“The First of the Unplucked Gems” – Notes on Nationhood & Music, Canada & The Hip, Part Three

I did a significant part of my growing up in the nineteen-eighties’ and early nineteen-nineties’ Yugoslavia.

“There, once, was a country.”


Bijelo Dugme, Youth Work Action, Kozara ’76

Ten years old when the first of the six republics (and two autonomous provinces) declared their independence from the Socialist Federal Republic and when the Yugoslav wars began, I started to, in earnest and with a recently discovered sense of self-awareness, delineate my musical map in the socially, politically, economically turbulent months of the early nineties. Setting off for Canada was a somewhat distant possibility. My parents had applied for an immigration visa and their application had been denied once, and they were soon to apply and be refused again. A number of people, families we knew were preparing to go. “On walkways of Toronto, battlefront-dyed eyes – our recognition’s secret code,” a Yugoslavian chanteur would later sing of the nineties.

As the political borders around us were violently tested and re-described, removed geographically and protected by my young age from the actual hostilities, I methodically raided my dad’s, uncle’s, dad’s best man’s record collections, made copies of cousins’ tapes. In doing so, I drew the internal borderlines of my musical map along the pegs of domestic and foreign classic rock, pop, and punk, and those of nineties’ progressive and hard rock, punk-pop, and grunge – the music that reflected my inherited preferences and the evolution of my at times haphazardly, at times carefully-curated sense of self. Because, you know, you know, at home or so many miles from home / You can teach your children / Some fashion sense and they / Fashion some of their own.


Yugoslavian New Wave of the 1980s, photo by Miladin Jeličić

Harboured by the – admittedly, always retroactively posited – fortune of being born into rock and roll environs, and after a brief flirtation with pop-folk (accordions, synthesizers, atrocious lyrics, grinning faces and short skirts) at my grandparents’ small, fourth floor apartment at the age of two or three, I seemed to have become, at this time, ferociously immune to the scourge spreading from the nations’ tape-decks, radios, television sets, nightclubs, and concert venues: the scourge of turbo-folk.

An inflicted patrimony – terra pericolosa upon which sunt dracones – the abomination, monstrosity of Yugoslav turbo-folk, the nation’s ubiquitous, mind-numbing soundtrack, became for me a parergon relegated to the outermost reaches of my musical map, to its grotesquely transcendental beyond. In many ways, as its Other, turbo-folk – an unholy progeny of European pop + techno and Yugoslav pop-folk – gave my map its shape. Often associated, like religion and sports, with ethnocentric nationalism and with hyper-feminine pouty-lipped, large-breasted, scantily clad bodies that paradoxically reaffirmed, reaffirm the nation’s most conservative, regressive qualities, turbo-folk was the musical poisoned chalice: a fun, easy, unifying game of belonging greased by alcohol and the yearning for escape from an ugly reality into large, sweaty, unthinking congregations.

As the Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian military and paramilitary forces spread carnage, they all did so, in my adolescent, teenage mind, to the Wagnerian soundtrack of adrenaline-pumping turbo-folk.

There, in my mind – even, I think, before I could formulate this consciously – turbo-folk’s outright, onanistic, omphalocentric banality was a stark contrast to the Yugoslav pan-Slavic, post-World War Two spirit that was open to the world and that was reflected in both the form and the content of rock and pop of the sixties, the seventies, and the eighties. Perhaps because the problem to be overcome was, at least in part, internal censorship and control by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, the solution was, at least in part, seen to dwell in an engagement with what existed outside of the real and virtual geographic, ethnic, national borders – both within and without the country. Not that this was – Tito having been a savvy diplomat who made the Party and the country open to the world and us open to each other – an either/or proposition. With pan-Slavism came the idea of brother- and sisterhood that cut across ethnic divisions. With the socialist and communist socio-political philosophy came a concern for the rights of the worker, of women and minorities, and this opened up avenues for a generation of musicians to think and write and sing about progressive causes rooted in and extending beyond those found in the traditional communist egalitarianism. (Recently, after my sister came out, I emailed my dad an article about Yugoslav pop and rock songs that, in the seventies and the eighties, in often coded terms, engaged with the topic of homosexuality. “How the hell have I been missing this all these years?” he asked).

Steeped in the reactive, nationalist zeitgeist exploited by a number of political parties voted into power in the quickly-becoming former Yugoslav republics in the early nineteen nineties, turbo-folk’s turn inward was a mindless spectacle made exponentially worse by its audiences’ embrace of the socio-political reality the music was being weaved into. Its combination of religious escapism and nationalism – human, all too human because forged in extreme, traumatic situations of economic embargo, political isolationism, economic scarcity, war – would have made the most idealistic, egalitarian of democratic socialists seriously reflect on the pitfalls and shortcomings of actually-existing democracy.

On a rainy, chilly morning at the end of August of nineteen ninety-five, as – teary-eyed, desolate – my parents, my sister, and I kissed our friends, family goodbye and stepped onto a white minibus that was to ferry us to Sofia from where we were to take a direct flight to Toronto, I comforted myself by the thought that there is this, at least, that I will not miss; that there is this, at least, that I am more than happy to leave behind, to turn my back on.

The previous night, my parents had given me some money and I’d treated my friends to hamburgers and drinks for the last time. We’d taken pictures in front of a closed supermarket, its shelves, visible through the large windows, sparsely stocked. After we’d said goodbye, my three closest friends and I had gone back to my family’s apartment where we’d sat, talked quietly until it was time to leave. I don’t remember if the conversation had at any point turned to music – more than likely it had.


August 1995

The previous year’s deaths of Kurt Cobain and Milan Mladenović loomed large on my musical map. In April, at twenty-seven, on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, Cobain had killed himself with a shotgun blast to the head. In November, at thirty-six, Mladenović died of pancreatic cancer. The political turmoil was once again – as this year in which the deaths of David Bowie and Prince augured the ascendancy of Donald Trump and his ilk – closely tied to the turmoil in the musical world. The waning of our broad-minded, enlightened vanguard often seems closely linked to the waxing of a set that basks in all that is petty and base, narrow-minded, dogmatic, sectarian.


Ekatarina Velika, photo by Miladin Jeličić

We spoke little on the bus ride to Bulgaria.

On the plane, my first since I was a year old, my ears got plugged up and ached madly. They were to stay plugged for days after we landed.

The ride from the Toronto airport in a white Oldsmobile along the preternaturally wide Four-Oh-One felt impossibly long.

We spent our first week or two in Toronto in the Scarborough apartment of family friends who, while still in Yugoslavia, helped us fill out our final immigration visa application – in Hungarian – and send it to, this time, the Canadian embassy in Budapest. When the response came, it did so in a large thick yellow envelope. Not long after we arrived, their son – a few years older than me, with whom I would bond over our shared love of Nirvana – played me TLC’s “Waterfalls.”

“I don’t like it,” I said, suspicious, wary.

“You will,” he said, trying to, I think, impress a girl.

Today – I’m happy, relieved to say – I do.

(To be continued.)


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