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Revolutionary road: how activist choirs in the Balkans are reviving partisan songs

Revolutionary road: how activist choirs in the Balkans are reviving partisan songs
Serbian activist choir, Horkestan

The revolutionary partisan songs that provided the soundtrack to Tito's communist regime all but disappeared from public life when Yugoslavia disintegrated in the 1990s. But now they're being heard again, sung loud and proud by activist choirs

9 December 2016

Back in 2005, southeastern Europe got its first LGBT choir. Le Zbor (the name is a wordplay on lesbian and zbor, the Serbo-Croatian word for choir), wanted to raise awareness about the issues facing Croatia’s LGBT community. Over the past 11 years the choir has outgrown its initial ambitions. Today, girls in red jumpsuits — Le Zbor’s visual trademark — define themselves as a “lesbian-feminist-activist-antifascist” choir, and can be seen at protests and anti-fascist marches, but also in clubs and at festivals.

Their initial battlefield, LGBT rights in Croatian society, has expanded too. In 2014, just before the opening of the Olympics in Sochi, they released the video To Russia with love — their take on the Russian wartime song Katyusha — to express solidarity with the LGBT citizens of Russia. This year they got on stage for Zagreb Pride, the main LGBT pride march in Croatia, but also at the 71st anniversary of the Second World War liberation of Zagreb. They sang Clandestino with Manu Chao as a reaction to the current refugee crisis in Europe.

“Singing in a choir, especially in a public space, gives you the opportunity to be spontaneous, to react swiftly, something that other forms of activism don’t offer,” explained the members of Le Zbor in an interview with The Calvert Journal. It also means reaching a wider audience. “If you publish an article on feminism on a website, only those who are already interested in the topic will read it. When we are singing on the street, it is impossible not to notice us, at least briefly.”

Le Zbor are far from the only activists to have grasped the power of communal singing. Across the post-Yugoslav territory there are dozens of activist choirs performing: Le Zbor and Praksa in Croatia; Kombinat in Slovenia, Horkestar in Serbia and Raspeani Skopjani in Macedonia. For each of them, performing goes hand in hand with civic engagement. Their common denominator, in addition to activism, is the use of revolutionary partisan songs to convey their message.

In the hearts and minds of many living in the territories of the former Yugoslavia, partisan songs are associated with the communist regime, as the musical accompaniment to official events, marches and state ceremonies. Some associate partisan songs with the pioneers — the socialist youth movement aimed at fostering socialist ideals. Dressed in blue skirts or trousers, white shirts, a red triangle scarf wrapped around their necks, and a navy blue hat — titovka — on their heads (the attire mimicked the colours of the Yugoslavian flag) the pioneers would perform partisan songs about the glory of Tito and the Communist Party.

“After the breakup of Yugoslavia, partisan songs were disregarded as an ideological form of art, a form of music with little value, fabricated directly by the Party,” explains Ana Hofman, a specialist in the music of the former Yugoslavia and researcher at the Institute of Cultural and Memory Studies at the Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts. In her book, The New Life of Partisan Songs published in May this year, Hofman explores the heritage of partisan songs and the intersection of ideologies and music in the present context.

In the hearts and minds of many living in the former Yugoslavia, partisan songs are associated with the communist regime

Hofman however insists upon the fact that partisan songs never completely disappeared. “When it comes to arts, to music, we can’t look at the past in this linear way. Partisan songs have been listened to and sung all this time in the last 25 years, maybe not in all the countries of the former Yugoslavia, maybe not publically, but that tradition has never disappeared completely. Upon the breakup of Yugoslavia, performing these songs was specific to certain regions, subcultural events or commemorations,” explains Hofman.

One of the most famous commemorations of this kind, Youth Day, is held every year on 25 May in Kumrovec, the native village of Josip Broz Tito in the north of Croatia, and gathers thousands of Tito aficionados, “Yugonostalgics” and curious onlookers.

