The Day Music Lost Its Innocence

Nationalists don’t just steal people’s lives and whatever money they can get their hands on. Most of all they steal history and culture. They hijack and destroy it. One example is my favorite song from Ex-Yugoslavia.

People here aren’t just enjoying an obviously popular song. It’s 250.000 Beogradians cheering Sarajevo’s most famous band, Bijelo Dugme, remembering the last summer of Yugoslavia and celebrating a common cultural heritage.

It’s almost as if this song about the spring holiday Djurdjevdan makes them forget the long cold and bloody winter that followed that last summer.

Probably Yugoslavia’s Most Successful Song

The song was made famous by Bijelo Dugme and its then frontman and composer Goran Bregović who is said to have written the Serbocroatian lyrics for the traditional Romany folk song Ederlezi.

This version first appeared in the 1988 movie „Dom za vešanje/Time Of The Gypsies“ (the English title has nothing to do with the original) by Emir Kusturica. It’s one of his finest works and put him in one league with the top European directors of his time.

The song became the probably greatest hit in the history of Yugoslav music.

That was before the Bosnjak Kusturica went a bit loony and turned into an ardent Serb nationalist, creating one Disneyland „traditional“ Serb village after another.

Djurdjevdan Gets Hijacked

That would be another story entirely had not somebody else hijacked the song in the past few years. That somebody does a lot more harm than screwy Kusturica.

This is the widow of a rapist, murderer, mugger, war criminal, thief and gangster revered by many as national hero – Željko Ražnatović who went by the name of Arkan and was commander of the paramilitary unit Srpska Dobrovoljačka Garda.

Among other things he and his fellow thughs slaughtered 100 patients at the hospital of Vukovar.

His exploits made him so popular with many Serbs that his and Ceca’s wedding were broadcast on Serbian TV in 1995.

Arkan was shot dead in Beograd in 2000 and that made his now widow Ceca even more famous than before. She has since become an icon with nationalist Serbs.

The Legacy of A Rapist and Murderer

In some of her concerts she calls hers and Arkan’s children on stage, showing them off, reinvoking the memory and legacy of her late husband. Her son shows the Serbian salute on these occasions, the „tri prsta“ (the three fingers).

It is the same sign you see people make in Ceca’s video above. It is the sign of Serb nationalists.

While Ceca primarily lives off Serb nationalists, her fan base has apparently extended beyond that. Somehow she seems to manage to satisfy her nationalist fans and not to alienate the rest and she is rather careful not to cross certain lines.

Ceca has concerts all over Europe all the time and has even appeared in Australia.

Successful And Dangerous

Her Croatian counterpart, Marko Perković „Thompson“, is way more obvious. His concerts are usually rallying points for Europe’s Neonazis – if he’s allowed to have them at all. Authorities have banned several gigs in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany.

Ceca’s strategy is the more successful one, not just in economic terms. Refraining from being too overtly fascist makes sure that her political agenda reaches far more people than just the die hard nationalists Thompson can usually address.

Djurdjevdan has become one of Ceca’s most popular songs and makes her a lot of money. Many of her younger fans don’t have any idea that it’s a traditional Romany song and think it’s traditional Serbian Music or Turbo Folk.

From being a symbol of the last summer of Yugoslavia it’s become a song for Serbia’s ultra-rightwingers celebrating what they think is their national identity.

This could be called tragic irony. What you can not call it is a coincidence.

A Myth Is Born

Numerous Serb sites give an alternate version of the origin of the song. They claim the song was created spontaneously when Serbs from Sarajevo were put on a deportation train to the Ustaše concentration camp in Jasenovac in Croatia.

As this happened on May 6th 1942, Djurdjevdan, they started singing that song, the story goes. Goran Bregović wrote a new arrangement for the song 40 years later in memory of the 3.000 or so Serbs deported that day, these sites claim.

With the exception of the fact that apparently several thousand Serbs were deported to Jasenovac on that date, everything else is almost certainly a work of fiction.

You do not find that story other than on Serb nationalist websites and blogs. The blog linked to at this place by the way is a very good example of how nationalism and religion are inseparably linked on the Balkans.

Not The Most Likely Story Ever Heard

It seems a bit unlikely that people crowded into freight train cars about to be transported to their certain deaths in Jasenovac spontaenously come up with well versed lyrics and perhaps even a new tune to sing along to.

This touching story doesn’t become any more likely if one considers what other conditions had had to be met in order for it to work out.

There must have been somebody on the train who had pencil and paper on him and managed to write down the lyrics in an overcrowded car amidst all that noise and chaos.

Somehow the notes were either smuggled out of a concentration camp or were hidden so well that they weren’t discovered until after the liberation of the camp – which the guards had mostly destroyed in the days before the Partisans arrived.

