 2001)
If the political disinterest of “White Button” was translated as a potential anti-government orientation what were some of the succesful musical genres in the country during the peak of the band’s career?
Immediately after Tito’s death, Yugoslav togetherness was crowned in a “masterpiece” (even “musical idiots” produce masterpieces!), in the new style “folk song” Yugoslavia, which the entire country sang ad nauseam, just as if it sensed its forthcoming disintegration. The song gushed out of all the radio stations, television screens, out of the remotest village inns, people hummed the song on the street, it resounded at football stadia. The lethargic pulse of the Yugoslav community was quickened by the adrenalin shot of that cheap, folksy anthem.
(Ugresic, 1994, p. 11.)
The impact that “the newly composed folk songs” has on the development of the popular Yugoslav genres is addressed with consideration to the following aspects:
the styles and subject matters of “the Newly Composed Folk songs”;
their impact on the society and on the other artists and musical genres in the country.
The discussion focuses on the concept of “unity” as proposed by “the Newly Composed Folk Music”. This is a popular genre like “Pop” or “Rock” – it is the musical style of the common people that tells the stories of their lives and of patriotism towards Yugoslavia, globally. “Newly Composed Folk Music” was not itself a political genre; it quietly supported the system from which it had grown.
Almost everything about this genre is summed up in the opening quote; “the Newly Composed Folk Music” advocated cultural unity at the same time that the multi-ethnic Yugoslavia was inexorably fragmenting.
It is possible to say that this genre about the common people’s problems used the “Socialist kitsch” framework of stereotypical expression of communal consciousness to address personal matters.
More importantly “the Newly Composed Folk Music” was also a façade for the growing national turmoil during the pre-war years in Yugoslavia. One of the most famous songs from this genre, Jugoslavija (Yugoslavia) was both an absolute national anthem and the main entertainment attraction for all foreign tourists.
In this respect, “the Newly Composed Folk Music” remains in total opposition to the popular genres (i.e. rock) and to the music of “White Button” in particular. “White Button’s” celebration of the pluralism in the Yugoslav society, propelled through their emotional, cultural and artistic rather than political connection to the country, exposed rather than camouflaged many political conditions and accentuated the absurdity of “the newly composed folk music” as a façade for the changing political dynamics.
Ugresic discusses the absurdity of the Yugoslav “new folk” obsession and of its immediate impact on most of the foreign tourists.
Tanned, with burning eyes and strained veins on their necks, the English tourists were singing at the top of their voices, “Jugoslavijooo, Jugoslavijooo”, joyfully stumbling over such refrains as Od Triglavaaaa, do Vardaraaa (which, of course, described the beauties of Yugoslavia and its geographical unity). Enchanted with Yugoslavia, the English tourists promised that they would come again the following year, they demanded that my acquaintance supply them with cassettes and before they left they danced the traditional ring dance!
(Ugresic, 1994, p.12.)
Once absurd and façade-like, “the Newly Composed Folk Music” developed a completely different role during the turbulent period of the Yugoslav civil war and became a kind of glue among the different ethnicities of the once complex and “proud of it” Yugoslav nation. This genre projected that remaining shared passion even during the most difficult times of raging national hatred.
On an individual level, we see a similar situation occurring with Bregovic as a contemporary composer. Just as he remains one of the few “uncompromisingly Yugoslav” artists in today’s ethnically divided-society, “the Newly Composed Folk Music” remains favoured across different states (now countries) of the former Yugoslavia.
“The Newly Composed Folk Music” was born and raised in Yugoslavia. It was there when the Yugoslavs obtained their first radios, their first televisions and refrigerators, to speak in the vernacular language of the common people and watch over their pains, happiness, losses and triumphs, over love and grief, families and friends.
This music was like the Bible and the Koran of the Southern Slavs: it covered all subjects and if something had not been sung about by the “folksy-divas” or “folksy-masters” that was probably because it had not happened yet (very much like the description of the Indian Mahabharata).
With its flexibility and adaptability, this musical genre was quickly in danger of being misused as virtually everyone and anyone had a fair share of “the Newly Composed Folk” in the former Yugoslavia. This faithful companion of the ordinary man was quickly adapted during the periods of political changes in the country. Being what it is, a highly mobile form sensitive to all aspects of its society, “the Newly Composed Folk Music” quickly became political propaganda and soon also the musical assistant of the war industry. National leaders and their political agendas were transformed into sung verses that were accessible to and understandable by a common man.
