How Post-Punk Music Unified the Post-War Balkans
Years after falling bombs shut down a CD release party in Belgrade, a DIY record label is harnessing Yugoslavia’s underground rock legacy
By Tom Nash
It’s been 25 years since the end of the Ten-Day War that secured Slovenia’s independence from a teetering Yugoslavia, but Moonlee Records owner Miran Rusjan shrugs off the milestone as he offers a tour around the label’s Ljubljana headquarters. He’s due at two festivals in two countries in three days — he doesn’t have time for historic footnotes. There’s room in the cramped office for a desk, boxes of T-shirts, vinyl LPs, and Mr. Moonlee himself. “The government gives us this space for free, except for utilities,” Rusjan says as he waves his arm around the space, pointing at a three-foot-tall lemon sculpture that surveys the piles with cut-out eyes.
Clad in a karate uniform, the in-joke mascot is a combination of Slavic wordplay and tribute to the martial arts film star Lee Moon. The mascot probably loses something in translation, but the music being committed to wax under Mr. Moonlee’s imprimatur is earning fans as far west as California and touring as far east as China.
The roster includes abrasive, Seattle-inspired outfits and more cerebral, electronic sounds, but there’s a consistent theme: The label only releases music from the former Yugoslavia. “They have enough labels in Italy and Austria,” Rusjan said. “We wanted to be a platform to help bands grow, and bring them together. We try to go through the borders.”
While the region moves beyond the conflict sparked during Yugoslavia’s breakup, Moonlee Records represents a continuation of the Federation’s loudest legacy.
Moonlee’s aesthetic can be traced back to the days after Yugoslavia lost its communist leader Josip Broz Tito, who died in 1980 at age 87. Tito’s government helped clear the way for rock, deciding not to ban “the Western element” from everyday life in the 1940s. Unlike its neighbors behind the Iron Curtain, the Yugoslavia made it easier for bands to operate. Dalibor Mišina, a professor at Lakewood University in Ontario who specializes in the history of Yugoslav rock, says the mix of socialism and non-restricted travel made for a heady mixture. “Because of the open borders, people would bring records back and labels would get licenses to publish whatever they wanted. So people were fairly familiar with what was going on in the West.”
As rock took over worldwide, Yugoslav record plants churned out the latest foreign releases and the government funded concerts and recordings by local bands. In the late 70s, a thriving punk and new wave scene developed, which Mišina describes as an attempt to push the country toward socialist ideals. “Music became more engaged and critical,” Mišina said. “The aim was not to tear down the regime, it was basically a critique aimed at improving society.”
Following Tito’s death, rock played an important cultural role against those like Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, who were looking to fill the power vacuum by playing on ethnic divisions. Among acts like Električni Orgazam and Luna, Šarlo Akrobata emerged and splintered into Ekatarina Velika and the bass-heavy thrash of Disciplina Kičme. While their records didn’t circulate far outside the Federation, today many musicians from this generation play to adoring audiences at major festivals. “Rock music in the late 80s had an urban, progressive vibe to it, which wasn’t in line with the rise of nationalism,” Mišina said. “If you’re arguing for closing the borders, mistrusting neighbors, rock music was completely contrary to that.”
Serbian nationalists worked to drown it out. As Milošević looked to consolidate Yugoslavia’s power around Belgrade, Serbia’s version of “Turbo Folk” hit the airwaves with a more pointed agenda than the nationalistic folk already common across the region. The genre clumsily forced techno beats over folk instrumentation, and served as one of the propaganda tools highlighting Serb identity at a time when Milošević was looking to hold areas claimed by the new Croatian republic and Bosnia.
The conflict surrounding Yugoslavia’s 1991 breakup provoked the protests of rock musicians in Serbia and beyond, including attempts such as the specially formed group Rimtutituki performing anti-war songs from a truck roaming Belgrade after being denied a stage. “The rockers ‘went underground,’” Mišina said, bands played in spaces that “were minor and marginal compared to the spaces for Turbo Folk.”
Some left. Disciplina Kičme’s leader Dušan Kojić moved to London, where he continued making music; he returned to Serbia years later as a legend. Those who didn’t found ways to respond to the uncertainty, creating the blueprint the region’s bands still follow.
Daniel Kovač was a teenager in Belgrade just picking up the guitar in 1991. Turning away from what was on the radio, he began playing with his brother and other friends, looking to the underground for inspiration. “As soon as I learned some basic guitar, I started to write songs,” Kovač recalled “I used the subcultural possibilities and said, ‘Let’s try it.’”
Taking the name Jarboli (“Masts”), they found a niche following in Belgrade as Turbo Folk continued to dominate. Alongside a crop of bands that emerged after the 1995 Dayton Agreement that temporarily stalled the violence such as Veliki Prezir (“Great Contempt”), Jarboli became popular enough to get a record contract with alternative — and anti- Milošević — radio station B92.
Peace didn’t last, and NATO forces targeted Milošević’s government. On March 24, 1999 Jarboli may have had the worst CD-release show ever, waiting out the first wave of NATO planes bombing Belgrade in a basement. Milošević’s government used the state of war as a chance to take over B92’s headquarters, where the CDs was stored. “Later, you could buy them at flea markets,” Kovač said, “because someone just took them and sold them.”
Jarboli pressed on, repackaging some of those songs with what became the anthem, “Samo Ponekad” (“Only Sometimes”). The song responds to the chaos of the era with ennui instead of rage.
“We lost time, we lost media attention, but we gained some other skills,” Kovač said of the period. “We endured the problems and we continued to work. We became more like a cult band.”
