Turbo Folk Politics
The arrest of Serbia's biggest pop star illustrates the marriage of turbo folk and the criminal elite. by Goran Tarlac 7 May 2003
Svetlana 'Ceca' Raznatovic
BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro--When the attractive and voluptuous Serbian folk singer Svetlana "Ceca" Raznatovic--Belgrade's biggest pop star--was arrested in connection with the 12 March assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, the public was indeed shocked.
Ceca's arrest, the result of her close ties with the prime suspects in Djindjic’s murder, has brought to light the influential political role her genre of music, turbo folk, played in Serbia during the Slobodan Milosevic regime and beyond.
Ceca, the widow of Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic--a notorious paramilitary leader who was murdered in January 2000--was no stranger to the underworld, but the love songs she sang, as opposed to the threateningly nationalist lyrics of other folk singers, were the hottest stuff on the Serbian music scene.
In a high-profile operation on 17 March, only five days into the assassination investigation, police surrounded Arkan's Belgrade villa, where Ceca lived with her two children under the protection of numerous security guards. Inside in a hidden bunker police discovered all the tricks of the assassination trade: 21 guns, three boxes of ammunition, compasses, a laser rangefinder, a precision viewfinder for rifle sights, a bow, 20 arrows, silencers for Scorpio and Heckler guns, police batons, gas masks, protective hats, and the list goes on.
Police searched the villa after learning that Ceca frequently played host to the chief suspects in Djindjic's murder: Milorad "Legija" Lukovic, former Special Operations Unit (JSO) commander, and Dusan "Siptar" Spasojevic, the boss of the so-called Zemun clan. Police say Ceca continued to entertain the two even after the prime minister's death, when arrest warrants had been issued for both.
According to local media reports, Ceca was arrested by none other than Dragan Karleusa, a senior Serbian police officer and the father of Jelena Karleusa, Serbia's second-biggest pop star. But Ceca and Jelena Karleusa have much more in common than that--they both are known to mingle with the underworld. Karleusa is the former girlfriend of Zoran Davidovic Canda, a drug dealer and stolen car smuggler who was killed in March 2000.
The political love story of Arkan and Ceca began in 1994 in a military camp used to train members of Arkan’s Serbian Volunteer Guard paramilitary unit. Ceca was invited to sing to the up-and-coming troops. Their glamorous 1995 wedding was a public spectacle par excellence. Both the ceremony and reception were broadcast live on national television and radio and sold on video across the country. The Milosevic regime’s newspaper, Vecernje novosti, dedicated its entire front page and two additional inside pages to the wedding.
In an essay on Serbian culture during the war years, "The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives," sociology professor Eric Gordy of Clark University in Miami says that Arkan and Ceca's wedding "symbolized the connection between turbo folk, state-controlled media, and the new criminal elite."
If Ceca's involvement in the assassination of Djindjic is proven, that symbiosis could finally be put to rest. Although Ceca's songs are love songs, there are theoreticians in Serbia, such as media historian Ivana Kronja, who argue that Ceca and her late husband were regarded as national heroes after Milosevic was sent to trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
"In that context, Ceca is Serbia's model mother, Arkan the beacon of nationalism, and the two together represent the focal point of retrograde patriarchy," wrote Kronja.
ODE TO DUBIOUS HEROES
At the end of last year, a virtually anonymous band called Srpski talibani (Serbian Taliban) released an audio cassette with songs dedicated to Milosevic, two fugitive indicted war criminals, Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb Army General Ratko Mladic, and other suspected war criminals.
While such dubious characters are worshipped in the songs, others, such as the late Djindjic, ICTY Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte, and U.S. President George W. Bush are presented in an extremely negative context that glorifies the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on New York and Washington.
The tape, whose cover design includes portraits of Milosevic, Karadzic, and Mladic, was a best seller. Its publisher is unknown, and the authors have refrained from revealing their identities, with the lyrics and music credited only to "a group of Orthodox citizens," and the musicians and singers referred to as "people without a home," while "The Hague Tribunal" is credited as the producer.
Serbian Taliban belongs to a musical genre categorized as "Serbian new folk," which, toward the end of the 1980s during Milosevic's rise to power, spawned a very popular subgenre sarcastically dubbed turbo folk. Gradually, turbo folk--a combination of Serbian traditional music, European dance, and rap styles--became a full-blown social movement in Serbia.
