Anyone who has any interest in the Balkans knows that the region has long been embroiled in political tensions. Whether territorial disagreements based on ethno-nationalist sentiments, or disagreements over which historical figures belong to which national group, or even pointing the finger at which national group started what war, natives of the peninsula can agree on one thing: living standards are not as high as they are across the rest of the European continent. Bulgarians, Romanians, Albanians and natives of the countries of the former Yugoslavia often talk about how corruption has engulfed society and how the corrupt politicians and businessmen (with the line between them difficult to distinguish) are the “bad guys” and the rest of society represents the vulnerable “good guy” victims.
Catching up with the Americans
This general disappointment and dissatisfaction with life is reflected in Balkan art, primarily music. Numerous bands include political connotations in their lyrics, whether overtly or in between the lines. The late Bulgarian music legend Todor Kolev sings about how the windscreen wipers on his car were stolen. The song is sarcastically titled How will we catch up with the Americans? and, despite being (rather cheekily) sung to the melody of the Beatles’ 1970 hit Let it Be, the song is replete with political references and how society is going downhill. Given the song was released in 1989, as communism was collapsing across emerging Europe, it seems Kolev was foretelling a bleak future: “How will we catch up with the Americans? And even overtake them? Well, I, too, am wondering, comrades… but after the fog ‘Ah, more fog!’”
What’s more is that the line “should I turn to the left or to the right? I don’t even know any more. Whichever way my eyes look, every [politician] is stealing and stealing” is often interpreted as the disintegration of the political system and citizen distrust of the political parties and institutions. In other words, whether you vote for a left- or right-wing party, in the end you will be no better off.
Contemporary Bulgarian rock bands, too, express their disgust at the socio-economic system the country finds itself in after the collapse of socialism in the country. Funk rock band Obraten efekt express their disgust not only at the ruling political elite in their song At least I’ll say it to you, but also at the degradation of social norms and values. It is not uncommon to hear Bulgarians claim that the insecurity and uncertainty that the troublesome 1990s brought with them has led to many ordinary citizens not only distrusting state institutions, but also one another. Hence the chorus: “Every day I wonder why this nation is used to being a slave to someone all their lives? Every day I wonder why this nation enjoys swearing at anyone without reason”.
Whilst some musicians are singing about their disgust at the ruling class, others are running for the top job. The frontman of Bulgarian ska band Hipodil (hippo + crocodile), Svetoslav Vitkov, better known as Svetlio, ran for president in 2011 as well as 2016, yet neither of his candidacies were gimmick. Svetlio has appeared numerous times on national television and has discussed his candidacy and proposed policies in a sensible manner, visibly different to his performances on stage. Svetlio was supported by the People’s Voice, a political party that he founded, and The Greens. On his Facebook page, he posted “the motto for my  pre-election campaign is ‘And why not?’. Am I any uglier, stupider, or poorer than any of the presidential candidates of the last 20 years? Politics has entered the space of showbusiness, therefore I don’t see any reason why a showman cannot become president.”
Now, if we hop over to the former Yugoslavia, we find bands singing not only about corruption and poor quality of life, but about the ethno-nationalist tensions that the region grappled with during Yugoslavia’s violent dissolution. Dubioza Kolektiv is a popular band from Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose music is often a mixture of hip-hop, reggae, dub, punk, rock and Balkan folklore. “Integrating their perspectives on the current issues facing Europe as well as the rest of the world, their creations are not just entertainment, but also a form of political activism,” wrote Morena Duwe for the Huffington Post.
Dubioza often mixes in references to the increasingly consumerist society of Bosnia and the differentiations made between the country’s three main ethnic groups. Their sixth studio album, Apsurdistan (the title of which itself means ‘a country full of economic, political and social absurdities’), begins with the song Tranzicija (brownie points to those who can guess the political reference), which argues that: “It’s hard to decide when there’s a wide assortment, whether it’s better to be a Serb, Croat or Muslim.” Apsurdistan, which is sung in Bosnian, is full of songs that tackle the socio-political issues in the country. One of the most popular music videos by Dubioza is that of Free.mp3, a song which talks of piracy on the internet. In an interview with Ms Duwe, the band states: “We didn’t know what to expect regarding legal aspects of using parts of other people’s videos but, legally, as long as you are using those as a parody, it should be considered as fair use.” Accordingly, the band has also allowed its listeners to download their albums for free (legally) from the band’s own website.
Among the band’s most widely known songs is USA, sung in English. The song is about a man from Bosnia who dreams of emigrating to the States and living the American way of life, as the song’s chorus suggests. The song begins by describing how people from the Balkans want to “escape the Stone Age” as they “feel like a slave, living on a minimum wage”. However, in the song the band go on to say that life in America (or the West in general) is not as great as it may first seem, and that life back home in the Balkans, although far from perfect, is in many ways better than what many migrants might encounter in the US.
No Escape from Balkan, also in English, is of a very similar theme, yet boasts a more entertaining music video to fit the lyrics. It talks of a (presumably Bosnian/Balkan) emigrant in the US, but the song also tries to challenge the typical stereotypes of Balkan men in the West: “Don’t believe the hype, I never beat my wife; I’m not a macho man who would stab you with a knife”.
Fellow Bosnian band Helem Nejse (pictured at the top of the page) also sing about how a Bosnian Muslim girl runs off with Serb, against her family’s wishes, in Kabadahija. “He is not a Muslim”, argues the mother. “Sorry, but neither am I!” is the daughter’s instant reply.
No escaping the past
Being of the post-Yugoslav era, bands such as Dubioza Kolektiv and Helem Nejse have called for ethnic reconciliation through their music. However, musicians of the Yugoslav period, such as the Serbian singer Svetlana Ražnatović, better known as Ceca, and the late Croatian singer Oliver Dragojević have more trouble ridding themselves of ethno-nationalism. Ceca was appointed the honorary president of the nationalist Party of Serbian Unity, established by her late husband, Željko Ražnatović, a war criminal also known as Arkan. The party was a proponent of the irredentist idea of Greater Serbia. As such, Ceca is a persona non grata in Croatia and is therefore not allowed in the country. However, the singer claims to have only accepted the position in honour of her deceased husband and, after clashing with the president of the party, Borislav Pelević, she withdrew herself from politics. On the other hand, Oliver Dragojević refused to stage concerts in Serbia, despite being highly popular there, after the bloodshed of the 1991-95 Croatian War for Independence against the Serb-led Yugoslav army. In the Belgrade-based daily tabloid Kurir, Serbian film producer Maksa Ćatović claimed that Dragojević is afraid to travel to Serbia, in case Croatian nationalists attack his sons. Dragojević himself has stated that if he were to perform in Croatia’s eastern neighbour, he would not be true to his principles and values: “It is my principle, which has nothing to do with politics or politicians. I have had my own stance since the breakup of Yugoslavia and I will not give it up.” The singer added that Serbians often attend his concerts in other parts of former Yugoslavia and they have always been welcome to do so.
Balkan music has often been replete with political overtones, and most likely will continue to be so. Issues such as corruption, ethno-nationalist tensions, low living standards and even the Balkan mentality that are not uncommon in all forms of Balkan art have been fused with upbeat and lively rhythms to shed satirical light on these dark topics. Bands that discuss these issues in their music in English, such as Dubioza, undoubtedly have a wider outreach, extending beyond the Balkan peninsula, but also easily find audiences in neighbouring countries who do not speak the same language, but experience virtually the same issues: Bulgaria, Macedonia and Romania to name just three.