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Barnstorming To Raise the Roof

Serbian ethno musicians, rockers, and sports stars are donating their talents in the name of St. George. by Aleksandar Mitic 20 August 2003 BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro--Celebrity charity events are nothing new. In Serbia, though, this form of fundraiser recently took an unusual form when some major musical and sports celebrities joined forces with an unlikely ally--a trio of Orthodox monks from the heart of Old Serbia--to raise the oldest Serbian Orthodox monastery from the ashes.

Built in 1171 by Serbian King Stefan Nemanja, Djurdjevi stupovi (St. George’s Pillars) shared the destiny of Serbia throughout the Middle Ages. The monastery was the first example of the Raska architectural school, a mix of Byzantine interior conception and Romanesque form, that would influence the construction of many Orthodox monasteries to follow, including Studenica, Zica, Sopocani, and Moraca.

In the monastery's most glorious age between the 12th and 14th centuries, it was one of the main centers of Orthodox spiritual life and an influential actor in the political affairs of the Serbian kingdom, then at the height of its medieval power.

Djurdjevi stupovi's fate took a dramatic turn with the Ottoman invasion in the 14th century. War, poverty, and Serb refugee migrations to the north all brought misery to the region. Destroyed by the Turks, the monastery was abandoned in 1689 and its ruins served for centuries as a strategic strongpoint for invading armies.

Djurdjevi stupovi


IF WE REBUILD IT, THEY WILL COME

Only a few parts of the church and chapel remained intact, until the turn of the third millennium, when a group of enthusiasts--church members, artists, historians--began to gather and consider how to bring the complex back to the place it deserves as one of the most intriguing monuments of the Balkans. In 1979, UNESCO had already recognized the importance of Djurdjevi stupovi and other monasteries, churches, and fortresses in the Ras region of southwestern Serbia by granting these sites a World Heritage listing.

In recent years, several monks have returned to renew spiritual life at the site and live permanently on the premises, but rebuilding a monastery is not an easy task--especially considering that the Serbian Orthodox Church is facing two other great challenges: completing construction of the monumental St. Sava Cathedral in Belgrade and protecting more than 1,000 churches and monasteries in the UN-administered Serbian province of Kosovo, where some 140 Orthodox buildings have been destroyed since the 1998-1999 crisis.

So three monks decided it was time to look to secular society for help. This spring and summer, Fathers Petar, Gerasim, and Georgije rounded up popular musicians and athletes for a series of benefit events called “Podignimo Stupove” (“Let’s Raise the Pillars").

In late April, leading Serbian traditional musicians joined hands for a concert of church music, medieval songs, and old standards at Belgrade’s Sava Center. The lineup included the bands Renesans, Ziva Voda, and Moba, as well as solo artists such as flutist Bora Dugic and Pavle Aksentijevic. While the musicians performed, friends of the monastery erected a cardboard model of the structure onstage to make the message even clearer.

Young people made up the bulk of the audience--perhaps some of those who are tired of the popular turbo-folk style being labeled as "traditional" or "ethno" music.

“I would call this [turn to traditional music] the awakening of a sleeping soul, which is being manifested by a great interest in all the things which were missing in people’s lives and which make up the spiritual substance of a human being. That is why I called on the young in particular to come to the concert, and the call was answered,” said Aksentijevic, a musician and icon painter who was a headliner at the event.

COOL CONGREGATIONS

A renewed interest in faith is evident among Serbia’s youth. At the end of the communist era, just 10 percent of young people identified themselves as “believers.” Up to 90 percent do so today, according to recent polls. Fifty years of authoritarian rule, difficult times in the 1990s, wars, and nationalism all contributed to this return to "traditional values." The results of the 2002 census in Serbia, published in early July 2003, show that some 95 percent of Serbians (excluding Kosovo) declared a religious affiliation, and 85 percent declared themselves to be Orthodox Christians.

Two weeks after the ethno concert, some of the country’s leading rock stars helped raise the Pillars their way. The benefit in a Belgrade indoor sports arena featured Serbia's all-time favorite rock band, the Partibrejkers, the old-timers Yu grupa and Van Gogh, and some younger faces like Pressing and the reggae-hardcore crossover band Eyesburn.

And it is not just music stars who are contributing toward rebuilding Djurdjevi stupovi. At yet another benefit event, held to promote the CD from the Sava Center concert, Father Gerasim handed out more than 2,000 thank-you letters to people who took part in the earlier benefits. The promotion, held in late June on Ada Ciganlija island in the center of Belgrade, took place in a club owned by the talented footballer Mateja Kezman, last season's top scorer in the Dutch championship with PSV Eindhoven.

Basketball players Vlade Divac and Predrag Stojakovic of the American NBA and European basketball superstar Dejan Bodiroga are also enthusiastic fans of the monastery project.

Father Gerasim, 35, said he and his brother monks were extremely surprised by the amount of support from musicians and other artists.

“The concerts raised a substantial sum of money, but no figures are available yet,” he said. He could not give an estimate of the total cost of reconstruction, but said it would proceed in small stages as money became available.

Partibrejkers' front man Zoran Kostic “Cane” believes that “religion and rock ’n’ roll can go hand in hand.” The Partibrejkers, one of the leading rock bands in the former Yugoslavia, wrote a number of songs mixing anti-war and religious messages during the 1990s, some of which are regular features at their concerts.

At a recent concert in Split, in neighboring, heavily Catholic Croatia, "a young fan approached me to say he just loved our ‘religious phase,’ ” Cane remarked.

WHO LOVES YA, BABY?

Cane and the Partibrejkers
Partibrejkers and other prominent Belgrade bands including Darkwood Dub and 357 appeared on a 2001 album, Songs Over East and West, in rock, electronica, and dub versions of songs written decades ago by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic. Some critics of the album and of the mix of Orthodoxy and rock music have charged that Velimirovic, a leading Orthodox churchman in newly independent Yugoslavia, expressed anti-Semitic sentiments.

The Church rejects this claim, but the controversy has lingered, impinging on the Djurdjevi stupovi project. The weekly NIN recently commented that the monks' scheme to bring Orthodoxy closer to young people was "brave, although many have seen and heard in it a part of the modern phenomenon of instant-comeback to religion.”

Another magazine, Bulevar, said the project was “the opposite of rock ’n’ roll, which as a rule denounces authority and favors autonomy and rebellion.”

Maybe so, but as NIN reported, 357's lead singer Nikola Hadzi-Nikolic exclaimed over Velimirovic's lyrics used for the album, “Man, this is pure rock ’n’ roll.” On the album 357 performs a hardcore version of a song called “Do You Know Who Kisses You So Hard?”:

Do you know who kisses you so hard
Who watches over you day and night
Who gives you plenty
So you can resist the devil’s might?


Father Georgije, 32, who is in charge of the monastery’s library, computers, and music equipment, said he and most of the other monks at Djurdjevi stupovi used to be engaged in rock music.

“People who listen to rock are essentially searching for sense. Some of them, in the course of this searching, find their way to God, some choose other ways," he said. "My greatest wish has come true. I took monastic orders. Now, all is God’s will."
Aleksandar Mitic has previously written for CER on Serbian hip-hop and the "Yugonostalgia" phenomenon.
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