Turbo folk seemed to be a good damper for social tensions during the Milosevic era. The music was upbeat and the lyrics cheerful, immature, and mind-numbing. It promised a better future and served as a daily distraction from real problems.
Despite its apparent frivolity, however, turbo folk contained an explosive mix of sentiments, representing a newly forged war culture that supported the expansionist and nationalist politics of the Serbian regime. The government openly supported the dissemination of such music, initially on state-owned television and later on newly established private television stations. TV Pink, at that time under the direct influence of Milosevic's wife, Mirijana Markovic, and her Yugoslav United Left (JUL) party, was one such private station, and TV Kosava, owned by her daughter, Marija Milosevic, was another.
The regime's objective was to diminish the influence of rock-n-roll on nationalist mobilization projects. After all, it was rock-n-roll groups that hosted the only anti-war rallies in Belgrade during the 1991 bombings of the Croatian towns of Vukovar and Dubrovnik. It was impossible for the Milosevic regime to ignore the fact that young urbanites were showing the least support for policies of war and nationalism. Something less threatening had to replace rock-n-roll, and turbo folk was the answer.
RISING TO THE OCCASION
During the decade marked by wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, many personalities and events were acknowledged in turbo folk songs. Singers compared themselves to commanders and stressed their contribution to the war efforts.
"Orthodox singers have not given it their best yet, and it's high time they woke up. We can't expect Sloba [Milosevic], [Vojislav] Seselj, or Arkan to sing! They'll do some other things, and we'll sing," famous Montenegrin singer Zoran Kalezic said in 1992, after he had recorded a song called "Ustani, Srbine moj!" (Arise, oh my Serb!) with former pop stars Bora Djordjevic and Vladimir Savcic Cobi.
Mythomaniac kitsch is one of the main features of Serbian nationalist folk music--a means through which it attempts to break down the boundaries between fiction and reality and at the same time disseminate xenophobic messages. "I don't know what I'll do/All Europe is fascist, it's sad but true/I can hear their barking sound/They want to knock Serbia to the ground," go the lyrics of one popular turbo folk tune.
Megalomania is another major characteristic. Lyrics engage in dubious hero worship, such as in the popular song praising Karadzic: "Days of freedom are coming straight/For our dear leader is great/Our song is loud and true/Radovan, we're all with you."
The most frequently repeated words in these songs are Kosovo, Serbia, God, tradition, territory, faith, blood, land, pride, children, spite, love, language, hearth, graves, traitors, fights, and borders. Patriotic wartime folk music has its heroes of flesh and blood--Milosevic, Karadzic, Mladic--but also historical figures from medieval Serbian epic poetry, such as King Lazar, the Serbian king killed in 1389 at the hands of the invading Turks at Kosovo Polje, and many such others.
And heroes can't be heroes unless they are juxtaposed with those on the other side of the gun. Those on the "enemy" side are invariably late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who was seen as pro-Croat in the early 1990s, and Bosniak wartime leader Alija Izetbegovic, to whom one song sends the message: "Listen, Alija, you’re no longer in charge/Orthodox people are winning at large."
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton has also figured in the enemy side of turbo folk, as has former ICTY Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour: "Louise Arbour, everybody knows/Is going around making fake laws." And finally, Cyrus Vance and David Owen, former international community negotiators, have had their share of turbo folk lashings.
In those songs, though, Serbs never inflict harm on others. Instead, they are the victims, the sufferers: "The win for Serbs is a must/Because the Serbian people are just." The songs present Serbs merely as a downtrodden people rising to confront the evil enemy, and their response is invariably heroic: "Born of proud mothers, on the altar of Serbdom they stand/They've pledged a solemn oath, their children and home to defend."
And myths of the past are often used as a means of escape from the real present and the search for an important future: "Kosovo is our soul/God sees us and listens to our call/Don't give up, my Serb boys/Don't give in to Yankee cowboys."
And the enemy must naturally be despised. Writers of a song from 1992 perceive the newly created independent Croatia as a girl, Tudjmanella, who left her boyfriend, the Serb, and gave herself to another, the West, Germany in particular. The song goes on to say that no one will marry Croatia-Tudjmanella in the West--she will simply become "the Western whore."