However, the most wanted war criminals in the former Yugoslavia remain listed in the media, namely the newspapers, television and radio. “Newly Composed Folk Music” is not high on this list of war criminals. Why not?
Its form and purpose suggest a very self-evident answer: for every possible nationalistic song or a number about war propaganda, there was a song of hope for peace and reconciliation, a song to soothe the pain. Even to the present day, when so much has been destroyed in the former Yugoslavia, countless cities, towns and villages, not to mention the number of human victims of the war, “the Newly Composed Folk” lives on. The song which drove people to war is now transformed into lament sung over these people’s graves: the melodies of hatred that separated the neighbours are now hummed in refugee camps and the song which once encouraged hatred now blames unhappy faith for everything.
Fifteen years ago, one could have called it “a song for every occasion” understanding the cheapness of its context in relation to its artistic integrity. Today one feels the sadness and understands the black humour behind the phrase “a song for every occasion.”
Both, “the Newly Composed Folk” and rock with traditional elements (frequently labelled as “ethno-rock”) are mixtures of traditional elements and contemporary musical genres, but what are the fundamental differences between them?
“The Newly Composed Folk Music” is a somewhat shallow attempt to urbanise the traditional sound and place it into an unnatural context that alienates it from its purposes and origins. Despite the fact that this musical genre was and still is highly appealing to the general Yugoslav musical audiences, it simply takes the folkloric tradition outside of its time and appropriate contextual frameworks.
Such extraction from its usual environment is not stylistically succesful because “the Newly Composed Folk Music” is not a new hybrid form and therefore it doesn’t really dialogue with the traditional concepts. So instead of folk, the listener is left with the music written in the last few decades by contemporary text writers, orchestrators and arrangers who use folk trikovi to embody the traditional sound in “the Newly Composed Yugoslav Folk.” Although folk treated by contemporary writers and arrangers must of its very nature be a form of hybridity (even if unintentionally so) the concept labelled as “the psychology of hybridity” does not only address the technical aspect of orchestrating, arranging and stylistic musical appropriations. Because of further discussion of hybridity and fusion in Bregovic’s soundtrack genre, this concept addresses the sociological and cultural dialogue among the fused styles as the basic premise for hybridity.
With its roots in story-telling, folk music informs of traditions and customs from the life of an ordinary folk. The best known function of traditional music is the creative communication that is achieved in such genres through rich aural traditions.
Lack of both, musical purpose and hybrid-qualities between the fused contemporary and traditional elements makes “the Newly Composed Folk” impersonal on an emotional and cultural level. It also shows that the folk trikovi are only skin deep and that there are no strategies and techniques for plagiarising the real emotional intensity of folk music. Why did the audiences love them so much and why was it described as people’s music?
Pure traditional music of any culture is a complex musical genre with an enormous sociological value in ethno-cultural studies. This musical genre forms a sound laboratory of ethno-cultural issues about a given culture and ideology. The common factor in both “Western Art Music” and “folk music” is that most audiences are initially not great fans of these musical genres. Most of these audiences become increasingly more interested in both, the traditional music of their culture and “Western Art Music” as they grow into more experienced, mature and informed listeners.
“The Newly Composed Folk” offers an easy musical escapade into the quasi-folk world where the ethno-cultural issues of the traditional musical rhetoric are lightened-up by the entertainment qualities of this musical genre and are therefore less confronting for all audiences.
What is the psychology of hybridity in the style sometimes described as “ethno-rock”?
The development of “ethno-pop” and “ethno-rock” in the former Yugoslavia was a form of musical rebuilding of “Nationalism” in music through the use of popular genres.
The ethno-rock and ethno-pop were the new generation’s musical acknowledgment of the traditional music and acceptance of their musical roots through hybrid creations. The entire concept is parallel to “Nationalism” in “Western Art Music”. These “ethno-pop” and “ethno-rock” musicians made their musical beginnings with the Western pop and rock musical models as their basis and, just like the “Nationalist” composers in the latter part of “Romanticism”, they began declaring national identity and cultural heritage through assertion of the traditional sound in their music.
Regardless of their intentions, “White Button” did assist the development of the nationally aware popular culture together with many other Yugoslav bands (ie. Macedonian group Leb i sol [Bread’n’Salt]) that openly acknowledged the traditional resources in their music.
