May 25, 1987. The Partizan Stadium in Belgrade – then called the Yugoslav People’s Army – houses what would end up being the penultimate Youth Day, the pompous annual celebration coinciding with the false date of the birthday of Marshal Tito, who died seven years before, which culminated a three-month relay race to celebrate with music and dance a socialist project whose collapse, however, was already in sight.
GALLERY | Art and committed rock: the third way of socialist Yugoslavia
The dancers make a circle on the grass to the rhythm of a traditional song. Little by little, they start to separate on purpose. “What is happening?” Asks the television announcer. “The circle does not dance together. Serbia dances for its part, then Croatia and the same Bosnia Herzegovina. Each group to its own. Why are there eight different dances? Why each with its own national melody? It seems that we are not united as we should. This is a warning, ”he laments in reference to the six republics and two autonomous provinces that made up Yugoslavia at the time. The same melody is then transformed into a rock & roll, the groups are synchronized and the announcer says satisfied: “Rock is what unites us on a day-to-day basis.”
The episode reflects the importance that the socialist Yugoslavia gave to music – and its embrace that came from outside – not only as a form of artistic creation, but also as an ideological instrument and for social and territorial cohesion. The bet also gave rise to a subgenre: the records that praised Tito, the Communist Party, the Yugoslav construction project, the partisan resistance, the brigadistas in the Spanish Civil War … and that were illustrated by prominent designers and avant-garde artists of the time. An exhibition now rescues these creative covers, illustrated with images of the mythical Yugoslav leader or communist symbols, but far from the stuffy and outdated aesthetic that was seen in those years in Soviet space. The exhibition, which will visit Belgrade (Serbia), Split (Croatia) and Banja Luka (Bosnia) in the coming months after its premiere last year at the Croatian Designers Association in Zagreb, is curated by Zeljko Luketic and Leri Ahel, owners from the Croatian record company Fox & His Friends Records, from the non-profit audiovisual research platform Jucer Danas Sutra and from a collection of more than 10,000 records, tapes and journalistic materials.
Five years ago, Luketic and Ahel selected material for an exhibition on the phenomenon of music disco in the former Yugoslavia when they realized that there were “piles of albums that nobody wanted and that were not recognized in the official historiographies”, explains the first by email. While the music LPs disco imported the new culture of clubs and dance, free sex and capitalist values into the economy […], this music had the opposite effect in political terms. They were propaganda-style works that praised socialism, admired Tito and the Communist Party, and used popular culture to share values defined by the state. They were not the Korean, Chinese or Russian style of hype propaganda, but rather the other way around. Since Yugoslavia was the third way, the non-aligned country that rejected the western and eastern blocs, the results were interesting and subtle, ”he adds.
This is the case of a cover in which the constant repetition and in two tones of blue of the word Tito forms the silhouette of the marshal. The album, from 1980, collects poems by the famous Croatian writer Miroslav Krleza. Tito’s face is also the protagonist in the collective work May the World Be Brighter (May the world be brighter), published on the occasion of one of the Youth Days, as well as the colorful cover that the progressive rock band Korni Grupa chose in 1973 to illustrate Ivo Lola – Znam Za Kime Zvono Zvoni (Ivo Lola – I know for whom the bell tolls). It is a tribute to a well-known partisan leader and the story of a woman who falls in love with a soldier who goes to battle, paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway’s novel set in the Spanish Civil War. This conflict, in which nearly 2,000 Yugoslav volunteers fought in defense of the Republic, inspired several songs at the time and the album Spain My Youth (Spain of my youth), 1986, with versions of the Irrigation Hymn, Oh, Carmela The If you want to write me.
Different musical styles that show that the revolutionary subgenre did not have a specific sound. Pop, dance, rock, classical, childish or traditional … The power apparatus applauded these samples of modernity, but viewed folkloric versions with worse eyes, associated with bad taste and performances in the kafanas, the local taverns.
“Since the early fifties the revolutionary themes They were no longer reserved solely for formal acts, but had penetrated, with the help of the popular music industry, into the day by day and passed on to new generations ”, explains Ana Hofman, ethnomusicologist and senior researcher at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts.
The revolutionary records sought to bring together good composers, performers and graphic designers to provide the covers with modern visual solutions. Yugoslavia was a dictatorship in which dissent was persecuted, but it enjoyed much more openness to the outside than the countries of the Soviet orbit: it broke with Stalin’s USSR in 1948, his was the passport that allowed citizens to cross more borders visa-free (with hardly any requests for political asylum being registered) and foreign cultural influences were even welcome.
There are versions of hymns from the partisans or from World War II, but also many written songs expressly, As the Comrade Tito, we swear to you (Comrade Tito, we swear by you), which was dedicated to the leader by the popular singer Zdravko Colic. They were generally promoted by the state, local authorities or the Communist Party, but several musicians composed them on their own initiative and achieved singles of success. Hofman emphasizes that Yugoslav popular music was always more than a propaganda medium fed by the authorities.
The paradox, Luketic points out, is that these discs are today “really unique and difficult to find” because they were “considered ideologically corrupt and systematically destroyed and thrown away ”in the 1990s, when Yugoslavia disintegrated in successive wars. “We treat them,” he says, “as historical cultural documents that must be contextualized.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.