Some arrive dressed as pioneers or dust down their old partisan uniforms. Some wave large Yugoslav or communist flags in the air, others proudly exhibit t-shirts with a picture of Tito. Often they break into song: old comrades hug and chant “Druze Tito mi ti se kunemo” (Comrade Tito, we swear to you), or sing along with anti-fascist tunes performed on the main stage. However, Kumrovec’s aficionados are a special breed, and the event, closely linked to Tito’s persona and ideology, doesn’t appeal to a large audience.

The activist choirs, though, want to move away from the ideological dimension of the partisan songs. Horkestar, a choir from Serbia who have been performing for 16 years now, grew out of the artist collective Skart, whose initial repertoire was mainly composed of revolutionary workers’ songs. Today, they still perform some of the songs but not on ideological grounds, Ružica Vrhovac from Horkestar emphasises.

“The thing we all have in common is that we love music, and believe that music and activism can make this world a better place, or at least point out some issues. I believe that engaged songs are becoming a trend because of the general situation in society… It shows that crisis is present in more and more segments of our reality and there’s a general need for change. Maybe people can’t always say what bothers them, maybe they don’t always want to speak about what is blatantly wrong and hasn’t been changing, economic crises, wrong values and so on…Maybe it’s a problem to say it out loud and clear for an individual, but it is not a problem to sing about it for a group of people,” explains Vrhovac.

As one of the key elements that have fostered this renewed interest in revolutionary songs, Hofman singles out the devastating consequences of introducing neoliberalism in post-Yugoslav societies — particularly in the sense of diminishing social rights — and the current global crisis of neoliberalism. “The political elites in these countries have been trying hard to get rid of their socialist past and get into ‘capitalist society’. But such capitalist utopia has failed them, the capitalist dream has crumbled. This led to a new perspective, a new way of seeing their socialist past.”

‘We believe that music and activism can make this world a better place’

Thus, partisan and revolutionary songs have grown into a metaphor. Praksa, a choir from Pula, a town in western Croatia, is well known for its anti-capitalist songs. Edna Jurcan, the founder of the choir, had the idea of forming a choir following a strike by workers at Arena Trikotaza, a garment manufacturer. For the occasion, she decided to sing Sebben che siamo donne, an Italian song from the 19th century, a symbol of the revolt of agricultural workers against their bosses. The choir’s repertoire includes international revolutionary evergreens such as the socialist anthem The Internationale, the Italian civil war-era partisan song Bella Ciao, or No Pasaran!, a Spanish civil war song, but also of partisan songs from all parts of the former Yugoslavia.

“We all have our say in choosing the songs. I am the one who suggests them to the rest of the choir, and then we discuss it. The songs have to be universal, they should be open for different sorts of interpretation at any moment, any occasion we decide to sing them. I am against any songs glorifying Tito and the Party, any kind of ideology,” insists Jurcan.

Croatian choir Praksa

The attitude of other choirs from the former Yugoslavia is similar. They all avow not wanting to play the card of Yugonostalgia, that sentimental concept whose definition remains vague but encapsulates the feeling of longing for a country that isn’t there any more and memories from that time. Their activism focuses on the present, on current issues. And, in the context of rampant nationalism in almost all former Yugoslav states, the echoes or motives from the partisan songs constitute a powerful tool in political activism. Even more so when sung by the choirs. For Ana Hofman, this collective mobilisation is particularly important when discussing the “re-actualisation” of partisan revolutionary songs within and beyond the post-Yugoslav space.

“The choirs are a form of acting together in a world that emphasises individualism. They are mini-laboratories of self-organisation. Joint bodies, joint voices… produce a stronger vibration that strongly mobilises the audience,” Hofman says. “It produces that specific feeling that sends shivers up your spine because you feel that you are a part of something that moves you. Both singers and the audience often evoke the energy of these songs, the same energy that gets people to cry or to feel a catharsis through a vibration, especially in the moments of joint singing between the choir and the audience.”

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