“The Newly Composed Folk” managed to obscure the traditional sound through cheap renditions that apparently united folk music with the popular culture. The so-called “Shepherdic Rock” as compared with “the Newly Composed Folk” remains a more significant contribution to the introduction of traditional music in the popular genres than does popularising folk music.
What I have called “the order of hybridising” enables the composer to create more conceptually integrated hybrids that lead to new sophisticated genres suitable for stylistic composition (ie. soundtrack writing). “The order of hybridising” refers to the concept of a retrospective creative outlook on different musical genres – from rock as a world accepted Western musical phenomenon to the traditional music of any individual culture.
This “order of hybridising” is missing in “the Newly Composed Folk” – there is no retrospective outlook on the involved musical styles and their dialogical qualities. “The Newly Composed Folk” music fails to popularise traditional music without clear acknowledgment of the socio-cultural points of identification between these styles because it imposes the contemporary elements onto the traditional basis without developing the bridging or pivotal materials where these two genres may actually meet.
Bands like “White Button” took the traditional materials as beginnings of the national and cultural musical language of Yugoslavia and related it to the developing musical language of their day –popular culture. Bregovic’s history in different bands exemplifies how this concept become applicable in his work – from the Cream and Jimmy Hendrix covers to the traditional repertoire during his Italian gigs with “Codexes” to the “Balkanised Rock” with “White Button” and the traditional Gypsy music in his more recent band career.
With his “musical feeding-ground stretching from Istanbul to Budapest” and his musical experience ranging from Hendrix, Cream and Led Zeppelin to cocek and kolo, Bregovic developed complex forms that quickly became more applicable in wider context of stylistic composition (ie. From rock-band contexts to films from different countries /traditions /cultures). The success of such music resides in Bregovic’s ability to fuse popular Western styles (and their identification with the youth culture) with a wide and sophisticated variety of traditional styles (that also bear political/social/identity for the listeners across different cultures).
Bregovic’s metaphoric use of the traditional materials with naturally encoded socio-cultural and political implications makes these forms close to the theatrical world of character development and dramatic circumstances commonly used by filmmakers.
The band name is translated to “White Button” without the definite article to follow both the English tradition of naming the bands without articles (ie. Pink Floyd) and to preserve the original Serbo-Croatian flavour (There are no articles in Serbo-Croatian)
Cocek is a moderately fast dance in a duple time, mainly associated with the Roma minority in ex-Yugoslavia, particularly Macedonia. It is a line dance, dancers hold hands, their arms bent in the elbow and are lifted up thus forming V shape (both arms are in W shape.) For further information access: HYPERLINK
the traditional ring dance of moderate to fast speed danced in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia
For further information about Colic’s impact on the band and why he never actually became the lead singer of “White Button” consult the 1997 on-line Heineken Rock Interview, available from:
HYPERLINK "http://www.bijelodugme.trc//" http://www.bijelodugme.trc//
Ladarice is an unaccompanied female vocal ensemble, quite similar to the Bulgarian singers that still frequently feature in Bregovic’s film music.
referring back to Drazen Vrdoljak’s comment about the performance at the festival of Skopje (see earlier in the section)
alluding to the brief soundtrack experience from the 70s
Popovic, P., On the Ruins of Bregovic's Yugoslavia, 14/01/1996 available from
Accessed on 10/11/2003
this is an example of the fickle nature of symbolism that points to something that is tangible enough for an aware listener to translate into particular codes, but is also abstract enough not to land the composer in prison or worse, the expression (“the other bad thing”) itself is an example of the Socialist censorship as expressed through lack of freedom of speech
Although still in primary school at the time, I vividly remember the release of the album. I attended a “White Button” concert in 1987. The youth of Yugoslavia, and particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina loved the album, loved this band and the fact that we were celebrating our Bosnian “pluralism”. The band had a habit of starting the concerts with the Yugoslav national anthem, and we all danced and sang along –perhaps only because we were disempowered.
Taken from: Popovic, P., On the Ruins of Bregovic's Yugoslavia, 14/01/1996, translated by the author, available from
Accessed on 10/11/2003)
Folk tricks – a Yugoslav expression used to describe the ways in which the creators of newly composed folk steal and plagiarise motives and ornaments from traditional music and insert it into new folk.
see Chapter I about the relevant history of the Balkans
BALKAN AS A METAPHOR IN THE FILM COMPOSITION OF GORAN BREGOVIC - by Nela Trifkovic (Nela Trifković)