Ex-Yu rock

Dejan Djokic
6 August 2002

Former Yugoslavia was more open to western influences than other East European countries. Its rock scene was in touch with UK and US music developments. Alongside Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rollingstones, young Yugoslavs also had their own rock idols. Mile Lojpur became Belgrade’s Elvis in the late 1950s, while the 1960s gave birth to a number of bands influenced by leading British and American bands. For instance, Siluete (The Silhouettes) were formed straight after the Shadows played in Belgrade in the early 1960s.

Western musicians toured Yugoslav cities long before any other East European country and continued to do so until the war. (As a Yugoslav army conscript stationed in Ljubljana, I escaped from the barracks with a group of Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian friends to see Bob Dylan play in late May 1991. Our short hair, inability to speak Slovene and dodgy tracksuits immediately betrayed us, but nobody seemed to care and we even ended up getting drunk with a group of locals. The Yugoslav war began a few weeks later, in Slovenia).

Bijelo Dugme

The 1970s and 1980s were dominated by Sarajevo-based Bijelo Dugme (White Button), probably the greatest former-Yugoslav rock band. (Goran Bregovic, the band’s leader and lead-guitarist, acquired recognition in the west in the 1990s for composing soundtracks for Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies and Underground and Patriçe Chereau’s La Reine Margot). Croatia’s Azra and Serbia’s Riblja Corba (Fish Soup) were another two hugely popular bands, whose frontmen Branimir ‘Johnny’ Stulic and Bora ‘Corba’ Djordjevic, respectively, wrote provocative and politically engaged lyrics. Azra’s Poland in my heart, released at the time of political crisis in Poland in the early 1980s, is a particularly good example.

Since the 1960s, rock festivals were organised, with bands performing and fans attending from all parts of Yugoslavia. The festivals were approved and often sponsored by the Communist Party. Pan-Yugoslav gatherings of youth fitted the official ideology of ‘brotherhood and unity’, even though most musicians and their fans probably cared little for Party slogans. Yugoslav rock magazines were widely read and leading critics became almost as famous as musicians (one of them, Petar Janjatovic, has recently written The Illustrated ex-Yu Rock Encyclopedia, which was reportedly sold out throughout ex-Yugoslavia).

In the 1980s, Belgrade became famous for its ‘new wave’ scene. Bands such as Ekaterina Velika (Catherine the Great, or ‘EKV’), Elektricni orgazam (Electrical Orgasm), Idoli (The Idols), Partibrejkers (The Partybreakers) and Disciplina Kicme (Discipline of the Spine) remain popular throughout former-Yugoslavia. (Dusan Kojic-Koja of Disciplina Kicme moved to London in the early 1990s, where he has released several CDs with his new drum’n’bass outfit Disciplin A Kitschme.


Be glad, for the song has no ending

Croatia provided some of the most popular Yugoslav bands in the 1980s, including the punk-turned-ska-turned-pop group Prljavo Kazaliste (Stained Theatre), Film, Haustor, and Psihomodo pop (heavily influenced by the Ramones).

Meanwhile, Slovenia had a particularly rich punk scene. Laibach, whose provocative, totalitarian image has made them well-known in the west, were part of the Neue Slowenische Kunst movement, which launched some of the early opposition to the socialist regime, and eventually to the Yugoslav state. By contrast, the Sarajevo-based New Primitivism, a movement which included bands such as Zabranjeno pusenje (No Smoking), for whom film director Kusturica occasionally played bass, was manifestly pro-Yugoslav. The Bosnian capital also gave Yugoslavs their first teenage boy band – Plavi orkestar (Blue Orchestra), whose 1985 debut remains one of the best-selling albums in history of the Yugoslav pop.

Marina Perazic

Although male dominated, Yugoslavia’s rock scene produced a number of female idols. Sladjana Milosevic, the first female rock star, who lived between Belgrade, London, Munich and New York, was joined in the 1980s by successful female lead-singers such as Marina Perazic of Denis&Denis (Rijeka), Anja Rupel of Videosex (Ljubljana), Zana Nimani of Zana (Belgrade), and all-female bands Boye (Novi Sad) and Cacadoo Look (Opatija).

In the 1980s rock music was one of few pan-Yugoslav ‘institutions’. Long after politicians stopped talking to each other, rock bands continued playing for audiences outside their own republics. The popular Macedonian band Leb i sol (Bread and Salt), which combines jazz-rock with traditional Balkan sounds, toured the country even after the war began. Members of leading Belgrade bands, including EKV, Elektricni orgazam and Rambo Amadeus (real name Antonije Pusic, a richly-talented, anarchic musician, whose satirical lyrics offer a powerful criticism of kitsch in politics and culture), played a series of anti-war concerts in 1991. When Milan Mladenovic, the lead-singer of EKV died in 1994, Croatian newspapers published obituaries and some of his friends from Croatia travelled to Belgrade, via Hungary, to attend the funeral, although the two republics were still at war.


Most top bands never adopted nationalist ideology (Riblja Corba and Prljavo Kazaliste are notable exceptions) and the same could be said for many of their fans. Nationalists despised pro-western rock music; their preferred choice was ‘turbo folk’ – a kitsch mix of “eastern”-sounding folk and western techno and dance (the phrase was coined by Rambo Amadeus). Some of the most vocal opponents of former nationalist regimes in Serbia and Croatia were indeed rock musicians. It is no coincidence that today they are at the forefront in forging new bonds, which not long ago seemed irreparably broken.

We gratefully acknowledge the kind permission of Petar Janjatovic, author of The Illustrated ex-Yu Rock Encyclopedia (Belgrade, 2001) to reproduce images from his book in this article.

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