By the mid-2000s, younger musicians were following Jarboli’s example, organizing their own concerts and releasing their own records. As groups coalesced around what became known as the New Serbian Scene, a teenaged trio dubbed Repetitor stood out.
Their start came like that of many great punk bands — picking up instruments they barely knew how to play and playing with abandon. Drummer Milena Milutinović had three lessons; guitarist Boris Vlastelica didn’t bother at all. Bassist Ana-Marija Cupin saw them perform with another bassist early on. “They played the Ramones and some of their own songs, but the bass player was kind of bad and not interested in coming to rehearsals. So Boris asked me to play [bass] when he saw me at a party.” She had never played before.
Ten years later, they are among the region’s most popular underground bands with the release of their new LP, “Gde ćeš” (“Where Will You Go?”). Before their rise, Jarboli were early fans, and guitarist Boris Mladenović recorded their first album in 2009. Kovač’s praise has only grown over the past decade, watching as they become a ferocious live act. “Put any really popular band on stage after Repetitor, and you’d find them really cheesy.”
Rusjan heard them perform twice, two years apart. Having been lukewarm on them the first time, he was awestruck when they came to Ljubljana and “smashed the stage. I said, I have to work with that band.”
Repetitor signed to Moonlee. “We were slightly paranoid at first,” Milutinović says of Rusjan. “But he turned out to be really good.”
I n Ljubljana, where punks and artists occupied the Yugoslav army’s vacated barracks in ’91, the past-quarter century has been peaceful and prosperous compared to the war and genocide that occurred in the rest of the former Federation. Rusjan’s own journey is dominated by borders. He grew up 100 yards from the Italy-Slovenia line as a Yugoslav. By the time he attended university in Ljubljana and headed to Zagreb to play music, the map had changed.
“My generation, when we were reading comics in Serbian and we’d go to the seaside in Croatia, it was all one country,” Rusjan said. “The younger generation, they don’t think they have anything in common with Serbia.”
Now approaching 40, his efforts at Moonlee have connected him to younger musicians like Repetitor who think more like him, who look beyond borders. It was on a Moonlee-backed tour that Ivan Ščapec saw Repetitor play a dismally early festival set to 10 people. They slayed anyway. Ščapec, a Croatian fan of American indie rock bands like Fugazi and the Minutemen, hadn’t realized others in the Balkans were on the same wavelength. “That was the moment I delved into the regional scene,” Ščapec recalled. “I didn’t even see a need to listen to global acts after that.”
Ščapec’s Zagreb-based Vlasta Popić emerged in 2011. They won fans in both Jarboli and Repetitor, with Jarboli’s Mladenović recording their first album. The group’s second record, Kvadrat (“Square”), released last year on Moonlee, is one the best examples of Moonlee’s output and probably one of the greatest rock records put out by anyone in 2015. But the accomplishment couldn’t keep the creative relationship between Ščapec and drummer Tena Rak together when their romantic partnership ended. The group disbanded last December, and Ščapec is at work on an album under the name Seine that’s “pretty much about the breakup.”
The spread of influence from Serbian Repetitor to Croatian Vlasta Popić helped solidify Moonlee’s reputation as a regional scenebuilder (local scenes in Zagreb and Belgrade continue to thrive, with the shoegazey Žen and dreampop Bitipatibi among the standouts). The MENT festival, held in Ljubljana’s bustling barracks-turned-art-squat Metelkova City and organized by Rusjan, connects dozens of Balkan acts with tour bookers each year.
The connections continue to grow outward. Repetitor played in China last year, and plans on returning. Perhaps the best example of the label’s growing reach comes from the Macedonia-based Bernays Propaganda, made up of veterans from that country’s punk scene, who have earned fans in the U.S. following a tour of community centers and basements.
Bernays Propaganda presents the most shape-shifting music on Moonlee’s roster, beginning with Fugazi-inspired riffage on the first few albums and shifting into the drum machine-powered Politika, their latest. The band says it aims to frustrate anyone who would try to pin them down, with lyrics from singer Kristina Gorovska that touch on U.S. imperialism and life in Macedonia.
For Gorovska, the band came as a continuation of her work as an activist. Early shows featured a video backdrop of animals being slaughtered. “We were dealing with people who didn’t share our ideological views,” she said, “but somehow, because they liked our music, we could discuss it even though we had opposite opinions.”
Despite hailing from one of the most unstable former Yugoslav republics, the band has forged the closest ties within the U.S. of any Moonlee group. A California tape label released Politika earlier this year, and they’ve found a kindred spirit in punk legend Mike Watt, whose early 80s band The Minutemen helped define DIY indie rock. The bassist met Bernays guitarist Vasko Atanasoski while on tour in Macedonia in 2014. The partnership has already been fruitful — Watt and Bernays Propaganda released a single in the U.S. in June. “There’s something about these vinyl projects, the physicality, where I see the opportunity to show a brotherhood,” Watt said.
“He’s beautiful,” Watt said of Atanasoski. “He reminds me so much of cats from the old days.”
Mišina says much of the new generation of bands reminds him of the old days, as well. “They are basically kind of the new wave of the new wave of the 80s,” he said. “They don’t talk so much about politics, but more a sense of alienation and being in the margins.”
“The story about the split up of Yugoslavia is the end of one really successful story of rock & roll and music from the region,” Atanasoski said. “What Moonlee is doing — and bands like us and Repetitor are a part of it — is the re-establishment of that cultural connection. It’s the total opposite of the split-up and the war.”
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