THE FEARLESS SERB
The strongest trump in the myriad of heroes of patriotic neo-folk is Mirko Pajcin, known also as Baja mali Knindza. He began his career singing at weddings and soldiers' farewell parties in villages around Knin, Croatia, only to reach stardom when war broke out in 1991 and the Serb para-state was founded in Croatia.
The titles and lyrics of his songs are inspired by combat: "Serbs aren't afraid of anyone," "Tears aren't for Serbs," "The Orthodox man, Kosovo is our soul," "God is looking after us," and "Kosovo is Serbian," are a few of the most popular selections.
His oeuvre, marked clearly by the unifying subject matter, does not speak of the normal goals of a folk star, but rather of someone who aspires to be the chronicler of the times and interpreter of historical and political truths: "Even as a kid, I knew my tomorrow/Catholics they were, and Orthodoxy I follow."
But in 1998, after the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, Pajcin started to backtrack on the politics of his earlier songs. He shared his disappointment, by then predominant in the population, with the failure of nationalist policies, and he went on to condemn Milosevic's war in Kosovo, which began around that time: "Again you're telling stories and spreading lies/But I'm not going to Kosovo, do you realize?"
A similar line of spirituality was shown by the most prominent nationalist talent, Borislav Zoric Licanin, the author of songs such as “America, don't touch Serbia" and "Karadzic, you Serb son."
During his career, Licanin, the "people's artist," has written numerous odes to Yugoslav and Serbian leaders, including former communist leader of Yugoslavia Josip Broz Tito, Milosevic, Karadzic, and even moderate politician Milorad Dodik, the former prime minister of Bosnia's Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska.
Licanin sang about Milosevic as early as 1988, and he claims he was lyrically assisted by members of Milosevic's cabinet when he wrote "Ode to Slobodan:" "O Serbia, God's land you are/You gave birth to Slobodan, our brightest star."
FIDDLING FOR "FREEDOM"
The rise of nationalism in the mid-1980s was accompanied by the restoration of the gusle, the traditional one-string fiddle. "On the eve of war, fiddling in Yugoslavia became like a press center with a reliable translation service that was in charge of translating the current political messages of Serb leaders into old epic images, and vice versa," writes Ivo Zanic, a sociologist from Zagreb, in his book Betrayed History: The Gusle Scene, the Outlaw Cult, and the War in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina 1990-1995.
According to Zanic, the gusle was increasingly being mentioned as a symbol of "freedom" to which everyone aspired.
War photographs often portray fiddlers accompanying Serb militiamen. In the early autumn of 1991, Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) soldiers around Dubrovnik--some of whom were professional fiddlers--told a reporter from the Montenegrin daily Pobjeda that "with gusle around it is easier to make war."
"When one says 'fiddler,' one hears the words 'struggle' and 'freedom.' War is for us a kind of professional training. When we don’t shoot, we fiddle," the Belgrade daily Borba quoted the president of a fiddlers' association as saying.
Karadzic is also a fiddler--a fiddler who allegedly demonstrated his skill to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who visited him in the Republika Srpska wartime capital Pale in 1994.
Famous fiddler Radovan Sojic recently recorded a tape dedicated to Milosevic called "The Shameful Milosevic Trial in The Hague." The last few verses are dedicated solely to ICTY Chief Prosecutor Del Ponte: "The innocent is being tried by a butcher with no pride/Carla Del Ponte is this criminal's name/Evil woman, leave our sons alone, you have no shame/With your grey hair and ugly twitch/You look much worse than any witch."
His colleague, Bozidar Djukic, recorded a tape last year called "O Serbs, you damned nation," featuring an entire song about Djindjic. Fiddlers have rarely sung of Djindjic, but this song is definite evidence of the extent to which turbo folk and epic fiddlers are opponents of Djindjic's vision of a democratic Serbia. "O Serbs, you damned nation" was written after Djindjic's decision to deliver Milosevic to The Hague.
And the song is indeed a damning one: "Djindjic, you German spy/For that head now rotting in The Hague/You will be responsible to God/Who'll punish your ugly deeds/Because you don't protect Serbian needs/Zoran Djindjic, you, Serbia's shame/May God come to haunt you and blame/May leprosy descend from your crown/And may your right arm dry down/There is no more Serbian pride/When DOS [Democratic Opposition of Serbia] took over, it painfully died."