Belgrade New Wave: Rock n’ Roll Ex-YU Style

Yesterday we celebrated a birthday on the blog but August 27th was also the anniversary of  Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tragic death. Tonight, I thought I’d take the opportunity to mention a late and great musician from Belgrade and one of the very specific rock genres of  the former Yugoslavia.

Like any story, my life has a soundtrack to it. If I were to actually put it together and market it, I’m sure it would make millions. Music has always, for some inexplicable reason as no one in my family is very musical, been an extremely important, indivisible part of my life. So, when I moved to Serbia in the mid 90’s I thought a period of silence would ensue on my soundtrack. I was so wrong it was embarrassing. I had heard of Yugoslavian New Wave Rock before but was ignorantly dismissive of it. Hey, I was barely 18 and thought I had the world by the nuts because I knew who John Cage, Robert Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton were (feel free to roll your eyes now). Then I began to discover the fascinating world of ex-YU rock. I won’t get into too much detail here as entire chapters and books have been written on the subject by those far more qualified than I. I’m hoping tonight’s blog post will tickle you just enough for you to go on and do some research and further listening on your own.

Like in most European countries, the Rock scene here began in the late 50’s and was mostly influenced by British and American bands. The first memorable bands to make their mark on the Yugoslavian rock scene and create a sound quite their own were Bijelo Dugme (“White Button”), formed in Sarajevo in 1974, Azra (named after a verse in a Bosnian folk song referring to the “Azera” tribe), formed in Zagreb in 1977, and Riblja Čorba (“Fish Stew” and you really don’t want to know what that means in 70’s/80’s Belgrade slang), formed in Belgrade in 1978.

Bijelo Dugme had the now world renowned Goran Bregović as it’s frontman and was a somewhat more soft core version of the progressive and hard rock sounds that would become Yugoslavian New Wave. Azra’s frontman was Branimir “Johnny” Štulić, a living legend. As anyone who knows anything about local music will tell you, Johnny’s name and style have been synonymous with ex-YU Rock for some three decades now.  Riblja Čorba is an entirely different story with an equally legendary frontman, Bora Đorđević, affectionately known as Bora “Čorba”.  All three of them grew up in several cities throughout the former Yugoslavia and had an intricate understanding of the common mindset of their generation. Oh, and these guys are still rocking today. Bregović is touring the world with his own brand of gypsy music collected from this region, Bora and Riblja Čorba just released a new studio album this year, while Johnny has become somewhat of a recluse, living in the Netherlands and dedicating his time more to writing in the past decade.

The 80’s bred the aforementioned Belgrade New Wave sound. Major bands that marked this era were Ekaterina Velika (Catherine the Great), Električni Orgazam (Electrical Orgasm), Disciplina Kičme (Discipline of the Spine) and Partibrejkers (The Partybreakers). These bands reached cult status in the former Yugoslavia and they are all still active today, with the exception of Ekaterina Velika. Milan Mladenović, frontman of Ekaterina Velika (popularly known as EKV), was born in Zagreb to a Serbian father and Croatian mother and died in November of 1994, in Belgrade. The news shook an already troubled nation. Today, a street in the suburban Belgrade neighborhood of Zemun Polje bears his name as well as one in Podorica, the capital of Montenegro.

Mladenović’s former bandmate from a previous band, Dušan Kojić “Koja” (bass player), went on to form Disciplina Kičme after they had a falling out. Kojić moved to live and work in London in the early 90’s and came back with a new drum and bass sound, “renaming” the band – Disciplin A Kitschme. He also produced the Partibrejkers’ debut album, released in 1985. Zoran “Cane” Kostić, the frontman of Partbrejkers, and his very specific, nasal vocals are a huge part of the band’s signature sound and the audiences still love it. Električni Orgazam is also still active, having gone from a garage/post punk sound to a more mainstream sound, but always holding their own.

In 1992, as the countries of the former Yugoslavia were all being ravaged and torn, several members of these bands united in a sort of supergroup, anti-war movement called Rimtutituki. The name may sound a little funny and banal but the message was strong and clear:”S.O.S. Peace or don’t count on us.” They only released one single and played a couple of public gigs.

Slovenia and Croatia had more of a punk (and even Caribbean) influenced New Wave sound in the 80’s and even throughout the 90’s. Gems like Prljavo Kazalište (“Dirty Theatre”), Film, Haustor and Psihomodo Pop came out of Croatia, while Slovenia gave us Laibach and Bosnia the very unique Zabranjeno Pušenje (“No Smoking”). Again, these bands continue to exist actively today and most are once again touring the entire region. Much of their collective opus left a huge mark on the generations that grew up in the Yugoslavian golden era of the 80’s as well as the generations that grew up in the turbulent 90’s.

Unfortunately, good music and culture in general take a back seat when there is a war on. During these trying times, a hideous new genre of so-called folk music was concocted in the region and is still popular among much of the population (and patiently endured by others). While this horrid sound flooded the mainstream, a few good bands did manage to emerge during the 90’s. Just recently, I commented on a positive trend that I’ve noticed in the past couple of years – there are some really hot bands coming out of Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia that carry a note or two of that old Yugoslavian New Wave sound I’ve grown to cherish so much.  I think I’ll add a few of their tracks to the soundtrack of my life. I’ll be sure to follow up and tell you more about them in a future post. Tonight, I just threw some bait and I hope it caught you.

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