And rather miraculously, the whole thing was all but forgotten about for 40 or so years in order to turn up as a song in a movie that had nothing to do with the incidence in the first place.

This is in stark contrast to the stories about those songs victims in and of concentration camps did write and that survived the war. In each of these few cases, the circumstances that led to the creation of the song are known as well as the names of those who wrote music and lyrics.

And the legacy of these songs of defiance and resistance that did make it out of the horror has been kept alive in an unbroken tradition over the decades. The songs have been performed publicly by survivors and their children, by artists, unionists and antifascists.

„Dachaulied“ by Jura Soyfer is probably the most famous of these songs.

A song with a comparable story ist „Zog nit keyn mol“ or „Partizaner Lid“ which was to become the anthems of many Jewish Partisans in Eastern Europe.

In this case, too, the origins of the song can be traced back to Hirsch Glik, who wrote the lyrics as an inmate of the Vilna Ghetto in 1943, inspired by the news of the heroic uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

That Jewish Partisans had adopted it the same year is a fact verifiable by numerous historical interviews.

Don’t Leave It To The Nationalists

I am not aware of whether Ceca believes in the nationalist mythology around one of her most popular songs. Not that it would make any difference.

A song that once at least implicitly stood for the belief that ethnicities didn’t matter has been stolen. It has lost its innocence.

If it wouldn’t belittle the thousands of women that have been raped during that horrible war I would go even further in how I judge this theft and perversion of what once was Yugoslav popular culture.

Rather I choose to go along with many Bosnians, Serbs and Croats I know. We are not going to let Ceca and the likes of her take away our favorite song.

We are not simply letting her and others turn what’s the memory of the last summer of Yugoslavia to many or a just a great song to other fans into a symbol of aggression and hatred.

We will sing it with defiance.

5 Gedanken zu “The Day Music Lost Its Innocence

  1. I always admire when a German Journalist writes about Nationalism- who can know better about this Topic then them? They had enough Time to gather expirience and information. Nevertheless,- whats the point behind the story? Who gives a damn? As some German politician would say WWII was a “ Fliegenschiss- so was Arkans terror time in Serbian history.Those days are gone- Last year both Croats and Serbs sang“ Djurdjevdan together. And for my part I would like more to imagine Prisoners of being capable singing “ Djurdjevdan“ in a full train wagon, then them listening to Wagner on their way in the Gaschambers.

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  2. May 6thh1942 . That date being Djurdjevdan, it’s not as far fetched as you make it sound that Djurdjevdan was not sung by the prisoners asDjurdjevdan has been sung in similar form to Bregović version long before. I’m sure you can find a Cigani – Roma version old as fuck. So the spirit and soul Serbs possess deep inside and being fearless in nature ie. when Belgrade was being bombed in the mid-late 1990’s people were siting at outdoor cafes, holding large concerts and singing all the time while wearing tee shirts with a target on the back…. Germans, Austrians, the English very much for example are exclusive in nature while Serbs are very inclusive. There you can’t not talk to ones neighbours or stranger and feel connected to the people and in turn the nation while here in Canada living in a predominantly English, German neighborhood you can easily go 20 years without ever saying the bare minimum to your neighbours or people in one’s community. I’ve also lived in Germany for over two decades and the people generally speaking are more withdrawn. My German friends agree. BTW I love Germany and my German friends.
    This has become so very evident during COVID days. That doesn’t mean that one culture is better than the other. It’s just the way it is. That is why that person made that comment about you being German and writing that article.
    Lastly what is wrong with the idea and why make such an effort on your part to shoot the idea down? If anything it warms the heart to think this really happened?
    Just saying
    Also I’m not a nationalist at all or have any contact with Serbian people but have known many or my lifetime.
    Also in 1942 a certain Austrian fella was in charge of Germany. Just saying

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    1. Oh, falsifying my statement to make it sound like a false claim that is easy to disprove. Nice strategy.
      Now, the story is not that people sang the song on the train to Jasenovac. The story is that the song was created on that train ride. That is an altogether unlikely and entirely different story. And it is exactly the kind of story exclusive and nationalist myths are built upon.

      Lies, however beautiful they may sound, are ultimately harmful. This is especially true if they become cultural consensus.

      Btw, if you followed my blog you’d know that I regularly debunk nationalist myths.

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  3. Hi, thank you so much for writing this!

    I’m Canadian and only discovered the song a few days ago but absolutely loved it. I needed to learn more!
    The YouTube video’s comment section had the train story you cite here, but I quickly found the Romani version, with its own comment section full of a surprising amount of hate, and became suspicious. The Wikipedia pages in English and French for Ederlezi don’t list any version between the undated Romani folk song and the 1988 movie version, but I couldn’t find any clearer confirmation of the train story being fake until now.

    It’s a beautiful song, thank you for bringing its story to a wider audience!

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